Writing in a time of crisis

This COVID-19 or novel coronavirus pandemic has been kind of unbelievable on so many levels – the speed at which it has spread, the closing of borders, the cancellation of conferences, seminars, and the closure of schools and universities. I have seen many, many tweets about online teaching (and the many issues related to that of access, success, engagement and so on), and also about writing. The writing discussions are interesting, as they seem to be split-ish between encouraging massive bursts of productivity because we’re all home (and apparently the rest of our lives have vanished), and encouraging gentle, realistic bursts of what you can manage. Of course, there is a a fair bit of middle ground here, but what I am wondering is what that is, for me specifically but also for writers I need to start working with online in April. So, I am grappling with two related questions: 1, how do I keep writing in a time of crisis? and 2, how do I help others do the same?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

There are so many people I am connected with through Twitter are struggling to write and feel productive and focused and calm enough to think, not least because they are home with cats and dogs and kids and partners and noise (so much noise). But, even those without all of the noise and people and distractions are struggling, because being alone is not easy either. This begs the question, again, of what we need to make the work of writing possible? What makes us feel like we can be ‘productive’ in terms of creating finished pieces of writing, in whatever shape those take?

I have written many different kinds of posts over the last five or so years about affective and also intellectual or mental blocks to writing, and how to work through or past these. One of the posts I come back to often in my writing courses is on making time to write: about how we don’t find time to write, we have to make it. And we don’t just have to make physical time – hours and minutes in a day – but, more importantly, mental time – space in your head that can be focused just on writing and not on everything else. This is often hard to do, but perhaps no more so than when your head is full of quite unexpected and largely unprecedented uncertainty and anxiety. We have no idea how long our schools and universities will have to be closed, or what kind of ‘normal’ we will return to when they re-open. How long will we be trying to work and teach online?

We have no idea when we will be allowed to travel again, for meetings, and teaching. Many of us work on a contract basis, and if we don’t work we don’t get paid. This is true for me. Am I going to be able to actually do the contract teaching I have budgeted for and signed on for, or will that fall away? I cannot do it all online. Am I going to be able to pay all my bills after June? This is a big part of the anxiety filling up my headspace right now, along with unplanned-for work in trying to plan to actually teach a face-to-face writing course, with feedback and peer engagement, online. And, in the midst of trying to keep my supervision feedback, journal administration, and materials development work going – thankfully all things I can do online – I also need to keep writing and being ‘productive’ around publishing.

But, I am listless, figuratively and literally. My kids are home all day. My husband is home all day. The dog is going mad because we are not allowed to take him for walks at the park and our garden is not very big. The cats are confused – why are we always here? We are at on school holidays now, but these end on Tuesday next week and then we have to add cajoling the boys into doing their schoolwork in the mornings every day to a long list of things we don’t usually have to do. It feels like holidays all the time, but it is not. The emotional toll of all of this should not be under-estimated. It has a significant effect on our ability to focus our minds on tasks that have a cognitive load, and that require concentration and cleverness.

I think, for me as a writer and as a facilitator of others’ writing, this is point 1 in answer to my second question: I need to acknowledge the extra-ordinary emotional strain that people are under. The uncertainty is perhaps the worst of it – how long is this all going to last, and what will the world (and my job) be like when this pandemic is past? We need to not just quietly acknowledge this, but perhaps make a small space in our online engagements with peers, colleagues and students, to voice some of the anxieties we feel. We are not at all alone in this, but we often feel we are, and what we feel is what creates both emotional and mental static* that can be hard to work around.

I need, also, to acknowledge my own stress and anxiety, and make that okay for myself for now. Following on from my last post, I need to seek a new balance for now at least between being kind to myself in the sense of allowing myself time to just be and work through the other stuff in my head right now, like how to shop for groceries during lockdown and how to keep my asthmatic son safe, and being kind to myself by creating a work routine and pushing myself to get things done every day, Monday to Friday so I don’t meander around aimlessly feeling like I’m not doing anything useful at all. I need to just see that this is all not business-as-usual-working-from-home, or even school-holidays-working-from-home, and let myself have a few more moments of listlessness and meh than I usually allow.

In my planning for teaching, I want to create a little more space than I usually do to talk about the affective dimensions of making time to write, to show students that it is completely normal – usually but especially perhaps at the moment – not to feel like writing, or thinking, and to even feel that all of that academic work is a bit silly or non-essential in the face of this unprecedented global crisis. We need to adjust our understanding of what it is to ‘be productive’, and offer ourselves and others kindness and understanding as they navigate these new anxieties and stresses in their day to day lives, whether they are constantly surrounded by people and noise or all alone (both of which can be very hard to live with day in and day out with little respite). We all need to be patient, with co-authors, with supervisors, with critical friends, with colleagues, as we work out a new normal that may last quite some time.

