Every Monday in November, we're sharing stories about "faking it 'til you make it". Today's post comes from Elise Lopez.


Image source: Flickr / designsbykari

Last year I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had been dying to start a PhD in Linguistics, but struggled to find a topic I was willing to commit to. For most of the year I simply worked in a retail job and did a bit of editing for lecturers on the side. I wanted to immerse myself in the world of academic writing, but I lacked an outlet. I wasn’t a student and I wasn’t employed by the university, except to do a few hours of editing here and there. Where possible, I attended conferences at the university just so I wouldn’t completely lose my connection to the academic world. It was at one of these conferences that I met Joanna.

Joanna is a lecturer from Białystok, Poland. At the conference I watched her give a presentation on behalf of a colleague from Ukraine who couldn’t attend for some reason or other. I asked if she was Ukrainian, because I was fascinated with all things East European and my grandmother was from Ukraine. She told me she was actually from Poland. Little did she know that just a couple of years earlier I had devoted my blood, sweat and tears to an honours year that revolved around Poland, the Solidarity era and the first President of the Third Republic of Poland, Lech Wałęsa. As luck would have it, Joanna is a phraseologist who specialises in phrases that originated from Lech Wałęsa’s speeches. It’s a fascinating topic that I won’t go into here, but a great read if you happen to look it up. Needless to say, we hit it off right away. We were chatting through the lunch break and even sat next to one another when we returned to the conference room to watch the afternoon’s presentations, passing notes and books between ourselves. Towards the end, Joanna asked if I would like to contribute a chapter to her upcoming book, the third volume of Intercontinental Dialogue on Phraseology, and of course, I accepted (perhaps a little too enthusiastically). It barely crossed my mind that I had never actually studied phraseology. I was allowed to write anything I liked on the topic, but I had not even heard of it until the day I met Joanna. I knew there were a lot of things I didn’t know about linguistics, but I was a keen and fast learner, so this didn’t seem to matter at the time. For a complete stranger to take a chance on me within just a few hours of us meeting was pretty unbelievable. It was pure luck that we had a common interest. The opportunity was given to me on a silver platter and I grabbed it with both hands! The rest, as they say, is history…

Woah… not so fast! I still had to write the chapter. Firstly, when I mentioned the book to lecturers at my university they each sort of shrugged at me and said they knew nothing about phraseology. As it turned out, phraseology was more of an Eastern European and Japanese area of study. The University of Adelaide specialises more in revival linguistics (the revival of endangered languages) and systemic functional linguistics (a grammar-based theory, which looks at the function of text). This meant that I had no one to help me, except books and journal articles. I would have to teach myself what phraseology was and how I could contribute to the field using my knowledge of Poland - after all, that knowledge is why she chose me. Secondly, apart from assignments and theses I had never written academically. My writing experience was predominantly magazine-based. Although I had a tendency to write rather technical articles, the two styles are obviously very different.

Here’s the gist of how I did it:

Trying to stick with what I know, I attempted to use a systemic functional approach (the grammar one) to find some sort of argument. After discussing this argument with three different lecturers I came to the conclusion that it did not actually make sense… not even a little bit. I had selected the line of a ballad, called Ballada O Janku Wiśniewskim or ‘The Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski’, to use as a case study, because it was an important part of how Poles remember the Solidarity Era. The line Janek Wiśniewski padł or ‘Janek Wisniewski fell’, which is repeated at the end of each verse, made it into the history books as a phrase that represented the loss of workers who were killed by the government in a riot in 1970 - this was when the government was a puppet for the Soviets. The riot was a major turning point in the Solidarity Movement, because the people of Poland realised that the government had basically lost the plot, turning to shooting its own people, instead of doing what governments are supposed to do and protecting them. The previous year I had analysed the ballad thoroughly, so I felt if I could incorporate this into the chapter I would know what I was talking about. But when it became apparent that it would not work, I was at a bit of a loss.

Then it came to me like a dream, drifting off of an unsuspecting cloud and floating in through my bedroom window, coming to rest with a gigantic ‘thud’ on my poor little head. ‘Use what you know!’ it cried. My honours year was not in linguistics, but anthropology. I was new to linguistics, hence my obvious lack of knowledge of the million different theories contained therein. So I turned to anthropology and the ‘emic’ approach. The ‘emic’ approach is basically when you try to understand the world through someone else’s eyes. Picture this: an anthropologist, clad in safari gear, plodding about in an exotic environment, trying to understand the world through the eyes of the ‘noble savage’. This is basically the emic approach. Now take this approach and apply it to the phrase ‘Janek Wiśniewski fell’ by looking at where and when it first appeared (just after a riot in which Polish workers were killed) and by interviewing a few people who were there about what it means to them, and hey presto! You’ve got yourself an ethno-linguistic methodology, my friend. If we could use this to understand where phrases actually get their meanings and how these meanings change over time through the eyes of those involved, we could produce some extraordinary works, like that of Viktor Klemperer in his Language of the Third Reich (1957). These works would leave a priceless legacy for future generations to relive the experiences through text.

Joanna loved the chapter.

The moral? Network! Go to conferences, talk to people and actively seek out opportunities. This may have felt like it was offered to me on a silver platter, but I never would have found it if I didn’t put myself out there in the first place. You would think that from this experience I learnt not to dig myself so deep a hole. But if I hadn’t taken the chance, I would never have been able to see my name and my work printed in that book. And isn’t that what writing is all about? One thing I’ve noticed in emerging writers and academics is that they have little faith their abilities. The best way to learn is by doing, so it’s well worth putting yourself out there!


Elise López was born in the Hills where trees were plentiful and skyscrapers scarce. She now lives in the suburbs with her ever-increasing library of books bursting with the knowledge of a thousand authors. She is Senior Editor of Tongues Magazine and in her spare time she edits books, conducts research and writes academic pieces for publication. Her areas of interest include Phraseology, Ethno-linguistics, French literature and film, and Soviet and Post-Soviet discourse. She has studied French, Spanish, German, Russian and Polish, and was taught Morse code when she was little. Due to a caffeine addiction she is frequently dehydrated and easily startled.

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Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.