Around this time last year, I was—in the literal sense of the word—voiceless. As a 39°C fever turned me into a human heater, my vocal cords decided that enough was enough, got inflamed, and swelled up so badly they would not budge.
I wanted to say all the things, but I physically could not make a single sound. Even with my quiet nature (most of the time), it was a frustrating experience.
It is now eight weeks into my Honours year, and I have not written a single word besides for my coursework assignments and the shapeless fragments of my thesis.
An idea softly lands on my mind. Out of reflex, my hands start hovering over the keyboard. It is as if the clickety clacks startled the idea. It flutters its translucent wings and away it flies, leaving me empty and defeated.
Sometimes, on the train back from work in Sydney, two days a week, I wonder if I really am so busy that I just cannot find time to think and write. But this would have been an excuse, and a poor one at that. The two hours each way, with my headphones on to put a soft line between myself and the world twirling around me, give me plenty of headspace to think. Contemplate. Mull things over.
Yet I still find myself staring at a blank document, the blinking cursor taunting my frustration.
Normally, random bits of thoughts would be pouring like pieces of scrap fabric into a mental basket; I would sift out the ones that intrigue me, lay them out in front of me in the form of sentences, then sew them together with more words until a thinking-quilt would take shape. Now, the thoughts are there, the ideas are there, but it is as if I physically cannot pull them together into any meaningful form, that another person can look at and go, I get it.
The written word has always been my sixth sense, even at times when I was not aware that it was there, quietly piecing together all the stimulus picked up by the rest of my senses. Now that I have suddenly lost the ability to assemble my thoughts, I can feel its absence so acutely that it is paralysing: I am constantly being in that uneasy state when your eyes have yet to adjust to the darkness and you cannot tell when they will.
And so the helpless sense of voicelessness—this time mentally—consumes me.
I have witnessed my (academic) writing go through a series of autopsies in the past eight weeks, more than I had ever seen in my three year of my undergrad degree. Each time, the verdict was slightly different, so I patiently changed my work little by little, for it to better fit a frame.
I am grateful that it makes me a better (?!?) novice academic writer, but the blinding side effect is that all the grades and the feedback have overflowed into every aspect of my writing. Now I second-guess everything I type out, judging if it is good enough, when I honestly am not sure what the standards are anymore.
So here I am, trying to get back on top of writing not for a number on my transcript, but first, for myself, then to hopefully spark a serendipitous idea in someone else. It is harder than ever, but it is worth it.
Until next time.
Minh-Anh Mia Do
4 thoughts on “On the metaphorical laryngitis”
Mia, like I said on Twitter, this resonates so much. Thank you.
The autopsies killed my writing process, which was hard-won and idiosyncratic. Years of writing my way through a processing disorder/learning disability as a blogger had gotten me comfortable, at forty, with my own thinking and my voice in a way I hadn’t imagined possible. And then my Ph.D course writing and dissertation proposals and eventual thesis ate away at all that until I emerged with the doctorate but…silence.
Your post reminds to keep starting again, but also to keep thinking through how to make this process better, so that I can work with students in ways that are helpful to their writing development but do not leave them feeling autopsied, or flayed, or silenced. I am still unsure whether the feeling is part of the process itself. Any thoughts?
Thank you for spending time reading my messy thoughts.
I personally have yet to find out whether that feeling of voicelessness is part of the process. I hope it is.
I also think a way to help students improve their writing but not leaving them feeling silenced is to encourage them to have an outlet for their personal writing outside of academic settings, free of academic writing conventions and standards, just so they have some space to nurture their personal voice in a healthy way.
Mia, this really spoke to me too. At OER19, I spent time sitting with people who are also struggling to write for a slightly different reason: that the world is already so full of words it feels hopeless to keep adding to the pile. I am in that group. I turn to my blog and exactly as you describe, the tiny scrap of thought I had blows away. I’ve identified that in my case this is partly because my habit of browsing Twitter is drowning out my own thoughts in my own voice.
But working with thesis writers, and grading, I find myself realising that I really don’t want to keep saying “your expression needs work” because I want to ask: who needs this? I understood it as it was, even if the grammar was a bit artisinal. Why do I think you need to say it in a more compliant, more conventional way?
What if the purpose of writing in the humanities was exactly to find the kind of voice that Bon is talking about? I think about this as I work on thesis writing with people writing in their second language. Am I here to be the border guard of standard academic English? Why?
So great to hear your voice.
Thank you Kate for your kind comment.
As a person with English as a second/foreign language, I often find myself stuck between defying the pressure to write in a standard, academic form of English “just because” and pushing myself to meet these standards. I respect the language, and I want to use it right – but what even is the “right English”?