When you hate your writing and everything sucks

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.

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 stopping 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?

‘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 🙂