Saturday, May 30, 2015

How Do We Write? Dysfunctional Academic Writing

by Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Alexandra Gillespie

Suzanne Conklin Akbari 
How We Write

A conversation has unfolded on Facebook over the last week on the topic of How We Write. Two of us who were involved in that conversation would like to push it forward, first offering our own experiences here, and then going on to collect the experiences of others who are also willing to share, perhaps (if there’s sufficient interest) putting together a collective resource on How We Write. (Note that this is not to be confused with ‘How To Write’ – these are idiosyncratic, self-flagellating approaches to the process.) So please add your experience in the comments, or share it in another way, and let us know if this kind of collective resource is something you’d like to read and/or contribute to.

The impetus for this conversation was a wonderful blogpost by Michael Collins on the occasion of a roundtable hosted by the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto, on how to facilitate dissertation-writing groups. Michael’s thoughtful engagement with his own experience of writing – posted and reposted on a number of Facebook pages – led to an outpouring of personal accounts of the dissertation-writing years, both from those currently in the trenches and those for whom those years are very much in the rear-view mirror. What emerged was a clear sense of the diversity of writing practices that are out there: there’s no single ‘right’ way to write, and exposure to that range of practices might help those who are in the process of mastering academic writing to feel more confident in their own abilities, most of all by demonstrating that such ‘mastery’ is an ongoing – potentially limitless – effort.

In his post, Michael commented on the need for better writing support, both in the form of peer communities that provide uncritical support and shared goal-setting, and in the form of structured, scaffolded writing tasks. The first means of support can be facilitated by faculty and administrators, who can provide students with information on building student-led writing groups, good space to work in groups, and so on. The second means of support could also be provided, but would probably have to be provided in the form of supplementary instruction by teachers of writing. The reason: most of us faculty are not equipped to teach writing. Like Alexandra, I write in short bursts of productivity that punctuate long periods of frustration and distraction; I'm not sure anyone would want to learn to write the way I do. It’s possible that faculty who work in a different way, writing a disciplined page or two every morning, could provide the kind of writing mentorship that would be useful to doctoral students. But I'm coming to think that people simply have different styles of writing: the goal is to figure out what style works for you and learn to do it well.

I know that some faculty do write in a regular, methodical way – a few hundred words every morning, or even a page every day. Such writers include much admired mentors and good friends. And I have always assumed that my own inability to write in any way other than short bursts of manic activity is pathological. This poses a particular problem in mentoring students as they develop their own writing processes, because I would feel like a complete charlatan telling people to write the way I do: “Procrastinate until you're so consumed with anxiety that you go away and do something else, then let the ideas stew until you're ready to write, then don't talk to anyone for three days while you write. Voila, article draft!” This is not a sound pedagogical method.

And yet it works. As Alex Gillespie said to me, in the course of one of the Facebook threads arising from Michael’s blogpost, “Our way is a bit manic but it works right? I mean, we produce. And I enjoy the process.” It does indeed work, in the sense that it takes a terribly long time to get ready to write, to come to the point when the trajectory of the argument is clear; but when that time comes, the words pour out. When that time comes, when you’re truly in the writing zone, there's nothing like it – it’s fantastic, so exhilarating, completely satisfying. I could never get into that frame of mind through daily writing. Which means that it’s a form of addiction: the high of writing in a concentrated way, where you no longer think consciously about the words you’re writing but just hear the words out loud as you put them on the page, is absolutely intoxicating. So let me summarize a few examples of this experience, what it has felt like to work in this way. I’ll begin with an overview of my writing as it developed over the years I spent in graduate school (1988-94); the following several years, as the dissertation evolved into a monograph (1995-2003); and the very different experience of writing a second monograph (2004-08).

