I haven’t written anything for here for a while. Trying to stay alive during a pandemic in the absence of confidence-inducing leadership has taken up quite a lot of energy. Apart from surviving, I’m also trying to write something longer than these pieces, that involves reading and understanding other people’s points of view. I’ve disappeared down a rabbit hole that’s left me hardly able to write at all.
Writing used to be part of my job. As a lecturer in eighteenth-century English Literature, my job was divided up between talking to students about books (teaching), doing the tasks that meant that students came out with degrees (administration) and reading books and the books that had been written about them by other academics, and writing about that (research). The latter is really hard work. Getting articles or books published can take years and involve strained exchanges with anonymous ‘readers’ whose job it is to recommend changes to something I’d been interested in several years before but had probably moved on from. There wasn’t a lot of joy in it for me. Looking back, I think part of the problem was that I was working so hard to ‘get it right’. My arguments were watertight, knotty, and dense: like knitted barbed wire (can barbed wire be watertight? There I go again). If I’m brave enough to read something I wrote then, I barely understand it. It seems to strain under the weight of fear that my writing would be thought simplistic, unsophisticated, unoriginal – the cardinal sins of academic writing. When my PhD thesis (a massive essay, which I wish I’d called ‘bloody women and their bloody feelings’) was accepted for publication, I was advised to ‘freshen it up’ and let my voice be heard more clearly. The problem with that was I didn’t really have a voice. I could understand arguments and find holes in them. I could make quite clever arguments myself, but I was writing defensively. I wanted to show that I’d thought of everything, made all the connections, read all the hard books. Clever me. But there wasn’t much ‘me’ there.
What was there was an interest in emotion. Feelings, sentiments, what the eighteenth-century called ‘sensibility’. I wrote about how emotion was denigrated, disguised, denied in ‘proper’ writing and in life in general. I think I wrote that over and over in more elaborate ways for about fifteen years. As I was writing about women’s writing, I was trying to show that women didn’t just waft around weeping, and writing about nothing but themselves and their own lives. That, like their male peers, they had views on ‘the world’, could join in political debates and understand abstract philosophical ideas. And that I was like those women. Cleverness on paper, all weeping and wafting done in private.
By the time I left my lecturing job, I had done lots of weeping, and smiling, in private. The births in close succession of our three children and the deaths of several close relatives punctuated the first decade of the century. I didn’t have the attention span, or time, required for the kind of writing I had managed in the past. I was too emotionally raw to be critically detached. Once I left my job, I was relieved not to have to feign interest in the debates I’d been so immersed in. I went back to being a student (counsellor) and wrote short essays on counselling theory (analysing emotion again).
Blogging here has been a way to write in a different way, with me ‘in it’; as a counsellor I am, or try to be, just me. Counselling sessions are not ‘about’ my feelings, but nor are my emotions and sensations sent out of the room while I’m working, to be let in again afterwards. There’s a whole load of information in what I’m feeling as another person speaks, or doesn’t speak, and paying attention to that is part of the work I do as we work together.
So what about this longer piece of writing that’s stopped me writing again? It’s about something I’m interested in, that I’m hoping will be interesting to some other people. It’s about stories about schools (novels and tv, reports and policy), and debates about what schools are for (to make workers, or people who work, or people who think, or people who feel?). It’s about me and my family and cleverness. And it’s hard to make sense of it and enjoy it and convey that I’m in it all at the same time. I’m hoping I can hold all that together, without it getting too knotty. And in ten years’ time, if it’s finished by then, I might still be able to understand it. It might be full of holes but it won’t be made of barbed wire.