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.

What I learned about being a writer in 2019

As I sit here at my desk, on the first day of what promises to be one of my busiest work years yet, struggling to keep the writing mojo with me, I am pausing to reflect on what I have learned about being a writer over the last year. Indeed, what I have learned over the last decade. What lessons can I learn, and what inspiration can I take forward into this new year and decade? What small nuggets of pithy writing wisdom can I share? Well, if you will permit me to try and share what writing wisdom I have gained, here goes:

1. The only thing that actually leads to finished papers and books is writing.

Profound, right? The thing is, I have spent a lot of time over the last year doing some serious procrastinating, and talking to my students about their lack of writing being done and sent for feedback. There has been a not-so-small amount of panicking, for me and peers and students, about the writing not being done. Yet, when it comes down to it, sitting down to write gets pushed further and further down the to-do list, and all the top spots on that list are filled with e-mail, and tidying, and faffing around. If you want finished writing, you have to write. Even if you hate every word, even if it feels like you press save at the end of each sentence. Even if you think it’s the worst thing you have ever written. You have to just do it, as often as you can – every day is best, but at least 4-5 days a week if you are working on a big project like a book or a thesis. You can’t really expect to produce a big piece of writing if you are only getting yourself to sit down once a week or less. So, you have to make your writing time a priority and protect it, from yourself and from others.

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2. Your writing is part of you; it needs your time, and you and your time are important and should be prioritised.

Too often, I have pushed my writing away because I have told myself that it is less important than the work other people have prioritised and are paying me to do. While I have to make a living, and pay the bills, I am not just a worker. I am a writer. This is part of my scholarly and personal identity, and as such it is important, valuable, worthy of respect. But it takes a lot of time to be a productive, competent writer. You need to read, make notes, plan, draft, revise, redraft, find the courage to seek feedback, use that feedback, redraft again. That time is too often given away to other tasks, big and small, important and unimportant, mostly because I devalue my writing, and in so doing, de-prioritise the time it needs and also the development of this part of my self. This is a version of balance, but rather than work-life, I have been trying to learn about work-writing balance. Rather than veering from one extreme to the other, which is not really sustainable (all writing and no work, or no writing and all work), I have been trying to create days that have both: writing first, before the email and busy-work, and then email and busy-work after. The days I get this balance right are few, so far, but they feel so good that I am motivated to keep trying.

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3. Writing is also work, and work is only one of the things that defines me.

This world of academia that I work in is hella competitive these days, and pressured. It is scary, as someone without tenure, to consider saying ‘no’ to offers of work: who knows if that offer will come around again, or if there will be another piece of work (and salary) behind it? There are so many people like me, looking for work, competent, driven. So, if I say no and they say yes, I’m out. That’s the fear, anyway. So, I tend to say yes to far too many things, and overload myself, and then struggle to find time and headspace to write. Making writing work, and not a special indulgence, helps: along with seeing it as a valuable part of my self, seeing it as valid work enables me to make it part of my work day and week, and not (always) feel like I’ve done nothing productive if all I have done is read or write of a day. Just because it doesn’t earn me money, doesn’t make it not-work. But, between all the writing-work and paid-work, there is a not a lot of time left over for life, especially if I am always competing and scared to say no. This year has been a big learning curve for me in terms of learning to say no, let go, and not panic or feel bad for doing so. Work of any kind is just one thing – an important thing, but ONE thing – that makes me, me. I am also a mother and a wife and a friend and a baker and a surfer and a reader and a person who likes weekend lie-ins. I have learned that I can be just as, if not more productive, if I learn to stop every now and then and have a day in my pjs doing nothing much, even in the middle of the week. That balance, between all the work and me and what I need to cope with my whole life, has been hard to strike consistently, but I’ve done more writing this year than any other since my PhD, and I have managed to be more balanced too.

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4. Writing can be enjoyable if you stop trying to create perfection.

