Dealing with writer’s block, tip 4: Facing fear of rejection

For many people, fear of rejection is a big barrier to writing. I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t have any fear of rejection, but with the right approach, you might be able to reduce or manage that fear more effectively, thus reducing the block to writing. Fear of rejection is, in fact, quite reasonable in many circumstances.  I am going to argue, however, that you want to try to contextualize that fear in order to limit it.

Not all writing involves rejection

There are, speaking loosely, three distinct main purposes for writing: memory, development of ideas, and communication. Of these three, only one—communication—is subject to rejection. When you’re writing to aid memory or to develop ideas, the writing is not for anyone else, and therefore the question of rejection isn’t really relevant, and therefore, fear of rejection ought not be a significant issue.

Of course, saying that one “ought not” have a certain emotion is pretty poor advice. People don’t just turn emotions on or off at will, especially not significant fears or anxieties that are strong enough to interfere with writing. In this post, I’m going to suggest thinking about writing with respect to these three basic purposes, and trying, at times, to focus on the two kinds of writing that don’t involve the possibility of rejection.

Dividing up your writing process

In the end, you probably want to give your writing to other people—if you didn’t, fear of rejection could hardly be a problem. By dividing up your writing process to attend to the non-communicative dimensions of writing, you can give yourself space to work without fear of rejection immediately looming. 

Generally, this calls for a more expansive and practice-oriented view of writing: rather than writing focused on the final product that you share with others, write as an exercise—as a way to build skill and to experiment with different possibilities. If you always write while thinking of the possible response of other people, your attention is taken away from the ideas that most motivate you, and can weigh on you emotionally. But writing doesn’t just have to be about sharing, especially not in the early stages of any specific process.  When you’re just beginning a project—when a final draft is potentially months or even years away (if you’re writing a book-length work, especially)—concern for future readers can take a back seat to building skill and exploring ideas and modes of expression.

The exploration of ideas is a strong positive motivation for many. (If exploring ideas doesn’t motivate you, that’s a different barrier to writing than fear of rejection, one that requires a separate discussion.) Writing can be a tool for exploring an idea in a fashion similar to an artist or an architect making initial study sketches of their work.  The artist’s early sketches provide the artist feedback on issues of composition and appearance—they’re not for the rest of the world, they are for the artist’s own introspective processes. 

When approached this way, writing out a theory that seems flawed leads to curiosity about how to fx the theory. And writing a weak explanation leads to questions and attempts to provide a better explanation. In this mode of writing, attention isn’t on future readers of the work, but rather on finding answers are to unanswered questions, and to new questions that arise in the thought process. To be sure, this exploration of ideas can be frustrating because it’s almost always possible to find new questions, but if you’re driven by your interest in and curiosity about the subject you’re studying and writing about, then new questions aren’t terrible—they often open new ways of looking at old ideas. (Letting new questions constantly derail focus on a current project is a separate kind of writing block related to dealing with uncertainty, but that’s a separate issue from fear of rejection.)

Writing Exercise 1: Breaking up the process

[An exercise is an attempt to explore something and to develop skill. Like the musician’s scales or the athlete’s practices, it’s not meant to be the product in itself, but rather a tool to develop skill. This exercise can provide value both as a thought experiment, and as an exercise that builds the skill of putting ideas into words/sentences/paragraphs on the page.]

In your experience, are there any parts of the writing process during which you’re not thinking about the people who will read it? Which parts?

Have you ever written anything without a fear of rejection? A journal or diary? To-do lists? E-mail? Social media posts? What is the difference between writing that triggers fear of rejection and writing that does not?

Different layers of rejection fear

In some cases, writers fear multiple potential sources of rejection.  There’s the editor at the publishing house or journal.  There’s the larger audience. There are friends and family who might disdain or disrespect the work. For some, there are fears based on past experience—the teacher who criticized so harshly last year or the year before.

Additionally, fear of rejection may have multiple dimensions and aspects. There is, of course, the direct fear of rejection—you say “will you accept it;” they say “no”—but there are also fears of what follows rejection, such as: your efforts will have been wasted; you won’t get the job or the promotion; your career will be finished; your parents will be upset; your romantic flame will be unimpressed; your spouse will complain you’re a failure; etc. 

As with any anxiety-related writing block, fear of rejection may seem worse when left unaddressed than when analyzed. By analyzing your own fears of rejection, you may be able to separate out those that make perfect sense (the editor at the publishing house will turn you down) from others that are less reasonable (the effort was wasted; your career is finished). Analyzing potential bad outcomes can trigger some anxiety, but if you make the fears explicit, often there is comfort in being able to address concrete specific issues rather than just facing the big undefined fear that things will go wrong.

Writing exercise 2: What are your rejection fears?

Part a: Who might reject your work? Who do you fear will reject your work? When you’re writing, do you ever feel anxiety that your work will be rejected or criticized by someone who will not actually see that work (a former teacher or professor, for example), or who will not be in a position to impact you (a professor who might see the work, but won’t be in a position to create problems)?

Part b: Why is getting your work rejected bad? Because of the immediate emotional impact of rejection? Because of the impact on your career? What are the potential consequences of rejection that contribute to your fear? Which make you most nervous?

Writing blocks and rejection by default

People with anxiety-related writing blocks often don’t write at all, which can lead to rejection by default: if you write nothing and submit nothing, your work can’t be rejected, but you can suffer any or all the negative consequences of rejection, along with any emotional burden of having an unfinished project.  

