Writer, know thyself

Lao Tzu said to know others is wisdom, to know yourself is enlightenment. Enlightenment is insight, awareness, understanding; to be enlightened is to have a deeper ability to see and understand yourself, and why you behave, think, and act the way you do. It is a significant goal of humanity, to achieve an enlightened state within oneself. I am going to argue in this post that enlightenment should also be a significant goal for writers: to gain greater insight into their writerly selves, behaviour and choices.

In my writing courses, when we do catch-up plenaries at the start of the sessions a month and then two months after the first session, I ask writers to think about not just what they have (and have not yet) achieved, but what enabled or constrained their progress. My thinking is that if you can look deeper, to see what helps and hinders you as a writer, and reflect on that with other writers, you can become more enlightened about your writerly self. And, ideally, if you can see more critically how you help yourself, and how you sabotage or hinder your writing, you can try to move the obstacles out of the way.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

This is a lesson I am constantly learning, as a writer and also as a writing teacher, with my students. And, while I certainly feel more enlightened than I did when I started out on my scholarly path, I have a ways to go. The overarching lesson I am learning, with smaller sound-bite lessons along the way, is that I need to know myself – my energy, my concentration span, my levels of interest in different tasks – and, crucially important, accept myself as I am. This is not to say I cannot and will not change as I learn and grow – of course I will – but if I go into any writing, or life, task already admonishing myself for not being more focused, more energised, further along in the task, etc., it’s not going to be a rousing success. And even if I get it done, all that negative self-talk is only going to breed resentment for the writing (and life) tasks down time. And that’s not good for me.

So self-acceptance and positive self-talk is super-important, alongside figuring out your own writerly habits, preferences and energies. A big learning for me since I turned 40 last year is that my energy levels have changed. I can’t write and write every day for 2 or more hours and have enough in the tank for all the other work I have to do. My work life has changed in the last few years as I have physically gotten older, and alongside having less energy generally, I also have to spend significantly more time reading other writers’ work, offering them my energies through feedback and advice. So, the lesson here seems to be this: work with, not against, your energy levels.

It sounds super-simple, like ‘duh’, right? But I struggle to accept that my energy for writing has changed, and I keep trying to make myself be more energised. This only serves to make me feel bad, and then shamed that I can’t be more pepped up, and then I’m just a bit paralysed about everything I have to read and write. So, very consciously, I am trying to keep track of the times of the day I most feel like I want to, and can, write. It’s not first thing in the morning, although that would be most convenient. It’s really more like mid-morning to early afternoon. That’s my peak focus time. What I need to do then, to really take advantage of that focus, is rearrange my day so that I have 2-3 hours for my own writing between 10 and 1. The rest of the day can be for other people’s writing and for email and admin. Yesterday and today I am managing this, and I feel so much better. It’s unlikely I will keep it going indefinitely, but I have figured it out, and that’s a big step in the right direction. Forcing myself to sit down at 7am and be erudite and focused is not going to work. I have to accept this about myself and work with it – for the time being, anyway.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

The other lesson I am learning has to do with my reduced concentration span. I am sure social media has something to do with this – flitting from one post to the next – but I think it’s also probably got to do with how interested I am in what I am reading or writing, and what else is going on in my life and in my head. It would be brilliant if we could just turn off the rest of our lives when we write – the kids being sick and keeping us up half the night, unwell family members, stress about the declining state of the country we live in, annoying issues at work, etc – and just focus only on the writing. I hear rumours about people who can do this, but I am not one of them. Life and writing happen together, and sometimes the former completely messes up plans for the latter, for days on end.

I used to tell myself I could not write at all unless I had a big block of time, like a whole morning or day, and complete silence and calm. I can hear you chuckling. It’s cool, I can see my error now. Advisors would tell me to take what time I could carve out, even just 30 minutes, and dive in. It took me a long time to learn how to do that usefully, but now, even one good pomodoro a day can push a paper or chapter forward measurably, if I can use my reduced concentration span cleverly for that 25 minutes. Rather than making myself feel bad for not being able to focus for hours on end, I use what time I can create, in small bursts, and I praise myself for writing instead of curling up in a metaphorical ball until a whole chunk of time magically presents itself to me, with no distractions or stress or life to get in my head and in my way.