When I started writing in graduate school, I was lucky in three ways: 1) I had a remarkable experience of intense training in short-form (three-page) writing, in two graduate seminars on Renaissance poetry; 2) I taught in Columbia’s “Logic and Rhetoric” courses, teaching undergraduates to write (and rewrite) frequent short papers; and 3) I stumbled onto a topic in the very first semester of my MA program that would ultimately become the core of my dissertation. While this training in short-form writing – both as student and as teacher – might seem a world away from the long-form dissertation, the rapid turnaround of these short papers gave me the ability to write quickly, without thinking about it too much, as well as good training in close reading practice, both of which became useful building blocks in the dissertation. Teaching this form of writing was just as useful as writing this form, in that it required me to articulate the stakes of short-form writing in this way, and to guide students through the process. Finally, I had the good fortune to find my topic early: in the first term of the MA (in 1988), in a course on Medieval Allegory, I wrote a paper on “The Tripartite Narrator of the First Roman de la rose: Dreamer, Lover, and Narcissus.” It was a lousy paper, but its preoccupation with visual experience, mythography, and what I would later call “structural allegory” became the core of what became the chapter on Guillaume de Lorris in my dissertation and – ultimately – in the monograph that I published in 2004.

At that time, Columbia MA students were obliged to identify one seminar paper per term as having special status. This paper could be longer than the usual seminar paper, up to about 20 or 22 pages, and would be passed on from the initial instructor to a departmentally appointed second reader. The exercise was not a useful one, except in one respect: the requirement to think of writing in the longer form (not as long as an article, but longer than a usual seminar paper) asked us to think beyond the usual limits, and to imagine a still longer form of writing that might lie ahead.

When I started writing the dissertation, I was encouraged – as I still encourage my own students – to begin with the material I knew best. Accordingly, the first chapter I wrote was on the optical allegory of Guillaume’s Rose. It wasn’t a very good dissertation chapter, and it’s still the weakest chapter in the book; but it was the very heart of the whole project, the piece from which all the other parts emerged. I can remember sitting in a cafĂ© in our neighborhood in the early 1990s, thinking about the Roman de la rose, reflecting on the two crystals at the bottom of the fountain of Narcissus and the way that white light would be refracted in them. As I thought about the passage, I peered into the surface of the stone in the ring I was wearing, and looked at the different sparks of color that flashed into sight. I felt like I was motionlessly seeing the object of thought; that if I only looked hard enough, I would understand how the parts of the argument related to one another, and I would see the shape of the whole.

In retrospect, that was a self-indulgent and probably silly experience. But it was absolutely central to my writing process. The protracted period of suspension, reading and thinking, doing other things – teaching, looking after children, etc. – were necessary to set the stage for the dissertation writing, which immediately took on a rhythm of its own. I could reliably write one chapter per term, and at the end of three years post-field exams, the dissertation was complete. I cannot emphasize this point often enough: the pace of writing was not because I am a disciplined writer, because I am the opposite of that. But I did have the confidence to believe that the writing would come when it was ready, and I pushed hard to get to the point when the words would be ripe and ready to fall on the page.

The same frustration and sense of deferral marked the years leading up to the ultimate publication of the book that emerged from the dissertation. On the advice of one of my co-supervisors, I put the dissertation aside after the defense. In retrospect, this may not have been good advice, because I found it very difficult to return to this project after a few years, ready to restructure and revise it into monograph form. On the other hand, the length of time that separated dissertation and monograph – nine years – may have given the work that was ultimately published a greater degree of maturity and cohesiveness would have otherwise been possible. And the tension that existed during that period between the work that I was finishing up (Seeing Through the Veil) and the new work that I was developing (what would become Idols in the East) was certainly very productive.