For myself, I am making a list, highlighting tasks I really need to push myself on, like bits of my own writing (all co-authoring currently), and feedback to students on their writing. Other tasks, like ongoing admin and planning and reading I’m fitting in when I have focus and energy, and I’m taking it easy on keeping that stuff ticking over. I’m building a massive puzzle of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and I’m mending some curtains I have been meaning to mend since Christmas — 2018. I’m tidying bits of the house that have been ignored for too long, and sorting clutter (Lovely Husband is super happy about this one, and the curtains). I’m trying not to snap too much at my poor kids, who miss their friends and their routine, too. In short, I am doing what I can do to be ‘productive’ and to be well, in a time when both of those things seem tenuous. I think this is all we can all do, and we need to encourage and support one another as we work this out. Hopefully that solidarity and kindness will be what we carry forward into the future that we create out of this present. Take care, everyone. Stay home and stay safe.

*This is Kate Chanock’s term.

When you hate your writing and everything sucks

*You can listen to this post as a podcast.

I have less than one week left before the (second) deadline for the submission of my book manuscript. I am trying to write the final chapter, which is also the Introduction. Every word is being agonised over, sounds awful, and I really just want to cry and throw in the towel to binge-watch The Witcher. But, I can’t. Because deadlines and expectations and definite self-loathing for tripping at the finish line. So, what do I do? What do we do, as writers, when we feel like complete frauds, hate all the words we put onto the page, and everything just sucks?

I don’t actually know exactly what to do. I have been calling on all the old standbys: ‘If you just slog it out, there will be words on the page and you can always change and edit them later. You just have to start writing’, and ‘You can’t say your writing is trash before you’ve finished the draft – all drafts are terrible but terrible writing is part of good writing’, and ‘You can’t build sandcastles if the sandbox is empty – drafting is filling the sandbox’. Blah, blah, blah. I have a lot of these platitudes and positive, peppy soundbites going round and round in my head, and while most of them are actually true, they don’t really help me find the words I need to open this book on the right note. They just make me feel bad, right now.

The thing is, I am tired. I had a full-on year last year, and I really needed a rest at the end of it. But, because of my own ridiculousness in terms of saying yes to deadlines for BIG projects in January, and my old BFFs Procrastination and The Mean Voice, I ended up not having one. Rather than doing the bulk of the drafting in October and November, leaving me just editing and polishing in December, and time for a proper rest, I had to spend all of December writing, writing, writing. I had bits of rests, but not a proper brain-off, computer-off recharge. So, I’m freaking exhausted. And all my brain wants to talk about is how tired I am and how much I don’t want to be writing. So, the first thing I’m trying to figure out is how to turn off that track in my head for the next few days. Like, I know we’re tired but this has to get done.

I think another problem is I keep getting ahead of myself. I look towards pressing ‘send’ on the book files, and that feels potentially awesome, but then my teaching starts and this other big project has to be finished, and I have three reviews waiting, and I have journal stuff to manage, and I have to go on a work trip, and my kids have all this school stuff, and I have to do laundry and … All The Things, you know? I just feel flattened by the weight of all the work waiting and then I can’t actually do the work now. So, I have to turn off that track too. One thing at a time, one day at a time. Just do The Things for today, and tomorrow will wait. This is actually helping, a bit. If I don’t check my email too much. Or think too hard.

The biggest problem, linked to fatigue and overwhelm I am sure, is that I genuinely hate my writing right now. The words are all wrong, and the sentences don’t flow and I can’t find my thread and it feels clunky and awkward and stilted and boring. The Mean Voice has the microphone right now, and is pretty sure no one will like this book. Now, I have enough practice at this academic writing gig to know, under all the rampant self-doubt and frustration, that people will like the book and my writing does not suck (that much). But, right now it is really hard to push this voice aside and write through the frustration and sucky words and malaise. I just want to stop. I am struggling a lot more with turning off this track. I am not sure I can, so I’m writing anyway and hating it all but the pages are being created and the words are there. I am hoping for a final burst of kind energy from my lovely, tired brain to edit it all into a golden thread that opens the book on the note all my work over the last few years deserves.

