Academic versus ‘Creative’ Writing

by Daniel Hartley

Working on this novel has reconfirmed what I already knew: my natural disposition is obsessiveness. When I work on a particular project, I have to be able to immerse myself in it completely, chip away at it for hours on end, day after day, with minimum interruption. Even when I’m not working on it directly, it needs to remain in the back of my mind and never leave, constantly ticking over.

Unfortunately, writing a novel and a Ph.D. simultaneously (not to mention other side-projects) prevents such undivided attention. The monomaniacal mind must learn to shift between two or more projects and, more than that, must learn not to sacrifice the requisite passion for either of them in the process. The problem is that academic writing and ‘creative’ writing (actually, both are creative, just in different ways) require very different types of attention and distinct types of skills.

Academic writing has its own internal order; it consists of a series of interrelated logical propositions, the task being to move from one to the other with the least possible confusion and the most compelling line of argument. The research for such work usually involves the synthesising of large amounts of information or notations, making links between disparate material, drawing out hidden correspondences from beneath the deceptive  façade of mere appearance. The mind becomes hawk-like, scanning the terrain with a cooly calculating eye. Its attitude is fundamentally analytic.

With the novel it is not so. Writing a novel is like training a whole new set of muscles, or learning to play tennis with your left hand after years of playing with your right. The mind’s basic attitude is attentiveness, attunedness to the world, to language and to the mind itself. The soul becomes an antenna, picking up signals wherever it goes, expanding itself into the ether, attracting static from the four dimensions. There is a narrative order whose limits are felt, but it does not coincide with the burden of logical rigour. (Which is not to say that it is irrational – far from it). In writing fiction the self must give way, release its grip on the world, allowing something else to speak.

The two types of writing are not mutually exclusive. Analysis and attentiveness are not and should not be seen as opposed. In the greatest writers, they are fused. For now, though, it is like learning to live with two bodies and two souls.

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