Writing a second book was very different from the first, in three ways. The first, and most important difference? I knew that I could write a book, because I had done it; this made it easy to be confident that I could write another one, and the only question was what shape it would take. That shape preoccupied me on and off during the period 1995-2008, most intensely in 2005-07, after publishing Seeing Through the Veil, finishing a collection of essays on Marco Polo, and finally turning completely to the task of writing Idols in the East. I had initially conceived of the book as separated into chapters focused on individual books or authors – on the model of Seeing Through the Veil – but gradually came to think of organizing it thematically, which is a much more difficult shape to control. As with the earlier project, there was a kind of epiphanic experience that came soon before the main part of the writing period: I was walking home, shortly before meeting a friend, and suddenly saw clearly how I wanted to connect the concept of orientation, understood in a polysemous way, to the theory of Orientalism. So I stopped on the street and scribbled some notes on cardinal directions and how identity might be conceived of in spatial terms. That ‘Aha!’ moment was crucial to my writing process. After that moment, it was a matter of shutting myself up in my office, not talking to anyone, eating lunch over my keyboard, and just typing out the words as I heard them.

Again, it sounds pretentious and magical, and completely implausible. But that’s what my experience has been like. And it is crucial not to lose sight of the enormous frustration, long periods of the inability to be productive, and painfully acute tendency to be distracted. I spend way more time wanting to write and not finding my way to it than I do in the act of writing. But when it’s happening, there’s nothing like it.

How can this story be useful to others? Maybe, just maybe, by letting those who are still laboring in the trenches of the dissertation know that there are many different ways of experiencing the creative process – because it is, at least in part, a creative process. Academic writing is basically simple, practical, methodical, steady work; except when it isn’t, when it’s instead ambitious and exciting and overreaching. I can’t imagine having dedicated so much of my life to this work without the rewards of this second aspect of academic writing. So what I would like to say, to those who are now writing their dissertations and feeling frustrated with their own progress, lacking confidence in their abilities to carry out their projects, is: KNOW YOURSELF. Are you able to be a disciplined writer, who puts down a couple of hundred words – or even a whole page – every morning? If so, God bless you, you are one of the lucky ones. That’s your process, and it’s a remarkably sane and productive one; I often wish I could work in that way.

But if you find yourself thinking about many different things at once – the chapter you should be writing, and the conference abstract that’s due next week, and the guest lecture on Ovid you will give next month, and the baby you have to pick up from daycare in a few hours – maybe you simply are that sort of thinker. If so, embrace your process and celebrate it, because you will be able to create the impression of remarkable productivity through the means of what is sometimes called Structured Procrastination. If the chapter isn’t coming along, write the conference abstract, even though it’s not due for another week; if the abstract isn’t coming along, write the lecture that’s coming up next month. You procrastinate, avoiding doing the task you should be doing by doing a different task that you also have to do. And the illusion is created – the magnificent illusion – of being able to do a tremendous number of things.

Alexandra Gillespie 
On Academic Writing

I only write when I have to. Because reasons. It’s just the way I write.

I used to invent the necessity in “have to.” “How will you fund the fourth year of your DPhil?” asked my Oxford supervisor in October 1997. I was 23, fresh from an undergraduate degree; I had little Latin, less Greek. (Ha ha! I had no Greek.) I hadn’t read much English literature, come to think of it. “I will finish in three years,” I told her. “Good,” she said.

And because I had said it, I did it. Well, sort of: by October 2000 my thesis existed – not great, but fully footnoted at least.

To get to that point, I needed immediate deadlines as well as deep, energizing anxiety (fear I would not keep my word, fear I would disappoint, fear I would run out of funding). I gave my first year MSt qualifying paper at a conference: high pressure but good fun. So I scheduled conference presentations for the rest of the thesis. There’s nothing like the prospect of giving a paper to “famous” academics to make you write a whole chapter about early printing on the train from Oxford to Glasgow.[1]

Now, by the time I boarded that train, I had seen hundreds of early printed books and I had a database full of notes about them. I had some super OHPTs.[2] I even had some thoughts written down. This is because my advisors would leave fear-mongering notes in my pigeonhole. “Come over for coffee” and such.[3] Terrifying. I would respond defensively, with 5,000 words.

But it was the conference-going that was most fruitful. To this day, I do all the writing that really matters to me on the eve of a talk, or while I am travelling to deliver it.