Getting rejected carries an emotional sting, and it is often accompanied by harsh criticism or some show of disrespect. But submitting nothing at all is no protection. Indeed, it is reasonable to expect that many people in your life—especially those who love you—will be more frustrated with and critical of your failure to submit than of a rejection.  Sometimes, even rejected is accompanied by positive and useful feedback or support. The editor at the journal or publishing house may suggest a different journal or offer encouragement. Reviews may include useful feedback, even if not all the feedback is helpful. The professor who rejects a work has a better reason to support your continued work on that same project than to support you if you submit nothing.

The pain of rejection is sharp and immediate, while the pain of facing a writing block continues as long as you retain the hope of finishing, and sometimes even after. 

I don’t like to focus on negative motivations, but if the fear of rejection rises, try to focus on the fear of rejection by default—focus instead on the things that happen if you don’t write, submit work, and risk rejection. [Ideally, you can learn to write from more positive motivations, but sometimes fear of rejection can be countered by fear of inaction.]

Conclusion

Fear of rejection often interferes with writing processes, and because it’s a realistic and reasonable concern, one cannot simply ignore the risk that comes with trying to communicate and share your ideas with another person. However, blocks associated with fear of rejection can be limited in a few ways. First, remember that part of the writing process is an exploration—a way for you to develop your ideas and build skill as a writer. Second, analyze your fears of rejection: separate those that are realistic from those that are not. Finally, if the fear of rejection raises it’s head, think of the danger of rejection by default—the rejection that comes from not writing.

Dealing with writer’s block, Tip 2: Sort your concerns

People who face anxiety-related writing blocks experience a range of different emotional concerns, and  often it is the combination of different concerns that lead to a writing block (See note on writing blocks, at bottom of post).  When fears/doubts/anxieties come in groups, the emotional response is stronger, and it becomes harder to see any of the concerns individually, which makes it harder to eliminate or reduce any of them.  In this post, I’m going to do a rough typology of different fears, and suggest and exercise to sort out concerns so that you can begin to untangle the variety of fears that trigger the emotional response that becomes a writing block. A typology can help in sorting out different anxieties, and can help in making addressing specific anxieties so as to reduce their impact on the writing process.

Why a typology?

As I have previously argued, sorting out different types of writing-related concerns is a good preliminary step toward making plans that can reduce those anxieties and limit their impact on your writing practice.  The typology here is offered as a tool to help distinguish different anxieties that you might experience. It should not be viewed as intellectually rigorous, but rather as a loose guide to identifying and distinguishing your own issues. It is not meant to restrict or limit your concerns—it’s possible that you have concerns that I do not include in my typology—but rather to help you analyze those concerns, so that each concern can be addressed individually rather than en masse, making it possible to begin to make plans for responding to, and possibly eliminating or reducing the concern.

A Typology of Writers’ Fears

  • Fear of rejection (“They won’t accept my work.”)
  • Fear of failure (“I won’t be able to do what I should do”)
  • fear of ridicule (“They will mock and mistreat me”)
  • fear of personal inadequacy (“I’m not good enough”)
  • fear of suffering (“writing sucks”)
  • fear of specific people (“my professor/parents/etc. is so mean!”)

These different types are not mutually exclusive; many come together, as, for example, with a hypothetical cruel teacher/professor who not only grades a work down but also makes cutting comments about your lack of ability.  Recognizing the different dimensions of the anxiety allows a writer the chance to separate out the different dimensions of the criticism, seeing both those that are accurate (the actual errors and weaknesses in the work) from those that are not (a general critique on ability or character that is contrary to evidence of previous experience). 

Realistic and unrealistic anxieties

There is one criterion that deserves its own sorting, separate from the typology, and that is the division between those anxieties that are realistic and relevant and those that are not.  Some anxieties are entirely realistic and therefore very difficult to dispel, most notably the concern that a work will not be accepted. While you may be able to reduce your emotional response to that situation, it’s a real and realistic concern: your work may not be accepted. It’s not a concern that is casually dismissed (though you don’t want to focus on it!). By contrast, emotional difficulties relating to a person in your past—a former teacher, your parents—are not relevant or realistic (in the sense that they are not current, even if the emotional issues remain). It may not be easy to set aside that internal critic that you learned from your past, but it is certainly realistic to do so: someone from your past is not going to read your present work. Concern yourself with the people to whom you will submit your work in the future, not those to whom you submitted it in the past. If you focus on the realistic present concerns and thereby limit or eliminate unrealistic and irrelevant anxieties, the overall level of anxiety is reduced and the more realistic fears that remain may be more easily negotiated.

Exercise 1: How realistic are your worst worries?

[Exercises are for practice, not for performance. They are to learn about yourself and your strengths and weaknesses, and also to increase your skill and ease in putting ideas into words on the page (i.e., writing). Writing an exercise like this will help develop your writing skill generally, which will support your writing in more formal efforts. Don’t worry about making mistakes; just do it for the exercise. Try, but don’t try hard. This exercise is not about pushing your limits of tolerance; it’s about doing something relatively easy to get the sense that not all writing is a difficult battle for precision.]

List some of your writing-related anxieties. For each item in the list, how realistic is that concern?  Are there any concerns that stem from previous experiences that have no bearing on your future performance (e.g., a professor or teacher you no longer work with)?

