Writing as a Collective Process

 March 13, 2015

Writing does not happen in a vacuum, although it certainly can feel that way. The feelings we associate with our writing should not be dismissed out of hand. Rather, they deserve our thoughtful consideration. For many, the transition from coursework and preliminary exams to the dissertation stage comes with an increasing sense of solitude. This trajectory seems especially true of humanistic disciplines within academia, where intellectual labor still largely subscribes to a model of the scholar as genius.

But what if we took the “scholar as genius” paradigm with a grain of salt, or at the very least questioned more closely the relationship of solitude to writing? Can scholarly writing be thought of differently? I want to make a modest proposal (absent the call to eat babies): if writing were conceptualized and practiced more as a collective process, much of the anxiety, mystery, and solitude surrounding the dissertation process could find some measure of relief. This proposal is not radical; I am advocating on behalf of writing groups.

Writing is a complex process, and it demands a complex support system. Sometimes that support can be found in traditional sites within the university, but sometimes the resources we need are less evident. I am a proponent of an all-of-the-above approach, because inherent to writing are many conversations we must negotiate: not just with advisors, but also with objects of study; the discourses surrounding these objects; the scholars who have preceded us; the communities, organizations, and institutions that support us; and perhaps most demanding of all, the dialogue the writer encounter with oneself—both the person and the scholar we want to be.

The task of writing is one that I—and I would hazard, many others—commonly find difficult. It does not matter how fastidiously I manage my time or outline drafts or devise rewards for meeting deadlines; writing, for me, is a struggle. That said, writing also offers one of the most rewarding experiences one can have as a scholar. The task becomes enacting that transformation wherein writing comes to teach us what it is we think. Having others read our writing offers insight specifically for its outside perspective. Others often see more clearly the potential as well as the problematics that suffuse a text. It is this surprise that breaks us free from a kind of tunnel vision that develops over time when we treat writing as a predominantly solitary process.

But often, it is not easy to relinquish writing into the hands of others. One common blockage is the sense that our writing is never finished and so should not be critiqued, but this explanation is one we should push back on. It is precisely when our relationship to our writing is at its most fragile and tenuous state that sharing it holds the most value. Another struggle can be finding rigorous readers with whom to share one’s writing. The supposed difficulty in locating the ideal reader can be a crutch we wield to avoid sharing writing, but here at Duke University the likelihood is that even across disciplines, fields, and specializations, an outsider could offer valuable feedback. Some of these reasons hold a kernel of truth to them, but they also foreclose an opportunity that I believe drastically outweighs the drawbacks.

The resources for collective writing exist at Duke, but sometimes they can seem like best kept secrets. One such opportunity is actually a course: The Publication Workshop, which is offered semi-annually by Professor Wiegman. In this course, students spend an entire semester honing, reviewing, and rewriting a single article, with the goal of publishing that article in a scholarly journal. Several of Professor Wiegman's students have been successful in this regard, myself included. This course not only builds camaraderie around the process of writing but also demystifies the opaque process of publication. For anyone looking to develop and ultimately publish an article, I cannot recommend this course highly enough.

For those looking for additional support, PAL (The Center for Philosophy, Arts, and Language) this year launched an initiative that is equally beneficial, and which nicely suits the needs of the dissertating graduate student. In Fall 2014, PAL sent out the call for graduate students looking to form writing groups. Offering both pragmatic and modest financial support (I don't know a grad student who turns down free coffee!), PAL provides an alternative structure for those who have been interested in joining a writing group. Several of us attended the first meeting and were placed within a writing group focused on our particular writing interest.

PAL's initiative, supported in its development by the Thompson Writing Program, offers a number of different writing groups—some focused solely on providing the time and space to write together (keeping one another honest to set writing goals), and others oriented more toward peer critique (my own interest). In addition, PAL has organized a series of workshops, guest lectures, and even gave participants Verlyn Klinkenborg’s book Several Short Sentences about Writing, which provides thoughtful writing advice. Generously, Klinkenborg will offer consultations with graduate students in the coming week and deliver the keynote lecture at the PAL “Writing is Thinking” Symposium this March 19 and 20th.

PAL's dedication to graduate students in their writing processes (not just dissertation writing, but all kinds, and across fields) has not just been a boon to writing (which, of course, it has); it has also generated more community on campus and offered an outlet for talking through the many challenges that face graduate students. The act of sharing writing with one another requires vulnerability, and in the process, it fosters trust. These groups help bridge the divide between the person and a writer and treat the thinking we do as a dialogue in process.

At the end of the day, the task of writing a dissertation is one I find too great to complete in solitude. Writing needs support, not just for the thinking that groups like these stimulate, but also for the emotional and mental sustenance they offer. This is the one and only dissertation we will ever write (fingers crossed!), so why not share the confusions, frustrations, and yes, the breakthroughs and successes too, that make this challenging process worthwhile?


John Stadler
John Stadler

Ph.D. candidate

John Stadler is a PhD candidate in Literature, with a certificate in feminist studies. His research interests include queer cinema and theory, experimental writing, film and media studies, and sexuality studies. His dissertation tracks the imbrication of media alongside pornographic representation, from the Sexual Revolution to today.