Gadding about also gave a productive shape to my academic life. I made friends. I realized how much I needed community. I joined societies, started collaborations, committed to publications, applied for library fellowships, organized a conference, and took on a big load of teaching (my favourite interlocutors are always students).

The end of October 2000 came, and I did have a thesis ready. But somehow I also did not. It still seemed a bit wrong. Moreover, I did not have time to fix it, because I was occupied with all those other ‘necessities’.

So I stalled. I worked on the other stuff for months. Eventually one of my Oxford teachers asked the question I was too scared to ask myself: “Alex, when’re you gonna hand that thang in?” [4]

Shame works like fear for me. I went straight home and revised 80,000 words in 19 days. I got about three hours of sleep per night. Towards the end I was so tired that I hallucinated a rat on a can of soup at Sainsbury’s. There he was: and then – oh dear! No rat. That was when I decided it really was time to hand the thang in.

None of this was healthy, but it was kind of . . . great. I had been thinking about problems with that thesis for six months. Solutions emerged in an exuberant rush. I wrote 3-5,000 words a day, including substantial new sections that I later published, verbatim, in Print Culture and the Medieval Author (2006).

Anyway, that was then. Now I am much older and in a privileged rather than precarious position. I have tenure, research funding, brilliant students, glorious colleagues.[5] I’ve had formative experiences. Through them, I’ve realized that fear and anxiety are less necessary to me than I once believed.

But – happier, more accepting, middle aged – I still maintain the patterns I established as a graduate student. My time is completely, deliberately filled up. I am up to my teeth in teaching, supervising, grant writing, collaborative project management, commissioned essays, reviews. (I have some principles that guide my selection of activities: (1) Remember the rat! Leave time for sleep. (2) Prioritize kids and partner. (3) Avoid assholes.)

When I can squeeze time out of my schedule, I read and think. I inflict my thoughts on members of my research lab. I visit archives, just for a day or two. I scribble ideas down in a notebook. I contribute tl;dr comments to Facebook threads.

And then I write – but only when I have to write. A few weeks ago, I wrote 6,000 words in six hours, so I could send them all to Maura Nolan.[6] This was a lot, even for me. But – Maura Nolan! I’d write 6,000 words for Maura any day.

What is to be learned from this? I’m not sure. This post is very much about me (me, me, me). I offer it mainly because, in a recent Facebook conversation, younger colleagues expressed their belief that all ‘successful’ (i.e., privileged) academics were steady-as-she-goes, 300-words-a-day people. Well, not me.

I suppose my advice about writing is not actually about writing. It’s more about being:

· Learn who you are, and then be it more, instead of thinking, always, that you are meant to be less.

· Be grateful for everything, because you have learned from all of it and you love learning.[7]

· Practice patience and empathy with yourself and others.[8] (However, do reserve a little hostility for assholes.[9] )

· You are okay, and it will be okay (or else it won’t be okay, and that will be okay too).[10] Once you truly believe that, writing and all manner of things will be well.

