Authorship and Voice

In writing the first chapter of my Thesis I decided it would be a good idea to read a few books about how to write a good thesis. A lot of the books cover only the basics – IMRAD structure, how to produce informative clear graphs, how to do a literature review etc. Now I could improve in all these things but none of them were new concepts. Apart from one new idea in one book, “Surviving Your Dissertation” (2nd Ed. Rudeston and Newton) which concerned authorship, Voice and their importance to the writing process.

So what are they and why are they important?

Authorship is the confident ownership of your written words. Voice meanwhile is how you sound on paper. It’s how people recognise your words as yours and it’s also one of the ways examiners spot plagiarism!

A good example is from Captain Awkward’s blog. Now, CA often has guest writers and the author is always listed at the top of the post. However since I’ve been reading her blog for a very long time, I can nearly always tell who is writing, without reference to it. It always amazes me when someone in the comments mis-attributes a post to CA when the writer was Elodie because have two very different voices on the page, voices that  reflect their personalities. Their styles are so distinctive, you feel like you know them personally even though you have never met them face to face.

The question then is why are ‘voice’ and ‘author-ity’ so often hard to come by?

Judy Veroff explained in the 9th chapter how the Western education system primarily teaches children to present only the work of other, more experienced people, authorities, rather than their own experiences and knowledge. She describes how we are taught to distance ourselves from our own voices, and in doing so exclude our scholarly roles and passions from our work. While this skill has its advantages particularly in the sciences it can also be absolutely deadly to young writers. It can be boring, disengaging and frustrating and put people off writing for life, forever embedding it in their minds as something they are “bad” at. Even worse, it can be disempowering, especially for those with minority identities*.

Why is distancing yourself from your voice disempowering? Because in the standard narrative the voice is that of a white, cis, heterosexual, wealthy male. It’s the stories of this idealised man that are given voice, and if your life experiences don’t have much in common with his, it becomes hard to see how your own voice could ever be important. After all, you only ever hear or see his point of view, so clearly it must be the important one. Mix with that a lifetime of experience that has told you in a thousand tiny ways (micro-aggressions) that you are not important and do not count and you can appreciate how powerfully undermining it can be to your ability to write with confidence and clarity.

Hopefully you can also see how these concepts of voice and authority mesh with feminist thought and how it plays out through racism and any social justice movement you care to pick. It throws a lot of light on many of the bust-ups within feminism itself, especially where race has been involved. There have unfortunately been a lot of cases where a Woman of Colour says something informative, illuminating or damning about a race and gender issue and the White Feminists get all defensive (e.g. Caitlin Moran) and use silencing tactics to shut up their accusers. Men do it to women all the time on gender issues c.f. street harassment, but women also do it to other women on grounds of race and ethnicity when they really should know better!

Basically there is a general tendency among those with even a modicum of power to dismiss the voices of those with less power, especially when what those voices have to say threatens their sense of power. Understandable but also deeply unacceptable, especially if we ever want to change the power structures that govern our lives to reduce injustice. Pick any axis of oppression and you can find examples: Straight:Gay, Gay:Bi, Cis:Trans, White:Black, Middle Class:Working Class, Vanilla:Kink, whatever. Good luck to those on the receiving end of more than one power hierarchy. It’s why the concept of Intersectionality was created by a Woman of Colour, Kimberlé Crenshaw. (It came into my life via Flavia Dzodan at Tiger Beatdown in the post My Feminism Will Be Intersectional Or It WIll Be Bullshit!).

All of that said, you hopefully have some idea of the implications at the individual level as well as the political level in terms of social justice, but how do the concepts of voice and authorship apply to me?

Obviously I was looking at from an academic perspective initially, grasping at straws for any help on how to write a better thesis. Unfortunately, I’m a scientist so the main bit of advice Veroff gave about writing things in first person first is not necessarily going to be much help in writing large sections of my thesis, not when academia has raised to an art form the ability to completely disembody your scholarly voice, all in the name of impartiality. Third person passive tense is de rigeur for Science: The cells were imaged vs I imaged the cells, for example. Writing this way can be exhausting and makes it harder to use writing for the valuable purpose of clarifying your thoughts. Anticipating this, Veroff suggested writing things in first person before you polish for an academic audience, and I think this may be invaluable when it comes to writing my Discussion sections and Chapter.

The other way the concepts of Voice and Authorship clicked for me was with regards to this blog itself. My tagline is “Because I Have Words” for a reason. It’s my reminder that what I have to say is valuable and important and deserves to be heard. It’s also my reminder that deep connection is made only possible through the risk of becoming vulnerable. There is so much power and strength in the realisation that it’s not just you.

I write here for myself, to pin my thoughts on paper so that they stop occupying so much space in my head. But I also write in the hopes that what I say will be useful to someone, that they will realise they are not alone.

As I said in my notes on the chapter, what is my blog for if not for teaching myself not to be afraid of my own voice?

*Minority identities are all those which are not male, white, heterosexual, cis and rich, which as anyone with half a clue about the social justice movements knows, actually encompasses the majority of people!

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