Why Are You Doing It?

Recently, I had a writer tell me (1) they didn’t want to write, and (2) they became overwhelmed when trying to explicate their purpose.  Because humans are complex, both of these statements were true, and both were also false.

This writer desperately wants to write.  A crucial deadline approaches and they desperately want to produce work to successfully meet the deadline. But, because of their difficult relationship with writing, and the discomfort they feel in the process, they quite understandably want to avoid writing.

A large part of their discomfort comes from feeling overwhelmed with all there is to be done, particularly when trying to explicate purpose. It can be very difficult to eloquently describe the purposes that motivate work for many of the reasons that writing is difficult especially concern for how others will respond, and the fact that simple things become complex when closely examined. At the same time, this writer was able to confidently state a purpose that was simple and direct. “We need X,” they said. It was clear, simple, and confident.  It was immediately followed by “I would have trouble defending that,” which reveals a shift to thinking about the complexities and difficulties of presenting ideas to other people and risking feedback, and away from the point of simple confidence.

That simple point of confidence is crucial.  Whether or not you believe in some real value in your work has a vast impact on your motivation and your ability t work.  If you lose that sense of purpose, it becomes easy to fall prey to the mental difficulties associated with the loss of a sense of meaning—where the reasons to work are purely external—to avoid punishment, to gain a reward.

Writing is hard. It forces writers to confront weaknesses their arguments and forces them to consider potential objections to their work, both of which sap the confidence needed to persevere. If a sense of purpose is lost, it’s harder to work through these other difficulties.

One of the critiques of academics is that they are in the “ivory tower” separate from the rest of the world and its concerns. But that’s not a good description of most academic research. Most people doing work in academia are interested in real-world action, whether in education, clinical work, policy, or future research for some cause.  Examining social dynamics and social issues may involve use of wildly obscure academic language and jargon, but still aims at changing how people see the world, and thus how they do things. Judith Butler, for example, who is notorious for her difficult writing, is still interested in real world behaviors. “Performativity” may be post-modernist jargon, but it’s a concept concerned with real social dynamics and with influencing those social dynamics. Lots of research is focused on learning how to do stuff better.

If you’re getting stuck, and not feeling a good sense of purpose, it may be worth a good think to get back in touch with the really fundamental ideas and motivations that got you to where you are at present.  A simple sense of conviction is valuable in trying to get past the complications and difficulties that will meet you on the road to your goal.

The greater your confidence in the value of your work, the easier it is to write. In my case, I am often assailed by doubts—by the fact that my own writing is not always clear, by the fact that when I read other experts, I disagree so often while also being impressed by the strength of their arguments—but I keep going because I hope to help people.  My sense of purpose—my desire to help writers, and the one struggling writer mentioned above in particular—overrides my doubts about whether I can actually provide help. 

Similarly, if you’re feeling stuck, understanding why—why are you doing your work? What’s the large purpose behind it?  That’s a foundation on which to build. Many difficult decisions are required to proceed with writing and research, a good foundation can support you past many.

Why bother? Why do the work?  The better you understand what motivates you, the better your energy to keep moving.

Taking Small but Useful Steps.

Some writers get stuck by anxiety about what to do next or anxiety about how to do their work. Recently I was working with a writer who does fine, once working, but who gets stuck by anxiety.

We were talking about analyzing some qualitative observations. Our discussion was focused on analytical and theoretical concerns, so we didn’t discuss the practical point I’m suggesting in this post.

If you are struggling with writer’s block of some sort, or you feel stuck when you are trying to write, especially if anxiety is an issue, it can be useful to focus on taking the smallest steps that you can that also make progress.

The writer and I were talking about analyzing statements made by people, and our discussion was concerned with dealing with the bridge between the statements and the analyses. And so what we didn’t talk about the specific practical difference between (1) trying to develop and present an analysis based on a whole corpus or even a sizeable chunk of a corpus, such as an entire paragraph, and (2), trying to develop an analysis based on a single sentence or even a single word.

Often, by focusing on the smallest possible unit, you can define a piece of work that is small enough that it doesn’t seem intimidating.  Focusing on one sentence or one word and trying to explain why it is significant to your work can be much easier than trying to explain a whole paragraph.

Not all words or sentences will be good choices for such focused attention, but if you’re struggling to deal with a larger mass of text—a whole paragraph or more—then one way to approach that text is to simply focus on one feature of interest–one word or phrase or sentence—and explain why that feature seems significant to you.

This is one possible suggestion as an alternative to trying to engage a larger text en masse. It’s a way to get moving and to engage with a project when anxiety might be problematic. In the long run, the whole corpus must be analyzed and discussed, but in the immediate moment, every individual step matters, and if you’re concerned about your progress and struggling with anxiety, taking a single small step can feel like making progress and that can reduce anxiety. And reducing anxiety is often the real key in starting to write.