[1] Early Book Society Conference, July 1999, organized by the lovely Martha Driver and Jeremy Smith.
[2] A now defunct technology, remembered fondly by elderly people.
[3] My advisors were Anne Hudson and Helen Cooper, and they were unfailingly generous in every way.
[4] Those who know him will recognize the Texas twang of Ralph Hanna III.
[5] Like Suzanne Conklin Akbari, who with Michael Collins and ITM created the space for this discussion.
[6] So she could respond to my paper for the Digital Premodern Symposium, May 2014, hosted by Claire Waters and Amanda Phillips, with help from Seeta Chaganti and Colin Milburn. Thanks to them all: I had a blast and got a book chapter out of it!
[7] So, gratitude is not for everyone, but it’s how I reconcile myself to chronic illness and medications that affect my day-to-day functioning; and the injury of my daughter at birth and her mild disability. Am I grateful for the incompetent and rampantly misogynist doctors I met on this “journey”? Well, no, of course not. But I am grateful for what is. I am all good! And so is my kid. When, despite best efforts, self-recrimination and helplessness sweep over me, I turn to mindfulness practices, e.g. (H/t: the magical Andrea Bonsey).
[8] It helps to see human beings as overgrown toddlers. We’re all struggling to regulate our emotions. We’re awful when we’re tired, hungry, or in pain. Sometimes people feel shy, or need to have a little tizzy. Be gentle and wait; the tizzy will pass.
[9] True assholes are easy to spot. They are the ones whose tizzies involve dumping on people under and around them (but never above them). They are obviously in a lot of pain, but their pain takes an ugly and destructive form. Be empathetic; that will allow you to see that their assholery is not about you. But do not waste your your emotional energy on an asshole. Note, further, that many of us have internalized others’ assholery so completely that we are assholes to our Self. This makes us especially vulnerable to the asshole Other. Here is how I have learned to handle assholes, over the years:
[10] The poet Kate Camp wrote those words down for me on a scrap of paper and gave them to me as farewell gift when I left NZ in 1997. I carried it round in my wallet until I passed the DPhil, when I passed it to a friend. But it took me another decade to get her point.


Heide Estes said...

I love this. Thank you. I write in long apparently unproductive gaps followed by fits of activity, and I routinely do tell my students that they have to find their own way of writing -- but I still am very glad to hear others work in the same way. Thank you for opening up about your own writing, and thank you for the opportunity to have this conversation. I will be sending students to this post.

Irina said...

So, so, so good. Thank you!

Suzanne Akbari said...

Thank you, Heide! It would be great to learn more about your experiences, and those of your students -- the more of these stories of personal writing practice we get into circulation, the better.

Jonathan Hsy said...

Thank you so much for initiating this conversation (Michael) and for offering these reflections (Suzanne and Alex). We need to demystify how writing happens and be more upfront about the process. There are so many aspects of academic life that can be a kind of mysterious "black box" -- especially for grad students and earlier-stage scholars -- and whenever we can break things open and be more transparent, it can offer some degree of comfort and reassurance.

Victoria Whitworth said...

I don't understand why Suzanne is so hard on herself? Every other sentence seems to be self-deprecating to the point of self-contempt. If it works, celebrate it. I am a novelist as well as an academic and I work like this in both modes.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Suzanne and Alex, for this excellent guest post. It is good to know we ALL struggle with writing and we all know its pleasures as well, no matter the career stage.

I wrote a little bit about my own writing process a a few years ago here , and the same routines [as well as breaking out of the sameness of routine] assist me in getting writing accomplished. There are some GREAT comments to that post so I'd encourage anyone reading this to follow the link.

Unknown said...

It's funny that to me, both Suzanne's and Alex' styles seem to be quite similar, and both seem to fit into my own writing... It's truly amazing to see that the best people out there do not exactly fit into the XYZ-words-per day model! For myself, I TRY to discipline the process by giving myself impossible deadlines and limits ("I *will* write 5 pages a day every day, to finish the chapter in two weeks") so that even when I finish half of what I intended to, it's still enough, and I think that corresponds to the productive anxiety, or fear, that Alex wrote about. But for me, it's inseparable with that sense of readiness and ripeness that only comes after structured procrastination, that Suzanne wrote about. Except, for me, the best time to chew over any academic thoughts, arguments, conclusions, and even doing close reading, in my head, is when I'm doing something physical. Preferably, gym :O My students struggle with various aspects of writing, from the very *sit down and start* moment, to the more risky, and tiresome, blocks on the way. But I absolutely agree that self knowledge is key here, because "success is 10% discipline and 90% self-knowledge" as a friend of mine always says. With permission, I am going to show this blog to some of my students (and I am going to read it again myself!), for encouragement,tips on how to learn what your style is, and accept it as your own individual way of writinh. So, thank you so much!

