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.

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.
Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Academic writing: making (some) sense of a complex ‘practice of mystery’

This is a second post linked to my own insights about academic writing at postgraduate and postdoctoral level, gleaned from working with a range of student and early career writers over the last few years. This one tackles a tricky topic: the aspects of writing that can be knowable and teachable, and those that are more tacit and mysterious, and how we grapple with this as writers (and writing teachers).

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Have you ever had the experience of reading a really well-written, tightly argued paper without one word out of place, and wondered: ‘how did the author do that?’ Writing like that seems like a fabulous piece of magic – a card trick that should be easy to do, but is actually much harder than it looks to replicate yourself. Why is academic writing so complex, and hard to do in sparkly, elegant, memorable papers and theses?

Theresa Lillis refers to academic essay writing in particular, which is sort of a base unit for all other forms of prose-style academic writing, as an institutional practice of mystery. It is difficult to decode the rules, and then re-enact them in your own writing, across different subjects, different disciplines, and different levels of study and career-practice. Each time you write, you have to learn something new – develop and hone your skills. If you are starting from a position of not being a mother-tongue speaker of the language you are writing in, or having had a relatively poor home and school literacy background, then this writing work is all the more challenging. This is why writing needs to be de-mystified through being made a visible, learnable-and-teachable part of the curriculum.

As a writing teacher, this is where the challenge starts: how do I facilitate the process of creating ‘magic’ through helping writers develop and hone their skills so that a paper can be written or a thesis constructed? What parts of this process can I really make overtly knowable and teachable, and what parts will remain somewhat ‘mysterious’? This is perhaps a small part of a bigger question about whether every aspect of higher education learning and teaching can indeed be made visible, overt, step-by-step and therefore more easily learnable by as many students as possible.

pulling ideas together

Some of the writing process is knowable and teachable in relatively overt ways: there are clear guidelines for creating a research design and outlining methodology and methods, and you can follow a process that can be broken down into steps. There is a basic process to follow that will take you from a broader research problem, through increasingly focused reading to a gap, and then to a research question you can answer. There are useful ‘rules’ to follow to create clear, coherent paragraphs that are written in your own authorial voice, using basic structures, guides and tools that have been tried and tested, and researched. Thus, as a writing teacher and coach, I can (and do) draw on all of the advice, tools, experience and insight at my disposal to make as much of the process of creating a paper or a research project visible, knowable and teachable. But…

You can follow all the advice, and play by all the ‘rules’ that can be made visible and be broken into steps or parts, and still end up with a paper or thesis that is missing something. It’s all there, but it’s not. Technically, it’s a paper or a thesis: it has all the required sections, it says something relatively novel, and it has been edited and polished. But examiners and reviewers are lukewarm – it meets all the visible standards, but it seems to miss some invisible mark that no one told you about or showed you.

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What went wrong?

Trafford and Leshem, in this paper on doctoral writing, argue that the missing ‘x-factor’ is something they call ‘doctorateness’. This is more than displaying skill at writing or doing research, and it is more than having a good idea for a paper or a thesis. It is something slightly mysterious, and has aspects in common, I think, with Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. This can be defined as ‘the physical embodiment of cultural capital, to the deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences’ (Social Theory Re-Wired). Habitus, doctorateness, the writing x-factor – these are difficult and somewhat ambiguous concepts. The point of writing at this level is to persuade people of your arguments – to win them over to thinking about your subject in a novel, or challenging, or critical way. We write to make and convey meaning, and we need to structure, style and present our papers in the ways that best enables this.

The style of the writing needs to reflect the nature of the knowledge. If you are writing in the natural sciences, you would likely be writing in a starker, more pared down prose so that the ‘science’ shines and conveys the meaning you (and your readers) are interested in, whereas in English Literature, you would probably choose more creative phrasing, ‘flowery’ prose and imagery to construct and convey your meanings. We write within and in response to stylistic and meaning-oriented ‘structures’ that shape our writing, and are shifted and shaped by the writing that we do over time. So, there are two aspects here that writers need to be aware of, and work on continuously.

The first is the ‘rules’ or guidelines that I have already mentioned a little: how are meanings predominantly created and conveyed within your subject/discipline/field? What will your readers likely expect, and what will journal editors/examiners be looking for to mark your writing out as ‘belonging’ to this field, and making a contribution? This is important. If you break or bend too many of the rules, your readers may completely miss your meaning, and the paper will fall short of making your voice heard in relation to those you want to ‘converse’ with in your field. This aspect can be knowable and teachable: the genres, conventions, structures, forms and small and big ‘rules for writing’ can be elicited, make visible, and broken down into manageable advice, steps and so on.