Pexels.com

Basically, there is no avoiding the days and weeks where you hate your writing and it all just sucks and you wish you could just stop. It’s part of the deal of being a scholar, whether it’s just for the PhD or whether this is your day job. I think we just have to feel our ways through it, actually. It is okay to not love your work all the time, to not feel super productive and shiny about writing all the time, to not like your words and thoughts. It is okay to have really, really bad days and wonder what on earth you were thinking choosing this project, or paper, or career. These days seldom stick around for that long, in my experience. I will get out of this funk, as I have others, and I will start to feel less awful about this book and my writing and things will stop being so sucky. Hopefully, before Sunday! My plan now is to feel what I feel, and make myself write the crap words because not writing anything is not an option, and then pull it together in the end. I do kind of have to trust the process; I have before and it has been okay in the end. I may not ever love this book, but I am proud of it, and that’s enough.

Taking a break: how long is long enough (or too long)?

Every year while I was working on my PhD I would struggle to get back into the reading and writing after the December holiday break. I took around 3 weeks off each year before Christmas and then into the new year, and it was so hard to come out of idle speed and back up to work and PhD speed. I wrote about the need for a break, acknowledging the challenge of making this break neither too short nor too long. Too short and you are not rested enough to get going again with fresh energy and drive. Too long and you may get stuck in holiday mode for too long, leading to writing and research paralysis and anxiety.

I find myself, right now, in desperate need of a mental and physical break. But, and this is a big but, I cannot take one because my book manuscript in its entire, finished form is due in mid-January to the publisher. I cannot ask for a new deadline, because I have already done that. Also, I don’t want another extension. I want to move forward with a new project next year and I need to complete this one first. So, it needs to stay on schedule. Hence, there is no break this year for me – not really. I will be writing over Christmas and new year, not lolling about all day by the pool or on the beach, reading holiday-for-my-brain chick lit on my Kindle.

Pixabay.com

That said, it has been a long and exhausting year on the work front, and if I work too hard over this supposed break time, and then launch myself right out of the book and into 2020 work, I may well be burned out by Easter. This would be a poor plan for a productive start to my new research, not to mention all my 2020 teaching, supervision and writing development work planned. So, I do need some sort of plan for rest in amongst the writing, even if that rest is more physical than mental.

Ideally, your end-of-year PhD or Masters or work break needs to be both: physical and mental. You need to actually not turn on your computer, or check email, or write or read anything, or be near your office. You need to physically and mentally change the scenery, reading fiction, going for walks outdoors, binge-watching a new series, spending time with family and friends, drinking a G&T in the swimming pool under a wide-brimmed hat (that last one might just be mine). This change of scenery, I have learned, is important for putting work in its place, and for rebalancing your energy after a long year. There is no rule for how long is too long for a break from email, research, writing and thinking here, but I think there is a rule that breaks are important and need to be properly taken when they are needed.

Work is just one of the things that we do and that shapes us, it cannot be THE thing otherwise that work-life balance will be quite skewed to the detriment of physical and mental wellbeing. This has been a hard one for me over the years, and something I have only gotten better at since my late 30s, when I stopped trying to push myself to ridiculous lengths to be the Best Ever at Everything. I think all (over) achievers can perhaps identify with a struggle to slow down, delegate, turn the out-of-office email on without the fear that something will go down while you’re not looking and leave you out.

I certainly have struggled, and while I am by no means over all of this, I do now find it easier to realise that my own physical and mental health, and emotional wellbeing, is so much more important that being online and available to anyone who may need my help 365 days a year. That is neither possible, nor desirable as a work-life goal. I can say ‘no’, the world will keep turning, and I don’t have to feel terrible about putting myself first. I think there is something in this about learning to put ourselves first, and seeing that as selfish in a positive, rather than negative, way.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

There is a certain kind of humility, perhaps, in being selfish like this: realising that you are tired, and need a rest, and may even need help to take a rest properly. As the saying goes: you cannot pour from an empty jug. If you are depleted, then what will you have to offer your peers, colleagues, students, not to mention your family and friends? Not very much. And the result of spreading yourself too thin for too long, apart from burnout, may also be feelings of resentment towards those peers, colleagues, students who keep asking for your time. In my experience, pushing myself too hard for too long has also lead to writing paralysis, and then guilt and shame after neglecting my writing because I was just too tired to face it.