Unknown said...

On self-contempt - well, it's real right? For whatever reason I don't experience it with respect to my writing practice and never did - but heaps of people do (and I experience it in other places in my academic life). Almost all my PhD supervisees exhibit some degree of self-loathing about their writing practice. It's quite something to see someone as established as Suzanne express the feeling honestly, and yet lightly. The lightness is critical: the difference between my younger and older selves' self-contempt, is that when younger it was cripplingly painful. Now it's more, wryly amused. I find my pathologies endearing - I like them, bc I like myself (most of the time). Suzanne has to speak for herself, but it seems to me that she doesn't take her self-contempt, any more than she takes herself, overly seriously. When I say - practice patience and empathy with yourself, I'd say, for god's sake don't beat yourself up for beating yourself up, if you can help it, bc you can't help it! Chillax about being totally not chillaxed! And other paradoxes.

Suzanne said...

On self-contempt: it is real, and I think many of us have it. Alex is right that it can be crippling early on and becomes less so over time, but we still tend to hide it, even as established scholars. It emerges, I think, from the very habits of mind that make us good scholars: we judge, almost constantly, the merit of work - the articles we read for research, the book ms we read for a press, abstract submissions, student work - and so naturally we judge ourselves as well. This is a good thing, because we hold ourselves to the same high standard we hold others. But while with a ms review, a tenure file, or a student paper, we begin by praising the positive before turning to critique, we rarely stop to praise ourselves.

Unknown said...

To practice being ok in my own skin, I try judge without judging. My favourite students - the ones on whose essays I write the most enthusiastic comments - are often low C and D students - bc I am like, well, either you have some pathology/silliness that means you fail to see you need to try harder; or you have some kind of impediment to learning; or you just need to learn more - all of which, I can help with! And I sure do love to "help". Same goes for reading of manuscripts and articles and stuff. I do lose my cool when I spot an asshole though. Like a privileged scholar who is just taking the piss, as we say in my country. Anyway ,all this helps me be a bit more accepting of my own failings.

Friends of Margaret Fairley Park said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Goldstein said...

What a wonderful discussion and what fascinating writing stories. The flip side of self-contempt, I think, is that it's important to communicate to students that writing habits are not fixed but can be developed and modified if and when necessary. I don't mean "everyone can write 300 words a day" but rather: if your approach to writing is very much your own, but still produces lots of stress and unhappiness (and contempt), are there ways to make changes that make it more about pleasure and less about agony? My approach to writing has always been close to Alex's and Suzanne's, but in the years between the dissertation and the first book I worked hard to be ready for the lightning burst without having to stand out in the rain shivering miserably for too long waiting for it. Or at least to wear a raincoat. And I've found that making deliberate changes has resulted in a more pleasurable relationship to my own writing process.

Jennifer said...

Check out another perspective too, sparked by my collaboration with Karen Overbey, posted on the Material Collective website:

Anna Wilson said...

Thank you so much for this, Suzanne and Alex! It's so moving and empowering to know that some of the people I look up to most in academia use and have made successful writing practices which I've internalized as 'bad'.

Donna Maria ALexander said...

One of the best pieces of advice I got when I started my PhD was to find my "two golden hours" per day and exploit them. I found that I write best mid-morning and did my best to ensure that I had at least a few mid-mornings per week free to write...of course this didn't always work, but when it was good it was really good! I also started a "shut up and write" group (still ongoing). Having these regular writing sessions is great because it takes the isolation out of writing and gives peers and colleagues a chance to talk about their work, any problems they are having with their writing etc. Thanks for writing this post! I think it's something we need to keep talking about.

Maura Nolan said...

Thanks, Alex, for saying that -- they were 6000 brilliant words, too! Responding to you was such a pleasure that I found myself writing a whole lot very fast, which is not the way I normally work.

