Turning your writing ship around: pushing back against individualism and isolation

In 2014, while I was deep into reading Cressida Cowell’s How to train your dragon series to my boys, I blogged about PhD theses and ocean crossings, likening the early stages to small, leaky, slow boats, and the end stages to faster, sleek racing ships. Writing can be a lot like this, as I also argued in a more recent post: that slogging is really necessary for sailing – the ‘bad’ writing says where the words are clunky and awful and the process is painful need to be worked through for the less common, but completely lovely and faith-restoring days where the words flow from your fingers and the ideas all work and you feel like a writing goddess. Last week I wrote about my AcWriMo fail, so far, and how I was trying to just write – anything, really – to get the month and the book back on track. These posts all touch on two things I want to blog about today: work ethic and resilience, and community, and pushing back against individualised, isolationist notions of success.

I currently work on a consultant basis, attached to different projects, teaching contracts and so on. This means that I work a great deal from my home office (aka the couch, most days), and that need to work between my own deadlines, and externally set deadlines. This requires a pretty decent work ethic, as the work I do is varied, and often amounts to a little bit more than a full-time job, because of the way the deadlines and workloads are distributed (i.e. it’s more like feast and famine than steady labour). But, my work ethic, like my workload, is not consistent. While I am super-capable of pulling rabbits out of hats close to a deadline, I find this immensely anxiety-invoking. The downside of this ‘feast or famine’ workload and concomitant work ethic is that I have more anxiety than is healthy, and this spills over into other parts of my life, causing me to snap at my family, or yell at drivers being stupid on the roads, and so on. In other words, the work anxiety feeds social and personal anxiety, and the cycle can become pretty nasty and stressful.

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The upside, though, is that in working through all the anxiety and getting the work done anyway, often on time but sometimes with kindly granted extensions, I am developing researcher resilience. I am learning to be resilient in two key ways, I think. The first is that I am learning that, as a friend says often to me, my work is not life-or-death. If I have a day in my pjs where I do no writing or productive thinking, no planes will fall from the sky or something equally catastrophic. Thus, I don’t have to treat every email and every request and every sentence as urgent. I can moderate, and balance, and take time. This is really important, because as the current Twitter threads around the UCU strikes in the UK are showing, balance and moderation are in short supply, especially for academics working on contract and in precarious income positions, as many consultants are. If I say no to this job, will I be closing the wrong door? Will more work and money come, or not? These are questions those in a contract-y space constantly battle with, meaning we probably don’t say no as often as we need to, to protect our own physical and mental well-being. We may also not often-enough say yes to help, for fear that the work and money may be diluted or assigned elsewhere in future.

This brings me to the second thing I mean by resilience. I am learning that I cannot, and should not, try to be Wonder Woman. I cannot do all my work things on my own, without help and support. I think those of us working in or around university contexts that are strongly influenced by shades of neoliberalism and corporate culture are pushed into different forms of a bigger liberal-capitalist notion of individualism. To achieve is to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, work really hard, take no hand-outs or favours, and claim all your achievements for yourself, as the product of your hard work, focus and so on. So, we slog and slog, telling colleagues and friends we’re fine, and refusing offers of help because we’re fine, and because we need to claim our work and any success than emanates as our own. And if we have help, then is our success really ours alone? If you can hack this, you are pretty resilient, but at what cost? Like Wonder Woman, I can do it on my own, but I have more fun, I’m more able, and I probably recover faster if I have the Justice League with me to share the load.

While some disciplines have collaboration built in, such as in many of the natural sciences, where I work in the social sciences and humanities in South Africa, we still have to fight to justify collaboration and co-work, especially in relation to published papers, books and so on because of government funding formulas that reward sole authorship. As an early career researcher, with less symbolic capital and clout, it can be hard to fight against these systems, and the individualism they seem to encourage and reward. But, this brings me to the other factor my earlier-cited posts were about, and a key aspect of building resilience in research: community. The colleagues and peers you are able to surround yourself with and actually lean on and draw help from is a crucial part of pushing back against this overly individualised culture in academia. It’s not enough to have peers who will believe you when you say you are fine and are actually not fine. These peers need to be people who will offer some form of help and support that you can, and will, accept and also offer back.