So, this year, stuck as I am writing like a fiend now because I procrastinated too much a few months ago, I need to take little mini-breaks and make them count. Obviously, I will have Christmas day off, and probably will have to rest off the champagne on new year’s day. But, in between I have to write and write hard. My plan is simple: a few good hours or more of writing every day, and then a proper rest. My novel, or a game of Wii tennis with my boys, or a swim in the sea, or a surf with my son, or a walk with the dog. And then back to writing. I am hoping, with a conscious balance between important writing time and important resting time, I will reach this particular finish line with enough energy intact to keep the work going until I can take a longer rest later next year. And perhaps, I will learn enough from this year’s “break” to achieve a better work-life balance in 2020.

Thank you all for your support, likes and comments this year. I am looking forward to sharing more writing ups, downs, advice and journey in 2020. Happy holidays to you all!

Photo by Skitterphoto from Pexels

Taking a holiday from your research

My brain is tired. I am sure your brains are all tired too. It has been one hell of a year, in global terms. I am sure many of us are really ready for 2016 to be over already. And, given that the festive season is almost upon us, many of us will be seeing out this year with a well-earned holiday. Leave from our day jobs, kids on holiday so less frantic mornings, and time to catch up on sleep, novels, movies and whatever else you do when you are on holiday. It’s also, for researchers, an opportunity to take a break from your reading, writing, thinking and data crunching.

I am a firm advocate of having a holiday from your research. I know, though, that many postgraduate students who are also working while studying see their end-of-year leave from work as a big chance to crack on with the writing and research without the usual disruptions of work. However, as a lovely friend who is coming to the end stages of her PhD said recently, ‘why am I assuming that I will be able to crack on, when I am pretty much on empty now?’ I, too, have been assuming that, once I go on holiday, all the energy I don’t have now will suddenly and miraculously appear and I’ll be zipping around doing crafts and making cookies and finding my desk under the piles of rubbish that it is buried under. I will more than likely be horizontal, with a book, in my pyjamas, bribing my husband and kids to bring me tea and snacks so I don’t have to move.

Copyright image Belle Kim, Zachary Elgar, and A Prolific Source, 2015.

Copyright image Belle Kim, Zachary Elgar, and A Prolific Source, 2015.

I have much writing waiting to be done – primarily for a book project I am way behind on. But there is just no way I am going to be able to do any of it now. And anything I did write now would most likely have to be deleted and rewritten in January anyway. I am, quite simply, on empty. I need to see this for what it is: not as some kind of inability to Get The Things Done, but as a sign that I have actually done many of The Things this year, and now my body and my mind need to rest. Too often, on the hamster-wheel of academia, we don’t appreciate the need for rest, and down-time, and we put so much pressure on ourselves to just keep going. But if we do, we risk damaging our health, both mental and physical. I know I am guilty of bullying myself into keeping going, telling myself that I don’t need down time; I need to be productive.

There is a balance to be struck here. Down time is necessary and useful – it can recharge your creativity, productivity and work mojo. But too much down time can be counter-productive, as it can be really tough to get going again if you have too much time off. I don’t think this is necessarily the case with a regular job, but I have certainly found it to be the case with research, and a PhD. I never really got the balance right during my PhD – I either took too long a break or not enough of one, and I pretty much bunny hopped my way through my PhD in fits and starts of progress and productivity. I always found it difficult to get back into my PhD after each of the end-of-year breaks, largely because I was starting up my writing centre again, with all the attendant busy-work that entailed, and my PhD kept being relegated to ‘tomorrow’ or ‘next week’. I don’t have that excuse anymore, but starting up again, especially on a project for which you are making the deadlines, and that requires intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, motivation and drive, can be a challenge.

I do not, sadly, have the magic solution to finding this balance. I do, however, have the advice I give myself. Rather than telling myself I am not allowed to think about my research, I tell myself I don’t have to. I can read, and potter around, and read, and bake and swim and lie in the sun, and not feel guilty about any of it. And I can do that until my kids go back to school. This gives me about 3 weeks off. But, what usually happens while I am pottering and baking and lying in the sun, is that my mind-at-rest will still be percolating away about the book I am working on, or this blog, or the paper I want to write before March, and I will be inspired or have a useful idea that I need to jot down. So, I do. I scribble it into my research journal, or voice-note it on my phone, and then I put it down and go back to the holiday. That way, all the ‘work’ I might do is a bonus, and it doesn’t come with the usual anxiety and stress because I am not expecting myself to do it. This way, I keep things ticking over just enough to be able to pick up the pace when the holiday is over, but not so much that I don’t allow myself the rest I need.

holiday-mode-activated

I wish you all a very happy, safe and festive holiday whatever your chosen celebration, and hope your down time with family, friends and yourself is properly relaxing and rejuvenating. The blog will be back in January with fresh ideas and posts, and hopefully even more! Thank you all for your support this year. 😀

Grappling with complexity in a world gone mad

I’m not sure how to write this post. I have not posted on the blog for a while. I don’t really want to write any more ‘I’m so tired I can’t write posts’, but I need to write something, if only for my own sanity.

