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.

Book writing: how to really get going (and stay going)

I am writing a book. I have mentioned this before, in a few posts, but it is really happening now. A contract has been signed. A delivery date for the manuscript has been diarised. A book must now be written. Well. But, I am finding that proposing a book, and writing a book, are two different things. How, on earth, do I get properly going?

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I should say that I have actually started writing. I have written a full draft of one of the substantive chapters (i.e., not the Intro or Conclusion). I have more than half of a draft of a second chapter, and detailed holding texts on three more. There are seven chapters in total. So, I have started. But, I don’t really feel like I have gotten properly going and herein lies my current struggle. I have started writing this thing, and yet I am stuck at the moment in terms of moving forward.

I have worked out, for the moment, that what has happened is I have misplaced my overall argument. This is, sadly, not a new experience. It happens with many papers I work on, and I remember it happening during my PhD. I can’t see the thread, right now, as I delve into these chapters. It’s there, but I am struggling to trust it. I get into the chapter, and the chapter’s own argument, and then I tell someone about what I am writing, and they ask me questions, and I think: ‘Oh my god, everything I have is wrong and crap!’, and then I stress eat, and I am stuck.

Now, I have done enough writing, and had enough time with feedback, and revisions, to actually know that most of what I write is not all wrong and crap. It always needs revisions, of course, but I generally am able to make arguments that make sense. So, I can do this, right? [Yes]. But, what I can see from where I sit now, is that this sense of panic, and insecurity, and stuck-ness, is not something that actually goes away the more you write. I think you probably get much better at handling it all the more you write, but you are always going to have to deal with it. Because every argument you make is new, and demanding, and requires a great deal of drafting, and thinking, and reading, and rewriting, and being brave enough to ask for, and deal with, feedback.

Understanding this cognitively, though, and then actually confronting the panic, and fear, and lack of faith in my writing right now are two different things. I can totally rationalise my stuck-ness and slow momentum. But, I still wake up every day and work all day on everything except my book. I have no real insight into why I do this [this is part of the focus of a new research project I want to get going on soon]. But, I hope that acknowledging this struggle is a step towards pushing myself out of this funk and into writing. One pomodoro. Maybe two. Maybe a blocked out morning, with coffee and a sunny patch of my table, and some decent words written down. Setting a deadline with a critical friend that spurs me to have something to send him. These steps are all any of us can do, as writers, to get going, and keep going.

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I think we have to realise the writing – getting going and keeping going, especially on a big project like a thesis or a book – is work for the head and the body and heart. By this, I don’t mean only the physical strength you need to spend hours typing and reading without getting all sorts of aches and pains. I really mean the emotional strength you need to face your fears of not writing anything good, or of the negative feedback you feel sure will come if you hand any of your writing to someone to read, or of not actually even getting the thing finished and letting everyone down. These are all normal fears, for PhD students, researcher, authors of many kinds. We have to work to see them, acknowledge them, and then face them down as we just keep writing, word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, until we can connect head and heart and know that, although it’s always hard work, our writing is okay. Better, even. And that there is an audience out there waiting to read it, who will see that there is an argument, and it makes sense, and is useful, critical, novel.

Back to work, then… More on book writing as I keep going :-).

On writing when the words want to be somewhere else

I am writing this from a writing retreat in the beautiful Devon Valley near Stellenbosch. I am hugely lucky to be starting my writing year here, away from the pressures and activities of everyday mum-and-wife life, where all I have to actually do all day is put words onto a page and make them make some kind of sense. However, I am finding the actual doing of the writing hard work this week.

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Dol-de-Breton

I am writing a book. A whole one, on my own. I have been thinking and scribbling about this book for a long time. It has been like circling a huge obelisk, going round and round looking for a door or a way in, and finding none. Or circling a block of marble, trying to see the statue inside it so that you know where and how to start chipping away at it. But there is no door, and the statue is a fuzzy blur, so round and round I have been going, not quite writing, but not quite doing nothing either. It is just too big. How do I start? What do I write first? How do I get this right?

The first thing I have told myself, firmly but in a kind tone of voice, is that I must actually stop being such a faff and write something, anything. Just start, and try not to edit, and some words will come. They probably will not be right, but they don’t have to be right now. They just have to be written, and once I start, like a tap being turned on, the ideas will start to come from the swirly depths of my mind where they have been percolating and find their way out, and slowly be formed into a logical story. So, this is what I have done, yesterday and today so far. I have just made myself write, for 20 minute slots at a time. Freewriting, as it were. It’s slow, and difficult and frustrating, but I am slowly starting to see the statue. It’s just a finger, or an eyeball, at this point. But it’s there.

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Interior with reading woman by Carl Vilhelm Holsøe

This brings me to the second thing I am counselling myself about, in a slightly more exasperated tone of voice. When I started conceptualising this book, and talking to one of my advisors about it, I had these romantic visions of me and my book, up late at night, lamplight burning in my office, typing away while the words and ideas flowed. We were going to be so productive, and clever, and it was all going to be so enjoyable, and intellectually stimulating. The reality is … less romantic. My office is such a mess I can’t even see my desk. I am so tired by 8pm there is no chance of coherent thoughts beyond that hour. And the words, they are not flowing. They are trickling, at best. So my romantic vision is pretty much shot to pieces, and this disappoints me. Which then leads to more circling of the obelisk, and less actual chipping away at the door or statue. Don’t get me wrong here: I expected much drafting and revisions and rewriting, but I just didn’t expect to not enjoy it. I hope I will enjoy it eventually, but right now I am not having much fun.