Goals of this exercise:

  • 1. Put ideas into words on the page (write something!)
  • 2. Identify realistic anxieties for planning purposes
  • 3. Identify unrealistic anxieties for mental health purposes
  • 4. To write without fear of making a mistake
  • 5. To write with minimal effort

To be avoided:

  • 1. Getting stressed over doing the exercise
  • 2. Working hard

Sorting Obstacles

If you struggle with anxieties related to writing—struggle to the point that anxiety significantly interferes with your ability to write—then there’s a good chance that you’ll feel a lot of anxiety when trying to list your anxieties.  Thinking about worrisome things is often a trigger for anxiety, so the exercise I’ve described above could be unpleasant or even counter-productive. If you feel it so, please be kind to yourself and gentle: you’re not going to reduce anxiety by self-criticism.  While the exercise might trigger anxiety, it might also help to calm it. Often, sorting through a group of problems, and seeing the issues clearly can also provide some comfort: no longer are you facing a massive, indistinct monster, instead you have a swarm of lesser issues, some of which you can deal with effectively.  

In the long run, sorting out different obstacles is a preliminary to making plans of action to address those different obstacles. Often, a sorting process of this sort will also lead to some ideas for how to work more effectively. One a problem has been named, solutions are often implicit.  For example, if you recognize a specific cause of anxiety as being related to an unrealistic concern—your fear of your high school writing teacher who won’t be seeing what you’re writing now, for example—it is pretty obvious that the solution is to stop worrying about that person (of course, knowing that you should stop worrying about an unrealistic anxiety does not immediately eliminate or reduce that concern or stop you from worrying, but at least if that specific fear rears its head, you can remind yourself that its not relevant and perhaps even focus your attention elsewhere).

Exercise 2: Where do your fears fit in the typology?

What are the fears that impact your writing process?  Are they concerns about how other people will treat you, or are they concerns about your own shortcomings, or both? How do the issues that block you fit into the typology? Do you have any fears/doubts/anxieties that impact your writing but don’t fit into any of the types described above?

This exercise is, again, more about the process of putting words on the page and the insights you might gain during that process than it is about what you write.  It’s also about engaging in writing without any pressure for any outcome.

Conclusion

My plan for future posts is to discuss different specific concerns about writing and how to address some of them to reduce or, when possible, eliminate, related anxieties. This post gets a start on that process by identifying the specific concerns to which a writer must respond.

Note on Writing Blocks:

As discussed here, “writing blocks” are emotional/intellectual issues that interfere with the writing of people who are otherwise, organized and diligent. Laziness is not a writer’s block—if you don’t try, that’s not a writing block. Competing demands are not writing blocks (in the sense discussed in this post, at least): if you have to care for children that’s not a writing block (though a writing block might lead to you say that your kids need all your available time when you could cut out an hour or 30 minutes for writing if it weren’t for the writing-related anxieties).

Dealing with Writer’s Block, Tip 1: Identify the Causes

To deal with and reduce or eliminate writing blocks, an important first step is to identify the causes of the block.  Until that has been accomplished, it’s difficult to make any plans for change.

I’m going to focus on writing blocks related to fears, doubts, and anxieties. In my experience, writing blocks spring from two main sources: those that spring from fears and anxieties and those that spring from dislike (or even hatred) of the project (See note on writing blocks, below).  Of course fears and anxieties can lead to hatred, and hatred can lead to fears and anxieties, so these two sorts of writing blocks are not entirely independent of each other. But to the extent that a writing block springs from dislike or disinterest in the project (and that dislike or disinterest does not have root causes in any fear, doubt, or anxiety), I don’t have much to say about it, beyond “choose to do it, or choose to walk away.”  I can’t think of any exercises or practice that would make someone interested in work that they hate.

But for writing blocks that have roots in fears, doubts, and anxieties, the writing blocks can be lessened or entirely removed through the development of a good practice and the use of writing exercises.

Exercise and Healthy Practice

In the long run, success as a writer comes from a regular practice of writing. By and large, people who publish regularly are people who work at writing on a regular basis.  Therefore, if you want to write, you should be thinking about how to build a regular practice of writing.  There are regular practices that are built on negative emotions, and this kind of practice—a merciless “try harder or you’ll never be good enough” mindset—can lead to growing emotional barriers. If you push yourself to suffer through a task, it would hardly be surprising if you developed anxieties around that task. 

My basic approach to reducing or eliminating writing blocks sits in the context of building a healthy practice motivated by positive ideals. As you develop a healthy practice, many anxieties and fears can fall away, reducing emotional barriers, even if some anxieties may remain.

Central in developing a healthy writing practice that reduces anxiety is to engage in writing exercises. The crucial factor of a writing exercise is that it is viewed as a trial aimed at building skill, not a final product for presentation. In such exercises, early errors are expected as part of the process of improvement. The concern is for going through the process.  A writing exercise can be viewed as a parallel to a musician playing scales: the scales are not practiced for their own sake, but to help build skill that can be applied to later performances.

To some extent, the key here is shifting focus from product to practice: rather than creating a good written work, create a good writer. In the long run, a good writer will be able to create many good written works. In this context any time you write anything—lists, emails, texts, journal entries, as well as more formal pieces of writing—you’re practicing the general skill of writing, which is to find words to express some idea or information. 

Writing exercises, like the musician’s scales, are a private practice, and being private, it’s not necessary to be concerned with what other people would think of what you write.

Exercise 1: Identify Your Fears, Doubts, and Anxieties

If you are struggling with any sort of anxiety barrier to writing, one very useful writing exercise is to try to identify all the different fears, doubts, and anxieties.  Make a list of all the anxieties, doubts, and fears that you have related to your writing.  Be as detailed as possible. A good list of anxieties provides a starting place for a process of identifying specific concerns that can be addressed in some way. Some writing-related fears are real and can’t simply be dismissed—“It’ll get rejected,” is a very real possibility to acknowledge. Other fears are less accurate—“writing sucks; it’s torture,” isn’t accurate for all writers and is, in a way, a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you tell yourself writing will be painful, you may never develop a non-painful practice.  For many writers, fears of criticism by people from their past trigger anxiety, but making these fears explicit reveals that they can be dismissed as past concerns, not present ones.