The second aspect is where the ambiguity comes in – where part of the writer’s habitus/’doctorateness’ resides. This aspect involves making and conveying meanings within and perhaps slightly beyond the ‘rules for writing’ that shape your field, but with a certain flair, style and ‘je ne sais quois’ that makes your writing more engaging, interesting and readable than papers that may make similar kinds of arguments. This is harder to teach, and harder to enact in your own writing in ways that you can put into words or steps for others to follow. The truth may well be that some writers have more of a flair for writing than others. This flair may come from being an avid reader (and living in a home and going to a school that surrounded them with books and time to read). It may come from having had a wonderful English teacher at school who provided advice and encouragement. It may be something less easy to pin down – it may be a bit of a mystery in the end.

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As a writing teacher and coach, I work hard to unpack, break down and make teachable as much of the writing-reading-thinking process as I can, using images, metaphors, examples and so on. For the most part, it enables people to make a start on a paper or chapter, and make progress over time. It is harder to tell writers what exactly it is about parts of their paper or thesis that don’t ‘work’ for me as a reader, but I think it is important to try. Why am I not convinced or persuaded here? Why is this point not making an impact? Why does this meaning come across as vague, or confusing? If more writers could be pointed – by critical friends/examiners/peer reviewers/editors – towards  a need to re-read, re-think and revise their meanings from the perspective of readers, perhaps more writers would be able to unravel the more mysterious parts of academic writing. It would certainly be an encouraging start to making the writing of publishable academic work less complex, and thus more achievable for more writers.

Writing mantras: do they work to get you through the Hard Days?

In my last post, I talked about the struggle of getting back into my writing. Last year was predominantly The Year for Other People’s Writing, and it has been so long since I have created any writing of my own that I feel my mojo is well and truly gone. I hope – I think – this cannot be so, but I am having a hard time finding, or creating it. I have resorted to using writing mantras. I am not really a platitude kind of person – I am not optimistic enough for that – but I am finding, to my surprise, that they are helping me through the Hard Days.

I have three I am relying on, and when writing it awful, and hard, and clunky and just painful, I remind myself of these mantras, and find that I feel a little less cross with myself, and less like to berate myself for no longer being able to write effectively. Most of the days right now are Hard Days, so I am leaning quite heavily on my platitudes. I though I would share these, in the hope that if you are having too many Hard Days, you too may find encouragement. At the very least, you are in good company!

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  1. First drafts don’t have to be perfect; they just have to be written.

Put another, cruder way: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’ (Hemingway). I like to remind myself that this is true. No first draft ever made it into print without substantial changes, revisions and rethinking. NO ONE is that good, not even your academic or fiction-writing idols. If I look at all the papers and chapters I have published, the minimum number of drafts is about 6. Before submission. So, really, expecting this first draft of the chapter I am currently clunking around with to be anything other than a mess is unrealistic. And being unrealistic leads to being mean to myself, and being mean to myself leads to further writing paralysis, and not enjoying the writing. This is a bad slope to ski down.

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2. You can’t build a fairycastle without all the bricks (and windows, doors and turrets.

This one is my own creation, and I am quite chuffed with it. I keep trying to edit before I have written, second guessing my wording, and sentence length and choice of sub-heading. It’s so counter-productive. I know this, but I do it too much anyway. This leads to more paralysis, and more bad feelings. I am trying to remind myself that I need to put all the pieces in one place first, before I can reorganise them, tinker with the placement of the windows, and so on. So, in other words, just write. Even if it sounds clunky, and you can see that the sentences are too long, and the words are not the right ones. You can refine, move things around, edit the structure and so on once you have all of the pieces you will need. This also reminds me, again, why planning ahead of starting to write is so important – it gives you a sense of which pieces you need to collect together.

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3. A journey of 1000 miles begins (and continues) with single steps.

Another version of this is to say that writing anything of substance and around 6000 words is not a sprint. You cannot do it all super fast – it’s a marathon and the execution takes time. But it starts with a single step. One pomodoro. 200 words. A plan. And then another step and another, and the more you do, the easier it gets to keep going, because the end of the journey draws closer. Yes, you will flag, and be tired, and have Hard Days inbetween the easier ones, as in any long-ish journey. But, you have to keep stepping forward, even if some days you literally do one thing, while on others you fly along the trail a bit. The slogging and plodding is all part of the process.

I guess I could close with one more mantra that underpins all of these: Trust the Process. I have done this before – created a piece of publishable writing from scratch. And I have survived all the Hard Days that went it that process. I know, if I do the work I will get to where I want to be. I know it will be awful at first and then get a bit easier. It is a process I have been able to trust and follow through before, so I can do it again now. Trust the process, collect the pieces, wade through the shite writing that has started me off, and start walking towards the destination, step by step.

What mantras sustain you through your Hard Days? Please share in the comments if you have some inspiration for the rest of us :-).

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!