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Community needs to be active and reciprocal to really work in helping researchers, especially earlier-career researchers, build resilience and a workable work ethic. Ideally, the community you connect with also needs to be composed of peers in a range of positions, in terms of empathy but also power and influence – your own form of the Justice League, if you like. If you are all early career researchers in precarious labour positions, you can offer a great deal of moral support and empathy, which helps, but you need people on your side who know the system and can help you find the means, courage and tools to push back where you can. For example, a big help for me has been joining projects on recommendations from my former supervisor, who has connected me with different scholars and enabled co-writing and co-researching projects to take shape and happen. I now have connections for new projects, and an experience of not working alone to bolster me in creating and running new, collaborative projects in the future. We need to seek out and nurture these connections.

This week I have turned my writing ship around with the help of a new online community, which I joined on recommendation from a new friend who found her way into this space during her PhD. My community is working for me this week, big time, but in a way that enables me to reciprocate and offer mutual support. I have gone from no chapter to an almost finished chapter, partly because the anxiety has finally turned from paralysis into action, as this rabbit must be pulled from the hat or else, but mainly because I have been brave enough to admit I am not fine, I cannot proceed on my own, and I need help to get writing and keep writing. This new community, in conjunction with my existing community, is helping me immeasurably to find my own inner strength and resilience and work ethic, and put it all into my writing. It has not been easy. I am slogging, for sure, and will have to keep slogging. But I am hopeful that this ship will become sleeker and faster as the finish line approaches, and that my communities – online and face-to-face – will be there with me as I cross it.

Creating bigger rooms for different bodies and beings in academia

In a small break from writing a very scary application for something I really, really want, I saw this tweet on friend’s Facebook wall:

This was pretty much exactly what I needed to hear, but it got me thinking a bit about all the rooms I have earned the right to be in over the years (and how I have felt like I should apologise for my presence in too many of them) and also rooms I have been allowed into not yet having really earned the right to be there, because of ugly things like structural privilege and systemic hierarchies (but this is for a different post).

As a woman (in academia, and in the world), I have learned over the years to take up just the right amount of space, or maybe a bit less than that. I have learned to be clever, but not so much so that the men in the room get uncomfortable (and some of the women too!); I have learned to be assertive, but not so much so that I am accused of being pushy and aggressive; I have learned to be ambitious, but not so much so that colleagues are threatened by me and don’t want to work with me; I have learned to dress so that people take me seriously, but not too seriously because then I’m not feminine enough, or fun enough. It’s #$%&ing exhausting. And it never ends.

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I enter many rooms because I really feel I have earned the right to be there, because of my years of study, my writing, my patience and endurance through poorly paid and not-very-inspiring contract work, tolerating obnoxious colleagues and public put-downs, surviving obscure bureaucratic mess-ups with contracts, salaries, student issues, and so many other things. But, and this is the thing that got to me about that tweet, I almost never really feel like I can just be, in many of those rooms. There are a few rooms where I can expand and grow and just take up the space I take up, and those spaces are all too rare, and wonderful. I protect them fiercely, and never take them for granted, because there are way more rooms in which I am taking the temperature, reading the crowd, judging how much space I can take up, and whether I will be allowed to even stay in the room.

Imposter syndrome is part of this perhaps – that sense that you really don’t have the right to be there, and that you’re faking it by even trying, and someone will know that and call you out and expose you for the fraud you are. But this is also what this tweet speaks to, for me: to speak back to that imposter syndrome, and argue that you actually are not a fraud. You have worked hard, and paid your dues, and you actually do have a valid voice that should be part of the conversation. This is not easy, because the Imposter voice can be loud, mean, and quite insistent. It’s harder to push back against that, and just walk into the room and stay there, and be just you. Especially if you are not someone who is already ‘in’ by virtue of being part of the dominant and overtly valued ways of being in the academy (i.e. if you are black or queer or a woman or a trans person or disabled or working class or non-mother tongue, etc. – and many different combinations of these things too).

I know too many younger scholars and academics just disillusioned by the ways in which academia continues to try – apparently quite hard – to gatekeep and police who gets to enter which rooms, when and for how long. There are too many people in my extended circle – in person and on Twitter and Facebook – who are just tired of having to fight to take up space they have earned the right to take up, many times over. It’s exhausting, and it flattens you the longer it goes on. We have to change the story, meaningfully, and open academia and the work it does – research, teaching, publishing, supervision, and so on – to new bodies, voices, knowledges, ways of knowing and being.

