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.

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.


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?


The relentlessness of writing for publication

This post comes on the eve of AcWriMo – a month long writing event that happens around the world during November every year. In this post I want to address two things I am (and colleagues and friends are) battling with at this time of year: fatigue, and motivation to keep going in the face of the relentlessness of producing writing that can be published or can go into the thesis, and can help us ‘earn our keep’ as doctoral, postdoc or academic scholars.

This relentlessness is often talked about among students, postdocs and academics – producing publishable research on a regular basis is part of playing the game of academia well, and it needs to be played well everywhere. So, this pressure is familiar to all those who aspire to an academic career. But, we don’t always know how to manage the feelings of frustration, fear, fatigue and even rebellion that this relentless hamster-wheel of writing for publication engenders. Many students and academics battle to find support – either professional or personal – and may then opt out or drop out, slowing down to the point where they get stuck, unable to make any meaningful progress. This is a horrible and overwhelming place to be.

But what to do? I am wondering this now. I have been literally forcing myself into my office and to my desk every day, managing about 15 minutes of concentration at a time as I grind out 100 words here and there, half of which I have to edit, delete and rework later. It’s exhausting. And then, when I have managed to finish one paper out of the many that I really need to write, it takes months to get feedback from journals, and further months to make the inevitable revisions, send the paper back, get further feedback and eventually, please god, see the paper in print.

As a young scholar, in career terms, with a slew of ideas but without a slew of actual papers on a conveyor belt of writing, revising, and conceptualising, this hamster-wheel is flattening me more than I would like it to. I have had one paper accepted this year – last week (which, don’t get me wrong, is fabulous), but the other writing I have sent off is languishing in slow journal systems, and one is at a second journal after having been reviewed, revised and then rejected by the first journal. This is all quite difficult, and I feel that this frustrating process is often too invisible to those in our universities who assign us the brownie points, grant funding and recognition. I certainly feel that there is a glibness about doing research and publishing in journals and books that does not quite tally with my experience as an academic researcher and writer.

Perhaps if we can talk, in public spaces, about how difficult it can be to get onto one’s own research and writing conveyor belt as a career-young PhD or postdoctoral scholar, we can create a dialogue with university research offices and bean-counters that enables more acknowledgement of the challenges younger scholars face. This acknowledgement, and a troubling of the often linear-seeming ‘formulas’ that are applied to research and publication funding and support, can then hopefully lead to new, more developmental support opportunities, in the form of research workshops, writing retreats, and/or peer editing partnerships and writing circles, where written work is swapped, shared and worked on with others.

So much of our research and writing, especially in the social sciences and humanities, is solitary, or done in small writing and research groups. I spend a great deal of time reading, writing and thinking on my own. It is lonely, and the more I am on my own the less brave I feel about seeking out critical feedback and peer review. I really do feel that I need to connect myself more obviously, whether face to face or virtually, with other writers, and I have been trying more consciously to do this over the course of this year especially. I may not always be able to research and write with others, but I can offer to read the work of colleagues and ask them to read mine. Academia.edu, for example, now enables scholars to share drafts of their work with selected followers to enable peer feedback.

AcWriMo is another good opportunity for me to re-engage my tired brain and absent concentration within a supportive and non-judgemental writing community – both face to face and online. I have been invited to join a Facebook page where a diverse and international group of writers can share writing progress and stumbling blocks, and we have a Google spreadsheet where we need to record our writing targets per day or week for the month, so we can hold each other gently accountable. For me, this works well, as I need encouragement, even if I imagine that people around me are egging me on (they may or may not actually be doing so).

Image courtesy of Red Pen/Black Pen - www.jasonya.com

Image courtesy of Red Pen/Black Pen – http://www.jasonya.com

In the end, I know that (at least for now) I have chosen to play the game of academic research, writing and publication. In spite of this whinge, I do actually see great value in sharing my research, and in having other research shared with me. Perhaps the way onto the conveyor belt, to work my way up to having a series of papers in various stages of development, is to be patient and not expect it all to happen NOW, and to keep plugging away – writing as steadily as I can, even if only 100 words a day, and seeking out peer responses and feedback, both from friends and from journals. Perhaps, as with much in life that challenges us to grow and change, the only way through it, is through it.


What I learned during #Acwrimo (and what I didn’t)

AcWriMo, for those who are in the dark (as I was before I took part in one) stands for Academic Writing Month, and this month seems to be largely November around the world. A group of colleagues and I signed up for our own AcWriMo as a group, with a commitment to to make and keep to our own chosen writing goals and post updates on our shared FB page about our progress. The idea is to set yourself a goal that is bigger than your usual writing goals in any given month – to be realistically ambitious, if you like. You write as part of a community and share your goal with others, so that you have support and encouragement around you, a sense of shared purpose, and also quite possibly a gentle form of accountability (although you don’t get into trouble or anything if you fail miserably to achieve your goal).

