Throughout my career, I’ve been told that my writing is ‘accessible’. Being an academic of typically fragile ego, I’ve worried about this, wondering if it’s a euphemism for ‘not clever enough’. I’ve endeavoured to write more academically, but it has always felt unnatural and inauthentic – anything but (to paraphrase Primo Levi) inhabiting a beautiful, sturdy skin. I have sought to make my sentences longer, the clauses more complex, my vocabulary more obscure. I’ve reworked journal articles to add density and convolution, because I assume that’s what scholarship should be. A colleague once told me that when she read my work, she always found at least one word that she had to look up in the dictionary. I took it as a compliment.
But I grow increasingly intolerant of other people’s turgid, impenetrable prose, so why would I try and emulate it? I don’t want to have to work hard to understand meaning. I long to be inspired by ideas, not alienated by the verbose carapace they come wrapped in. That’s partly why I’ve turned to a different style of writing. I’m trying to unlearn the rules of scholarly expression and, for the first time in my career, I’m finding that writing is pleasurable, even fun. Writing from personal experience has allowed me to cast off the shackles of academic convention. I can take liberties with grammar. Write in short sentences. I can be opiniated or capricious. I am allowed to be vulnerable.
I’ve heard that when snakes shed their skins, they also lose a membrane that has built up over their eyes, temporarily blinding them. The snake discards its skin and the scales literally fall from its eyes. For me, writing narrative non-fiction feels a bit like this. A process of renewal, of re-creation, is taking place. In the act of creativity, we dare to broaden the limits of possibility and give in to our hedonic impulses. The stories we write about ourselves reveal what was previously obscured – things we didn’t know, weren’t brave enough to admit, had forgotten, buried, or simply turned a blind eye to.
The book I’m writing draws on my academic expertise in prison design, but it focuses on storytelling and character, rather than theory generation and methodological rigour. I’m surprised that more of my criminology colleagues don’t do it, to be honest. Authors in other fields seem to be cornering the market in ‘professional confessionals’, despite not having anything like the richness of raw material that those of us who write about crime and punishment have at our disposal. In the pub, after a day’s conferencing, friends have told me many a spine-tingling story about encounters with Russian mafia bosses or East End gangsters, and I’ve blanched hearing the accounts of police ethnographers as they’ve accompanied their research participants on a nightshift in Newcastle or Birmingham. Perhaps it is the tyranny of the REF and other market-driven institutional priorities that mean these cracking stories remain confined to after-dinner anecdotes.
I want to go further than professional confessional, though. My book takes as its starting point the premise that imprisonment comes in many guises. The idea of weaving stories about my life through a narrative that draws on my research experience came to me during lockdown. Covid-enforced confinement made me reflect more deeply on my past and I have written, not only about my knowledge of prisons, but about my family experience of addiction, mental illness, domestic violence, and the aspects of long-term relationships that bind women and prescribe our horizons.
Lockdown also nudged me to think about Judith Barrington’s question to aspiring memoirists: ‘What are the difficult, tragic, magical, or unexpected events and circumstances that come to define our lives and form the bedrock of our most fertile writing?’ In a way, the pandemic itself turned out to be all those things for me – difficult for the sense of isolation and loneliness that frequently beset me; tragic for the number of lives lost to the virus, including a small number of people I knew; magical for the feelings of calm and creativity I enjoyed; and unexpected for the deepening of longstanding friendships, and the making of fruitful new relationships, as everyone became a little more open to reaching out to others, albeit on Zoom and WhatsApp.
I also rediscovered the pleasure of reading. I read widely and differently – and in reading differently, I found that I was thinking more expansively. My writing started to take unexpected turns. I was forming a new skin. And the process of self-reflection and growing self-knowledge has pushed me towards even greater freedom of expression. This is sometimes how writing works – the secondary process becomes as important as the original purpose.
I feel unfettered because – unlike my scholarly efforts, which must be planned and structured according to the conventions of the academy – I almost never know where my writing will take me. I start each chapter with a blank slate, let my thoughts meander, and commit my inner dialogue to the page. The results are quirkier and more intimate than anything I thought I was capable of writing. The narrative has been moulded by the big ideas and the small stories that have shaped my life, rather than by fine-grained fieldwork experience and data. And the process of getting an agent and selling the book to a trade publisher has brought me greater joy than anything I’ve experienced in my academic career. I have found respite from the slog of scholarly syntax and the rule-bound rigour of academic referencing. In this new venture, my writing winds along its own path. It has been enlightening. Eye-opening, you might say. I’m very comfortable in my new skin.
One thing I found useful for expanding my consciousness and finding a greater freedom of expression was a tip I picked up in Cathy Rentzenbrink’s book Write It All Down. She suggests writing a story with different readers in mind – your personal journal, Cathy herself, a friend, a child, someone you’ve recently fallen in love with, and an old teacher. I wrote a short but deeply personal scene for these six imaginary readers and, to my surprise, it unlocked a lot of detail that had previously been hidden in my subconscious. I saw the event with new clarity and gained some valuable insights about myself. It was a perfect example of the secondary process being as important as the original purpose. Try it for yourself and see if it helps you take on a new skin.