Shaista Justin

Word Bigamy or 5 Reasons Why Creative Writers Should Not Be Academics.

In Writing Advice, Writing With Words on January 2, 2013 at 11:38 pm

“I’ve seen academic life destroy the best writers of my generation.”  

Susan Sontag

 Like a self-imposed literary Rapunzel, I once dreamed of making my home in the ivory tower and earning a living researching and teaching books, as I wrote them myself. No matter how often I was told, it would ruin my creative writing, I merely shook my head in dismay and dunked my head back into a book of theory. After all, haven’t the great Toni Morrison and JM Coetzee managed to balance academic and literary careers? Am I not capable?

It’s been almost a decade since I left my English PhD incomplete, and though I sobbed miserably when I left and promised to return, like an immigrant leaving the homeland that they loved, I’ve found that I’ve finally found the better life I was searching for. Is that a bad metaphor? (Only, if your new homeland is a miserable place). The point is: I loved my past life, but, I also found one that gives me my freedom.

 5 years after my emancipation, suddenly, stories and ideas came pouring into my head like manna from heaven. 5 years after that, I have never been more creative, never had better ideas, found that I can write well in a host of genres: screenplays, and song lyrics, and plays, and marketing copy, genres I would’ve ignored otherwise. I am often asked in film pitch meetings, where I came up with such original concepts and stories. Well…I didn’t find them in a graduate class.

So, why shouldn’t you pursue an academic life if you want to be a creative writer? Here are 5 reasons:


1. Academic Constraints of Form: Poets know how to write in poetic forms, novelists the prose form of a novel etc. Academics too, write in form: academic essay form with a  lexicon (word use) often so specific to their field, that it reads like a parody of the English language. I’ve read the unpublished creative work of lots of academics, and most of it all sounds suspiciously like academic work parading as ‘creative’, or is merely bad creative writing.

2. Critic vs Creator: The academic life of an English professor, no matter how you fancy it up, is really that of a critic. Critics tend to be critics, because they are not typically not creators. (How many film critics do you know who make great films?) And, when you’re joyfully engaged in the act of making a film, or writing a poem or novel, do you really feel like racing out there to write criticism of someone else’s work? Criticism is necessary, of value, and creative in its own right, but let’s be honest, it’s not helping you to write the next trade bestseller or literary prize winner.

3. Tower vs Life: I never thought I lived in an ivory tower, until I left it. Unless you only want to write the stories of academics, you probably should be out in the world talking to the other 99% of people living other lives. The stories you’re looking for, are ‘out there’. (Let down your hair, Rapunzel!)

4. Time: You will be good at what you spend the most time doing (presuming you also have talent for that thing). An academic life is notoriously time-intensive (often, a 60-80 hour work-week). When will you find the time to write creatively? A 40 hour work-week as an accountant or administrator therefore gives you 20-40 hours more to write per week, notwithstanding family/social obligations. (I wrote most of my novel while working as a civil servant.)

5. Inspiration: Academics live with and worship mostly dead authors; their work demands that they find these writers inspiring. As a creative writer, you must treat these dead authors as your friends and peers, not gods. You MUST spend time with them, but life is where you will find your inspiration. Talk to dairy famers, or deep-sea divers, or your neighbour, or a mommy-blogger…your job as a writer is to find stories.

There are exceptions of course, as mentioned. But, these ‘exceptions’ had to fight the previous 5 inhibiters to good writing. Simply put, it’s inefficient. It’s word bigamy.

Go ahead, argue, fight with this post and say what you will…I adore my academic friends, and joyfully read their valuable and useful work and I look forward to continuing to give talks at universities and present my books and films. But, my master is my muse…and while you’re arguing, I’m going to finish my novel, present my film at a screening, pitch a TV series…and thank my lucky stars that I found the road my creative voice demands.

I wish only the same for you.


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