What counts as ‘writing’?

I suspect this post is more about my deeply divided psyche than about writing, but I ask the question nonetheless  – what counts as ‘writing’?

The question is precipitated for me by a comment made a friend and fellow author on a Facebook post. I was celebrating the acceptance of an education research manuscript to a good journal. What I wrote was ‘The simple joy of having a paper accepted’. My fellow author responded by saying ‘Well done! Writers’ sweat blood!’

The funny thing is, I agree with her. I think writers do sweat blood. But I don’t think of my academic outputs as writing. I don’t sweat blood over writing academic papers, so what is the difference?

Perhaps, for academic papers, the effort, or the space of risk-taking, is actually exerted elsewhere. For a chemistry paper, the effort exerted is in the laboratory. The frustration and challenges are usually over by the time you actually write the paper. Education is a little different, but again the ‘sweating’ usually takes place in the conceptualisation, or data analysis. Again, by the time I get to write the paper, the major challenge is behind me.

I know that writing an academic paper is not trivial, but to me it is a qualitatively different activity to other sorts of writing that I do.

This blog, or writing poetry serves a different purpose. It is more personal, more about my making sense of my world and my experiences. This feels more like ‘proper’ writing. In the process of writing I usually gain some personal insight.

Writing ‘Rooted in Love’ was more of a middle ground kind of space. Mostly, it was about teaching, but I did encounter a few internal shifts and insights along the way.

And yet, the writing which people do that requires sweating blood is still a step beyond where I am. That kind of writing, is a much creative process. I am a writer, but I am not quite that kind of writer.

I’ll accept that I am a writer because of the poetry and this blog and these kinds of writings. I’ll accept that I am a writer because the process of writing helps me.

But academic writing still doesn’t feel like it counts. Most of my academic writing emerges because it is the necessary last step of the research process (and it is what ‘counts’ as productivity in academia). The need to write academic papers is a systemic requirement rather than a personal imperative.

And once, through writing, I gain insight! Writing Rooted in Love was a personal imperative. I needed to do it. It emerged from a deep part of my being. So there is the useful distinction – what is the motivation. Writing which emerges from a need to write feels like ‘proper’ writing. For me, academic writing is more a means to an end.

I should hastily add – these are my personal distinctions – I know some for whom academic writing is much more of a personal imperative.

Where are the heroes of my generation?

I find myself reflecting this evening on the contributions of two different people. The first, David Russell, lauded for ‘taking a brave stand on many thorny issues to ensure that South Africa became a democratic society’ (you can find more about him here). David suffered banning, house arrest and imprisonment for his action during the apartheid era.

I knew of him when studying in Grahamstown (its hard to forget the Anglican bishop who has a wife who is practicing Roman Catholic!!), but it is only in the last few years that I have got to know David personally. My experience of him was profoundly positive. A reflective, prayerful and kind man. But, for the purposes of this post, clearly a man willing to take a stand for justice. He did so in the apartheid era and continued to take clear positions against all forms of prejudice well into his retirement. He was a man of principle.

The second person I find myself thinking about is Elizabeth Johnson. She is a world class theologian and religious sister. Following the publication of her book ‘Quest for the Living God’, she has found herself at odds with the local Bishop’s conference. It appears that their objections to her work are largely unfounded. The Leadership Conference for Women’s Religious in the United States (themselves struggling with a conflict with the Vatican) awarded Elizabeth Johnson their annual Leadership Award a few days ago.

The combination of this group awarding this particular theologian this award has ruffled some feathers in hierarchy. In her address (which can be found here), it is clear her own path has not been one unfettered by struggle.

I am not trying to equate the lives of these two people, they are just two that have stumbled across my radar in the space of a couple of hours. And the confluence precipitates the question: where are the heroes of my own generation? Where are the people who are truly striving for a better, more just world?

How many of us are too busy looking for comfort? Planning the next holiday; focusing on the next purchase; obsessing over daily minutiae? Perhaps it is that we are desperately trying to distract ourselves from looking up, because the bigger picture is too daunting, too overwhelming, too bleak.

Where are the heroes of my generation?

The response comes almost immediately ‘Stop looking around and step up!’

But I know that too may be a red herring, there is no sense in picking a fight if there is another way. I have no answers, just a dull sense of unease that far to few of us will be willing to get off couch when it counts.

On setting goals

Many years ago, when I was still an undergraduate student, one of my parents’ friends commented that we tend to overestimate what we can achieve in one year and underestimate what we can achieve in ten years. Whilst I have long since forgotten the context of the conversation, I can still hear his voice in my head. It is such an important thought.

If we are not aware of this tendency, we can easily become despondent at the pace of our progress. Things tend to take longer than we think they should. And, for the most part, we find it difficult to take a long term view either in our reflections or our planning.