The past two months have been a weird, crazy, anxious and difficult time in South Africa, and globally. Here, apart from the ongoing awful behaviour of our president, we have seen violent, angry protests by students in our universities. At the heart of these protests have been calls for higher education to be free for students, especially poor, academically deserving students and middle class students whose family income is less than R600,000 a year (about $42000). There have also been calls for changes to the curriculum – mostly expressed as ‘decolonising’ or ‘Africanising’ the curriculum, and for changes to the ways in which teaching and assessment are constructed and effected. Too many students are disadvantaged by a system that has for too long gone unchanged and unreflected upon. Many universities have had to shut to keep their students safe, and have struggled to finish the academic year. People have been hurt, buildings vandalised, ugly things have been said in the name of progress and change, and many of us who work in education are feeling disheartened and sad. Where do we go from here?

There are significant problems in my country and globally that need to be addressed, and change must happen, but moving from that realisation to making the change stick will take time. And time is a tricky thing in a situation like this, where some students are claiming they will work to keep universities closed until their demands for change are met. This is, I believe, because we live in a world where things happen so fast that slow research, slow thinking, slow changes are less tolerated, or even seen as resistant or lazy. Academics who are under pressure to publish know this well, as do PhD students who take longer than 3 or 4 years to produce a thesis. We should all be able to teach and research and churn out papers, and present at conferences and tweet and blog and Facebook and still make it home on time for dinner. This is obviously a somewhat cheeky comment, but I know many people who feel overwhelmed by the growing pace that seems to surround our work. Reports about mental health issues on the rise among academics and graduate students are becoming more common, as are calls for a recognition of the value of slower thinking, and research, and deeper engagement with complex issues.

I recently facilitated a workshop with lecturers who were trying to work out a set of priorities for their curriculum, as part of a review process. What did they really want their teaching and learning to achieve, for themselves and their students, and their disciplines? What was striking was that one of the most important issues that came out was a desire to have students become more able to grapple with complexity. To not be so stuck on trying to find one single answer to a question, but to see and grapple with multiple perspectives, and learn to build considered arguments. This is a huge challenge for undergraduate teaching, because the average undergrad degree is so short – 3 or 4 years only – and this is a big thing to learn, especially when you consider that many students have spent 12 years in a schooling system that teaches them to learn the answers, rather than to appreciate the nature of working with problems.  I’m wondering how much of what we have been seeing in recent weeks in #feesmustfall protests here, in Brexit and its aftermath in the UK, in the election of Donald Trump and that polarising, ugly election campaign in the US, is many people’s inability or unwillingness to see, and grapple with, complexity in the issues we are confronted with. Climate change, globalisation, immigration, different versions of neo-liberal capitalism, state funding for social change – these are such big issues, and they connect into other complexities around race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and all of these issues are just overwhelming.

Grappling with this much complexity is a full-time job, and it’s exhausting. And if you don’t have an educational or home background that has encouraged or taught you to stop, and think, and listen and try to consider or empathise with perspectives other than your own, it is commonsense to try and find one answer that feels okay for you, and stick with that. Inviting other people’s reasoning and opinions to challenge your own seems like too much to deal with, so you shut that out and find opinions and ideas that shore up rather than challenge your own. And you mistrust ‘intellectuals’ like your lecturers who would ask you to read books you don’t like, or think about ideas that make you uncomfortable, or engage with theory that threatens to unseat your beliefs. All of this makes it far less likely that we will learn to listen to and talk to one another with compassion and kindness, which we so desperately need to do if these issues are going to be addressed constructively.

I have been struggling to think and write and concentrate in the midst of all of this, as I am sure has been the case for many of you. Globally we seem to be floundering on the edge of something, and we don’t know which way this pendulum will swing us. My research feels silly in the face of all of this. Why even bother? But, then I think about the argument I have tentatively made here, and I think about my kids and my students, and I think ‘No. Stop’. There is value in slower thinking, in deep engagement, and in research that genuinely seeks to build knowledge, and create space for change. Your research matters, and so does mine. Words and ideas that can inspire change matter. We must continue to work on grappling with complexities, and finding answers and ways forward that don’t oversimplify and divide, but create richer understandings of difficult issues from multiple perspectives. There is much to be done, and I think perhaps it is time to get back to work. Who’s with me?