In the exercise of writing about your writing-related concerns, not only do you practice your ability to turn ideas into words on the page, but you also gain insight into your process of writing, and that insight can be used to refine and improve your practice.

A word of caution and care: An exercise of writing about anxieties can trigger anxiety, so be gentle with yourself. Spend a few minutes writing down different anxieties, doubts, or fears as a starting point.  Repeat the exercise often, but not so often that it triggers anxieties. Practice identifying your concerns.

In future work, you can focus on specific individual concerns to seek ways to eliminate or otherwise manage/reduce that concern. (I anticipate writing some future posts on dealing with specific concerns/anxieties that many writers experience.) 

Diagnosis is the first step to treatment

If you are struggling with writer’s block—if you’ve written in the past, but are getting stuck now due to anxiety that arises in the writing practice—a first step is to identify the causes of difficulty.  Many anxieties about writing can be eliminated in the process of developing a healthful, productive, and sometimes enjoyable writing practice, but only if those anxieties can be identified and addressed. Writing is always going to demand effort, and will always offer some chance of failure, so it’s never completely free of emotional challenges, but you can develop a healthy practice in part by identifying and then eliminating or reducing the unnecessary concerns.

Note on writing blocks: failure to write does not always count as a writing block. One can only have “writer’s block” if one (a) is generally responsible and self-disciplined, (b) dedicates time to trying to write, and (c) has had some success as a writer in the past.  The second condition speaks to the notion that you must already have learned to write—as demonstrated by having written successfully in the past (as a student in school, at least)–before it’s reasonable to worry about writer’s blocks. There are many things that impede writing that I would not count as writing blocks. Severe illness or injury that prevent writing are not writer’s block. Inability to schedule time to write, whether due to competing responsibilities or to laziness, is not a writer’s block.

Writing and Writing anxiety: What is writer’s block? Does it even exist?

Most advice for writers relies on the basic idea that one must be disciplined, keep a writing schedule, and really write when scheduled to write.  That’s all good advice. However, with respect to that advice, there is a question that many ask: what about writer’s block?  Many books on writing basically argue that “writer’s block” does not exist, and that writers just need to be self-disciplined.  This perspective does not, to me, seem useful: it doesn’t address the concerns of people who feel that they are facing some sort of writer’s block, and we would not have a familiar term like “writer’s block,” unless people had some experience that led them to use that term. 

There may be some truth that anyone who claims to be suffering writer’s block just needs to be more self-disciplined. But there’s also some truth in saying that an injured runner could finish the race if they only had more self-discipline: it’s possible to run through some injuries, but sometimes the cost is exacerbating the injury. Instead of dismissing people who say they suffer from writer’s block, it is possible instead to examine the causes of their struggles and to work to eliminate any barriers to writing successfully. The place to start is to inquire about why people might say they experience writer’s block.

Writer’s Block isn’t a simple pathology

“Writer’s block” does not exist in the same sense that COVID-19 exists. There is no single identifiable external pathogen that creates writer’s block.  Perhaps, if we want to split hairs, we can argue that writer’s block doesn’t exist because we can’t identify that single specific pathology. But, if we listen to actual writers who are struggling with their projects, it makes sense to consider the idea of writer’s block because the term makes sense to many people who struggle to write.  There are people who are very self-disciplined but who still struggle to write, and it seems a little facile to say just “well, no matter how much self-discipline you show in the rest of your life, it you’re not writing, you need more self-discipline.”  

Saying “writer’s block” doesn’t exist is a little like saying depression doesn’t exist: there is no single simple pathology to encompass all the different forms of depression, but we accept the existence of depression because we can observe patterns of behavior that fit the rubric of depression, even if the causes of that behavior are varied. Writer’s block deserves similar consideration: we can observe a pattern of behavior whose causes may be varied.

Writer’s Block is a description of certain behaviors

If writer’s block is not a specific pathology, what is it? To me, I think it useful and appropriate to think of “writer’s block” as a way to describe the experience of some writers who are struggling to write for any of a number of reasons related to emotional difficulties like depression or anxiety.  It is specifically appropriate in the context of writers who have clearly demonstrated that they competent and self-disciplined in their lives as a whole, but who struggle to manifest that competence and diligence in their writing practice. It is especially useful when thinking about writers who have produced written work in the past but are now stuck on a current project. For scholars, it is often an early-career issue centered on either the doctoral dissertation or early work for publication. Doctoral candidates and early-career scholars have typically demonstrated ability and self-discipline for years, showing the ability to manage many responsibilities (teaching, research, administrative duties, etc.) including writing assignments. Such people often demonstrate self-discipline in non-scholarly dimensions of life, too, as athletes, family members, and/or political or community activism and organizing. In such cases, it seems relevant to ask why their general self-discipline fails in the specific case of writing.

We wouldn’t want to talk about “writer’s block” when referring to someone who doesn’t have self-discipline or to someone who isn’t making any effort to write.  But if we are talking about people who do invest effort into writing, and who do demonstrate significant self-discipline in their lives, then it makes sense to talk about “writer’s block” as something that self-disciplined people experience when they try to write that interferes with writing.

Writer’s block comes from negative emotions

From my personal experience struggling to write, as well as my experience working as a writing coach to help others to write, I would say that “writer’s block” is a way to generally describe more specific emotional responses to writing, like anxiety or depression, that interfere with the clarity of thought and imagination that writing needs. People who have “writer’s block” often have lots of emotional issues specifically related to writing due to the contexts in which they learned to write.