We can’t say ‘socially just education is vital’ and then keep pushing out people who would actually be able to enact that in new, interesting, challenging and meaningful ways. We can’t say ‘we value social inclusion’ and then shut out people who don’t conform to some tacit, unexamined notion of what the ‘right’ kind of scholar or academic is. That’s not meaningful, and that’s not change. This change has to come from all sides – from university management that has to actively enact policy change (see here for an interesting take on this broader issue); from academics already in the system who have the power to make changes in their practices, contexts and departments; and from us – the scholars bravely walking into rooms and refusing to apologise for taking up space in them, and for being who we are. It cannot all be on those already fighting to just be part of the conversation, and this happens all too often.

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For me, I am reminded that I have a voice, I have something to say and offer, and I need to just keep working on walking into the rooms I want and need to be in, and staying the course. And, as I do that and move through the system and accumulate relative power and freedom, to follow Toni Morrison’s exhortation to all of us who have measures of power and freedom within structures and systems: to use that which you have to empower and free others, to enable them to pay it forward too, and slowly but surely dismantle the systems that reinforce rather than challenge the status quo. It may sound idealistic, but in our current global moment, I don’t think a little pragmatic idealism is such a bad thing.

Book writing: blog therapy (and some writing help)

I hope you will indulge me a little, but I am going to do some blog therapy with this post. I am in a bit of a writing rut, and need to get out and get writing, but somehow Book Writing feels almost impossible right now. The thought of opening the file I am working on is paralysing. So, I am hoping that writing about how I am struggling to write will push me a bit further towards my file and the chapter I need to finish (by next week).

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This is a bit like pre-writing, I think. Pre-writing is a well known writing tool, developed out of Peter Elbow’s work on free writing, and writing to think and work out your thoughts. Pre-writing is not actually supposed to be shared with anyone, really; it’s just for you and for your own thinking and motivation process. The idea is that it takes some of the pressure off you by making the exercise of writing less ‘high stakes’ – no one will read it but you, it is scribbled in your own research journal, and it’s really just you talking to yourself about what you are working on.

But it is also not a “dear diary” entry, where you just ramble on about whatever. It does need to have a focus, a point. So, for example, if you are struggling to write at all (like me), you might do a pre-free-write on what it is about this piece of writing that is troubling you. That often helps me work out why I am so stuck. Or, if you have done a lot of reading, and need to now translate that into some text for a supervisor, you might write about what themes have emerged from the reading that are interesting relative to your research project. The point is not to write formally, or worry too much about grammar and spelling and stuff like that. The point is really just to write – get those thoughts out of your head and onto the page.

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There is a therapeutic concept behind this. I am not a psychologist, but I have done a good deal of therapy, and there is something quite powerful about getting the thoughts, fears, troubles that you are struggling with out of your head – to speak or write them ‘out loud’ renders them somehow less powerful. You can open them up to critique and analysis – you can make a different kind of sense of them, turn them over, interrogate them. In doing so, you gain mastery over them, and you start to work out how to behave or be in different, less fearful or unconscious ways. You become more and more the captain of your own ship, because you can see and manage the ways in which you ride the tides and ebbs and flows of your life.

This is not that different to becoming a more conscious writer, and thinker. If you keep your writing and thinking all to yourself, you can start to feel a bit like you are going mad. You can’t see straight anymore – is this a good idea or not? Is this a valid claim or nonsense? Is my writing any good? You can’t actually always answer these questions yourself. You need to show people – supervisors, critical friends – your ideas and writing, and ask for honest feedback. That feedback can then help you become more conscious of the aspects of your writing and thinking that are working, and those that are not. You can start to ‘see’ what you are doing more clearly, and learn to make adjustments and changes where these are needed, to improve the work you are doing.

You cannot do a PhD all alone, and stay sane. You cannot write a book all alone either. It is true that you are the one in front of the laptop, and the journal, and the books, reading, writing, thinking, writing some more, And that often this is a solitary pursuit. But it cannot stay solitary. You need to be able to get all those thoughts and ideas out of your head, so you can turn them over, make sense of them, see them differently. Pre-writing is one way of doing this. Oddly, even if you are the only person who reads this writing, the writing feels different than it does locked in your head. It’s you, but also not you. There’s something that happens when you say a thought aloud, or write it down: it becomes separate from you in a way, that enables you to make sense of it, fit it into a larger framework of thinking, and hopefully move forward.