This is my final nugget of wisdom from 2019. I spend far too much time trying to write The Most Awesome Paper/Chapter Ever Written, which is, of course, impossible. Perfect writing does not exist. But good writing does – great writing even. This writing is considered good or great because people can actually read it and judge it so. This means it is finished, published, out there in the world and not stuck in my head or my laptop. This quest for perfection is paralysing, and it makes writing too hard and too painful. If you want every word, every sentence to be exactly write on the first or second go, you are just going to hate your writing and sitting down to do it will feel like a punishment. In trying to get this book finally finished (and I have about 3 weeks left now), I have consciously let go of this push for perfection. Every single time I sit down, which is every day now, I tell myself out loud: “Just write. Get the words on the page and tomorrow you can re-read, edit and reshape this thing. It just has to be written for now”. What I am finding, as I let myself do this and get into a groove is that, even though I know some of these words and sentences will get the chop, or be rewritten, I am actually enjoying the process of creating these final drafts. I am enjoying this more than the earlier drafts, where I put way too much pressure on myself to write the definitive text on teaching in higher education. Seriously, what was I thinking? Any piece of writing, big or small, is just one argument, one contribution to knowledge, one grain of sand on the vast beach of knowledge we humans are creating. If I can’t have any fun doing this work, why would I want to keep going? I want to enjoy writing, even when it’s hard, and I don’t want to feel like it’s a punishment. So, I’m going to keep learning this lesson far more consciously, and look for the pleasure rather than the perfection.

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I’d love to hear your nuggets of writing wisdom gained over the last year – won’t you take a moment to share one for other readers in the comments? I hope 2020 is a productive, happy, balanced year for us all. Happy new year!

Hashtag AcWriMo fail (so far)

So, it is AcWriMo again. For those who are unfamiliar with this term, it stands for Academic Writing Month, and is a global phenomenon with academic writers all around the world committing to putting words on pages, and tackling writing goals within both face-to-face and virtual communities that offer encouragement, support and accountability. My own university has a Facebook group (although I am avoiding Facebook for mental health reasons right now), and we have a Google sheet where we have written down our writing goals, and update the group weekly. So far, my updates have read: I did nothing, and I did nothing. So, thus far I am basically a #AcWriMo fail.

I think I am starting to actually feel very badly about this, because yesterday I woke up with chest pains, and my mood is declining. I could say it is impending end-of-year-itis, as Lovely Husband and I term it, and that I am always tired and grumpy in November, in the middle of the kids’ exams and last minute requests from people to ‘just quickly please look at X and send some feedback’, and, and, and. But, because I actually know myself better than this (damn it), I have to acknowledge that I feel crappy because I am supposed to be writing, and I am not.

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I have done that thing you’re not supposed to do as a writer and left it all alone for too long. Now it is properly feral, to borrow from Annie Dillard, and I am very afraid of what I will find when I open that door. And even thinking about opening the file, and reading and revising and writing fills me with tiredness and dread. I am in a proper state about it all, and am therefore quite, quite paralysed. Which, you know, sucks. I have chest pains just writing this. Seriously.

I have no magical solutions, and no grand plans. I think the time for these kinds of delusions has passed for 2019. It’s too late in the year for that. What I have is me. I have to dig deep (very very deep I fear), and find my resilience and my strength and just actually sit down and write. Write terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad words (thank you Judith Viorst), and just let them come out of my fingers and settle onto the page. I’ve been seeing all these tweets about how you can’t edit a blank page, and I tell writers in my own courses this exact thing: you can’t make sandcastles out of air. You have to shovel the sand into the sandbox first. You have to have something to work with.

But, you also can’t really work effectively and efficiently with complete nonsense. So, not just any sand will do. You have to have the right kinds of sand, or words and ideas, to actually create a paper or chapter that readers will find useful, interesting, and so on. I think this is the problem, for me. Well, this and the fact that I am just over it all right now. I have kind of lost my faith in my words and ideas. I feel like they’re just blah and meh and ugh. And this prevents me from actually putting them on any page. I don’t know how to get over this. I have tried bribing myself, but it turns out I don’t have anything I want badly enough. I’ve tried being mean, but that just makes me feel worse, so I’ve stopped doing that. I’ve tried gentle cajoling, which sort of works.

