Words for Writers: Aca-writing vs. Fiction

Sometimes I forget that I’m an academic, too.

Since April, when Dragon Moon Press said that they’d be picking up my book, I’ve been focussed on being a Writer when I sit in front of my computer. I am either writing the WIP people know about, the WIP I don’t talk about much, or editing the two manuscripts that are finished and are aching to start jumping into slushpiles.

But I haven’t touched my old school work. It’s sort of funny, because when you go to Master’s school, they push publication. Getting an essay in that reader, in this journal, presented at that confrence… they MEAN something when you’re there. So every essay, article and paper that you produce for class is done in a particular and peculiar way that is different from those essays you wrote for highschool or undergrad: with an eye towards publication.

The profs know it, too, so by Master’s school, if you happen to hand in an essay written in Chicago Style (EVIL EVIL EVIL) rather than MLA (I loooove yoooooou), then the prof is pretty cool about it, because they know that you are looking towards publication in a magazine or journal that uses Chicago.

I was one of those Master’s students. I produced three essays that I always intended to clean up and publish, as well as a thesis. (Essays: “Identi-PLay: Cons, Cosplay, Camp and the Carnivalesque”, “Whose Doctor?” and “Fans and the Illusion of Intimacy”. Thesis: “Mary Sue: Who is She and Why Do We Need Her?”) But, with the scramble and rush and I’ll admit exhilerating first step into the ‘real world’ after academia, I sort of… forgot.  That I wanted to publish these essays.  That they even existed.

It was around this time that things were starting to look up for me as a fiction author (yes, I wrote manuscripts while in grad school. I’m crazy, I know. Carpel Tunnel is my very close friend) so I set aside the essays to focus on the novels.

Last night I had a great evening of aca-fanning with my ex-thesis advisor, and in talking about her new student’s publishing accomplishments, she reminded me that, oh, yeah, I have some of those essays that I want to publish, too!

And it’s sort of strange because it’s… well, it’s not like suddenly remembering that you have a short story on your harddrive that you finished a year ago and, hey, should edit and start shopping. Because when you open that short story up, it’s still relevant, still current, and still yours. But an essay can become dated very quickly, and in a fast growing field like mine (fanthropology), a single textbook can render your whole paper obsolete.

A lot of research goes in to updating a two year old essay – in my case I need to pickup and read the new texts, integrate them into the paper, re-watch the episodes I was discussing or reread interview transcripts, and review professor’s notes. (That last one isn’t so bad; it’s no different than doing line notes from a fiction editor)

But it’s a totally different process, and that’s what intrigues me. I turn off one side of my brain. I become someone else. When I appear on TV and on the radio/podcasts as a fanthropologist, I’m drawing on what I know with strong familiarity to make my points, or refering to what the interviewer said/asked. But when I have to go back to a paper I have to try to remember what obscure text I pulled that notion out of and hope that I annotated it properly so I can find the damn page again.  Everything becomes so PARTICULAR and fussy.

I feel that it is both a totally different process from being a creative writer, because you are consistantly self editing and MUST, and simultaniously quite similar, because you still need to effectively communicate your idea and your theme to a reader. Granted, the reader generally has an advantage when it comes to reading academic work – they have generally read the essay you’re citing (For example, if you’re reading my essay “Identi-Play”, then you’ve probably read “Notes on Camp”), where the fiction reader has to rely solely on you, the writer, to explain everything.

This dual-brain process, the academic side and the fiction side, sometimes overlap – I get creative and dramatic in my essays and I get nitpicky about research and historical details in my stories.  Each of my novels has a thesis, if you can find the sentence, and in each of my essays I try to paint pictures with my examples.  But JM Frey the author and JM Frey the academic respond and behave differently in situations, which I find interesting.  The academic is a little more self-important and prone to polysyllabic words – the author is more humble and less cynical.

I wonder if I will ever be able to resolve these identities, and resolve the writing – is it possible, I wonder, to write an essay that is a story?  Can readers of my fiction ever enjoy my essays? Will academics cite my novels?

It’s facinating, and I’m looking forward to seeing where this blurring of the line between who I am as an academic and who I am as an author takes me, and takes my readers.

In the meanwhile, I have four more WIPs that I forgot even existed, and some query letters to write!  While they may be essays, trying to get published in academia has one thing in common with getting published in fiction – slush piles!


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Aca-writing vs. Fiction

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