‘At some point in their lives, scholars start growing onions’. So said Manning Clark, the author of a majestic if somewhat controversial history of Australia. But what’s wrong with growing onions? Nothing, but when one begins to show a life-consuming interest in a pursuit like growing onions, the flow of ideas has stopped and the writing ceases. Now all of that careful attention to reading, discussion, the growth of ideas and writing itself shifts to something else. Now growing seasons, types of soil, varieties of onion, fertilisers, gardening tools … all these become the focus of life.
All manner of new passions may turn up: a fascination with miniature ships in bottles, cockroach races, the art of toilet bowls, triathlons, beer-brewing, hobby farms, property investment, or, commonly, a long stint in administration. And it may happen at any time. For some, the PhD thesis is the last burst of writing, after which the thought of writing anything else leaves them pale and quivering. For others, it may be after the first book, or during a mid-life crisis, or because the people from whom they have borrowed ideas have disappeared. Universities need such people, of course, for otherwise who would have time to undertake the myriad and mundane tasks that make a university tick? One may in fact argue that the system is structured to assume that at some point or other a goodly number will in fact start growing onions.
In many respects, there is a curiously natural dimension to this process. And onion-growers can be great company, full of immense stores of information about all sorts of unexpected pursuits. But what is interesting is the type of narrative put forward to account for the shift. The best option is to be up front and say, ‘shit, I have no new ideas and no desire to write’. As one senior admin person said to me simply, ‘I finished my projects’. But most do not face up to it so directly. So you find the OG saying, ‘Just a few years in admin and then I’ll be clear to write’. Or, ‘I’m using the system to find space for myself so I can get back to research’. Or, ‘I will just establish this new program/college/discipline and then I’ll be able to write’. Or, ‘I’m simply so busy I have no time for reading and research just now’. Or, ‘I’ll do it in the holidays’, but then the holidays become a time to look forward to getting back to whatever it is that prevents one from writing. Or, ‘After I write these few blog posts and facebook updates and tweet a few people, then I’ll write’. Or, ‘must check the vegies’, which takes days at a time. Or, ‘I must bottle my latest batch of beer’. And if OG is called upon to present a paper at a conference, the paper merely regurgitates material from 20 years ago. The excuses are endless, but they all operate with the basic narrative of a significant hurdle that needs to be overcome before one can return to writing. Of course, the hurdle becomes permanent, the narrative a bit thin, and the ideas have long since decided to move on.