Mostly, I just need to write. Write the trash words, which are probably not nearly as trashy as I think they are, and then work them into the shape and form they need to be in. And just keep cajoling, with kindness, because I think most writers actually respond better to kindness than any other form of ‘motivation’. Well, at least in my experience. And I need to not feel like I am the only one having a #AcWriMo fail so far. Because I’m pretty sure I am not. So, solidarity friends, if you are stuck in the molasses like me.

November isn’t done yet, and tomorrow is a new day. Every day is a new day to try and fail and try again and fail better, as Samuel Beckett said. And in failing better, we succeed. But we have to be brave enough to fail. I am not very good at this, and never have been. I hold myself to rather impossible standards, really, and it’s not helpful – certainly not always well conducive to a step-by-step, word-by-word approach to writing. But you know, I’d rather not miss my deadline, and miss this chance to write this book and say these things I think I need to say. This failure would be so much worse than writing a crappy page or nine en route to the finished Thing. So, tomorrow, I will write. Rubbish, brilliance, averageness – I will write it all and then see what I have, and go from there. Who’s with me?

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All my writing epiphanies happen at 2am

Epiphany is one of those great words in the English language, meaning a moment of sudden realization. It usually feels quite profound and transformative in some way. As writers, you will all know about writing epiphanies. You will also likely know that many of them happen when you are not at your computer or journal, actually working on the writing that the epiphany is about.

I have had two such epiphany moments in the last week. One at about 2am when I was awake. Just because. And one at about 11pm as I was falling asleep, writing some of the most profound words you will never read. Why, oh why, do all my moments of insight and sudden brilliance happen when I am illplaced to do anything productive with them? I was not awake enough to get up at 2am and go and write. And I was warm and cozy. I sometime force myself up at 11pm when I am writing brilliant paragraphs in my head while I’m drifting off, but I can’t always be bothered to do that. So what to do to make something useful of all this insight into my writing?

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Some of the brilliant thoughts are not that hard to remember. For example, the 11pm moment of brilliance revealed that chapter 5 and 6 are in the wrong order, and that chapter 6 is horrible because it’s about the wrong thing. It’s not all wrong, but it needs to be refocused. I was able to remember that, run the idea by Lovely Husband as a sounding board, and it’s in my head now. So that’s alright then. But I have no idea what the 2am moment was about now. I think it might have been nonsense, but what if it wasn’t?

Some of the words I write in my head at 11pm are probably rubbish. But the ones I have made myself get up and write down, when re-read with a clearer head, have actually been words I can work with. This is really frustrating. I want the brilliance – the muse if you like – to be there when I am working, during the day, in clothes rather than pajamas (although I am often found in pajamas at midday). But I do wonder if some of those late night epiphanies and insights do eventually make their way into my daytime writing?

Is the brain like a giant filing cabinet storing everything you see, hear, do, read, etc., waiting for you to recall it at some point? Or is it structured to retain information for a certain period and then clear it out to make way for new knowledge because it has limited RAM? Kind of like clearing a cache, perhaps? My preliminary reading suggests that, while it may feel like your brain clears its cache of certain memories, especially papers you have read or important references, it actually doesn’t. But it’s not quite like a filing cabinet either.

Current research suggests that the brain can probably store unlimited amounts of information indefinitely. Memories are encoded and stored according in groups of neurons connected to the parts of the brain that generated them. So one memory can actually be stored in more than one place, in parts: one part associated with smell, one with sight, and one with the emotions associated. Like seeing and holding your newborn for the first time and smelling their skin. That memory would be reconstructed from the different constituent bits when given an appropriate cue, like looking at a photograph of you and your baby. Research suggests that if you can’t recall information, it’s likely because of a mismatch between the stored information and the cue, or a problem with the retrieval process.

