Transitioning from academic to fiction writing.
Hi! I’m Meg, and I actually enjoy academic writing. True story.
I also enjoy a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. You’ve been warned.
Several years ago, I decided to shift my focus from academic to fiction writing. I’m an avid reader of fiction and I got the crazy idea that I wanted to tell amazing stories, too. I’m also a social scientist by training and spent many years researching and working overseas. By now, I should have one or two stories in me. Turns out, I do.
But academic writing is so very different from fiction writing. So. Very. Very. Different. I’d like to share just two of those difference with you.
Passive tense, unintelligibility, and jargon are musts in academic writing. This approach to writing, I feel, makes me sound smarter, especially if you can’t decipher exactly what I’ve said. Much like the moral high ground, it was hard to give up. It took my beleaguered writing group months of redlining my pages (and probably a lot of palm-to-forehead moments) before I learned to write a sentence that was clear, active, and without jargon…well, as the title of this article suggests, I might still have a ways to go there.
Oh, hegemony, how I miss you so! Giving it all up was not as liberating as I hoped, but felt a little like walking into one of my lectures naked (a recurrent nightmare for most academics) as someone runs their nails down the chalkboard in time to a Kanye West song. Let’s hope this image doesn’t break the Internet.
Fiction writers want to make money for what we write. I want EVERYONE buying my stories. I want the reader to understand, or at the very least, enjoy the stories I tell. I can’t afford to be snooty or exclusive. Hey, come on in, the story’s just fine! In academia, I might want to be inclusive and put out scintillating prose, but you don’t get tenure for being quoted in People magazine. Just sayin’. As an academic, I would get money by appealing to certain research agencies, donors, and funding organizations. But that’s a relatively small group of people who expect a certain kind of discourse (see the above paragraph for clarification).
I want to end this first column with my version of a passage from a very famous book that I academiazed (that's a word, right?). Well, here goes, and I know you’ll know exactly what I’m referencing.
“Justifiably, Wilmer, I’m apologetic indeed to be bereaved of you, and I aspire for you to cognize that I/eye couldn’t be any more de/re/attached if you engendered filially my specifically identifiable lineage, but — nonetheless, via Judeo-Christian deity! — if one bereaves an individual who engenders filially one’s specifically identifiable lineage it is imaginable to conceive another — additionally there is merely a solitary Falco cherrug of Malta descent.”
Of course, you recognize Kasper Gutman from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Duh. And, yes, I might have exaggerated the academic speak a tiny bit. After all, I would never really say, “Justifiably.” That’s just pretentious.
Now, you ask, how did Hammett write this particular passage? Not much better, let me assure you. But for those who remain disbelieving, I offer you his version:
“Well, Wilmer, I’m sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn’t be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but — well, by Gad! — if you lose a son it’s possible to get another — and there’s only one Maltese falcon.”
See, that’s what I said!
Ouch! I’m pretty sure one of my writing groups just gave me a cosmic head slap. *Rubs forehead*
On that note, back to the work in progress…
Meg Opperman is a recovering academic. Her column will appear monthly in the Independent.