Entry 12: The 'Art' of Writing

Well I’ve been writing steadily for the last three and a half weeks and so far have produced almost 21 pages of 1.5 spaced content, which roughly translates as 9,000 words. And that’s just for one section (and not including the 51 references)! No doubt there will be a lot of paring down in order to consolidate my argument, but for now, even in all its rough draft glory, I feel an immense sense of relief that I’ve finally started writing. Phew.

But it didn’t start very well…!!

Now I love the library. Massey has a beautiful modern library in which I’ve spent many hours perusing (or frantically searching) the book shelves and participating in group meetings. So I decided it’d be a good idea to sit myself down in the library to start writing the first weighty paragraphs of the Women & Leadership section. I’d packed up my laptop, a stack of hastily scrawled notes and references, and a couple of books, thinking this was going to be an extremely productive morning. I was prepared, focused and ready to produce some serious...academic writing. But as I purposefully strode into the library foyer I made my first crucial mistake.

Mistake #1: I was going to start writing straight away but my weakness for flat whites propelled me towards the café. I pulled out my phone as I waited for my coffee and started skimming the latest trending Mashable and Buzzfeed articles. Once you get hooked into reading this kind of stuff it’s hard to stop, especially if your coffee is ready in 2 minutes (you feel ripped off, caught in mid-article, unsatiated by mindless, yet entertaining drivel). Thirty minutes later I was finished with that (and the coffee) and ready to get started, happily fuelled by caffeine (maybe that wasn’t such a bad mistake then?).

Mistake #2: I hate lifts, absolutely hate them. Someone almost has to hold my hand to get me on one. So in the library, of course, I avoid them like the plague. Now usually I would go up to level 4 or 5 if I wanted to study quietly, but the thought of climbing at least two flights of stairs carrying my laptop, handbag, books and notes wasn’t appealing, even with a coffee buzz. So I went downstairs instead and found a cosy corner spot facing the wall. I set up my laptop, earphones, notes, water, etc. and after the required amount of time fiddling with sound, finding music I actually wanted to listen to, and checking the internet was working, I finally opened up a brand new Word document. It was at that point I realised my choice of location was incredibly poor. A loud intermittent clanking noise emanated from behind a nearby maintenance cupboard, a light was faintly flickering overhead, and people were chattering away in the pods. By now it had been almost 60 minutes since I’d arrived at the library and I hadn’t committed one word to virtual paper yet. Since moving upstairs would definitely push me over the hour mark I decided the best course of action, despite the disturbances, was to turn up my music and just start writing.

Mistake #3: At home I usually leave my smartphone in my bedroom in an attempt to counter it’s tantalising siren-like “pick me up and check Facebook” call. No such luck at the library where it’s only half-hidden in my bag. The first buzz to let me know someone has messaged me and can’t resist checking who it is.

Mistake #4: Forty minutes into writing I’d managed about 300 odd words. I felt rather disenchanted with these sentences, they weren’t quite fitting together and I wanted to figure out why. But I was quickly distracted by a pressing need to use the bathroom. The problem with coffee is that it has a tendency to move through you very quickly. And so I was faced with The Toilet Dilemma. Everyone knows those stories of poor unsuspecting students who just needed to use the bathroom quickly, left their laptop, phone, etc. out because it’s such a hassle to pack them up and returned to find them ‘disappeared.’ That coffee probably wasn’t such a good idea after all.

I did manage to sneak off to the toilet without losing any of my valuables, but obviously by this point the whole library-writing situation really wasn’t working for me. So it made perfect sense to leave after two hours to go shopping with my sister, with only a measly 600 words in that Word doc. And when I got home that afternoon I ended up scrapping them all. It was, for lack of a better expression, a lose-lose day. Thesis – 0, Lydia’s ego – 0.

I know this is quite a silly story! Ok, a very run-of-the-mill, hurry-up-and-finish, is-there-any-point kind of story. I will openly admit – it lacks profundity. But I wanted to explore the writing process honestly and the inevitable struggles, however inane, along the way (especially since family and friends often set me up on a pedestal as an example of the perfect, truly dedicated study-freak. And while I do, at times, have an incredible capacity for concentration, I’m still a fallible human being!).

On reflection, I managed to blame literally everything else but myself for getting off to a bad start (isn’t it incredible the human capacity for directing fault onto something/someone else other than oneself?) And for some reason this disastrous attempt at getting started put me off for the rest of the week (off writing at least, I did keep researching and reading!). After a few moments of soul-searching I eventually came to the realisation that the real problem was with me – my notes for the Feminism segment were poor and difficult to use. So the moral of the story is twofold: (1) I’m a creature of habit – home is always where the best writing happens (aka the dining room table!), (2) my writing is only going to be as good as my notes and research are. Such obvious points but so easy to ignore sometimes. 

