If you have been following this blog for a while, you will know that I have been writing a book. Last night I typed the final full stop on the draft manuscript, and today it’s going off to the series editor and the publisher. The work is not yet done – reviews and changes and proofs and all that are still ahead, but guys, I wrote a book!
It feels amazing and oddly anti climatic, a bit like finishing the PhD thesis. In form, the book and the thesis were a lot less alike than I thought they were going to be, but in process they were quite similar. Much to my dismay, it turns out I have not become any better at time management and planning my writing time than I was 5 years ago. Also, while I am better at shushing the Mean Voice that says my writing sucks, I am still quite angsty about whether I have anything to say that people will want to read. So, I wrote a book but in many ways I am still struggling to be a confident writer.
Perhaps this is unsurprising. Reading Helen Sword’s book about how successful academics write, I am struck by the truth that learning to be a writer is not a process with an end. Well, death is an end, I suppose. But, what I mean is that there is no point where you go ‘Yes, I am here! I can now write without any imposter syndrome or struggle or fear that my writing is crap – it will all be smooth sailing from here on!’ I think many students have this weird idea that their supervisors just churn out published research and erudite online pieces without any trouble and that they are the only ones who struggle with writing. There’s a lot of self-blame about writing struggles, and this can be hard to manage and overcome, especially without help.
Maybe there are magical academics who write and write without a single moment of self-doubt or fatigue over revisions or wishing they could just stop and not do this anymore. I have not yet met any, but academia is a big place, so who knows? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if you have no angst at all about your writing you are probably not doing it fully consciously. By this I mean that all writers, fiction and non-fiction, put themselves into their pages. I write about my research, which I do because it is meaningful to me, part of my identity as a scholar and also as a human. So, when you read my papers and my book(!), you are getting to know me a bit, and what I care about professionally and personally. If I was completely unfazed by any parts of the writing process, I probably wouldn’t be fully connected with it on a personal level, I reckon.
This is probably why I find writing so angsty so often – I’m not writing about something detached from me. If readers and reviewers are really critical, it hurts. If people think my ideas are weak, or wrong, that’s hard to process. If you’ve spent any time writing for publication and sending your work to journals and publishers, you will know that critical feedback is part of the deal. If you have had hurtful feedback already, you will know that it can be hard to come back from in terms of believing in your ideas and continuing to put them out there. I think part of my angst and struggle is often linked to anticipation of criticism. I get ahead of myself and imagine all the disagreement and opposition to my ideas that might be out there before I’ve written it all down, and then I start to doubt myself. I did that far too often with the book, and ended up behind schedule for most of it.
The solution here is to surround yourself with people who genuinely do believe in you. As Lovely Husband said the other day, it (the last bits of the book, in my case) is like climbing Mount Doom, and Frodo could not have done that alone. He needed Sam to help him get there, to keep telling him he could do it. You are Frodo and you need Sams, family, friends and peers who can encourage you, make you tea, share your ideas and offer constructive advice, and keep you going. The trick, when these people tell you that your writing is not crap and that you can do it, is to believe them. You need to pick Sams who you will believe, and whose encouragement and advice will be meaningful to you. I had so many Sams, virtually and in person, and I could not have kept going at points without them. As with my PhD, this part of writing has not changed: you need people with you on this road.
The other solution here is to consciously get out of your own way. I am so good at getting in my own way and getting ahead of myself. I have written the mean reviews for the mean reviewers before I have written a word for them to actually read! I did this a lot during the PhD too, putting feedback into my supervisor’s voice even though I knew that she wouldn’t actually be that mean or that critical and was far more likely to be encouraging even if she thought I should rewrite a whole section, or think harder about my claims. The thing is, you can only write and read and think your way through your project one day, one idea, on sentence at a time. Try to actively bring yourself back when you start freaking out about next month, next year, the next 100 pages. You’ll get there, but you have to go through here first. This has been a huge lesson for me in writing this book.
I think being a more confident writer probably requires a mix of things. I need to keep learning to be conscious of where I am now and where I need to end up with the paper or chapter, but not freaking out and getting ahead of myself so that the writing is tied up in knots before I have started. I need to keep being brave and sharing my writing struggles and my clunky words with my Sams, and try to believe their feedback when it comes, both positive and not. I need to be kind to myself but not let myself off the hook – a little bit of writing and thinking every day is better than nothing; it keeps the ideas from getting away from me and taking on a life of their own.
None of this is new. I have written it all before here, in different words and ways, this just reinforces for me that this writing gig is a lifelong learning process, and that we often have to learn the same lessons over and over in relation to different projects and at different times. I am always going to be learning how to believe in myself and my ideas, and I think doubt is part of the process of becoming a good writer, someone who is conscientious, understands the power of words, and takes this responsibility seriously. But we have to work to keep the doubt in check, so that we can keep writing and working and get the ideas out there for people to agree and disagree with.
Putting your work out there, in any form, is hard. I want everyone to love this book and, like the PhD, I want it to be the best book ever. It won’t be, of course. But, I am so proud of it, and it’s written. It’s a stepping stone to new projects, like the PhD was a stepping stone to this one. This is another thing I am still learning: that every paper, every project is another building block for me, another opportunity for learning, another chance to fail better. This actually helps me – if the PhD or the book is not the only things ever that you will write, you have more chances to do better, to reflect and learn and grow.
I hope some of this helps you to feel less alone, and like you have a Sam here, believing in you and your ability and ideas. Everyone struggles, everyone fails, even the most successful and productive writers you know. Their secret is that they don’t let either the success of the failure define them to the point that they stop learning from the struggles and working out how to keep moving forward. Happy writing, Frodo Baggins. You got this.