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: making space for the ’emerging argument’

Argument. I have written a lot about that over the past few years. If you are a postgraduate student, you have probably heard that word many times, and as a supervisor, you are probably always looking for ways to explain to your students more clearly and effectively ways to make strong arguments. In this post I want to reflect a bit on my book writing, and the argument I am trying to make there, hopefully with some insights into argument creation that will be helpful to those of you meandering through this nebulous labyrinth yourselves.

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The first thing to say, here, is that no academic or scholarly argument has ever been made in one go, or even two gos. It takes several iterations to think through an argument, with several rounds of reading, writing, feedback and refining as part of the process. This can be really frustrating for many scholars and writers: the back and forth doesn’t always feel creative and generative and clever. It can make you feel small, and stupid, and un-knowledgeable. Why can’t I get this right? Why are my readers confused – why is what I am saying not clear? Why is this thing so tough? The thing that seems clear(ish) to you suddenly is weird and wobbly and fragmented on the page.

The thing about argument(ation) in scholarly and research writing is that it is the thing: if you don’t have an argument, you don’t have a publishable paper, or a thesis that will lead to the award of a doctorate. So, it is seriously high stakes. If I don’t have an argument, I don’t have a book. What is more complicated about book and thesis writing is that this argument has to pull through 6, 7, 8 chapters – it is a multifaceted beast.

The book is a bit different to the thesis, I am finding. In the book, each chapter has to have a bit of everything: literature, theory, methodology, data and analysis and conclusions. In the thesis, each chapter has to make part of the larger thesis argument: the literature review makes one part of the argument for where the study fits in the field, and the theory chapter (if you have one) argues for which theoretical framework will best address the research aims and questions, and so on. This is a big ask for a scholar: to create such a multi-layered argument, over several chapters, and hold the golden thread clearly and presently in the readers’ minds.

I read a blog post recently by Pat Thomson, talking about a book she has been writing, and deadlines etc. What stuck out for me was her comments on the structure and organisation of her book argument, and how what she thought she was going to do was not exactly what had emerged from the writing and thinking process she engaged herself in. This is what I am finding now, and what I found during my PhD too: that I had plans for what I was going to say, and do, and write (my PhD proposal, my book proposal), but what I actually said, and claimed and wrote was different. Plans and reality and not the same thing when it comes to making arguments in academic research. What we have to make space for – in our heads and in our timelines – in the emergence of something we haven’t planned for.

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This is not easy. At PhD level especially, I just wanted my thesis to be right, and clear. I was very unsettled by the not-knowing, because up until that point all my previous education has primed me to know. To know what was what – what does this reading say? What are these authors claiming? What is the answer? I got used to knowing, because that was what I had been trained to do. This is a really odd aspect of higher education for me: that actually, as researchers working in the field, post-studying, we spend a lot of time not-knowing. This is our business, really: We don’t know, so we design research projects to find out, and we get much better at moving between the knowing and no-knowing. We learn to be more comfortable in that space. But, we don’t always translate that into the supervision we do, or the teaching. We tend to emphasise knowing: What is your argument? What methods are you using? What is your theory? Students are expected to have clear answers, and if they don’t they worry that something is wrong. It took me a while to learn to be okay with not-knowing, and to become resilient enough to push through that towards knowing.

I am having to keep learning this now, writing this book. The plan in my proposal is changing. That structure – that argument – is not quite working out now that I am writing and trying to allow the ideas to form, and re-form, and shift within and across chapters. The argument is emerging differently. I must be clear, it is not a whole new argument. What I wrote in my proposal and what I am doing are closely connected, but the closer details have shifted in ways I could not have anticipated when I wrote the proposal last year. So, Chapter 3 is now Chapter 5, and there is a new chapter that was not in the proposal, because the emerging book argument demands that. This is not as scary as it was when I was doing the PhD – this emerging of something un-anticipated, and new.

I quite like that my argument is alive: it is a living, growing thing with its own aims and goals. My work as the writer is to give it space to emerge, and make itself heard, and then shape it into a form that is right for my audience, so that they can really hear and appreciate it, and learn from it. This is not necessarily easy. It requires me to hold the ambivalence, to paraphrase a former therapist I saw several years ago. By this she meant holding different, perhaps incommensurate things, together in the same space while the answers worked themselves out, and the way forward became clearer. In writing, for me, this means holding the knowing and not-knowing, the plans and emergence, together, and just writing through it as the argument does take clearer shape, and becomes more solid, and persuasive and fit-for-purpose.

