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Department of Anthropology: Writing Across Boundaries

Liz Stanley

It's a craft and a job and requires practice


Writing is inextricably linked with reading for me, and I think of these two activities in broad generous terms and as mutually-enhancing, indeed interdependent. My broad and generous terms perceive reading as a spectrum along which lies everything from stolidly reading serious solid scholarly texts to casually taking in fly-posters and graffiti; and these terms see writing more generously still, as including thinking about things in an ordered and structured way through to signing off a piece of completed and to-be-published work. Consequently, I read and write everyday and can always find things to say if asked about what I've read or written on any particular day.


As this may indicate, I am of the C Wright Mills (in the ‘On Intellectual Craftsmanship' [sic] appendix to his The Sociological Imagination) school of thinking about writing: do it everyday; don't worry about whether it's the posh kind or for fun; try different ways of doing it; think of it as a skill, like wall-papering or baking or plumbing but requiring less dexterity. Also, I think of writing as a set of gradations of styles and types, including notes, bullet-points, reviews, as well as articles and chapters and theses and books. What this doesn't convey, but it is centrally important in terms of how I actually do it, is that I always conceive of and write to a structure. I like the numbers five and seven - I find five handy and quite like the magical connotations of seven, so I use them a lot. My structured plans for writing usually have five or seven main (and connected) points, with sub-points for each main point. I used to ‘just write', and then spent forever, weeping and gnashing my teeth, in revising a mess into something shapely. Now I find the shape first, then my writing shapes it up accordingly, with the rough edges smoothed off in editing. Of course, these points shift around, bits move into other places and back again or are jettisoned and new things added in. But I usually know where I've come from and where I'm going to and have some overall idea of what I want ‘it' to look like.


Writing is also a moveable feast, in the way I think about it. It travels with me, in my research notebooks-cum-diaries, which are very much of the work and thinking through kind, and never contain dark or starry nights of the soul stuff, which I think is better lived than written as it's really not very interesting after the event. And at home, writing travels in a different sense, through editing-as-an-extension-of-writing. I always edit everything I write, and usually three or four times. By the end, it is a different and hopefully better entity than it was at the start (in the strict sense of the word, when writing was finished). Even if I'm not writing ‘in the strict sense', I always have something on the go, whether reading madly any and everything on something I'm interested in, or editing something that I've written but which is by no means completed. Do I spend days not doing it, in one of its incarnations? That, like dusting and ironing, is reserved for when I'm dead.


One of the most productive academics I know told me her ‘secret' - she abandoned her kids and colleagues at 9.15am, locked her office door, didn't emerge until 2pm, and wrote for nearly five consecutive hours on each weekday without fail. Like Pavlov's dog, at 9.14am she started salivating, her mind was geared up and ready to go. Treat it as a job, take it seriously and work at it, is the message here. Writing isn't a gift or talent, it's a skill which can be gained. Want a lean muscular body? - eat less, work out. Want a lean muscular mind? - work the damn thing! work it hard! And it's not a life and death matter, so forget the histrionics that sometimes lead otherwise perfectly sensible people to behave like characters from second rate operas, and get on with practising it. Those five hours each working day were incredibly productive for my friend (who is not fictitious), even though they may not seem to add up to ‘a lot of time'. But she did it purposefully and in an orderly, structured and planned way. No endless looking at websites, no going off for cups of coffee, no everlasting chats about this and that, no pathos of an ‘I can't do it' kind, just focused attention on the matter in hand and practising the craft.


But writing is heady stuff, too, let us not forget. ‘I' is of course a textual device and the five points I'm writing about here are equally artful as this ‘I'. However, the person lurking behind this textual ‘I' has learned something - about her mind, about this thing called writing, and what she will comment about it under certain kinds of circumstances when called to account. Virginia Woolf once remarked that, in spite of the fact that Vita Sackville-West wrote ‘with a pen of brass', she was nonetheless a true writer because Woolf found out things about her from her writing which she had not done from their face-to-face relationship. Along with wanting to write with a pen dipped in liquid gold like Virginia Woolf herself, and perhaps more to the point, we should want to find out things we didn't know before through the acts and activities of writing. Treating writing seriously as a job tells us things about ourselves, about our minds, and so about our work and its engagement with the world. With its twin, reading, writing is the essential tool, method, methodology, of what we do and it supports and indeed in most respects is our conceiving and theorising. And I could conclude with a list of seven magical ‘do's' and ‘don'ts' - but five is my number just now and so have come to the end.






Liz Stanley is Professor of Sociology at the University of Edinburgh and the Director of the University's Centre for Narrative and Auto/Biographical Studies (NABS; http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/NABS/ ). She has published very widely in many fields, including historical sociology; epistemology & methodology; feminist theory & sociological theory; narrative & auto/biographical theory & research; and radical alternatives to sociology, and her many books include 'The Auto/Biographical I: Theory and Practice of Feminist Auto/Biography' (1992); 'Breaking Out Again: Feminist Ontology and Epistemology' (1993, with Sue Wise); 'Olive Schreiner: Feminism, Theory and Writing' Sage publications (2002); and Mourning Becomes ... Post/Memory and the Concentration Camps of the South African War (2006). She has supervised to successful completion over 60 PhD theses, most of them clustered under the broad methodological headings of narrative & auto/biography and feminist epistemology & methodology, but which have concerned a very wide range of substantive topics. Her present research is the ESRC-funded ( RES-062-23-1286) Olive Schreiner Letters Project, which will transcribe, analyse and make freely available transcripts of the c7000 extant Schreiner letters in archive locations.