Thursday, October 20th, was the National Day on Writing created by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). In order to celebrate this day, programs like the National Writing Project asked readers to share why they write. On Twitter, this took shape in the #whyiwrite hashtag, with plenty of people posting in 140 characters or less reasons why they write. I participated in the celebration by tweeting, and encouraged others to post as well. However, among the tweets I read, I didn’t see any that said “I write because I am a writer.” We often think of ourselves as people who write (as in, who perform the act of writing). But how often do we — particularly academics — think of ourselves as writers?
Back when I taught first-year writing, I used to start the semester out with the question "What is a writer?" (I must admit I didn't come up with this brilliant idea, but adapted it from a suggestion from another instructor.) Students would always come up with different ideas about what that meant, but more often than not they never talked about themselves as writers. They thought of published authors as writers. They thought of people who sat in a sunlit room all day with a stack of white pages (or who sat in front of a computer all day) as writers. They thought of people who are paid to write as writers. My students often did not think of themselves, or their instructors, as writers.
I don't blame them. I didn't fully embrace my identity as a writer until only recently, even though it's one of the reasons I ended up as an English major. So that first week I liked to open the door to that possibility and, hopefully, change for better their relationship to writing.
At my new job I talk to students, faculty, and staff about writing on a regular basis. I enjoy talking about writing and, specifically, how important it is within higher education as a form of communication with our peers and with a community at large who is interested in what we do within our disciplines. Talking about writing comes natural to me, but through my job I realize that many see writing as something they must do but not as something they are. They think of themselves as people who commit the act of putting ideas down in the shape of words (especially for PhD students who need to write a dissertation in order to graduate, writing can become a chore, a job), but they often don't think of themselves as writers.
I tell students on a regular basis that writing isn't only important because they need to graduate or pass a class but because it is the key to engaging other scholars in conversation. Even in informal media like Twitter or Facebook we write to get our ideas across or to interact with other academics. And even though we can argue that academic writing is not the same as tweeting, the rules of engagement are similar: we value clear, well-argued writing in each case. We value thoughts that are well articulated. We value creative, interesting posts that steer away from the clichés. Therefore, I think the most important advice I can share with my writers is this: think of yourselves as writers.
Why does thinking of yourself as a writer matter? When academics have to balance so many other roles and responsibilities, why add “writer” to the list? I believe that thinking of yourself as a writer can change the way you feel about writing in general, and this is especially important in the culture of “publish or perish.”
Rachel Toor mentions in her article at The Chronicle of Higher Education how thinking as a writer leads you to think about form as well as content; Rachel Cayley at the blog Explorations of Style talks about how it changes your writing strategies. But I argue that, for academics, it can also affect your relationship to writing for your profession. When you think about the importance of writing in order to engage conversations in your field, writing becomes less tedious, more useful. You don't find time to write; you make time to write. For writers, writing is essential in order to think. The act of writing doesn’t get easier, but it can feel a lot more organic.
Readers, do you think of yourself as a writer? Why or why not?
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