“Bird by Bird” is not about birds

This is my second year as a writing fellow at CUNY. Afforded a good deal of freedom in the role this year, I have been rooting around for helpful writing resources for students (and for myself). In the fall, several people recommended Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. One of these kind people bought me a copy of the book (get yourself a committee member who buys books for students).

When people recommend Bird by Bird, they often talk about the anecdote that gives the book its title. As a child, Lamott’s brother anguished over a school assignment in which he had to compile a book of birdlife. Lamott’s father (also a writer) provided the sage advice to proceed with the assignment bird by bird. Bird by Bird came recommended for precisely this takeaway message. Academic writing is less daunting when you break it down into small and steady tasks: paragraph by paragraph, bird by bird.

I started reading Bird by Bird during a day off, in the sunny window of a cafe in the Catskills. I started reading without a real sense of how far into it I would get, reminding myself that good academics don’t need to read every page or word.

Lamott has plenty of helpful advice about how to write bird by bird: how to break assignments down into smaller pieces; how to get words out before worrying about getting words right; how to sit down and write steadily at a desk, and how to keep writing when away from it. This is all, I suppose, what I went to the book for, and what I knew I would find there.

From early in the book, however, it struck me that Bird by Bird is not really about birds – not even metaphorical ones. Lamott’s most insistent piece of advice is that writing for the purpose of being published is never satisfying. To find some degree of contentment as a writer, you have to write for the sake of writing, and not for the sake of publishing.

The conversations that I have about academic writing are absolutely never about finding contentment. They are about efficiency, about how to write better for the purposes of finishing a thesis, or bagging a publication. They are about managing time, or managing notes and drafts. They are about the strict and unspoken conventions of academic genres: the course paper, the abstract, the journal article, the statement of interest. I suspect many of us get into academia because we like writing and reading – I certainly did. How long does that passion last, before we start to succumb to the publish or perish logic? Before the process of writing becomes something to get out of the way?

I started reading Bird by Bird out of an interest in being a more efficient writer. In getting more ideas down, and thus getting more publications up. Even my approach to reading the book shows how little we value writing (or reading) as more than a means to an end. I thought I would read what I could in a bit of free time. I figured I would extract some key messages and get onto more important reading. Cover to cover is not proper political science reading.

And yet, if we devalue the writing of our discipline – of our colleagues and mentors – to the point where the abstract, intro and (maybe) conclusion are all we have time for, then how could we ever come to value and esteem our own writing process? It is odd to realize just how little academia values one of the central practices of the vocation. We are trained and socialized into acting as though good writing is about getting published ,and good reading is about not giving too much time to those publications. From this perspective, it is hardly surprising that I rarely hear political scientists express a love of writing (or at least a love of writing political science).

This semester, I am thinking a lot about how to bring passion and contentment back into academic writing. To start with, I am celebrating rough drafts as the freest stage of writing. I am also trying to do as much low stakes writing as possible. The kind of writing that might be good in itself, and not good for what it becomes. I am reading slowly, sometimes cover to cover. The passion hasn’t exactly come flooding back, but that is hardly surprising. The academic conventions that leech the joy out of reading and writing are deeply set. They will not be easy to shift.

Relational conferencing?

The end of May saw me rolling up to Boston for the Latin American Studies Association annual conference. This was a monster conference, with hundreds of panels sprawling across four days and two hotels. It was also a very good conference. For all the daunting size of the event, it was easy to find and meet people (perhaps I was helped along in this by the contacts I had made at other confs this semester). Furthermore, the panel attendance was much better at LASA than at the political science conferences, where I’d generally consider it a success to have as many people in the audience as on the panel.

On the trip to and from LASA, I read Lee Ann Fujii’s Interviewing in Social Science: A Relational Approach. The book stayed with me throughout the conference, often on my mind. It is one of those uncommon books that crosses over, that changes how you see everything around you.

The book is full of examples and suggestions for how to interview ethically and incisively, but I don’t think this is really a book about interviewing. Or rather, I think the book uses interviewing as a sustained example of how to take a more relation approach to research. Fujii’s main points are, after all, by no means specific to interviews. She emphasizes research as a process, rather than just a series of products. She stresses the importance of a reflexive and iterative approach to research, in which surprises and difficulties become opportunities to think and revise the research agenda. Fujii also emphasizes the need to move away from an extractive approach to research, and towards joint production of knowledge.

Wandering the halls and malls that linked the LASA panels together, I kept thinking: what would a relational approach to conferencing look like? Perhaps this would involve less attention to conference presentations as a polished product, and more attention to the process of raising concerns and thinking through difficulties. It might even involve a conception of Q&A that isn’t all about one side of the room providing Qs, and the other side providing As.

After panels and at receptions, I often find myself wondering if I should be talking to that professor over there (usually the one surrounded by a throng of other professors and students). Relational conferencing might see networking as less about making instrumental connections, to arrive at that all important, high-profile, job-offering connection. Instead, it might involve valuing the rest of the people in the room, not as connections to extract, but as opportunities to think and to create together.

After LASA, as I finished Fujii’s book on the trip home, I thought about bringing a relational ethos beyond even the conference, and to other aspects of academic life. Could there be a relational approach to reading? Not extracting data and references, but valuing the process of reading. Not evaluating which excerpts might be worth the time, but assuming the text does its best work as a complete whole. A relational approach to academia, even when alone with a book.

I read the entire book: every page, every appendix. I read, for once, with little sense of what I needed from the book, but with a clear sense that the more I read, the more I stood to gain.