What I am writing through at the moment is a restructuring of the book argument on the macro-scale – moving chapters around and rejigging the overall organisation of the book. On a micro-level, I am reworking a few of the chapters, within this new structure, so that their smaller arguments actually contribute to the larger, reworked argument. This is what I need to be open to: this lack of closure on what the argument of the book, and its chapters, is, and what form that needs to take. I need to actually create, and hold, an open space where that argument can emerge, and take shape, and where I can write my way into, and through it.

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Writing your own paper, or book, or PhD, this is your work too. To not close down, and pre-determine the argument so definitely that you close this ambivalence – this space where new ideas can emerge, and new avenues for the argument can be brought in and explored. Obviously, the road cannot stay wide open indefinitely. At some point you need to shut down all the sparkly ideas off to the side, and all those other roads and paths, and choose your path and stick to it. But, even having chosen this space, this road, this argument, you can still be open to the alive-ness of your argument, and its ability to form itself in not-totally-known ways. This can make the process scary, for sure, but it can also make it more creative and interesting for you as the writer. I am certainly finding that, and it helps draw me into my writing, because I’m keen to find out where this chapter is going to go. Watch this space… 🙂

Fairy castles, ramshackle cottages and writing in the real world

I have this problem: I am not always a huge fan of reality. It’s often far less interesting and well-ordered than the world I can create in my head. For example, it can take 2 years to publish a paper – writing, revising, reviews, more (crushing at times) feedback, more revising, and this goes on and on, paper after paper. It’s tiring, and hard. But, in my head, I write a paper that is erudite and important, and journal editors and reviewers like it a lot, and it gets published within a year, and cited a lot. This sounds silly, right? It is, kind of.

I wrote ages ago about PhD fantasies, and why you should have them. In that post I argue that, while they can be distracting and even perhaps paralysing if you indulge in them too often, and for too long, fantasies can be useful motivation tools. Imagining the eventual future, as a place where we are successful, and have achieved something we are currently struggling with can push us towards that goal.  I think we need fantasy – what I call my ‘fairy castles’ – because fantasies are, at their core, creative acts. I could imagine a fairy castle of writing that goes well, is invigorating and stimulating, and that makes me feel clever, accomplished and productive. In reality, right now, I’m more like in a ramshackle cottage in the woods just trying to get the fire going with damp wood. (I have also been watching too much Once Upon a Time). The reality and the fantasy in my writing life do not align often enough.

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But, they do align. And I believe that my fairy castle papers -and Book Manuscript, and the New Project I Will Start Planning – are a vital part of creating a reality that will actually be productive, and result in written work that will eventually be published.

The fairy castle and the ramshackle cottage can be part of the same ‘writing realm’ that all writers inhabit. There are always good writing days, where you can concentrate, and make sense, and feel like progress is really being made with the piece you are working on. And there are bad days, where none of the words see  to come out right, or at all. I am starting to really get that these two kinds of days go together – they have to. It can’t all be fairy castles and magical days of erudite brilliance, but by the same token, it can’t all be days of smoky damp fires and frustration. You have to learn from the bad days, to make the good days more frequent, and useful.

The work, to follow the metaphor, is to bring the cottage closer to the castle; to bring it into the walls of the city, like one of those small houses in the shadow of the queen’s castle in medieval time.

fairy castle

I have a plan I am going to try to follow to start inching my writing fantasies and writing reality closer to one another. Firstly, I am going to write down the fantasy in my research journal: finished book chapter by February, and a book proposal and draft chapter by March. Let’s start small, so we don’t crush the whole enterprise at the outset. I am going to outline the steps I need to take to actually get there – how many words, what do I have, what do I need to read, write, do. Then, I am going to stop thinking about it all, and spend an hour a day – two pomodoros – writing. It will be awful at first. I will feel stuck, and frustrated, and cross with myself. The ramshackle cottage will feel like it is falling apart. But, if I keep slogging away at this, the cottage walls will get a bit stronger, maybe the fire will get going at last, and the fantasy of the finished work will start to become more attainable. (And I will probably feel much better about indulging in my binges of Once Upon A Time if I use them as rewards for actually writing, rather than as ways to escape writing!)

The cottage will always be a cottage – it will never turn into the fairy castle up on the hill. I am not sure it should. I think we need the struggles and frustrations to push us across important thresholds in our learning and thinking – about theory, methodology, the nature of our research, the process of actually writing, and so on. The struggles do make the victories that much sweeter, I must say, and they help me to appreciate that this is a real job. Being an active writer and researcher is work, hard work most days, and it is valuable work. To me, and hopefully to others in my field too.

So, my plan for this year is both simple, and really hard: to strive to create a writing realm for myself where the cottage I really live in is closer to the castle I admire, and often wish I lived in, so that they co-exist in a mutually beneficial space, where the fantasy feeds the reality, rather than keeping me from it. Or, where the words become sentences, the sentences become paragraphs, and the paragraphs become my published work.