When fear and depression impact the brain, they inhibit operation of the higher cortical areas where reasoning and imagination take place.  This neurological reality suggests that emotional struggles to write cannot simply be reduced to “you’re not trying hard enough; you’re lazy.”  If the issue was simply lack of effort, then with the application of effort, all other problems would fall away. But if the problem is related to emotions that inhibit the higher brain functions, then it is quite reasonable to assume that people who can speak about their ideas and research effectively when they feel comfortable, might also struggle when trying to write about those ideas when dealing with anxieties and doubts about writing.

Reducing emotional blocks

If I had a cure for depression or anxiety, I wouldn’t be writing this; I’d be making millions (or billions) helping people get rid of depression and anxiety.  But I do have a treatment for writing blocks that is more than just “try harder; be self-disciplined,” and it does involve reducing writing-related depression or anxiety.  Generally speaking, the treatment is to develop a healthier writing practice.

Writing need not be an agonizing experience; it can even be enjoyable. With a healthy practice, it is possible to reduce or eliminate many writing-related anxieties, and even to feel some sense of exhilaration as a writer.  A first step in the process is to identify the various emotional barriers to writing that might be experienced.  

There are lots of reasons that people hate writing that have more to do with the context in which they learned to write than with writing itself. Indeed, a given individual might have many reasons that they dislike or fear writing. The very idea that writing is unpleasant—not an uncommon idea—is largely just the zoomed-out description of an experience that would, under a magnifying glass, reveal many smaller, more specific discomforts that combine into a general emotional malaise that impacts all aspects of writing.

Identifying specific emotional issues

Part of developing a healthy writing practice is to identify the various concerns that impact the writing process and to try to reduce or eliminate those concerns as much as possible.  If you think that writing, generally, is unpleasant, you can start by exploring what specific aspects of writing are unpleasant. For many, the fear of being criticized is a big part of the problem. So, too, is the fear of being incapable of the work. There are, it hardly need be said, those who have physical problems that make writing physically painful.

Whatever the specific causes of writing discomfort, the better they are identified, the easier it is to see that writing itself is not necessarily painful, and can actually be a positive experience.  It seems undeniable that some people enjoy writing—if you know such a person, you may resent them and think them a little crazy, perhaps. Regardless, writing can be an enjoyable and rewarding process in the same way that many skilled activities, like music, art, and athletics, can be enjoyable: there are attendant difficulties and frustrations, but the activity is worth the effort and is generally positive.

Writing past anxiety

Specific anxieties can be addressed and reduced to the point that they no longer block the application of self-discipline.  It may not be possible to completely eliminate writing anxieties: doubts about the outcome of your efforts are reasonable.  But if those anxieties can be reduced even a little, it is often enough to get moving again. If you are generally self-disciplined, and only have trouble applying that discipline to your writing, it’s often the case that the self-discipline that serves in other contexts will be enough if the emotional barriers to writing are reduced by even a small amount: once your anxiety is a little lower, your self-discipline might be enough to get you over the emotional threshold and into a habit of writing more productively.

Seeking Hope; Building Hope

I am not an optimist. I do not believe things will work out well.  Take these statements as a context for this essay about the importance of seeking (and building) hope.  In my previous post, I wrote about the elusive nature of truth and how, even in the absence of absolute, undeniable truths, it is still important and valuable to continue to seek the truth. There is a small parallel here: like truth, we benefit from seeking hope even though hope may be elusive. 

Hope is an emotion or intellectual state

Hope is an emotional/imaginative construct: it is the anticipation or even expectation of something good. When we have hope, that is a real emotional benefit. But too often, our hopes are slim and seem hugely improbable. When hopes seem too far out of reach, they are often replaced by despair and apathy.

Hopes too easily realized do little to improve emotional states: to “hope” that you can do something trivial gives little emotional boost: the “hope” that you can successfully prepare a cup of tea is not going to inspire you to carry out some other difficult task in the same way that your hopes for a good vacation may inspire you to quickly wrap up loose ends at work.

A writer ought to have big hopes (while also being realistic about them).  I was talking with a writer who said he had something important that should matter to everyone, and then immediately backtracked to ask “who am I to be so egotistical?” But a writer needs that ego.  It’s true and good for this writer to have concern that his work isn’t good enough—that concern can drive efforts to improve on weaknesses, and it’s realistic to accept that one may have weaknesses—but it’s also important that he have the hope that he can be great. Without the hope of greatness, and if you constantly tell yourself that you aren’t good enough to achieve greatness, you won’t make the effort.  Most of us won’t achieve greatness, but many or even most of us can achieve good work. But almost none of us will achieve either good work or greatness without striving for that highest level of achievement and significance that we imagine.

Speaking personally, for over a decade, I’ve been writing to help other writers. I believe that I can help other writers, and I even believe that the ideas I have to share can help the vast majority of struggling writers. But I also have to accept that my work has mostly gone unnoticed.  My blog has never had many readers; my books have never had many readers. Maybe they’re not even as good as I imagine.  All of that is true, and still I hope that I can help people who struggle to write.  Pragmatically, these two conflicting views—that I can greatly help lots of people, and that I help very few people—are both possible. It’s possible that I “could” help, even if I don’t.  Hope operates in a realm of uncertainty.  It’s possible that I could win the lottery, even though it’s very unlikely. If I focus on the possibility of winning, I will take the chance, and thus will write (or will enter the lottery). If I focus on the low probability of success, then I might not take the action.