A couple of thoughts occur to me in response to you and Suzanne. The first is that writing habits change over time in response to our life circumstances; what works when you are young and healthy doesn't always work later in life, for example; you might acquire a disability of some kind that changes the way you do work; you might have a baby, which for a lot of people dramatically changes the way they write (while once they had to have perfect writing conditions, a full day set aside, a beautiful clean space, etc, they learn to be satisfied with a snatched twenty minutes of naptime, with the iPad on a kitchen table covered in toast crumbs and last night's dishes!), you might become an administrator, which can similarly fracture writing time, and so on. So while early in life it is about finding what works for you, what your writing style is all about, later in life it becomes much more about fitting writing into the limitations that your body and your family and your job set for it,

The second thought I had is that these conversations are really good for undergraduates to share, too. We did an event in the English Department at Berkeley called "How I Write," in which a panel of grad students and faculty spoke to undergrads about how they got motivated to sit down and write, what they did when they finally sat down at the computer, and so on. What we found was that it was hugely transformative for the undergrads to hear that writing was hard for their teachers! They had all assumed that by the time you were a grad student, and *certainly* by the time you were a faculty member, you were good at writing, and being good at writing meant that it was easy for you to do. So professors just sit down and whip out books in no time flat! Therefore, they assumed that the fact that they struggled with writing means that they weren't very good at it. When our undergrads heard senior faculty members with multiple books talk about how hard it was to make themselves write every day, or at all, they realized that *writing is hard for everyone*--and the fact that you find it hard does NOT mean that you are bad at doing it.

Unknown said...

Maura, thanks - Jeffrey also made the point, in comments elsewhere, that writing strategies can change... and while my basic approach hasn't - it's true I do now use every spare moment I have on writing, bc there are so few. So I write on train, I write while walking to train (in notebook, I look cray cray), I write while feeding kids dinner - etc. But I still only do it when that deadline is right there.

And you are sweet to say - 'not how I normally do it' on your response - truth is, I gave you no option: Wed for a Sat paper. Let me say as I have elsewhere but not here, the thing I cannot not self-flagellate about, is the way my techniques inconvenience others - when I am late, when I am writing up to 11th hour, all those things. I quite seriously dislike that about myself. I am working on it (and getting a little better).

Steve Mentz said...

Such a great two-voiced post & generous comment thread. Somewhat similar to what Maura describes above, we've been having faculty & grad students do process-related events & talks. One set of these talked is keyed to book publications, so it's perhaps more triumphant and certainly less funny than this post by Suzanne and Alexandra. But the idea is to configure the big tent of the English dept, from First-Year Writing classrooms to grad students to faculty, as all struggling with the same writerly struggles. We're trying to promote a culture of awareness and a sense of writing as multiple and messy. And, btw, after just having spent the last week working with the copy-edited ms of a book that'll be out next fall, I certainly agree that the fear of exposure never goes away. It's a strange feeling to send words out into the world.

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone
This post reached me by way of my sister. I am in Ireland; she is in New Zealand. The wonders of social media allowed her to connect me to this discussion. And as have others, I'd like to thank you for pursuing this thought about being dysfunctional and how productive it can be!

I too have had to learn to write my own way. In recent weeks there has been a series of short articles by fiction writers outlining how they write: in the middle of the night, first thing in the morning, only with sustenance, always with a ritual, never with a ritual. And so on. That gave me such heart. Despite having produced a few books and a number of articles that I am proud to call my own, I have often struggled with the idea that I should do it 'better'. Colleagues who advise me they are up late at night after the children have gone to bed, or first thing in the morning before their commute to campus, have always left me with a lingering sense of being somehow inadequate. That's not how I work; but I do work. And I love it when that work of writing is done in a way that feels right to me because that creates the conditions for my ideas, my little unique contribution, to take form.

I share these kinds of stories with my students as they struggle with their own sense of how to begin. So many resources do not, to me, give any sense of the embodied author. I would love to see resources flow from this discussion and I'd be delighted to support it in any way, shape or form. Thank you both, and to all who have contributed comments. Oh, and thanks Tina for connecting me :-).