The final thing I am advising myself on comes from a friend and mentor: I have to be prepared to write rubbish that I will eventually delete or chop out in order to get going. This is a tough one. I know, of course, that with every paper and chapter and so on that I write, there are parts that are written and then later binned because they no longer fit, or strike the wrong tone, or just are wrong. I write rubbish, for sure. But writing a page or two of rubbish for a journal article feels like a lot less potential time wasting than writing pages and pages of rubbish for an 80,000 word book. I think this is what I am struggling with: I have a deadline, and other things to do as well as writing this book, so I kind of want to start writing and have it be the actual book, and not all the drafting and writing around that will eventually start becoming the book through cutting, deleting, selecting and more writing.

I remember feeling this way at the beginning of my PhD – staring up at this obelisk and wondering how on earth I would actually make it into something other than a lump of rock. Then, I had a supervisor to chivvy me on, and wonder where my drafts were and give me feedback. Now, I feel I just have me to hold myself accountable, and I am not always very good at that.

stone-dressing-tools-1-1-800x800So, I am trying to stop being romantic about this, I am trying to stop expecting all the words to be good, and perfect and erudite. I am trying to just write what I can now, and trust that the rest will come if I put in the time, slog through the difficulty and slow writing days, and do the work that I know needs to be done. That’s not a sexy, super-slick and easy plan. (Sorry about that.) But it’s a plan I can work with, that will break me out of the circling, put the chisel in my hand and start the chipping process. And that’s enough, for now.

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?

‘Writer down, I repeat: we have a writer down!’*

I’m sick. I have been for a week, and it’s actually starting to get me down now because I am finding it really hard to get any work done. When you’ve been really busy, it’s actually quite nice to have a good excuse for not getting out of bed and watching lots of random things on YouTube for a few days (apart from the feeling sick part). But after a few days you start to feel well enough to get up and go out and see people, and there is no longer such a good excuse for not getting on with your writing, or email, or work more generally. And yet, in my case, I am finding myself paralysed over small writing tasks I have to be getting on with.

Writing paralysis is an odd thing. I like writing, but it just feels like too much work. And yet, the two immediate projects are not a lot of work at all, so I should actually be able to do this. I am a competent person, right? I have two papers that need revising, and one is due back to the journal within the week. My two co-authors have already revised the paper, and I just have to do the final round of tidying, checking, and writing up the response to the reviewers. This is not that much work, but I am paralysed about it. The files have been opened and minimised onto my desktop, so they are there and ready. I open and minimise them a couple of times a day, read a few paragraphs, and then check for new Facebook updates. Why am I so paralysed when I really want to get this paper finished so I can move on to the next one that need to be revised and sent back? Never mind start the new writing projects that are waiting in the wings.

I think my current paralysis goes beyond being a bit tired at the end of the semester that has just finished, and being ill. I think it has something to do, subconsciously, with all the bigger projects lying behind these small ones. Picking away at smaller pieces of work and emails and so on keeps the days full, but the bigger projects loom, and if I finish all the small ones then I’ll have to get on with the big projects. I’ll have to start actually writing the book I have planned, and the conference papers I have committed to, and finish the fieldnotes and transcription of two years of data I am pretending does not exist. And because this all feels like WAY too much work, I am paralysed now, putting off even the tiny projects so that I just don’t have to do anything.

The problem with this, of course, is that I am not actually doing anything, and none of the work is miraculously vanishing as a result. It’s just there, waiting and piling up and leering at me. Big projects we can break into smaller pieces, like an MA or PhD thesis, or a paper or book(chapter), can lead to writer paralysis like this. You have to do the smaller pieces as you go to get onto perhaps bigger pieces and larger projects. You have to read in order to write, and when you write you have to get feedback, and when you get feedback you have to read it, engage with it and make revisions, and when you have made revisions (especially in a thesis) there will be more reading, and more feedback and more revisions and so on. Being paralysed actually seems like a reasonable defense mechanism in the face of all of that, doesn’t it?

If you are, like me, in the middle of a project or series of projects that just seems too much, and you are paralysed as a result, try not to fret too much. The key, I think, is to allow yourself down time, but keep chipping away. Open the file, read a few paragraphs (if the whole paper is too much in one go) and make changes and revisions. Make some notes about thoughts for the rest of the revisions. Read a paper or chapter you need to read, and make notes. During my PhD I learned that this was a manageable way to keep going, even when I was down. It didn’t always work for me – there were stretches where I just couldn’t chip away – but trying to work like this kept me from being writer down for too long. To paraphrase Dory: Find your most realistic way to just keep swimming!

*Snaps to those of you who spotted the 90s film reference 🙂