From the perspective of capital, what most of us see as tremendous ethical and even existential problems literally don’t count.Jason Hickel, ‘The Nobel Prize for Climate Catastrophe‘, foreignpolicy.com, December 2018
This year I’ve been reflecting on the many reasons that I find writing difficult, even when I’m apparently eager to write. I know from conversations I had at OER19 that others feel the same. This sense of being choked is spreading around a community of good writers I know, like ocean plastics. It’s as if we’re in an extinction-level event, even as we mostly work in universities, and we are also drowning in words.
What this feels like: I drive home from a day in my office with my shoulders in a kink from hours of sitting at a desk and writing that kind of writing that David Graeber hints at when he says that we are doing bullshit jobs. I write things that function within an organisational culture of timely responses, archivable compliance, planning and reporting on plans. I write and write and write and write, and all of these words could fall into the sea tomorrow without loss.
Brooding on this, I suddenly remember visiting a Nashville recording studio in a historic home, years ago. I was taken up to an attic to where the servants’ rooms had been converted into rows of identical tiny offices with desks, where contract songwriters churned through rhyming phrases that became parts of profitable things, the lowest form of work in a retail chain of words on their way to becoming lyrics rolling around in the mouths of others.
That’s my job.
And I’ve come to see that this is the problem for my writing — it’s not that I don’t write, it’s that I write too much of the wrong thing. Like my colleagues, I’m a scrivener. The environment that I write in, and the employer I write for, generates the writing that gets done. My day job is to fashion reasonable copies of bureaucratic phrasing, that sound right and fit in and don’t cause a stir. Sometimes I flinch from startlements, like “workflow” used as a verb. Sometimes I whisper to myself like Bartleby that I prefer not to. But mostly I go along. My writing flows serenely around “stakeholder” and “reportable” and “target” and “rapid growth market” without slowing down.
And what this is, is bullshit writing. As Don Watson says in Gobbledygook, his skewering of corporate jargon, we need to sit up straight when this use of language as a cover for tactics, this weaselling of language itself, is coming from inside the house where it should be least at home. Here’s what he says—and don’t blink or you’ll miss it—about my bullshit writing job:
In institutions where we might expect the most resistance the capitulation is most complete.Don Watson, Gobbledygook, reviewed by linguist Stan Carey here
Take it in. This is such singular writing, that you can turn it over in your hands and see his mark on the back.
So this week I made a small commitment that I would try to stop scrivening long enough to write every day, actual writing that matters to me. I will try to recover a sense of what it is I came to say, in my own words.
And now a fresh semester has begun, and a fresh group of thinkers and writers have joined the narrative class I teach. This class is a blessing to me every year. Those who have taken it before are all in my thoughts when I’m in the room. Every one has taught me something that is important to me. And again this year I have the pleasure of teaching it with Giverny Witheridge, whose writing about family stories told in the context of illness is a lantern for me whenever I lose my way as a writer.
The class is now focused on the future of work, because we might as well. Work is increasingly the framework for our political conversation about what matters about being human, and as a result, employability has become a key metric for how universities are regarded. In Australia, employability is likely to become one of the four measures by which we’ll be funded, as if we had any capacity at all to moderate the economic reshaping of the job market, the persistent biases in hiring practices, or the sleight of hand offshoring of work to cheaper labour markets.
So nope, I don’t believe we can hold universities responsible for the state of the labour market. But we can hold ourselves accountable for the promises we make to students about degrees as a pathway into higher paid work. We need to join with them in looking critically at work, and asking hard questions about whether its likely future is better for human flourishing. To this they bring considerable experience as workers, and we do too — because whatever is said about universities not being in the real world, as complex workplaces they are at its heart.
So Giverny and I are choosing to hold space in this class for a conversation about how narrative is one way to fashion and sustain a sense of self that you can live with, whatever you do for work. Being able to think with your own story is the first step in being able to work in a way that nourishes your values. And if your work clashes with how you think things should be, this same sense of an intentional and capable self is what will help you to call out the logic of productivity and performance, and protest its harms.
In opening up this conversation, we’re asking these students to value the time it takes to write regularly, not just to aim for the sense of having finished a writing task before moving on to the next one. We’re also asking ourselves to hollow out a little space for our own writing. We’re trying to think through with them what it means to ask for our voices to be heard, in whatever rough or self-doubting state we’re in.
How did this get written?
Part of my commitment this semester is to make writing practice more visible to students who are writing in public. I hope it’s encouraging to know that this morning I blocked out time, cleared space, and sat down to write — and nothing happened. Nothing. Not a word, not even a wisp of an idea. After enough time staring at the blankness of the screen I couldn’t clearly remember having had an idea, ever.
Along the way I looked at the sky, I ate a mandarin and then a second mandarin, I made a cup of tea, I watched a family of wrens outside my window, I panicked. I let email divert me, and then remembered that was the opposite of the plan. I stayed off Twitter. Panic increased.
Then I did the one thing that absolutely makes a difference to me. I asked for help. I said “I write so many stupid words in my bullshit writing job that I can no longer write and that is the end of that.” And the person I reached out to said very calmly “Why not write about the thing you’re thinking about?”
Sometimes what you have to do as a writer is sit in place long enough, and sometimes you have to ask for help. Whatever works for you, is what works.