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone
This post reached me by way of my sister. I am in Ireland; she is in New Zealand. The wonders of social media allowed her to connect me to this discussion. And as have others, I'd like to thank you for pursuing this thought about being dysfunctional and how productive it can be!

I too have had to learn to write my own way. In recent weeks there has been a series of short articles by fiction writers outlining how they write: in the middle of the night, first thing in the morning, only with sustenance, always with a ritual, never with a ritual. And so on. That gave me such heart. Despite having produced a few books and a number of articles that I am proud to call my own, I have often struggled with the idea that I should do it 'better'. Colleagues who advise me they are up late at night after the children have gone to bed, or first thing in the morning before their commute to campus, have always left me with a lingering sense of being somehow inadequate. That's not how I work; but I do work. And I love it when that work of writing is done in a way that feels right to me because that creates the conditions for my ideas, my little unique contribution, to take form.

I share these kinds of stories with my students as they struggle with their own sense of how to begin. So many resources do not, to me, give any sense of the embodied author. I would love to see resources flow from this discussion and I'd be delighted to support it in any way, shape or form. Thank you both, and to all who have contributed comments. Oh, and thanks Tina for connecting me :-).

Suzanne Akbari said...

Words can't express how moving it is to see the outpouring of comments -- directly on this blogpost, on Fbook, through email, and in person -- arising from the conversation that was initiated by Michael Collins's blogpost (linked above), and which includes this recent intervention:

I'm hoping to gather these, and to collect a few more accounts, to make an assemblage of short pieces that are about not how TO write, but how WE write -- in all its messy, productive, frustrating, thrilling reality. So thank you for these comments! And please keep them coming.

Emily HR said...

I am grateful for the reassurance from several of the above commenters that writing practices change over time. I am currently experiencing such a change, which happens to be occurring post-dissertation as I begin revising the project into a book. I am not sure whether it is the change in location, or life situation, or project (or some combination of all three) that has made my process shift, but it is definitely in flux, and I've been worried about that. What has stayed the same for me, however, is that I do my best writing during the revision process, not during new composition, so I have to write far enough in advance of deadlines that I can give myself time to do the real heavy-duty lifting work of revising (which is such hard hard work, but satisfying and yes, exhilarating). Key for me throughout dissertating and since then is a weekly writing group for support and accountability.

Morwenna said...

Thank you so much for this post. I'm stilll" in the trenches" but now with more hope since I know that my "non-method" is actually a shared method. I feel less this "complete charlatan" !
I wasn't member of any writing groups but use to go to the library or to work home with friends, and we would agree on when we would do a break, and also on our goals for the day. It work, not only because there was some commitment involved, but also because we were together and I felt less like an hermit. While writing has to be done by oneself, it is a great confort to do it alongside with other people... And so is it to read your experiences and see that you managed to finish your PhD and to get a job ! Again, thank you very much for this post. Sorry if my english is somehow broken, I'm french :-)

Suzanne said...

And here it is -- the fruit of many, many fruitful conversations. Please read it (open access online, inexpensive paperback), comment on the essays (here or elsewhere), and let us know how *you* write:

Unknown said...

it was the best day possible for me to read this, bruised and battered from a particularly painful supervision, yet given a boost by my lovely thesis mentor. I grew up in a vortex of chaos, confusion and inconsistency, which had it's pros and cons. The pros being that I truly believe it helped shape my very creative mind, however it also makes translating my creative ideas into something tangible and completing a task very challenging (my husband affectionately, calls me 'half a job'). I love writing and love words but don't think logically or chronologically. I make notes or write lists in mind map form. It's then tough to produce 10,000 logical words, but it's not impossible and not beyond me. I just have to accept the way that I work, focus on making it work, rather than letting it stop me from working. It's just wonderful to see there are alternative ways to achieve the same result. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!