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Further, research suggests that repetition consolidates memory, and makes it more likely to be stored in the brain and recalled at will. So, reading the same thing or seeing the same thing many times makes for a potentially more durable memory than something seen only once or twice. This is what interests me in relation to my epiphany moments. With my book, I am thinking about and planning and reworking the argument all the time, over and over. Many of my late night musings and brilliant paragraphs written in my head are about parts of the book – the same parts thought about in different ways. So, I am wondering if my brain isn’t actually able to treat those as repeated events, and consolidate them so that, with the right cues, some of that can come back into my conscious writing during the workday.

It’s an intriguing thought: some of the late night epiphanies do pop up during the day, right? You wake up thinking you won’t remember and then you read a paper or chat to someone and up it comes, ready to be acted on. Some of them seem to be lost in the mists of amnesia, but maybe the right cue just hasn’t been offered, or there wasn’t enough consolidation to store that memory in multiple places, making it more likely to be recalled.

What I take away from this ramble is that, far from being a problem, these late night moments of insight I cannot always write down, or act on in the moment, are all working like repeated events that my brain is storing and consolidating. If I’m constantly chipping away at the book in all this thinking and scribbling and formal writing during the day and mental writing late at night, then the epiphanies actually are a form of consolidation, where my lovely brain has put some pieces together and gone: oh right! It should look like this! That then stays with me because it’s actually a gathering of many little thoughts and moments all together.

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So, perhaps instead of being frustrated, I should just go with it. Encourage the writing in my head of the best paragraphs people may never read, and the 2am flashes of genius and the aha! moments while I’m driving or cooking. If I let them swirl around, and form memories of a sort, and these all add up through consolidation, they will find their way in one form or another into the book and into anything else I am working on. Scribbling in your research journal, chatting about them with friends, whatsapping them to your virtual writing group – these acts all further consolidate and settle those thoughts, encouraging your brain to really back them up. The more we find ways to write and talk about our research thoughts and musings, I am sure, the better our writing will be for it.

Book writing: a week in the life of meeting my #WritingGoals

At the beginning of this week I tweeted that I was going to double the word count on my current book chapter. I started the week at 2503 words, which meant getting my writing going in a big way to get up over 5000 words. Overall, I need about 8500 to finish this beast, so ideally, I wanted to overshoot the goal (as always), but I would have also been quite happy with just achieving it. In addition to all this writing, I had to travel to another part of the country, spend two full days teaching, and prepare for a writing retreat I am co-facilitating. Plus all the usual parenting and house management and all that stuff.

Alongside all my writing at the moment, I have been reading Light and Air and Time and Space. How successful academics write by Helen Sword. It is so inspiring and helpful in many ways, but I do find myself wondering at some of the details that the stories of successful writers gloss over, like bad writing days when the kids are sick, or the childcare arrangements fail, or the car breaks down, and so on. What do you do with the bad days you can’t plan for and still manage your #WritingGoals? I did actually make my goal, this week, but not in the way I thought I would. So, to fill in a few of the often-glossed over gaps, this post is a ‘week in the life’ of an ordinary working parent-writer-teacher-etc..

Monday, Day 1: Tweeted that I wanted to double my word count, and tagged a few writing buddies who have been reading my drafts and encouraging me so far. The thinking was that I would be less likely to not write if Twitterland was following this, and would be expecting a post saying ‘Goal achieved’ at the end of the week. Even if this is only true in my head, it helps to spur me on. I planned to start writing at around 7am, once the kids were off to school. I woke up, had coffee, and then spent two hours doing laundry, cleaning the kitchen and making more coffee. I answered a few emails, and them gave myself a stern pep-talk, and sat down to write at about 9.30. By 11 or so I had managed 609 words. Yes, I counted them. I then spent the rest of the day doing more cleaning, and pottering around on email and Facebook. But, #WritingGoal for the day done.