Let’s get serious now…

Since the Women and Leadership (W&L) Section is more of a summary or evaluation (or in academic speak, a 'literature review') of the current issues women are facing in the contemporary workplace, it feels a bit like I’m working with a puzzle. I have 40+ references from which to craft my argument. The difficulty is always keeping in mind how all seven (yes 7!) sections of the thesis are inextricably linked to the arguments I make in this crucial middle piece. And yes, that does seem rather counter-intuitive doesn’t it? I’m sure that’s a rule from English 101 – don’t start writing your essay in the middle.

Women and leadership is the crucial central idea from which all other claims, ideas, and speculations evolve. Of course, doesn’t that still mean it should be the first topic to be addressed in the thesis? The way I like to think of it is concentrated analysis versus a broad ‘birds-eye-view’. Leadership itself is such a huge and often contentious topic, so before I can even begin explaining how gender influences/is-part-of leadership (the concentrated analysis aspect), I have to give a rundown on the perspective I’m adopting in relation to leadership as an academic discourse (the ‘big picture,’ the ‘ideal form,’ the ‘best practice’). But rather than write extensively on leadership with little to no direction, going back to this 'big picture' will ensure its relevance to the arguments I am making in the W&L section.

To give a brief explanation of the term, leadership, as I conceive of it in a business context, is the process of mobilising people effectively and efficiently so as they can work collectively towards a common purpose, goal or objective. But rather than being something that occurs through the agency of a single ‘leader’ figure; followers, context and the purpose to which effort is directed, all contribute to leadership’s occurrence (Ladkin 2010). And the part I'm honing in on is what goes on between leaders and followers during leadership ‘moments.’ More precisely, what does ‘gender’ do to leadership, or conversely, what does leadership do to gender? As much as some theorists would like to remove the ‘leader figure’ as a the primary topic/subject for analysis, because the social world and society’s power structures are arranged to give meaning to the binary classifications of male and female, and the tendency in most people’s minds to equate the term ‘leader’ with ‘leadership,’ gender identities and gender relations (men/women, masculine/feminine, etc.) continue to exert an immense amount of influence on how we conceive of and practice leadership in all variety of contexts and situations.

Another one of the important yet subtle distinctions I’ve been trying to make in the W&L section is the difference between the terms ‘women and leadership’ and ‘women’s leadership.’ Why is this significant? Here is a short segment from my discussion which sums it up nicely I think:

“Although the idea of finding a female advantage or a particular set of traits which allow women to compete on equal terms with men is appealing, a note of caution is in order. Promoting the idea of ‘women’s leadership’ as separate and distinct from ‘leadership’ places female leaders in a comparative position to be assessed against a pseudo-model of universal or neutral (aka male) leadership/power. Stead and Elliott (2009) explain that “women, we might conclude from this, are caught in a gender trap in which they are ‘constructed and reconstructed’ in order to make them appear suitable for managerial labour” (p. 26). If the workplace is established to reproduce and sustain masculinity, whether or not real differences and styles are identifiable in women leaders or not, traditional gender stereotyping will no doubt continue to influence how behaviours are perceived and rated (Whelan, 2012), perpetuating a ‘psychology of prejudice’ by which gender discrimination continues to be legitimated.”

So the aim is not to facilitate the feminisation of leadership, but instead a “loosening up” of management being “culturally connected to men and, in particular, masculine men and given a masculine meaning” (Billing & Alvesson, 2000, p. 155). Based on this premise I've developed a set of guiding questions for the methods section, questions which point to the usefulness of engaging fictional texts written by women: What can we learn about women and leadership by studying it in alternative, non-organisational settings? What methods will be employed to better reflect women’s experiences of leadership in the field of leadership development? How will these methods promote approaches that attend to the social and are concerned with leadership as well as with individual leader development? 


Engaging Imagination: Is the Process of Writing ‘Art’?

Imagine with me for a moment a beautiful large white canvas lying flat on your living room floor. Right next to the canvas is an assortment of paints, all manner of colours and shades, carefully emptied from their tubes and arranged expertly on a palette. And a little further over to the left, a set of clean paintbrushes. A toddler crawls into the room and pauses, awed by the size of the spotless, empty canvas. She spies the paint and makes a quick beeline for the uncovered rainbow of colours, a squeal of excitement on her lips. Tentatively dipping a finger into the sky blue she draws a squiggly line across the white space. It looks lonely, so she places both hands into the paint and swirls them around before drawing them enthusiastically across the unsuspecting canvas in a myriad of waves, dips and circles. The result, as perhaps you can well imagine, is something less than perfect. But perhaps, you might dare wonder, there is some kind of underlying order and beauty to it.

At the moment I feel a bit like that toddler. And if we substitute the canvas for paper, paint for theories and academic perspectives, and the excited toddler for the graduate student, then perhaps we can indeed call the writing process an ‘artistic pursuit’ in its purest, most literal form (brush to paper; hands to clay; keyboard to screen). Or, at least, collaging?!