Writing in Public (or, It didn’t occur to me anyone would actually read it)

There are elements of my personality I was unaware of until I started reflecting upon my personal circumstance through my writing. When I started blogging, I genuinely didn’t think anyone outside of my immediate circle of colleagues and friends was likely to read it. When my writing started to gain a modest following I went through the gamut of emotions from shocked, to happy, to more-than-a-little concerned, at the sudden scrutiny I felt myself to be under. Even now, when I hit the blue ‘Publish’ button I have a miniature panic attack, while my brain processes all the various worst-case-scenarios that my writing could bring about. My mental state being what it is, I spend my life trapped in a web of hyperresponsibility, waiting to be caught out for a crime I’m certain I’ve unwittingly committed. This blog has given me pause to think about these elements of my personality, as well as a fresh perspective on the politics and pitfalls of writing, particularly writing in public.

It was the sudden upswing in the popularity of this blog that has made me stop and consider the things I have written. I have always gone to great lengths to distance myself from the experiences I talk about in these posts, in order to both scrub them of identifying features, as well as shed new light on them. I can look at the less pleasant realities of being a long-term casual academic for example, and scrutinise them as one would a bug under a microscope. That being said, no Smart Casual is an island and my stories inevitably play host to a cast of characters who exist at the centre of their own stories, but on the fringes of mine. I have covered topics on my blog as diverse as parenting, mental illness, and the casualisation of higher education in Australia. My stories are my own, but they also belong, in part, to the institutions at which I work as well as to my peers and colleagues. So what does this mean for the act of writing in a public space?

Dr Nadine Muller reflects on some of these issues in her post ‘Silences & Selfishness: The Politics of Blogging the Personal’. Much like her, I have started to give more thought to the potential repurcussions of my writing. I worry that someone I know could recognise themself in my writing and be hurt or upset. I wonder if my admission of having OCD could be damaging in terms of future job searches, or if my students past and present could take offense to something I have posted. I tentatively navigate this tension between my professional identity and my private by choosing my words carefully, by avoiding spite and accusation, and by keeping my blog largely separate from my ‘professional’ profiles. That being said, there are no clear boundaries between these parts of my identity: I blog under a pseudonym, however my blog is linked in my Twitter bio. I speak in generalities and give only vague examples, but this blog is still about me and my life experiences. I started this blog for myself, but now it has a wider audience. How much should I edit? How much should I withhold? Just how honest is too honest? Contemplating similar issues, Dr Muller concludes:

[…] there is a fine line to be drawn between raising awareness through personal anecdotes and protecting oneself and one’s professional identity – selfishly – to not render the situation worse, on an individual level. Perhaps blogging and other social media – no matter how openly, cautiously, personally or professionally it is done – can help us find that line, as a sector and a profession, and thus to raise awareness without harming ourselves. It’s this line that I will have to learn to walk, though I doubt I’ll be doing it in silence or on my own.

While I don’t think it is necessarily ‘selfish’ to want to protect yourself from the potential negative repurcussions of blogging about ‘the private’, my circumstance is such that this isn’t so much of a concern of mine. My lack of a PhD makes me immune to the fear of career fall-out, because for me, an academic “career” is unlikely to eventuate, and my circumstance is such that casual teaching is becoming an untenable situation anyway.  The way my writing has gained its following seems to be because the stories I tell resonate with other people who are in a similar predicament, albeit for different reasons. Readers respond to my ‘truthiness‘. It has only been through my public writing that I have come to understand that my feelings of isolation and fatigue are not mine alone. My blog was never intended to be an exercise in ‘awareness raising’ about the issues affecting casual academics in Australia, however for some it has functioned in that way and for that I am glad. From what I can tell, it is the very ordinariness of my story that people relate to, which is an extraordinary feeling, while at the same time being very humbling.

