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!

Becoming, being, and change: reflecting on early career (and what comes next)

I’ve been trying to write this post for a while, and I can’t quite get what is in my head onto this page in quite the right way. What I want to do is something a little indulgent, and reflect on my experiences, over the last 5 years, of becoming and being an ‘early career researcher’. I am a couple of weeks away from no longer officially being one, according to my country’s National Research Foundation, and some of the literature out there*, and I am pondering what is next, and whether I am quite ready.

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If you take 5 years as the ECR period – the guideline I am using – then my time is almost up. On the 10th of April, it will be five years since I graduated with my doctorate. This is giving me pause.

There is a certain amount of mental and emotional ‘space’ that comes with early career. People expect you to publish, but not to churn out top quality papers that make a huge impact in your field. You are joining, rather than steering, the conversations in your field. You’re learning how to publish, and conference, and engage as a peer in your field. People expect you to teach, and consciously grow as a scholar, but if you are not yet settled, it’s not really a big problem – yet. ‘Early career’ seems to offer a bit of space to hang back, and observe, and then choose your doing with help from mentors – perhaps a supervisor, or more senior academic peer – alongside you. And the doing can be halting, and uncertain at first and no one will get too het-up about it.

As I move towards the next phase – I assume ‘mid-career’ – I am starting to supervise my own students, and I am starting to apply for grants to run my own research projects. Thus far, I have been supervised and mentored, and joined projects others have won funding for. Moving from being mentored to being a mentor to others is one significant change from early to mid-career. I am now asked to be responsible for parts of others’ research journeys, and this is daunting. It means you have to know stuff – what to read, what networks to join, which are the good conferences to attend, what areas of study are novel – and be able to do stuff – offer feedback and advice on writing and thinking work, co-write grant applications, co-publish with students and peers more often. There are more things, I am sure, but these are the ones I can think of now (that are pressing on me, anyway). Less time to observe, and hang back, and see what happens.

Moving into a more ‘mid’ phase of my career now, I feel like the biggest shift is the one from becoming, to being (and a new trajectory of becoming). I have become a researcher, and now I have to really be one. I have become a doctor, and now I have to help others to achieve the same goal through being a supervisor. I have become a decent writer, and now I have to really be a published author. And this is what I signed up for, and actually I enjoy all of the work, but what is making an impression on me is that time is taking on a different dimension. My career is starting to really grow now, and things feel like they’re speeding up a bit. Citations are becoming a thing, and making my research more visible. There is pressure to publish a few papers a year, and I am writing a book. I feel I need to be thinking about other avenues for sharing my research with wider audiences, such as in newspapers or The Conversation. I need to really start thinking about wider forms of service to my scholarly community, such as serving on editorial boards, reviewing papers, examining dissertations and so on. I now have enough distance and time from my own doctorate to be able to offer these services, and do a relatively good job.

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I am struggling to sum this all up – probably because the becoming is ongoing really. I am still becoming a scholar, and mentor, and supervisor, and researcher, and critical peer, yet many of these roles are offered now because I am seen as being further along the path in terms of knowledge, experience and ability. I have climbed a few key staircases or ladders, and have the capacity to keep climbing, choosing which staircases to climb, and who to bring with me. I have different choices ahead of me: new research projects and related networks, different kinds of writing, teaching and travel opportunities, different ways of being an ‘academic scholar’ and playing this particular game.

Although there is less time for hanging back, there are new kinds of freedom: I have seen more of how the ‘game’ of academia works, and with that knowledge, I can make better choices about how I want to play it in this next career phase. I can see better some of the push and pull factors that I was blind to 5 or more years ago. Although I’d like a bit more time to be ‘early career’, especially to indulge in the mental allowances I have given myself to hang back at times, and be a participant guided by others but not a leader and guide, I can’t stay here forever.

I will, of course, always have mentors of different kinds as I go, and leaders are also participants, and time can be manipulated to suit your own life, and personality and pace. The becoming never becomes a static form of being – being is a just a landing on a much longer staircase of becoming. So, I suppose I am on a new landing, looking up at a new set of stairs, familiar and also strange. Now, I just have to find the strength, and courage, to start the climb.

*Literature from Australia and the UK defines early career as five year post-the end of a PhD degree. In the US, early career is a little longer, perhaps 7 years and tends to incorporate the end of the PhD process. In Africa, early career often includes all or part of the PhD, and therefore can extend to a period of 7-10 years. So, there are different time-periods and also definitions of what needs to fill up this time to move a researcher from early into mid-career.