Ignoring the probabilities

To build hope, it’s sometimes important to deny the probabilities, or even the perceived realities.  Buying a lottery ticket is a form of denying the probabilities: your lottery ticket is very unlikely to win you anything, much less a jackpot of millions. The logical choice is to pass on the lottery ticket because the expected return is less than the cast of paying.  At the same time, if the cost of entry is low, it may be worth taking a chance if for no other reason than to have some hope—as the saying goes, you can’t win if you don’t play.

Writing and other endeavors of skill share some of this dynamic: it’s good to envision greatness, even though the chance of achieving greatness is small.  Still, writing and other skilled activities have additional dimensions that shift the dynamic: although the necessary investment of effort in a writing practice is not trivial—you have to keep investing day after day—writing can offer positive returns even if you don’t hit the jackpot of becoming a rich bestseller.

Building hope

If you buy a lottery ticket, there’s nothing you can do to increase your chance of winning on that ticket, and beyond the chance of winning, there are few rewards available. Still, if we look at hope as providing an emotional boost, that in itself is something of a benefit (and, for a truly depressed person, perhaps the $2 cost of buying a lottery ticket is worth the hope temporary hope that is created).

With writing and other skilled activities, each successive attempt to write may spark some new hope. “If I try this time,” you can say to yourself, “I will get better results than last time.” With practices that depend on skill, this hope will, in the long run, be realized because practice does lead to improved skill.

While you need some hope to make the effort to write, if you invest that effort, there is a good chance that you will build more hope as you build your abilities as a writer, and as you develop new ideas that could be turned into good writing.

The more you practice, the more you build skill, and therefore the more you have reason to hope that your work will provide you some benefit (beyond any benefits you may get from the practice of writing—there are some, but that’s a subject for a separate discussion).

Continuing the Search

Hope is ephemeral; it looks to the future and when the future arrives, whether the hope is realized or not, the hope itself must pass away because it is no longer relevant. If you hope that something will happen by next Sunday, that specific hope will necessary be eliminated next Sunday, whether it is realized or denied. Therefore, it is necessary to keep revising our hopes and looking to a new potentially positive future. A skill-building practice like writing is good for building hopes because each practice session can be driven by the hope of doing something that you did not do in the previous session. Instead of feeling like work is simply a treadmill of drudgery, it is possible to view it as a ramp of hope; each new practice session may be the one in which you write your most brilliant work yet.

Without hope, life is miserable, and without hope it’s almost impossible to make life any better, because it takes some element of hope to act: if you don’t look forward to any benefit from an action, you’re unlikely to take that action. (I don’t mean this is a purely transactional sense: helping another person is a benefit for which one can hope, even without compensation for that help.)  If you despair, a practice in which you hope to build skill, and also aspire to greater goals, is one way to build a little hope to fight back against the despair.

I am not an optimist, and I believe that bad outcomes are generally likely. But when it comes to practice, I do believe that disciplined practice offers a reasonable a chance to build reasonable hopes and experience the benefit of hope rather than just suffering despair.  Practicing a skill like writing is no guarantee that things will turn out well, but a healthy practice helps build reasonable hopes for positive outcomes.

A Guitar Lesson for My Sister, Or A Paean to Practice.

My sister asked me for tips on teaching herself to strum basic chords on guitar while she sings. Since I taught myself to strum basic chords while I sing, I’m a reasonable person to ask.  The most simple answer—which I gave her, and which is hardly a surprise, I expect—is to practice.  We were texting and she put her “sigh” into words. 

But when I say “practice,” I want her to see that idea in the same light as I do—as something good.  That’s why I’m writing a “paean”—a song of praise—though it’s not really a song, but an essay.  And, I suppose, it’s not really to my sister, or not only to my sister, because these are the fundamental ideas that I think lie at the heart of good writing, or even, good living.

Practice, I must admit, is a central idea in how I approach life. It’s not a concern that rises to the level of obsession, but it is something that I think about and preach for.  (And, naturally, I try to practice what I preach on this subject.) Practice, I believe, leads to a better life—not just for me but for people in general. But I don’t want to digress too much into talking about practice because this is ostensibly a guitar lesson for my sister. 

Practice is difficult

If I were singing a song of praise for practice, it would be easier to ignore or leave aside the manifest difficulties of practice, but an essay making an argument for practice should deal with the complexities of the issue.

There are good reasons to sigh if someone tells you that you need to practice to accomplish your goal.  Practice is difficult. It’s time consuming. It’s frustrating. It can be painful. To ignore these aspects of practice would be to ignore reality.

To practice the guitar as a beginner means making unmusical noises. It means fingers that hurt from pressing on fine, taut wires (nylon strings can make fingers sore; steel strings are worse). And it means the frustrations of trying to get untrained fingers to make precise motions.  These frustrations may be exacerbated by the fact that for the beginner, it the less competent hand that requires the necessary fine motor control to properly fret the strings.  (In the long run, this makes sense for the guitar, because it is the picking that is the more difficult part, which is why right-handed guitars put the fretboard in the left hand, and left-handed guitarists—Hendrix, McCartney, e.g.,—put the fret board in their right hand.  This is, I think, counter=intuitive because the fretboard, with all the multiple frets and multiple strings, appears complicated, while the strumming/picking appears simpler—as just the sweeping of the pick across the strings.)

Failure is frustrating, and practice begins with a lot of failure.  My sister, for all her musicality, and for all her manual dexterity, will probably do more noise making than music making in her practice, at least to start.

And even once she’s practiced enough that she spends more time making music than noise, there will still be difficulties. Practice tends to bump up against limitations. 