Tuesday, Day 2: I had to take my son down to Fish Hoek to sit his learner’s license test at about 8.30, so I took my charged laptop with me, and while he was writing his test, I sat on a rather uncomfortable chair and worked on my chapter. I was really productive and wrote 1401 words. Helped that there was no internet and nothing else to really do. Caveat: I am working on the easiest part of the chapter – explaining and exemplifying the theory – but still, Achievement! Once we had processed his learner’s permit – he passed! – and I had taken him up to school and gotten home, via the pharmacy because I have lost my voice, it was after 11. Spent the rest of the day prepping for teaching, and making beds and answering email.

Wednesday, Day 2: Woke up with even less voice than Tuesday, and with blocked ears and a bad headache. Husband now also ill, so I had to get up extra early and do the school run, which he usually does in our parental division of labour. Got home around 7.30, feeling pretty grim, and got back into bed. Taught my class online later in the day, before Ubering to the airport, flying to another province, and driving 1.5 hours to the university town in which I am working for the next week. Exhausted. No brain or mojo for writing. And, I did write many words yesterday, so I can have a break, right? Yes, I can. But, no words today.

Thursday, Day 4: Started teaching at 9am, with a very hoarse voice. No time for writing as the course is intensive on the first day, and it’s about my writers’ work, not mine. I planned, though, to write in the late afternoon, once I was done with teaching. Not sure who I was kidding with that plan. By 4pm I was so tired, and my throat felt swollen. I bought take-out, climbed into bed, and fell into a Netflix hole to unwind. No words today.

Friday, Day 5: There were two pomodoros for the writers in the short course today, so in pomodoro one, I worked in my research journal on the next chapter’s basic outline, because I needed to leave the slide up on screen, on my laptop, for the writing exercise. In pomodoro 2, I could unplug, so I sat with the group and we all worked on our writing. Managed to get the chapter up to 5241 words, including two diagrams. Super chuffed. #WritingGoal achieved. Big plans for a long, silent Saturday writing in the library. At least another 1000 words, on the back of this week’s momentum.

Saturday, Day 6: Woke up late after staying up late binge-watching Youtube crap I will not confess to. Tired. My throat still hurts, my voice is sore, and I just want to hide. No library, but maybe still some writing. By 1pm, I have managed to make a cup of tea and eat breakfast. I feel allergic to my laptop. I don’t want to open it. I haven’t even gotten out of my pyjamas, and I am tired. So, I take a nap. 3pm, I wake up and eat a snack, and then decide to watch a few more hours of stuff on my tablet. No laptop, no writing. I just cannot. But, it’s fine, because I have reached my goal at least, and I can rest today and then write tomorrow.

Sunday, Last day: Much better morning – I am actually awake and showered and dressed by 9.30am. But, I do have to drive back to the airport to fetch my co-facilitator, so I have to be up. Instead of writing a bit before I leave, I play Words with Friends, and potter on Twitter and Facebook. Sigh. It’s now nearly 4pm. I have not done any more work on the chapter today, although I really really wanted to. But, I have written this, and it’s not the end of the day yet. Hmm, sure, but in my head it kind of is, and Netflix is calling…

#WritingGoals for next week? Well, I am facilitating a writing retreat with a new colleague, and we have a big group coming. Lots of one-on-one time talking through their research and writing, which is mentally tiring, and I am still hoarse. Odds are I will be pretty tired by 5pm. But, I have someone with me who also has writing to do, so odds are I will get some writing done each day. Finishing the chapter is the ideal, but I will settle for getting at least a pomodoro in each day, and that’s usually about 400 words. That’ll do. I’ll still be behind on the big 4-chapters-to-series-editor goal, which is not far off, and this is the 3rd of the 4 I need to send. But, I’ll be closer.

Lessons learned (again, and again, and again):

  1. Be kind to myself – who knew I was going to get sick, and my housekeeper would be ill, and my husband would get sick, and all of that would slow me down?
  2. Small, achieveable goals are so much better all round than large, somewhat ridiculous goals (i.e. Write The Whole Thing).
  3. Taking too long a break does make going back harder – keeping in touch, even a little every day or every other day is critical for progress.
  4. A goal shared is a less daunting thing, and being accountable, whether to an imaginary or real community of fellow writers is helpful, too.
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