Samantha Bise is a Reference & Instruction Librarian at Central Penn College. Her research interests include critical information literacy, information bias, and educational barriers for vulnerable populations. Samantha spends a lot of her time volunteering in her community, and she is passionate about teaching, creating educational opportunities for adult learners, and writing poetry. Some of her recent poetry can be found at www.sambise.com, or here (2nd place in her county’s competition!), and here (published in a poetry journal). You can find her on Twitter: @sam_bise.
As Anne Lamott says in her book Bird by Bird, “…good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.” What is humanity if not collectively sharing our experiences, anyway? I believe writing is one of the best ways to use our voices, share our experiences, work through difficult concepts, and contribute to the world.
“I believe writing is one of the best ways to use our voices, share our experiences, work through difficult concepts, and contribute to the world.”
As an early-career academic librarian, I am often writing about education for scholarly publications and presentations. As a lifelong poet who recently began submitting poetry for publication, I spend a lot of my time writing poetry and sending my work to editors. Throughout the writing and publication processes, I’ve noticed key differences and fundamental parallels in academic and creative writing. Below are reflections from me, a young academic and creative writer, along with suggestions for other beginners.
Writing to learn
Writing is at the root of my learning style, meaning I cannot see a way through difficult topics and issues without writing about it first. When I’m introduced to a new pedagogical idea, I research it and write about it. When somebody suggests a new library program or project, I research similar projects and write about my findings. Similarly, when I am struggling to understand something about the world around me, I write poetry about it.
Just like learning, writing is a messy business. I tell my students that research and writing are not linear processes, and this holds true for us, too. It’s messy and personal. Researching and writing are like doing a puzzle—some people start with the edges, some people sort by color, and others dive right in. We all have our ways of organizing ourselves. When writing academically or creatively, organize yourself in your way.
Choosing your topic
I made the decision years ago only to write what I am passionate about. If you haven’t made this promise to yourself yet, do it now. I spent too much of my time trying to be excited about library marketing when education and teaching information literacy was actually what I loved most. Once I began researching things that I felt a connection to, excitement and a desire to learn more kept me committed.
This holds true in my poetry, too. I spent most of my undergraduate years trying to be a romantic writer by writing very vague metaphors about nature. This is the genre of poetry I found myself reading, so I forced it into my writing. In direct contrast, I learned that I am more passionate about the raw realities of social issues, like drug addiction, mental illness, and poverty; this is now what most of my poetry focuses on. Don’t make writing more difficult by forcing a topic that doesn’t align with your passions, interests, or goals. Choosing to write only what you care about may be the best thing you ever do for your writer-self.
Adhering to a style
When writing for an academic audience, I learned the hard way to read the publisher’s guidelines or conference requirements before planning the way I shape my research findings. Scholarly publishers and academic conferences have specific styles they expect you to adhere to. Writing an article or proposal before finding a publisher has proven to be more time consuming than necessary.
When writing poetry, I was taught the opposite—don’t think about the audience. Writing creatively lends itself to, well, more creativity. When I write poetry, I write first and find appropriate publications later. This gives me more control over the final product, compared to the academic publishing process.
Supporting your claim and giving credit
As an academic librarian, I am constantly drawing a line between what ideas are mine and what concepts I’ve borrowed from others to help strengthen my point. The scholarly writing process relies heavily on expert voices and textual evidence to support my claims. This is necessary to help make a strong case and to contribute to the scholarly conversation. There’s a certain anxiety that comes along with responding to and critiquing the claims of other scholars.
On the other hand, the creative writing process focuses on my own experiences and perceptions of the world around me. An uncomfortable, yet liberating, part of creative writing is that I get to own [almost] every experience that happens to me without thinking about citation styles, copyright ethics, and intellectual freedom. However, similar to the anxieties in academic writing, writing creatively about personal experiences and observations lends itself to some discomfort, too.
One of the best parts about working in librarianship is that it’s a profession rooted in sharing. There are professional networks available for most interests in our field. I can share my work with my greater library community, and receive valuable feedback and support.
Similarly, in my creative writing communities, there is an abundance of mutual sharing and support. The difference is, people are less likely to harshly critique creative writing than they are academic writing. Outside of academia, poetry that is based on personal perceptions of the world does not lend itself to formal criticism. My creative writing communities value the act of sharing over the need for critique, which is in direct contrast to the mission of academic writing.
Coping with critiques
When you use your voice, people will have opinions about your work. This holds true for academic works and creative projects. When I finish a piece of writing—be it an article, conference proposal, or poem—the self-doubt sets in. I begin to have unrealistically high expectations for my writing. I suddenly believe that this one piece of writing should be simultaneously timeless, indisputable, and groundbreaking. But the truth is, most ideas are not unique, and all ideas should be open to critique.
I’ve learned to cope with the critiques by not attaching my professional or personal self-worth to others’ opinions of my work. If we make claims that are later deemed incorrect or invaluable, that’s okay. Research evolves, and so do we. Defend your work as you see fit, but also allow yourself to recognize and admit when your work has room for improvement. Stop holding your work to an impossible standard of perfection, and realize that using your voice as productively as you can is often enough. If you publish something you later regret, do better next time.
Using your voice
Researching and writing for academia is an important way to contribute to the progress of human knowledge. Similarly, writing creatively—in my case, writing poetry—is also a practice in using our voices, sharing our stories, and trying to help make sense of humanity. Contributing to the greater conversation by sharing your own experiences and expertise is challenging, rewarding, and necessary.
Above all else, I believe using our voices productively is one of the best things we can do for the world. Writing is one way to do this. Often times us beginners feel like we have nothing to offer, but simply the experiences of being new are perspectives worth sharing. When you use your voice, know that you will both formally and informally receive criticism, you will be told your voice doesn’t align with the standards or desires of certain publications or communities, and you will sometimes wonder why you are even trying to use your voice at all. I’d like to tell you that your voice and your contributions do matter.
Keep the Conversation Going
- Do you have a creative outlet that allows you to use your voice productively and express yourself?
- What are some ways you’ve learned to cope with critiques of your work?
- How do you stay committed to the scholarly writing process?
- What professional networks or communities have helped you find your place within librarianship?
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