From Katie: I’m so excited to share this guest post from Margaret (“Maggie”) Rose McLaughlin. She works for our Writing Tutorial Services office and we will be collaborating soon on a workshop, “Scholarship AS Creative Activity.” She told me this story; I asked her to write it down so we could share it with other graduate students.
By Maggie McLaughlin, PhD graduate student, Comparative Literature
I never used to consider myself a creative person. In fact, my self-perceived lack of creative ability was a point of deep insecurity. This feeling of insecurity (inadequacy, even) increased as I became more involved in the academy; the more I became a scholar, I thought, the less I could be a creator. Part of this, to be sure, was my (erroneous) conflation of “creator” with “artist” and my (also erroneous) perception of what being an “artist” means.
Over the past year or two, I have worked hard to dismantle the binary I made between scholar and creator. I couldn’t have done this alone. Many of my friends are practicing and/or professionally trained artists who encouraged my creative explorations; a class in translation theory helped me view translation (a big part of my scholarship) as creative work and, in turn, the act of writing about translation as creative work; I started writing (bad) poems with and to my friends for fun, and realized the similarities between the so-called “academic” and “creative” writing processes.
I think a big part of why learning to view myself as creative was so difficult was that it required so much unlearning. I had to unlearn the idea that creativity (and scholarship) happens in isolation (or, to rephrase, I had to unlearn the myth of the single creative or academic genius); I had to unlearn my misconception that everything I created had to be a perfect, polished product; I had to unlearn what I thought it meant to be good at creating and to be more intuitive and fun with my work. Creative work, just like scholarship, is iterative, collaborative, reflective, and never really finished.
I realized a lot of this unlearning, and the capacity it has to rework my approach to scholarship, a few weeks ago while celebrating my friend’s birthday. We decided to make collages out of old Bon Appétit magazines. I was at an absolute loss at how to start, and I felt a lot of my old creativity insecurities creeping back up. I fell back on a skill I feel deeply confident in: my ability to think about words. As a Comparative LIterature PhD student, I have years of formal training working with words. I started cutting words out of the magazine that I was drawn to. I had no rhyme or reason for choosing the words I did, but I just let myself intuitively pick ones that stuck out to me, that looked beautiful, that sounded cool. After I decided I had enough (I could have kept cutting forever, but you have to stop eventually, ya know?) I looked at the resources I had and made a poem with what I chose, challenging myself not to cut out any more words. After arranging them to my liking, I cut out all the pictures of citrus fruits in the magazine because I love citrus fruits, glued them to a piece of paper for a background, and pasted my poem on top of the fruits.
The collage poem is silly, doesn’t make a lot of sense, and is clearly amatuerish, but making it helped me redefine my understanding between creativity, reading, and writing. At first I thought that I had used my so-called “academic” skills (word analysis) to help my so-called “creative” endeavors (collage poem making). After sitting with my collage for a bit, however, I realized that the skills aren’t separate at all and that creativity, reading, and writing can and should coexist. I was not “falling back” on anything but rather using the skills I was confident in to discover new possibilities. I decided when to stop finding new examples to incorporate into my project. I used the limited resources I had to make something new. I determined the scope of my project based on something I loved. I had fun, got messy, laughed a lot, and was gentle on myself, letting my mind wander where it wanted to and trusting myself to articulate my project in a way that felt meaningful to me.
This is how I think scholarship should be approached too; as something to be curious about, to be messy with, to be imperfect in. Look at all those clauses I just ended with propositions. Scholarship is creative activity, and collapsing the binary between the two is a step towards sustainable, generative, and fulfilling work (and play).