An M-Power Fellows Writing Synthesis Workshop offers up some surprising insights into the writing process.
Forty-six young men and women from five countries. Young researchers working to build a career in academia, government research institutions and NGOs. Giving up a weekend to spend time in Bangkok working on research reports funded by the Australian aid program and managed through the Challenge Program on Water and Food, the Asian Institute of Technology, Ubon Ratchathani Rajabhat University and Yunnan University. I am here with other colleagues to mentor.
There are more relaxing ways to spend a weekend, but few as intellectually stimulating. Writing is a complex cognitive process I find endlessly fascinating and the subject of renewed interest among psychologists and neuroscientists. Part of my motivation in attending the M-POWER (www.mpowernetwork.org) Writing Synthesis Workshop 26-27 October was to identify topics for my own research on the psychology of writing. The insight these young researchers offered up was not something we often think about: it takes courage to write.
Writing requires courage in different forms.
The courage of commitment
Writing is one of the most demanding mental tasks we can undertake. To embark on writing a policy brief, a working paper, a journal article, is to commit to weeks often months of mental toil. Few people have the luxury of being able to dedicate their time to only one task and must juggle the demands of writing with professional commitments and time for family and friends. The process is not only time consuming but emotionally and intellectually demanding. It takes courage to make the commitment required to bring a manuscript to completion.
The courage to put your private thoughts into the public sphere
Writing is seen as a reflection of the quality and sophistication of your thinking. People who write well are seen as people who think well. When we present our ideas is a published document, we are opening ourselves to praise and criticism. Praise is nice, but people may not understand our ideas. They may not agree with our representation of a particularly reality. Editors can be scathing in their reviews and our ideas may even anger some people. It takes courage to open the contents of your mind to others.
The courage to grow
Good writing is a process of knowledge transformation. I start with a jumble of thoughts based on the information I have acquired through the labor of research, reading, getting feedback from friends and colleagues, and in the process my own ideas change. New ideas emerge. My own understanding of the issue or the problem is changed, sometimes radically. To learn is to change not just the contents of my own mind but my attitudes and beliefs, and that requires courage.
The courage to seek Truth
An open society puts a high value on truth, and since truthfulness is the hallmark of science, a reciprocal link is forged between science and civil society. By supporting and encouraging one, we support and encourage the other. The culture of science and research is characterized by critical thinking, systematic enquiry and skepticism toward unfounded claims. Thus, an open society is one where citizens engage in rational discussions and debates on civic matters. This is the ideal.
The reality is, as always, somewhat different. Researchers are constrained by the internal politics of the institutions in which they work and by the political ideology within which those institutions are situated. Certain topics are considered off limits and results may be suppressed if they contradict or challenge the dominant discourse. It takes courage to seek Truth.
Courage and writing
Some readers may feel I am overstating the case, but courage and writing are old friends. Think journalism. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in 2012, 73 reporters were murdered, caught in combat crossfire or killed while on dangerous assignments. The Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has an annual dinner to honor courageous reporting.
Novelists too show courage. Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, George Sand, Charlotte Brontë, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Wilson, Louisa May Alcott, and Kate Chopin secured their place in history for their representations of injustice and unconventional heroines. When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he is reported to have said, “So you’re the little lady who started this great [civil] war.”
Science also has its writing heroes. It took considerable courage on the part of Charles Darwin to publish “On the Origin of Species” in the deeply conservative England of 1859. Along with the Church he was challenging the fundamental beliefs of an entire generation. More recently, Richard Dawkins stirred up no small amount of animosity among his peers when he published “The Selfish Gene” in 1976. His ‘gene-centered’ view of evolution challenged deeply entrenched prevailing views.
Courage, it seems, is not an abstract emotion but has a seat in the brain. Neuroscience researchers recently reported they have found that a part of the brain called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC) becomes activated when people do something courageous. Perhaps that means someday we may have a pill that will give us the courage to keep on writing. For some reason, I hope not.
Looking around the room, I don’t think any of my young colleagues are quite ready to shock the world or put their lives or careers on the line just yet. Nonetheless, by taking up the pen (or the keyboard) they have started down a path that may well lead them to a place where great courage is required. I won’t be surprised when they do.