Practice can be boring

To do something right—especially something musical—repetition helps.  You want your fingers to go to the right strings and the right frets at the right speed? Repeat the motion, over and over, and you’ll get better.  

Repetition gets boring, though. Boring and frustrating. When you switch between those two chords for the 100th time, you may well be bored. Bored and frustrated—it’s not out of the question that you get bored of the  simple task you’re practicing even before you can do it well.  That’s both boring and frustrating. Practices are like that.  The habits/skills/abilities that support a strong, competent practice don’t develop without repetition.  Trying to play a song? Keep working through it until you play it well. Trying to write a document? Keep writing and revising!

Practice is often frustrating

The anodyne to boredom is to try something new. But, in practice, trying something new means trying something that you haven’t practiced before, and that means that you’re likely to come up against your own limitations again.

Once you have mastered that first simple song—at which point you may well be sick of it from having played it so many times—you will be tempted to learn something new. But, since you won’t have practiced that new song, playing it will be difficult and frustrating, and may have a low reward/frustration ratio.

Practice tends to be like this, in whatever arena.  To avoid boredom, we try new things, but those new things are difficult and frustrating, and the way to master them is to practice, which can wind back to boredom (while including a healthy dose of frustration).

The key, I think, is to find the balance between these two areas—where there is sufficient challenge that it’s not boring, and sufficient competence that it’s not too frustrating.  If we can find that balance, we can possibly find some of the best moments of our lives.

Practice can be rewarding

Practice isn’t always unpleasant. It is not just a move from boredom to frustration and back.  Practice is also exhilarating and often enjoyable.  It carries rewards both in the long run and in the immediate present.

The long-run rewards of practice are, I think, the most obvious.  The expectation is that the frustration and difficulty of practice will payoff with a long-term accomplishment. If you work hard enough, then you have he satisfaction of a job well done.  To be sure, this is a very real and very worthy aspect of practice: there is a lot of long-term comfort in being able to look back at a job well done.

At the same time, there’s another kind of pleasure that can accompany practice, and this is the sense, in the moment, that you’re doing something well.  This is distinct from retrospective pride, though it is certainly related.  But the sense of pleasure in the moment of practice is not so much, I think, pride at an accomplishment, but rather a sense of personal power and ability. And it’s not just satisfaction with self, as it can be absorption into the act.

A very large part of why I learned to play guitar was because I love music, and although my musicianship isn’t nearly up to the standards of the recording stars whose work I love, it is enough to spark my own appreciation of music. I may not play that two-chord song as well as my heroes, but I can play it well enough that I enjoy the song.  Similarly, there are times when I’m writing when I’m entirely caught up in an idea that I think is interesting, and the interest in the idea I’m trying to convey is itself a form a pleasure.

In short, I think practice offers three kinds of reward: the long-term accomplishments; the short-term sense of power/ability; and the absorption into something of interest.

Conclusion

My main point here, I suppose, is not so much to dispel negativity about practicing as to balance than negativity with the positive side, especially the positive aspect that gets overlooked: the pleasure in practice.

Yes, practice is difficult and frustrating.  But that is not the only face of practice.  Practice is also pleasurable and uplifting.  There are times when practice is difficult, perhaps even painful.  But in a good, healthy practice, there should also be times when you feel your strength and ability, and times when you can celebrate accomplishments. 

Perhaps this is all a product of my personal experience: the best things in my life have grown out of practice and effort and working through problems. There are good things that I’ve enjoyed–movies, books, television–that didn’t require effort or investment. But those were small things compared to the satisfactions I’ve felt when my writing, or my music, were going well. And that is why, I write this paean to practice.

Desert Oases

My previous post was partly inspired/motivated by my thoughts about the difficulty faced by a writer who lost a loved one.  After I posted, I was out running and when I run, I have time to think. 

Unfortunately, far too often, when I think, my mind goes to difficulties that I face, and, worse, to the problems and difficulties of my past, about which I can do nothing except regret.  And in that context, I started thinking about a loved one that I recently lost.

Bella

I met Bella when I rented a room from her person seven+ years ago.  I often like dogs but I don’t think of myself as a dog person.  Bella, however, was perfect (this is an entirely objective statement, of course). And this past August first, Bella, who was 15, left us. Bella was happy and smart and, well, perfect (again, an objective fact). Dealing with her was pretty much always a pleasure, even walking her before dawn on cold, wet winter mornings. I miss her.

Comparing one person’s loss to another is a dicey matter.  But when someone tells me that they lost a loved one, at least I can say that I lost a loved one, too. Bella was one of the best things in my life.  Losing her is still pretty raw and fresh.

That being said, however, and returning to the subject of this post, Bella is also, still, one of the best things in my life. I always have the memory of how perfect she was and how she warmed my heart. As I said at the top of the post, sometimes my mind wanders and tends to focus on all my failures and shortcomings and regrets roaming over a vast imaginative Sahara of failure.  And there, right where I can see it, no mirage, is the memory of Bella. Yes, she is gone. No, I don’t get to look her in the eye or take her for walks. But that vast, imaginative Sahara is exactly as real as Bella.  My regret for the past and fears for the future are no more here and now than Bella. Bella isn’t here and now, and that makes me sad.  Out there in the wilderness of my imagination of what could be or what could have been, she is there, an oasis in a desert, or, to switch metaphors, a St. Bernard saving me from a blizzard.

More Bella

So, if you feel yourself staggering through a desert of despair and dismay, are there any oases to which you could direct your mental footsteps?