Another way of getting out of the solitary, and often paralysing, space where you know you have to write, and even want to write, but can’t quite make yourself write, is to actually share the writing. That is a form of what I am doing here. Telling you all, in the great and lovely imaginary space created by the Internet, that I am having a really tough time right now with this writing makes me feel less alone. Less fearful that it won’t ever get written. Because it will. Maybe not today, or not very much today, but if I can just write 300 words, it will be 300 less to write tomorrow, and the next day and so on.

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Writing paralysis is scary, especially when you have Deadlines. And Expectations. But, I have learned – am still learning – that it is not a permanent condition. But, it is unlikely to get any better if I just stay in my head, freaking myself out, and trying to give myself half-hearted pep talks. So, I am sharing this piece of pre-writing in the hope that I will be able to now post this, open the file, and write for a bit. I hope that, if you are stuck too, that you will find a way out of the maze for a bit. Try the pre-writing. Buy a friend a coffee and talk it all through with them. And then sit down and write – even if it feels hard and painful and scary. The only way through it is through it, and we’re all in this boat together.

Why do you want to do a PhD?

I have been thinking recently about why we undertake doctoral research at all. I’ve been reading applications to the PhD programme I am working in, and have also had a request to possibly co-supervise the project of a new colleague who will retire in 3 years’ time and really wants to finally start her doctorate. If you consider that one of the most talked-about reasons for doing a doctorate is to earn a title, and the professional status and opportunities that come with that (grants, promotion, etc), you might wonder why she has waited so long, and what possible career benefits she could derive from it so close to the formal end of her career. This has got me thinking about the reasons for undertaking doctoral study, and the payoffs for those who do.

Reason 1: Career progression, professional status, promotion

Reason 1 is the most obvious and perhaps also most commonsense reason for choosing to undertake a doctorate. In South Africa, not unlike just about every higher education context globally, holding a PhD is a signal to peers and managers that you can both conduct and supervise research. Given the drive across Africa and other parts of the global North and South to increase the numbers of PhD graduates (linked to economic growth), it follows that we need more PhDs to supervise all these students’ and their research.

Of course, then, you would undertake a doctorate because are already working in a university – public or private – and need to climb the career ladder. Promotion, research funding, support to attend conferences, professional status, and the ability to supervise students – all of this is made more possible when you hold your own PhD degree.

This reason is linked to Reason 2, which is that you need to hold, or be working on, a PhD if you want to enter academia and get a university job, whether you are coming in from being a student, or coming from industry or a profession to teach. Someone said to me years ago that, in academia, the Masters is like your school leaving certification, now, and the doctorate is your university degree – hard to do very much without one. She was right. If you read any job advert for an academic lecturing post, or research post, in any university context that posts ads in Times Higher Education, or similar spaces, you will see that a minimum requirement is having or being actively registered for a doctorate. Unless one is not required for the role (an MA or MPhil are enough), you have to be on the PhD track to apply.

Further, for more senior roles, you have to be published. Now, you don’t have to have a PhD to do research, and write papers, but the learning and engagement in reading, methodology, data analysis and so on that takes place over the course or researching and writing a doctoral dissertation does stand you in stronger stead for doing further research and writing work postdoctorally (and helping others to do this by collaborating with them)

But this cannot be all there is to it, right? This mainly extrinsic motivation, underpinned by ideas of higher education as a private good, and neoliberal notions of individualised success and progress, doesn’t fully get to why and how doing and having a PhD can be transformative beyond the self – for one’s academic and personal, and also wider community

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Reason 3: Doctoral study as transformation – of self in relation to others

I have written a fair bit here over the past 4 years about all the different things I have learned about myself as a researcher and writer from doing a PhD. Liz Harrison also wrote an excellent book on the transformation of identity and self that comes with doing a PhD (and there is a fair bit of this research out there if you want to read it). The PhD is the only degree you earn that changes your name – you get a title that you keep, regardless of whether your job changes, or you leave academia even. This is a significant change for many graduates, mainly because of what it signals: a new kind of scholarly self that can do, and design and supervise research, that can contribute to large and small debates within and beyond the university, that can publish research and contribute to scholarship in relatively influential ways. It’s a big deal.

But for me, the real nature of this big deal – the intrinsic motivation that I think must drive scholars like my colleagues and friends who have all undertaken doctorate very late in their formal careers – has become clear only quite recently. In a nutshell, it’s about who I can be to others, as a peer, collaborator, mentor. It’s about the roles I can play in my scholarly community. It’s about the role model I can be to my boys, of a working mother who is more than just their mum; who is a person, thinker, writer, actor in her own right. It’s about the range of contributions I can make – as a critical friend, as a co-supervisor and co-researcher, as a cheerleader and peer, and as a teacher.