Fear and Confidence in Writing

Once, a writer told me about a book she really liked called something like The Writer’s Book of Fear. I got a copy and got about as far as the author saying that fear is the defining element of all writing.  I don’t remember exactly what he wrote, but it felt alien to my experience of writing.  This is not to say that I know no fear in writing; I experience many different fears when writing. But fear is not the only thing I feel when writing, by any means. I would say, in fact, that it’s not even close to my dominant emotion when writing.  In my opinion, actually, writing will best grow out of a cautious confidence that you have something to say that is worth saying—and this is a confidence I believe many fearful writers have. Many people believe that they have an important message to communicate, but if asked to write it down, the fear of writing poorly can take over.

Confidence plays a huge role in how writing develops, and for struggling writers, it is often a major cause of writing blocks. Over-confidence can lead to imprudent action and can blind a writer to problems, but on the whole, I would think these are far better problems for a writer than to be paralyzed by doubt. Practically speaking, it’s almost always better for a writer to take the risk of getting rejected than to leave the page blank. 

Here’s a rough self-diagnostic: do you have a history of thinking your work is great and then getting rejected? If so, you might be over-confident, and you might benefit from reviewing your own work a bit more critically in an effort to improve it. But if that’s not your history, and if, indeed, you have a history of thinking your work is poor, even after it has been accepted/approved/graded, then you would likely benefit from having more confidence in your work, or at least writing with a willingness to be wrong—writing to try out ideas and ways of expressing ideas. 

Believing in yourself is crucial, especially if you are self-critical. When I am struggling with doubt about the strength of my work—especially when contrasting my work to other writing I have seen on the same topics—I often try to soothe myself by remembering the wide variety of opinions that any one work will face, which pretty much guarantees that someone will disagree, but also means that there is likely someone who will agree. For many, it’s easier to sink into focusing on the people who will reject the work and the different ways in which it might be rejected than it is to focus on those who will like the work and the different ways it will be accepted. But it’s worth the effort to focus on the  people who will likely be supportive.  Keeping your eyes on the people who will like your work is a good long-term strategy for a writer, because they’re the ones who will support your efforts, so it makes sense to think about how to work with those people.

I don’t want to over-simplify here.  A person who is generally supportive can also be harshly critical. I just got feedback on my book manuscript that basically said “I really like this project, but it needs to be but by 30%.” Along with the general comment the reviewer provided a long list of problems and weaknesses. The bulk of the communication was “cut this,” and “cut that.” With that kind of feedback, it can be pretty easy to lose sight of the crucial “I really like this project” part. If you are looking for support and someone makes a harsh criticism, it can cause emotional distress. In such situations, it’s important to keep an eye on the general motivation for the criticism, and a brief comment of overall support should cast direct criticisms in a different light.  It’s hugely different to receive feedback that says, “This is junk. Look at all the problems:…” than feedback that says “This is great. But look at all these problems:…” The list of problems might be identical, but it’s those crucial three opening words that matter. It takes confidence to hear feedback, but it can also build confidence if you focus on the positive aspects of the feedback.

And, if you have confidence enough to listen to criticism, you can really improve your work by presenting it to others and learning from their feedback. Fear, meanwhile, will make it harder to work on criticism.

Too much doubt is typically the problem for all the writers who have gotten stuck somewhere in the process without finishing a work. Writer’s block—the failure to write—can have roots in many different fears: that you don’t know enough, that you might be wrong, that you don’t write well enough, that other people will disagree, that others will laugh, that you will be rejected, and all the related flavors of doubt.  I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who struggled with a writing block due to over-confidence.

One of the reasons I find it so valuable to develop and maintain a regular writing practice is that it can reduce some anxieties and fears the come up in the process.  If you practice writing and experiment with putting words on the page, you reduce many anxieties in the process. One big hope is that the regular practice helps you feel less concerned about any single sentence or paragraph: the more sentences you write, the easier it is to focus on the ones you like and ignore the ones you don’t. And each additional sentence you do write, can contribute to your sense that you can produce writing (even if you want to edit it). Other possible benefits of a practice that can help ease the process of writing are that a regular practice in writing will lead  to greater familiarity with your word-processing software, possibly reducing some anxieties there, and, practicing might help you feel more comfortable with punctuation and grammar (not necessarily comfortable, but at least less uncomfortable).  Writing practice can help you find your own voice and that can help you feel more confident, too.

We can’t necessarily control our emotions, but we can develop a writing practice that might give confidence at least in the process, even if doubts about what to write remain.