By Professor Debra Myhill, Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean, The University of Exeter
In the rhythm of the academic year at university, August is normally a month where the pace slows down a little and where there is a little more space for choosing what you want to do. I spent part of August on holiday in the Arctic, walking the fells and boreal forests of Finland, enjoying the fjords of Northern Norway, and finally the barren beauty of Svalbard. One of the joys of holidays is freedom to explore, when you want to, where you want to, with few restraints.
August brings me that same feeling as a writer. I have more choice about what to write and when to write, and more chance to play. This year, I’ve tried to capture some of the images of the Arctic in words: the sense of wilderness and endless stretch of space; the midnight sun; the blues, turquoises and greys of ice floes strewn like rubbish on the Arctic sea; the awkward acrobatics of puffins skimming over the water… I haven’t really succeeded yet, but there is a real pleasure for me in the way phrases can hold memories, wrapping the words with the emotions and feelings the scenes evoked. And as a keen geographer, always drawn by landscape, geology and maps, I want the images to be accurate, not romanticised recollections. Ice floes are not always beautiful – they spread the ocean like detritus, scattered haphazardly, often layered with mud or soil. The beauty is in the reality. I have also written parts of stories for my two grand-daughters, enjoying the fun of choosing plot lines, allusions and references which only we understand, only we can share the jokes. And we’ve written together too – trying to build confidence in what writing can do and that it can be fun. The youngest grand-daughter is five and tormented with anxiety about what she can’t do – can’t spell; can’t get letter shapes right – so we play, lying on the floor, gel and glitter pens galore, and we write about things that matter to us and make us laugh.
In August I have also written an academic article and the experience has reminded me of just how much pleasure this kind of writing brings me. I believe that almost all writing is creative (my shopping list probably isn’t!) and it is a mistake to put ‘creative’ writing on a pedestal that somehow segregates it from other writing. Writing an article is always a struggle, just as is capturing images of the Arctic which satisfy me, but because I understand the struggle, the slog, the deliberation is inevitable, it no longer troubles me. It is part of the process. I plan meticulously and spend a long time preparing, including mulling, messy bullet point lists, patchwork documents with cut-and-pasted nuggets from elsewhere. But then I write the article draft quite quickly, and I do a lot of revising as I write, recursively cycling between composition and revision. One element of this is the ongoing intellectual struggle with the argument – its clarity, its logic, its coherence, and, terrifyingly, its originality. And another element is the honing of the expression, polishing and refining clause structures, sentence shapes, and phrases till they do the job I want them to do. And there is a real joy for me as a writer in this!
I enjoy the space August gives me for being a writer and this year, because we are in the midst of the Teachers as Writers project, it has really reminded me how much I personally love what language can do, but also that being a writer is a rich, diverse, multi-faceted thing which defies simple explanations.
Professor Debra Myhill
Director of the Centre for Research in Writing,
Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean
The University of Exeter