Book writing: I wrote a book!

If you have been following this blog for a while, you will know that I have been writing a book. Last night I typed the final full stop on the draft manuscript, and today it’s going off to the series editor and the publisher. The work is not yet done – reviews and changes and proofs and all that are still ahead, but guys, I wrote a book!

It feels amazing and oddly anti climatic, a bit like finishing the PhD thesis. In form, the book and the thesis were a lot less alike than I thought they were going to be, but in process they were quite similar. Much to my dismay, it turns out I have not become any better at time management and planning my writing time than I was 5 years ago. Also, while I am better at shushing the Mean Voice that says my writing sucks, I am still quite angsty about whether I have anything to say that people will want to read. So, I wrote a book but in many ways I am still struggling to be a confident writer.

Perhaps this is unsurprising. Reading Helen Sword’s book about how successful academics write, I am struck by truth that learning to be a writer is not a process with an end. Well, death is an end, I suppose. But, what I mean is that there is no point where you go ‘Yes, I am here! I can now write without any imposter syndrome or struggle or fear that my writing is crap – it will all be smooth sailing from here on!’ I think many students have this weird idea that their supervisors just churn out published research and erudite online pieces without any trouble and that they are the only ones who struggle with writing. There’s a lot of self-blame about writing struggles, and this can be hard to manage and overcome, especially without help.

Maybe there are magical academics who write and write without a single moment of self-doubt or fatigue over revisions or wishing they could just stop and not do this anymore. I have not yet met any, but academia is a big place, so who knows? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if you have no angst at all about your writing you are probably not doing it fully consciously. By this I mean that all writers, fiction and non-fiction, put themselves into their pages. I write about my research, which I do because it is meaningful to me, part of my identity as a scholar and also as a human. So, when you read my papers and my book(!), you are getting to know me a bit, and what I care about professionally and personally. If I was completely unfazed by any parts of the writing process, I probably wouldn’t be fully connected with it on a personal level, I reckon.

This is probably why I find writing so angsty so often – I’m not writing about something detached from me. If readers and reviewers are really critical, it hurts. If people think my ideas are weak, or wrong, that’s hard to process. If you’ve spent any time writing for publication and sending your work to journals and publishers, you will know that critical feedback is part of the deal. If you have had hurtful feedback already, you will know that it can be hard to come back from in terms of believing in your ideas and continuing to put them out there. I think part of my angst and struggle is often linked to anticipation of criticism. I get ahead of myself and imagine all the disagreement and opposition to my ideas that might be out there before I’ve written it all down, and then I start to doubt myself. I did that far too often with the book, and ended up behind schedule for most of it.

The solution here is to surround yourself with people who genuinely do believe in you. As Lovely Husband said the other day, it (the last bits of the book, in my case) is like climbing Mount Doom, and Frodo could not have done that alone. He needed Sam to help him get there, to keep telling him he could do it. You are Frodo and you need Sams, family, friends and peers who can encourage you, make you tea, share your ideas and offer constructive advice, and keep you going. The trick, when these people tell you that your writing is not crap and that you can do it, is to believe them. You need to pick Sams who you will believe, and whose encouragement and advice will be meaningful to you. I had so many Sams, virtually and in person, and I could not have kept going at points without them. As with my PhD, this part of writing has not changed: you need people with you on this road.

The other solution here is to consciously get out of your own way. I am so good at getting in my own way and getting ahead of myself. I have written the mean reviews for the mean reviewers before I have written a word for them to actually read! I did this a lot during the PhD too, putting feedback into my supervisor’s voice even though I knew that she wouldn’t actually be that mean or that critical and was far more likely to be encouraging even if she thought I should rewrite a whole section, or think harder about my claims. The thing is, you can only write and read and think your way through your project one day, one idea, on sentence at a time. Try to actively bring yourself back when you start freaking out about next month, next year, the next 100 pages. You’ll get there, but you have to go through here first. This has been a huge lesson for me in writing this book.

I think being a more confident writer probably requires a mix of things. I need to keep learning to be conscious of where I am now and where I need to end up with the paper or chapter, but not freaking out and getting ahead of myself so that the writing is tied up in knots before I have started. I need to keep being brave and sharing my writing struggles and my clunky words with my Sams, and try to believe their feedback when it comes, both positive and not. I need to be kind to myself but not let myself off the hook – a little bit of writing and thinking every day is better than nothing; it keeps the ideas from getting away from me and taking on a life of their own.

None of this is new. I have written it all before here, in different words and ways, this just reinforces for me that this writing gig is a lifelong learning process, and that we often have to learn the same lessons over and over in relation to different projects and at different times. I am always going to be learning how to believe in myself and my ideas, and I think doubt is part of the process of becoming a good writer, someone who is conscientious, understands the power of words, and takes this responsibility seriously. But we have to work to keep the doubt in check, so that we can keep writing and working and get the ideas out there for people to agree and disagree with.

Putting your work out there, in any form, is hard. I want everyone to love this book and, like the PhD, I want it to be the best book ever. It won’t be, of course. But, I am so proud of it, and it’s written. It’s a stepping stone to new projects, like the PhD was a stepping stone to this one. This is another thing I am still learning: that every paper, every project is another building block for me, another opportunity for learning, another chance to fail better. This actually helps me – if the PhD or the book is not the only things ever that you will write, you have more chances to do better, to reflect and learn and grow.

I hope some of this helps you to feel less alone, and like you have Sam her, believing in you and your ability and ideas. Everyone struggles, everyone fails, even the most successful and productive writers you know. Their secret is that they don’t let either the success of the failure define them to the point that they stop learning from the struggles, and working out how to keep moving forward. Happy writing, Frodo Baggins. You got this.

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.