A sort of wood between the worlds,* Helen Sword’s book helps you jump in and out of academic writers’ minds, to see if their way of doing things could be yours, and why (not). Sometimes it’s like looking in a mirror – I recognized my own processes and enthusiasms in theirs. Sometimes it’s like browsing a library – this book undoubtedly leads to more books, and I ordered a few while I was still reading it. Sometimes it’s like a attending a conference – you’re meeting lots of people, buzzing with ideas, but it’s only after its all over that you’ll know what’s worth remembering.
Air and Light and Time and Space (Harvard UP, 2017) is already a classic. Sword surveyed a thousand people who attended her writing workshops and interviewed a hundred “successful academics.” Yes, many have published prolifically, but Sword also measures success as taking the field in new directions, representing underrepresented groups, helping others to write, and balancing writing with the rest of life. She’s as interested in creativity as productivity, in the pleasures of writing as much as the pain.
Sword’s ideas are not just beautifully expressed, but clearly structured, which makes her easy to read. In four sections, she covers the behaviours, artisanship, social side and emotions of writing (the obligatory acronym: BASE). The behaviours (time, space, and ritual), come first: when, where, and how do academics write? The artisanship (learning and honing your craft), come next, with a chapter on what everyone can learn from academics writing in English as a lingua franca. The social section asks who you are writing for, with, and among (which writing retreatants will know a lot about). And the emotional end is about pleasures, pains, and metaphors to write by. Each chapter is broken up by one-page portraits of individuals, ending with further reading and practical things to try.
Things to try: write at the “wrong” time for you; write where you read; discipline yourself with writeordie.com or 750words.com; leave Word a while for Scrivener; write as a letter, not a diary; find – and be – a critical friend; restory your metaphors; dance as you write. Taken out of context, this is random list of tips; taken in context, they can turn your reading about other writers into strategies for your own writing.
The voices of people I edit, translate, and facilitate retreats for resonated through the pages of this book. I especially enjoyed their metaphors. Academics writing in English as a second, fourth, or fifth language describe the process as “like making pizza for Italians.” Writing a PhD is like “trying to peel an onion layer by layer while it’s rolling around on the floor and then reconstructing it layer by layer and then offering it to people and saying, ‘here, take a bite.’” A co-authored book can also be a party, with “a variety of people,” sharing “incredibly good food,” and everyone feeling “welcome and at ease.”
If you are looking for new ways of writing and would like some company, this book is for you. There’s no need to read it straight through (though I got caught up in it, and did). You can dip in and out of it, diving into the writers’ different worlds. For sure, you’ll want to come back to it at a different time in your writing life, to see whose voices speak to you. It’s a rich book: as rich as plum cake.*
* Image from my 1981 edition of The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis.