I. Transitions and Other Niceties
It’s September now, and the Fall semester has begun. For me, that means attending my Epidemiology course and committing to the discipline of writing outside of my class and meeting times.
Admittedly, the transition from “summer” to “oh snap, my dissertation proposal is due to my committee” was rather breakneck. I had been working on this dissertation proposal since Spring 2016 (it is now Fall 2018), when I was still enrolled as a clinical audiology (Au.D) program, and it has been through countless iterations and revisions as I have taken theoretical, conceptual and methods coursework in health geography, epidemiology, and biostatistics. This project was originally conceived as an entirely qualitative project, and is now heavily quantitative, leading up to a qualitative chapter that builds on insights from previous chapters. Overall, I am studying how health policies, the clinical training landscape, and socio-demographic factors influence health care provider supply and location, with particular focus on audiologists. I am also working toward a model of health care access as a process occurring in space and time. I’ll have to let my work speak for itself from now on, though. As the saying goes, “talk is cheap.”
II. On Writing
I have been in an interesting head space since I got back from the International Geographical Union-Canadian Association of Geographers’ joint meeting in Quebec City. After about 8 weeks of travel, I was just ready to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground and return to my rituals. Still, there’s the creeping realization that this is my last year in this place I call “home”, and I should be working on loosening my place attachments. It’s a strange thing, to be pulled between the needs to ‘let go’ and ‘dig my heels in.’ Part of “letting go” is preparing my garden for the coming Winter and being willing to let go of the years of work I put into this yard. I half-joked about digging up my peonies and taking them with me, but honestly, I should just let go. Next Spring will be their best year yet, anyway!
And there’s the similar process I have to go through before I write. Writing isn’t necessarily the hard part! It’s what comes before- the contemplation and preparation before one formally organizes one’s ideas for an external audience. For me, the contemplation and preparation process involves reading everything I can get my hands on while cleaning the house thoroughly. After all, I cannot write if the house is not clean, nor can I write if I do not anticipate possible counter-arguments. The latter, is probably my biggest hangup. I am my harshest critic, and that means I can get in my own way. There is no such thing as a “good” first draft. There’s a reason we write drafts and revise– writing is a process of continual refinement. That process requires “letting go” of sentences, paragraphs, and even pages of work.
III. Writing for Whom?
In a past life (5 years ago), I was a freelance writer. This required a great deal of flexibility and breadth, as I was writing on a wide range of topics for a diverse audience under deadline. In a month, I’d write about school privatization in Kenya, dams on the Omo River in Ethiopia, and remittances from the diaspora.
Being at the University of Chicago as a MA student changed my writing process- arguably for the worse. My audience was narrower, comprising a set of academics who’d read it once- with an eye for mistakes to mark. My investment in my MA Thesis was about perfectionism, a pursuit of “proof” of my belonging in academia. My writing became more iterative, anxious, and frantic. There was always another way to say what I wanted to say, and it seemed that how I said it mattered more than what I was saying. And there was the pressure to cite Carl Schmitt in my literature review on nationalism, and the biopolitics of citizenship (for “balance”). The experience reinforced my interest in the question of “belonging,” extending it from the “national project” to the micro-scale of the graduate program (unwelcome spillover). In a sense, the project was not mine, not truly. I lost my writerly “voice” and it took me years to find it again.
My “voice” now is more assertive, but oddly timid at inconvenient times. In the Limitations and Contributions section of a paper, I still sputter, like a steam-filled teapot. Part of the problem is that I’m still not sure how I fit into the broader conversations in my sub-field of health geography. And at times, I’m not sure who my audience is. There’s “code-switching” (which I do a lot as a Black woman in grad school), and there’s shifting from translating the results of a nested spatial model to grappling with social theoretical debates. As I pivot from the heavily quantitative work toward more social/political theory-grounded qualitative work, I find myself flexing muscles I haven’t used in some time.
The nagging question of “writing for whom?” follows me still. My work is driven by a sort of urgency. I know that people are harmed by policies that result in lack of health care access and affordability for those with the most need. I know people who have died waiting. As such, I struggle with the “impartial” position that a researcher is assumed to inhabit. The reason I do this work challenges the notion of “impartiality.” At the same time, I recognize that what I offer are “partial perspectives” (Haraway, 1988), and I ought to aim to situate them in current academic debates.
Tomorrow is Labor Day. It is a good day as any to reflect on writing-as-labor, and y’know, actually write.
On that note, I’ll end with a quote:
“If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic… Authors arrive at text and subtext in thousands of ways, learning each time they begin anew how to recognize a valuable idea and how to reader the texture that accompanies, reveals or displays it to its best advantage.”