On Writing. But, not for the REF

In this second post in my series on ‘coming out as chronically ill’, I focus on being ‘off’ and what that means for an academic. 
I could have written a post about guilt. For that was the overwhelming feeling I experienced when I first began my sick leave. I felt that I was letting others down and I was letting myself down. I was also keenly aware of my privilege in having paid sick leave to take, and having a job to return to, when so many don’t. I also really had the fear that I was proving my haters right – perhaps, I was not cut out for this.  
I might well return to this in a later post, polishing up a paper I presented back in June at a conference on ‘Imposter Syndrome as Public Feeling’ – one of the last papers I gave before my sick leave. There is still so much to be said about women’s experiences of the ableist neoliberal academy and our own internalisation of these unhealthy working patterns and conditions. There is great work on this in terms of motherhood and care, and the conversation about reproductive health is beginning too. 
I’m reading around the new academic literature on this at the moment and will add a reading list to the blog soon.
In this post, however, I want to focus on how I initially found it difficult to do something other than work. I am very thankful for my excellent GP, who continually reiterated that I had to give myself permission to be signed off from work, but not signed out of life. I was allowed to do other things – this would be a crucial part of recovery. So, in this blog, I’m going to focus something I did whilst ‘off’. 
I wrote a lot whilst on sick leave.
But, none of this writing has been for the Research Excellence Framework 2021. 




Retreating, Writing, Recovering: August 2018


#Nanowrimo, not #acwri
I’m posting this on Friday, 30th of November – the last day of National Novel Writing Month – #nanowrimo2018 if you are on social media. 
Each previous year, I’ve tried to take part, focusing on pushing towards another ‘output’ for REF. I’ve also invested time and money in structured academic writing retreats, particularly those run by Rowena Murray, which I thoroughly recommend. 
I know I am not alone in finding the constant, awful refrain of ‘being REFable’ a block on both creativity & productivity. As many have pointed out the focus on academic writing as being ‘for’ REF and attaining the criteria of *3 (internationally excellent) and 4* (world-leading) may have the effects of stifling creativity, damaging morale, and reducing the potential for ‘risky’ research. Research risks becoming instrumentalised. It becomes both conducted too quickly and published too slowly.  I have wasted so much time on thinking about how what I want to research and write can fit into a box (or panel), where I don’t  necessarily easily fit. As is widely acknowledged, this is a major issue with interdisciplinary research.
So, the fact I have been writing most days has been both a surprise and a relief. It is not that I ‘can’t’ write, it’s that I didn’t have the head space to ‘think’. Like ‘being sick’, turning to creative writing, was not a sudden thing. Like the past year of suffering in silence, I had been taking online creative writing courses in secret too. Writing short stories, submitting them to competitions even (as yet none published!). 
More than that; this year I began writing a novel.  I’m now sitting with 35,000 words of a draft of that novel.



Snippet of the novel 🙂
This was not a ‘spur of the moment’, random act; I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I’ve just never given myself the permission. This is of course linked to the point about the guilt inculcated in the academy. If I was writing, it had better be the ‘production of outputs’ for the next Research Excellence Framework/REF2021. Otherwise, I was ‘wasting time’ and not being ‘strategically focused’. Like participating in social media, or leisure, or family, creative writing was framed as a distraction from the ‘real’ work of being a productive academic. 
I may share some of this creative writing on the blog, but for now, I’m focussing on finishing the ‘trash’ draft of my novel – little bit by bit – now that I am ‘back’ at work and fitting all of my writing commitments into less time. 
It is also exciting to witness the ‘creative turn’ underway in parts of the social sciences that have in the past been resistant; my home discipline of Politics is showing increasing engagements with feminist work and methods. 2 years ago, I began embedding reflective & creative methods for teaching and assessment. A blog about my creative pedagogy and emerging reading in this area will be up in the new year.



Snapshot from a visit to Glasgow Women’s Library Zine Archive for inspiration with Feminist Politics course students in 2017
That so many within the academy are developing alternative ways of making sense of the worlds we inhabit and seek to change, it is not so surprising that fiction as method is fruitful or that academics can be creative writers.
I am continuing to write creatively, bringing it into other aspects of my writing via auto-ethnography (in a forthcoming talk in January) and in my teaching, using collaging and zines and reflective writing as more appropriate ways of embracing a feminist politics. 
I’m embracing my rediscovered creativity,  and this blog is another way to keep me writing, managing, recovering. 
We are living through the most extraordinary and terrifying times – I think we need to be more extraordinary in our thinking about how we research, make meaning, and communicate possible interventions. 


***A note to potential commenters***
Please be assured I am aware of how REF is ‘the game we have to play’. I am acutely aware of the pressures on newly qualified academics, who now in habit an increasingly precarious job market. 

I am also acutely aware of the privileges I have in writing this post about sick leave and creative writing. I know many will see this as a luxury. I know I am lucky, but I also know we have to speak out about how we have gotten here, and how we might get out.

Leave a Reply