While raising awareness is what my blog has perhaps done for others, I am also starting to think about what blogging has done for me. The process of writing has forced me to critically examine the ways in which I talk to, and about myself. There are a few themes which have punctuated my blog posts thus far. My place as a casual academic and university drop-out are the two most obvious themes, but there is another that underpins my writing: self-doubt. I am in the habit of apologising for my very existence. I know I do this, I am aware that I do this, hell I am angry at myself for doing it. A snapshot into the daily life of The Smart Casual would sound something like:

“I’m so sorry” I say to the train door as it closes on me. “Excuse me!” I exclaim to the awkwardly positioned coffee table as I bang my kneecap on it. “Probably my fault” I say to the barista who messed up my coffee order (for the record, it totally wasn’t).

I come from a long line of apologisers. My Mum apologises frequently and with passion. She issues apologies that are heartfelt and sincere. There wouldn’t be a problem for this except she apologises for things she didn’t do and has no need to take responsibility for. Her hyperresponsibility has now become my own. This has become part of my personal narrative; the story I tell myself when I reflect privately on my life and experiences. It can be summed up thusly: everything is bad, and it’s all my fault.

The process of ‘writing in public’ has allowed me to examine this narrative that has been running through my head for the past decade. For me this is partially the appeal of blogging, I get to be at the centre of my own story. I’ve spent so long being a Mum, and a partner, and an employee, that I have lost sight of my own identity and storyline. I am so busy, that it doesn’t occur to me not to be busy; and I apologise so much that it doesn’t occur to me that I don’t have anything to apologise for. Writing for me has performed the dual function of allowing me time to indulge in a past time I enjoy, as well as the opportunity to reflect upon my own circumstances in a more productive way than the trapped-in-my-head brooding I am used to. As my good friend advised me via personal correspondence (and I am paraphrasing): “don’t apologise, make apologising the point”. I have taken that with me in my writing.

The original proposed title for my blog was “Anxious in the Academy”. This same friend rightly advised me that this was a poor choice of name, as I would be trapped under the mantle of this name regardless of the direction I may want to take my writing in the future. I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but adopting the moniker The Smart Casual was already a rewriting of my own script. I am still anxious, both in the sense of my precarious employment status, as well as in reference to my OCD. But more so I am smart. I can write that without cringing. It’s a small word that holds so much promise. Hell, not everyone may be inclined to agree with this assessment of myself, but even that really doesn’t matter.

With my words I am changing the narrative. I hold the pen now.

For those of you who are interested in this idea of the personal narrative, I strongly suggest you watch the excellent TedX talk by Elena Morgan (Schmutzie) on “Self Doubt and the Power of Personal Narrative“. It is an idea which has resonated with me so much, I hope it does the same for you as well.

2 thoughts on “Writing in Public (or, It didn’t occur to me anyone would actually read it)

  1. Great post, so much to cheer and appreciate here. I’ve been reflecting a bit on what it means to me to write from within a particular workplace about a sense of being disempowered within it, just by the way that it normalises and rewards certain behaviours that I’m not that interested in. I’ve come to the same conclusion as you, that creating and owning my own platform for thinking and writing in public has in fact been a powerful step towards creating a new narrative about how we live and work, regardless of where we show up for paid employment. I feel a strong sense of ownership and confidence in relation to this story, because I have stopped waiting for institutional permission to tell it, or licensed, peer-reviewed and paywalled sanction for its relevance. I know what I am here to say.

    Small point: thinking back to the demise of Anxious in the Academy, I’m really interested in the title of this post. Because it’s not what the post turned out to be about at all.

    And yet, here we are, chipping away both at institutional narratives that no longer account adequately for the experience of higher education, and at personal storylines that comply with these institutional accounts in a kind of performance of shame.

    Well said, all of this.

    • I think you are right about the title. I started writing a post about one thing and it morphed into something else entirely. That is another thing about writing for myself that I enjoy, I am not limited by someone else’s parameters.

      I might revisit the title in a few days when I have mulled it over. I am open to suggestions though!

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