The doctorate should be transformative, personally and professionally. It should not just be a qualification that you obtain to get a job, or climb the academic or professional ladder you are perched on. If we are serious about expanding postgraduate education at this level, and making the doctorate a signal of excellence in research development and “output” in our university contexts, then we need to be talking to prospective and current PhD students more openly about the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. I contend that you must have both for this thing we call ‘the PhD’ to be really meaningful, to the student and to the student’s scholarly and perhaps also wider personal and professional communities.

Having these conversations, and creating space in doctoral education spaces to encourage and promote student growth, learning and development in gaining a qualification and more consciously cultivating a wider set of motivations and gains, would be an important step in ensuring that postgraduate education is both a private, and public, good. And this is good for all of us, regardless of when we start the PhD, and why.

PhD workout: warming up your writing muscles

So, I am writing a book. I have been sort-of-kind-of writing a book for a long time now. We have an on and off relationship, my book and I. But, a proposal is being reviewed, and the hope is that the feedback will be a green light, so I have to get writing. And soon. But, I am a bit out of practice. I wrote a fair bit last year – 3 book chapters (a few drafts each) as well as part of a paper with colleagues. But this is a different beast altogether – as long and as complex as a PhD thesis. I am finding I am out of shape here.

This is not an unfamiliar feeling. I wrote here and here about moving from one year of PhD or post-doc into the next, after having a break and getting a bit flabby around the writing middle, so to speak. I know, therefore, that I have felt unfit before, and have made myself fitter and gotten the writing work done. But, this is – like actual fitness – hard work and requires a level of emotional and psychic energy that can be hard to find sometimes. I have decided, therefore, that I am going to start with gentle warm-ups, rather than jumping straight into the whole thing (Thank you, Roger Federer :-)).

rfed warm up

The first thing I am doing is starting with something manageable, that I could want to do every day – or at least 4-5 times a week. If I want to do it, and it feels manageable, it is very likely I will actually do it (and enjoy the experience). Instead of doing what I too often do, and writing ‘Chapter 1 draft’ on one day of my calendar, I am writing ‘one pomodoro’ every other day. I can do this. It’s 30 minutes of writing. I can then tick this off, and actually add days as a I go, or keep it every other day and work up to 2 pomodoros at least. If I can do it, I won’t fail, and if I don’t fail, I can keep enjoying this writing time and make it productive. Too often I set myself overly lofty goals, in life and writing, and set myself up to fail rather than succeed. Last week I wrote my first blog post in over 4 months, scheduled this post, and also managed about 1000 words on my book. HUGE success I say. All in these little manageable chunks.

The second thing I am going to do is keep it steady. Rather than having a good week, and thinking I can now escalate to high levels of writing productivity, I am going to keep going at this pace for now. Probably, realistically, this will be the pace for the year, with bursts of higher productivity around deadlines and when I have excess time and energy. As one of my writing students said to me last year: ‘Eat the elephant one bite at a time’. Apologies to elephant lovers – I am one too – but this is a good metaphor for taking it steady with life and writing. One task, one pomodoro, one idea at a time. This way, things actually do get done as opposed to being menacing, un-ticked-off tasks on your to-do list.

Finally, for now anyway, I am going to get me some writing buddies. Face-to-face if I can, but virtually if not. I am always thinking I should join a Twitter shut-up-and-write group, or create my own writing group. And then work, and kids, and life, and my writing gets pushed down (with me attached) to the bottom of my list. My writing time is also time for me – it’s personal as well as professional. So, I have to actually value it, and myself. As a working mother I am too often too far down my list. And so is my writing. I am hopeful, that with positive peer encouragement, we can collectively make our writing more present each week in the to-do lists, and make appreciable progress on our projects.

group yoga

Warming up these tired writing muscles to fuller strength will take some time – what do people say?If it’s too easy you’re not doing it right? Maybe so. I don’t think writing should always be hard, but good writing should take effort and time. Maybe you are in this spot too, coming back to work and PhD and research writing, and working out how to begin your “elephant meal”. Hopefully some of these steps to warming up your writing muscles will help you, too.

If you have other ideas, please share in the comments. All the best for 2019!