Breathing life back into a fragile bird

Recently I wrote a post about being an editorial intern and about the process of reviewing papers and the ways I tried to give care and attention to the papery birds people sent to me to read. More recently, one of my own papery birds came back to me after having been on its maiden flight. It sailed back into my email inbox, rejected, battered and bruised around the edges. As I opened the email and scanned through the reviewers comments, my eyes, like a vulture, picked put key words and criticisms, where it seemed feathers had been ripped from the bird and all that remained were bare patches of fragile, sensitive flesh. I looked at my papery bird and thought it was too bruised, too injured, and not capable of flight. Letting it rest seemed like the best option. 

I put it away and I haven’t looked at it since. 

I’m writing this on a plane, high up in the clouds as I wind my way from one continent to another. A song lyric pops onto my head, ‘I’ve got nothing but time on my hands, do you want to hang around with me?’ Trapped in this iron bird, I’m thinking of my paper, I’ve got nothing but time on my hands to unpick the edges of my story and see where it was that my bird failed in its flight. Like Icarus was I too ambitious with this paper, did I try to make it soar too close to the sun without enough of a framework to fall back on. Is this what happened? 

As I sit here, noise cancelling headphones drowning out the sounds of life around me, I’m left to my thoughts and to the bruising my ego feels at having my paper rejected. I think I’d had an easy run with some of my publications, a co-authored paper was accepted by an international journal within a day and in print within three months, and then a book chapter appeared in print without any major drama. ‘It won’t always be like this’, I told myself. Rationally, logically I knew that I was due for a flat out rejection, that this golden run had to end. The odds were not likely to continue in my favour, the law of averages suggested that soon as an early career researcher I would encounter a hurdle. Despite this reasoned argument I was telling myself, I was not prepared for the rejection. Crafting papers and sending them out for review is an intensely personal process and both my personal and professional self is tied up in the papers I produce. The blow, when it comes, therefore feels personal. Perhaps it is not the papery bird who is exposed, pale pink flesh fragile and puckered, but me instead? 

This paper was a co-authored piece, the resulting paper from a conference presentation that had drawn a huge crowd. We’d started the paper with narrative and tried to weave aspects of our story throughout, the rejection email criticised us for not following the convention of an introduction, a review of the literature, description of methodology and so on. When I first read this, I was both wounded and angry, ‘surely there is more than one way to structure a paper?’I argued. Looking back at our paper now, I don’t think it is one thing or the other. I don’t think I was brave enough to write the story of our research in its entirety and so I tried to trod some safe middle ground, weaving elements of narrative, while loosely trying to include elements of a more traditional structure. A hodge podge  of writing styles, this attempt to traverse a middle ground became a field littered with landmines. 

Thinking back on the paper now, I think we fell into the classic mistake of trying to tell too many stories, of trying to cover too much. There were lots of ideas that we examined and teased out in the conference presentation and we tried to cram all of them into the one paper, stuffing it full of ideas loosely explained, until its seams threatened to burst. I was in a hurry, conscious of the need to tick the box on my travel funding that said I’d write a paper based on the conference. Driven by the need to ‘get output’, I released ideas half-formed, ideas lurching on spindly legs.

For me, though the central point I keep coming back to is that perhaps we weren’t brave enough to write the paper we wanted to write. Sitting here I know my co-author will read this post and I wonder if she will agree with me. Perhaps I shouldn’t use we, instead I should use I. I wasn’t brave enough to write the paper that was asking to be written. The problem lies in the  ideas that are in that unwritten paper, the ideas that are in the silences that speak between the lines of the written and rejected paper, these ideas are controversial and critical and I worry about the impact of that paper on my colleagues. In my braver moments I think I’d be happy to write that paper, and in other moments when I think of my position as an ECR, I know I can’t write that paper. Yet. I fear the repercussions of the silent, unwritten paper. There is a danger it would feed a negative rhetoric and culture of derision about teacher education which is not my intent and so the paper lies unwritten still. I believe the ideas are important, but given the context of education at the moment I fear the ideas would be used in ways that are counter to their intention, and hence, I am not brave enough to write the paper I really want to write. 

What does all of this mean for the rejected paper? The reviewer’s comments are thorough and detailed, they are intended to help us shape our paper into something much stronger and tighter. Yet, I still can’t quite face them. I think I’m equivocating about the whole paper now and I don’t know if I can return to it. 

Instead I’m going to give it a bit longer to rest and I’m breathing life back into the fragile bird that is me as a writer. I’m going to walk through Hyde Park under grey London skies. I’m going to read the unread books on storytelling that are on my kindle. I’m going to present on something entirely different in Belgium and immerse myself in a sea of ideas and colleagues.  I’m going to write, every day for the next two weeks, whether on blogs or on my ipad or on napkins pilfered from my Eurostar meal tray. Maybe then, the quiet, little, fragile bird will begin to heal. 

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