Thank goodness for this last part, because I did fail. Pretty miserably. I wrote about my goals towards the beginning on November here, and I must say, I really did think I had pared back a lot on my overly idealistic goals and was finally being more realistically ambitious. However, I achieved only 1.75 out of 4 written pieces that I set myself as goals. I wrote 3/4 of a paper that I am now ignoring rather pointedly, and a (pleasing) abstract for a book I really want to contribute to. I have not even planned out the 2nd abstract I planned to write (and the deadline has been moved quite a bit back, which doesn’t help with the fear-factor-panic-motivation), and I did not even attempt the other paper for the special issue. I spent one week out of the 4 actually writing and reading every day. One. So, there you go. That’s my AcWriMo confession. I am, to say the least, disappointed with my poor showing, but rather than eat too much chocolate in an attempt to console myself (although I kind of did this too, sadly), I thought I would blog about it in an attempt to reflect on and learn something more about my writing habits, enablers and big brick walls.

Enablers – start with the positives: Even though I did not get to where I wanted to go with my writing this last month, I really loved being part of this big writing community. We all posted quite regularly in the FB group, and sent each other virtual ‘high-5’s’ and encouragement, as well as sympathy and images of Pusheen the Cat. It felt like a warm, encouraging and connected space, and if you’re going to push yourself to reach deadlines and do more than you usually do, that is a good space to be in while doing it.

Habits: I learned that I have to work on my own research reading and writing first thing, before email is opened or the internet is activated. I am too easily distracted, especially towards the end of a long, busy year, by things that are much easier to do than thinking and writing papers, so if I am to focus, it has to be early in the day, and before I engage with the distractions. Another thing I learned was that I need to spend a fair bit of time thinking – percolating – before I can really write. This is a good thing to work out, because I can organise my time and headspace accordingly, but the downside is that my thinking can easily be hijacked by other things, like work. So I have learned that I need to be firmer with myself about making myself sit down and just write, and work on thinking while I write as well as before and after. I think if I could have just made myself get words out every day, even if they were mostly crap, I could have finished the paper. You cannot edit something that does not exist – it’s bringing my ideas into existence on a page that needs some work.

Big brick walls: I have to admit that I was fairly shocked by how easily my mojo shifted to ‘meh’ after a motivated and energetic first week where I got a lot done and felt really accomplished. I let it happen so easily, without much of a fight at all. I let work commitments that could have waited become really urgent; I agreed to do things I could have said ‘no’ to because I just had to do them; I packed up my office, when that could have been done this week; email became the most time-consuming task of the day… Interestingly, I could see this happening at the time – all these distractions and day after day of no writing – but I felt quite helpless to do anything about it. On reflection, I can see that there was a big emotional reason for all this drifting and procrastinating that I did not account for when I signed up with my ambitious plans in October. I am leaving my job this month, after 6 years, and even though I am moving on to something new and exciting next year, this is huge and a bit scary for me. A big part of my identity has been this role I have had for the last 6 years – my first real academic job – and I am finding it hard to let go. I think a lot of the ‘meh’ about writing after week one stemmed from a more emotional fatigue and resistance and I didn’t really make room for that in my plans.

So, what I learned from AcWriMo:

  • I do my best thinking at odd moments, and not always when I am in front of my laptop, but I write most productively in the mornings. I need to learn how to structure my days to take advantage of that time and I also need to keep a notebook with me, to jot down ideas when the muse grabs me.
  • My mental energy and focus is very much affected by other, seemingly unrelated, things that affect my emotional state, and I cannot easily switch the latter off or escape into reading, writing and thinking. I need to learn to be more aware of what else is going on in my life, and account for these potential brick walls when I plan my writing and research, so that I can actually be kind to myself and not feel like a failure.
  • I need to switch off the internet when I am writing. I am too easily distracted and until I have worked on my concentration span and increased it to more than 15 minutes, I need to minimise distractions like Twitter, Facebook and email quite deliberately.
  • Finally, I respond well to bribery, so I need to give myself small rewards, like tea, walks, snacks and chapters of my novel, to get me through as writing and thinking, especially on new work, can be tough, and take a lot out of me. Kindnesses to self are key :-).

I am going to try my own AcWriMo again in February next year, and finish this 3/4-done paper and write the other one that I had planned to write now. I thought January, and then paused and thought about the school holidays and back-to-school shopping and moving house, and stopped. If I am to do better next time, I must put into practice my learning from this time. So, February it is. Watch this space for updates…