In reflecting on our progress over a relatively short period, like a year, we notice that we didn’t quite achieve our goals. Perhaps we make allowances because unforeseen diversions did occur which slowed our pace. But in planning for the next year, we somehow forget to factor in the possibility of diversions. For me, this pattern is most evident around New Year. The text for reflection over the past year goes something like ‘It hasn’t been a bad year, considering…’ or ‘I managed to achieve a fair bit, even though…’ And yet, somehow when I look into the bright shiny New Year ahead, I presume that this year will be different, I won’t have the difficulties of the year just past. This year will be better. And inevitably challenges arise which throw me off course a little.

But when I think of what I have done and what I learnt over the last decade I find little need to prevaricate in this way. And as I pause to recall some of the things that I was disappointed that I had failed to make manifest in my annual reflections six or seven years ago, are now beginning to blossom. On reflection I realize that for some, it was a matter of timing, but for others, although the idea was good, I wasn’t yet ready then. There was stuff I needed to learn before I could put it out there.

Having said all of this, the truth is that I am terrible procrastinator, and if I am not careful ‘it’s just not quite the right time’ becomes perpetual! So I also hold the idea that ‘a small daily task, if it be realy daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules’ (Antony Trollope).

The tension held by these two ideas, to understand my incapacity to be realistic about what I can achieve in a given time and to commit to taking small frequent steps towards the goal, provides the impetus I need to keep on going.

Finding my place in the world

Herbert Alphonso SJ wrote a book entitled ‘Discovering your personal vocation’. The book is really best for those who are familiar with Ignatian spirituality and have made the Spiritual Exercises, but the idea of the personal vocation is immensely powerful.

I had the dubious privilege this last week of being invited to talk to a group of teens about vocation. I was one of a panel of four people – each of us represented one of the four ways of living one’s vocation recognised the Roman Catholic church – the priesthood, religious life, married life and single life. (No prizes for guessing which category I represented!!)  In preparing for the encounter I found myself, once again, deeply frustrated by this approach to the idea of vocation. It is so easy to miss the real question from this angle. I know this is not the intent, but it seems almost to reduce one’s vocation to a matter of how one chooses to use one’s sexual energy.

So what is ‘personal vocation’ as Alphonso articulates it, and why is that more appealing? Personal vocation is not just about what one does, it is what is unique and unrepeatable about one. It is the discovery of who I am and who I am becoming. If we can discover the essence of our being, then where I need to be, what I need to be doing, and who will form my community follow.

If I am able to pay attention to the inner stirrings as I make choices about which career to follow, or which relationships to pursue, or which kinds of activities I participate in, I will begin to notice that some things really resonate and some fall a bit flat. If I continue to choose the things that really resonate, and leave aside those which don’t, I begin to find the way of being in world which most supports my being.

Over time, those little choices begin to take a shape, and the way it will become clear that a particular lifestyle will most support my way of being in the world. For most that will be marriage, but for some the other vocations will begin to crystallise.

The important thing to recognise is that it is a process of discovery that may take years. The goal is to find the way of living which most supports the flourishing of my being. Of course, the journey doesn’t end with the taking of vows or making of promises, it is a continual daily choice.

Most importantly though, it means that I am never too young or too old to consider my vocation. Even when I have made a commitment to a particular way of life, I can choose to nurture my being by paying attention, or to let it wither. Seeking my personal vocation is a daily choice and daily task. Teaching teenagers to pay attention to what brings them to life and what drains them seems like the best place to start the conversation.

On goal setting and discernment

A couple of days ago my brother-in-law posted a link to a column he had written. As a biologist he uses the analogy of the different ways in which certain organisms choose their environment to illustrate the importance of true navigation in our human lives. It is well worth reading.


But it got me thinking. I am a little ambivalent about the idea of setting goals. I do understand that it is useful to have goals to work towards. Goals help both in keeping us on course, and in keeping us motivated. I think though, that I am little wary of presuming that we will arrive at a place of enlightenment or fulfilment or contentment simply by pursuing and attaining our goals.

My own life path has been erratic (if one measures it by the standards of goal setting). That is not to say that I did not have purpose and distinct trajectory in the choices I was making. My goal, in as much as I had one, was to deepen my relationship with God. That isn’t a very tangible goal, and it certainly took me on a very winding road. It continues to be the thing that motivates me, and yet the markers seem mostly to appear in hindsight.

I suppose my issue, inasmuch as I have one, is that I think goals are good, but only if we are open to the possibility of rethinking occasionally. I am a firm believer in importance of discernment. The daily task of paying attention: Paying attention to what is happening internally; paying attention to the feedback from my environment; paying attention to communication from God. That is something akin to the internal feedback of checking that I am on course, which is a little different to evaluating how I am doing with respect to my goal. Or it can be.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I think the direction we are headed in is more important than the proximity of a goal (whatever that goal might be). In pursuing a particular long favoured goal we may end up on the wrong trajectory. Pursing the goal may have simply been a useful means to get to place where we have greater perspective and are thus able to make different choices and set different goals.

We need to be attention on a daily basis; to notice whether the goals we set weeks, months or even years ago, are in fact still appropriate for our primal search for meaning. Goals are important but we need to continue to be discerning.