on beauty and maple sugar

One of my grad students recently emailed to tell me how much her writing had improved – in quality and in quantity – over the past few months. She attributed this to reading fiction. In the busy-ness and stress of her thesis research, she’d forgotten to take the time to read fiction. But when she did, it paid off.

It’s funny, isn’t it? As academics, we often treat fiction as treats – bonbons to enjoy once our “real” work is done. And yet reading fiction can be as important to our thinking as all of the other ‘stuff’ we conventionally accept as ‘work’ reading. It seems obvious, so very obvious, indeed, that it’s something that I never even mention to my students. But in the hustle and bustle and flurry of paper, ideas, meetings, and grading that mark a usual term, reading “for pleasure” falls by the wayside, often the first victim of a culture of overwork.

By contrast, I spend a lot of time working on writing with my students, more, I suspect, than the majority of my colleagues. Together we draw on some of my favourite writing exercises from such books as Writing Down the Bones and Naming the World. This is work many have not done before. But it’s important, I tell them. Writing isn’t just something you do at the end of a research project. It’s not just a mopping up. No. It’s just as much a part of the politics of knowledge production as your research question, your theoretical framework, your methods, your methodologies. It’s about the relationship you build with your readers.

Language matters. Structure matters. None of this is neutral.

And there are more practical concerns, too. Writing well takes practice. It is a skill honed through careful work and attention. How on earth can a Master’s student expect to produce 125 pages if they haven’t ever written anything longer than 20 pages? How can a runner run a marathon if all they’ve ever done is run to catch the bus? And finally, style matters. A writer’s personal style doesn’t just emerge out of nowhere. It is massaged into being, shaped by word play, experimentation, exploration.

Sure, anyone can write a serviceable, passable, acceptable graduate thesis. But who wants to read a dry and boring piece of scholarship?

As a reader, I want to be seduced. I want to be drawn into the arguments, challenged, provoked, caressed, destroyed. I want you to lead me into your thoughtworld and I want to emerge with my brain and body on fire. And to write in this way, I say to my students, you need to explore. You need to experiment. You need to play. You need to make yourself – and your research – vulnerable. And you need to practice.

This kind of work took up fully a third of my graduate seminar this year. And it was time well spent. But what I didn’t take the time to tell them was that reading also matters.

I guess I took it for granted.

I assumed that they would be reading. And I assumed that they would be reading material outside of their required course readings. I assumed that they would love fiction, just as I, too, love fiction.

Perhaps those were false assumptions.

I’m on a Zadie Smith kick at the moment, inspired, perhaps, by her beautiful review essay, published in The New York Review of Books earlier this year. I’m in the middle of On Beauty, her 2005 novel. It’s a biting and devastating portrait of roads not taken and lives not lived, of the petty cruelties of academia and the moral self righteousness of both conservative and liberal social mores, and of the fragility of the human self. It’s raw and darkly humorous.

Yesterday, meanwhile, I was introduced to a completely different kind of storytelling. Anishinaabeg scholar, activist, and writer, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, on campus for a two day event, shared an origin story about maple trees, syrup and the production of maple sugar. It was a beautiful oral tale about a young girl who learns from a squirrel before teaching her mother and aunties. It was a story about how a community has come to understand itself through this gift of nature, which is intrinsic to treaty making, relationship building, songs, rituals, ceremonies – indeed, central to what Simpson calls “building [Anishinaabeg] nationhood.” In Simpson’s words, maple sugar is not just story, but theory, method, and methodology rolled together in one.

Both of these stories – Smith’s dark satire and Simpson’s theory, have reminded me, once again, of the evocative power of language. They remind me why words matter. And they remind me of just how amazing it can be when carefully chosen words come together into brilliant stories.

And so, my graduate student ducklings, here’s the nub of the story, as shared by one of your own: Read. Read the world. Taste it. Savour its flavours. Roll them around on your tongue. And then take those words and write them in your own voice. Your story is waiting.

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