Congratulations to my dear friend Anca Metiu on the publication of her book The Power of Writing in Organizations: From Letters to Online Interactions! Anca is not only one of my dearest friends, she is also my writing partner. For several years, we have met over coffee at a cafe and worked on our projects together. She has read nearly everything I have ever written, and today, it is a pleasure to interview her about her new book.
Anca is a professor of Management at ESSEC Business School in France, where she teaches in the M.B.A. and PhD, programs, and coordinates the Management Track in the PhD program. She earned a BA in Law and Economics from the University of Sibiu, in Romania; an MBA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a PhD in Management from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a member of the Editorial Board of Organization Science and a Senior Editor at Organization Studies.
What brought you to Paris?
My job. After my PhD I got my first academic job at INSEAD, which is located in Fontainebleau, 60km from Paris. Of course I wanted to live in Paris, so I tried not to mind the lengthy, complicated commute. I soon discovered that the 45 min train ride represented a good chunk of reading time; plus it provided for deep conversations with colleagues – some of whom became close friends.
Can you tell us a little bit about your book?
The book is the fruit of a close collaboration with Anne-Laure Fayard, whom I met when we were both at INSEAD. We wrote it when we were one ocean apart, she in NYC, me in Paris, which is very befitting the topic of the book: that writing can enable – indeed, it has enabled since its inception – extraordinary accomplishments. We focus on three types of accomplishments, what we call the writing’s powers: to develop and share knowledge, to express emotions, and to foster communities among geographically dispersed individuals. We also show that the writing’s powers are based on several features, or mechanisms: objectifying, addressing, reflecting, and specifying. We show how these mechanisms are at work both in old-time letters (one of the fun aspects of writing the book is that we read wonderful correspondences, such as Virginia Woolf’s and Franz Kafka’s) and in current online exchanges such as emails and intranets.
Where did you get the idea for your book?
There were two main sources for the basic idea. One was the frustration with the literature on organizational communication that tended to portray writing as a poor medium of communication and to contrast it with the richness of face-to-face communication. The other source of inspiration was much more personal, coming from both Anne-Laure and my participation on online forums where people shared a tremendous amount of personal information on highly emotional issues. I remember thinking at the time: “How come the theories in management say writing is devoid of personal cues when I am moved to tears reading these posts?”
Why should people write more letters?
I don’t think the book says to write more letters, but that we should write more “like we used to do in letters.” A blog, an email, an sms can also be poetic, can use the evocative word, can be precise. Some of these new genres also afford taking one’s time to explore a topic in depth. Just because most people, most of the time, choose not to use the powers inherent in writing does not mean we shouldn’t try!
What is the best advice you have ever received?
The best advice is the one I need most and can follow right now. So it is something Lan Samantha Chang just told me in the workshop I took from her in June at the Paris Writers Workshop: “Just go on.” I took it to mean that my creative writing has a life in it, and it deserves to live fully.
What advice would you give to beginning writers and researchers?
Write about what interests you profoundly. It will keep you engaged and working hard even when it seems hopeless.
What books are on your nightstand?
I have just got W.G. Sebald’s The Immigrants, and I cannot wait to immerse myself in it. There are also a few books that are never too far from my nightstand, as opening them almost anywhere feeds my soul: Toni Morrison, Milan Kundera, Alice Munro, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf.
Next is one year of writing in New York. I’ll be on sabbatical at Columbia University, working on several articles for academic journals. One of these articles is on the topic of the book, and examines in detail the way in which people use writing’s mechanisms in order to develop ideas and knowledge, and to share them with others. But what I need to remember most is Samantha Chang’s advice!