Underneath learning how to know myself as a writer is self-acceptance, and self-love. To know yourself is to be enlightened – to have understanding, awareness, insight. But using that insight to berate yourself for not being more – more like others, more focused, more energised, more clever, more anything other than what and who you are – can be an obstacle to your writing progress, rather than a push forwards. Like I said earlier, we can and should be open to change and growth: I am not the writer now that I was 5 or 10 years ago, and I have worked hard to change some bad writing habits. What I am saying here is that trying to make yourself a morning person when you just are not is not productive or helpful. Trying to make yourself like a colleague who can write in the middle of the night, or on a train, or super-fast, when these things don’t work for you, is not helpful.

You need to track your own energy and focus patterns, and make adjustments to your day so that you work with, rather than against, yourself; you need to look at what is taking up your time for writing, and work out where to put those things on your priority list so that writing comes out much higher up. And you need to be kind to yourself, and encouraging – as kind and encouraging as you would be to a peer or student struggling with their own writing. Learning about your writerly self is a powerful step towards becoming a happier writer, and happy writers are generally more successful writers too*.

*This insight is borrowed from Helen Sword’s book: Air and Light and Time and Space. How Successful Academics Write. Harvard University Press, 2017.

New year, new writing plans, new chances to ‘fail better’

Samuel  Beckett famously wrote: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. Maybe he said it out loud. Nevertheless, he made a valuable, and often underestimated, observation here that applies really well to writing and research. I find, and I know many others do too, that writing and research are not really about trying, failing and then succeeding, but about trying, failing, learning, and then failing better (and on and on).

If I could rewrite my PhD thesis now, there are a few things I would do differently, better, having learned so much from the one I did write, which was better than the MA thesis that came before that, which improved on the Honours mini-thesis. You see where I am going here, I think.

writing image

Every paper I write is hopefully better than the paper before. But to improve – to try again and fail better – you need to become a more conscious and reflexive writer. You need to learn about yourself as a writer, take on advice, feedback and critique, and work to make changes and improvements where these are warranted. Otherwise you may just feel like you are trying and failing, without the bit about getting better at it.

This takes some work. I like, in my writing courses, to think about the possible learning in two areas: personal habits and needs, and writing habits and needs.

Area one, for me, involves things like: where and when I write most productively, the kind of atmosphere I need to write, how I react to and take in critique and feedback, and the time it takes me to read, think, write, revise and so on. I do best in the mornings, but I have a friend who is writing fiend between 11pm and 5am. I like to write in bed, but my back prefers that I sit properly at a desk – and actually, I am more focused and disciplined if I am at a desk and my back is not aching. I like quiet – not dead quiet – but loud noises are distracting and annoying. I also have ‘writing mixes’ on my iPod, and I plug these in and listen while I type when I really need to block out the ambient noise around me. I write fairly quickly, but only after a fairly long period of reading, thinking and scribbling in my research journal, and plotting outlines, so paper writing schedules need to take this all into account. These are the kinds of things it is useful to become very aware of, and work with, rather than against. So, trying to work in a noisy cafe, at lunchtime, and get a paper done in 2 weeks would be madness for me, and I would fail worse. But, if I recognise my personal (writing) needs and limitations, and work with those, I could (and do) more often than not fail better – in other words, get my writing done.

home-office

In terms of writing needs, here I include actual nut and bolts stuff. For example: have you been critiqued (as I have many times) for writing overly long sentences? Do you use too conversational and colloquial a tone, so that your writing sounds flippant at times? Do you under, or over-explain theoretical or technical terminology? Do you overuse certain words and phrases? Do you over, or under-punctuate your writing? If you have received feedback on your writing on these, or similar issues related to style, tone, referencing, and so on that can reveal tendencies or patterns – such as my overly long sentences and occasionally overly chatty or strident tone – you can start to moderate your writing, trimming the longer sentences, making the tone more formal, less strident, more engaging without being chatty, and so on. You can begin to be aware of your writing from your readers’ perspective, and anticipate how they may take in your text, and what needs to be there, or not there, to make it more readerly, and enjoyable to engage with.

repetitive learning

The main thing I want to learn this year, as a writer, is not how to succeed: it is how to keep learning from my failures (and the things I get right), so that I can keep working, keep trying, and fail better, and better each time I write a paper, or a book chapter, or a proposal, or a blogpost even. I think, perhaps, if we change our writing mindset from success versus failure, to failing better each time, versus learning little to nothing about our writerly selves and writing, we could all probably be kinder to ourselves, and become happier, less anxious writers. Am I right on this one? I hope so.

Happy 2018 everyone!

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…