Taghit, Algeria

Taking a long view

My current plan for blogging is aimed at posting a new essay each week on Mondays.  This doesn’t always happen. Indeed, with respect to actually posting on Mondays, it’s been happening infrequently.  This is not ideal.  Of course, life isn’t always ideal, and learning to deal with the difficulties of the moment is valuable. This post is about taking a long view toward writing and writing projects, so that the difficulties of the moment don’t stop you in the long run.

I am thinking, in part, about a client who hasn’t gotten work done recently due to the death of a loved one. He wrote to me a few days ago to apologize that he has not been able to get moving on his project.  He is on a schedule—the project really needs to be done in about 9 months—so it’s not as if there is no concern for productivity.  But this is definitely enough time that taking the long view is meaningful.  The big question for this writer is not what he does in the next week or two; the question is what he does in the next nine months.  Sure, we can say that losing two weeks is losing almost 10% of the total time he has available, but that doesn’t take into account differences in his relationship to his work.  Basically the question is whether losing two weeks is worth it, if it helps the writer work more effectively over the remaining 90% of his available time.

Small changes in productivity make a big difference over long time periods

Suppose writing a project requires 100 units of work. (Yes, it’s a little silly to try to quantize work so simplistically, but it helps illustrate the issue.)  If a writer does 1 unit each week, then the writer will finish the project in 100 weeks.  But, especially with a lengthy project, a slight increase in productivity can result in a reasonably significant reduction in time: If a writer does 1.1 units of work a week, that 100-unit writing project will take about 91 weeks.

Let’s say the writer who lost his loved one has to do 100 units of work in 40 weeks time—that’s 2.5 units of work per week.  If he loses two weeks, then he has to do 100 units of work in 38 weeks, or 2.63 units a week.  Moving from 2.5 units/week to 2.63 units/week requires increasing productivity by about 5.2%, which doesn’t seem like a great increase productivity.  If we assume that each unit of work takes about 10 hours, then doing 2.5 units/week requires 25 hours of effort. So to increase productivity by the necessary 5.2% would mean spending about an extra hour and 20 minutes per week (assuming that productivity per hour does not decrease).

So, if we take the long view with respect to a writing project or writing practice, it becomes easier to take short periods of time off, especially if taking that time off can help improve productivity.

Can taking time off improve productivity?

The question actually has two parts because we can measure productivity in two different ways: in terms of absolute product, and in terms of productivity per unit of time.  With respect to completing a project like a dissertation or book, it is the absolute productivity that is of immediate importance: the manuscript must be written and submitted, and that’s all there is to it.  But in terms of a writing practice, the question of productivity per unit of time is more interesting: it’s not so much a question of completing a single work, so much as of what you get for your efforts.

When talking about taking time off increasing productivity, this split in measures of productivity leads to a split in the question. One question is: can taking time off increase overall productivity? The other question is: can taking time off increase productivity per unit of time?  For a writer facing a deadline, the first question is the one that is most obviously important: will I get the whole work done?  But for that writer, the question of productivity per unit of time has a crucial impact on the question of overall productivity, as illustrated in the simple example above.

I want to argue for the value of time off in increasing productivity per unit of time. It should be obvious that in the right contexts, time off can improve productivity.  This is pretty obvious in extreme cases: someone working 120 hours a week will probably be more productive per hour if they start working “only” 60 hours per week.  Meanwhile, it seems entirely questionable that someone struggling with writer’s block might not similarly benefit: if productivity is low and time spent is also low, can taking time off help improve productivity? This is more questionable.  But if productivity is already low, then it seems like a reasonable effort to try to improve productivity, and worry about losing time (in which, due to low productivity, little would be accomplished) doesn’t help.

One way to increase productivity is to improve your relationship with your work.  It has been argued that procrastination can stem from resentment (Fiore’s The Now Habit), and one way to resent your work is to feel trapped by it.  This writer who lost his loved one might resent his work if he feels forced to it at a time when he’s grieving, so my concern is that forcing himself to work (or my pushing him to work too aggressively) will not improve long-term production.  At the same time, I do want to encourage this writer to think about his work as a potential escape from his grief—engagement in an activity can, at least for short periods, give some relief from emotional difficulties.  This all is part and parcel of his relationship with his work.  I want to focus on helping him improve his relationship with his work, because I think that writers, who often lose enthusiasm for their projects as they near their completion, can gain great benefit from rediscovering the lost passion that initially inspired a work.  Creating such a shift of attitude can be facilitated by taking some time off.

How much can productivity increase?

In my quantized example above, I indicated that time off in a long project can be made up with small increases in productivity.  That is somewhat dependent on context, however.  The amount that productivity can increase is dependent on how productive one already is. 

Someone who is already very productive, and working a lot, won’t easily increase productivity.  If someone is working 100 hours a week and using the time effectively, then it might be really hard to get a 5% increase in productivity.

But, for people who have been getting stuck on a big project, like the writer who lost his loved one, the story is very different.  People who are stuck on big projects are often people who are facing particularly low productivity with respect to their historical norms.  A dissertation writer who gets stuck and fails to make progress on a dissertation is almost always someone at a relatively low level of productivity compared to their own history.  People advance to writing a dissertation because of their demonstrated ability to do scholarly work. So often, productivity levels with respect to large projects are relatively low compared to previously established performance.

A writer whose anxiety stops her from sitting down to write is producing no writing at all.  If she has a history of previous success as a writer, then there’s an opportunity for massive improvement. Recently, I worked with a dissertation writer over about nine months, at the end of which, she successfully defended a dissertation. During the first few months, little progress was made—perhaps one chapter was revised during the first three months we worked together. During the last six months, however, the remaining three chapters were revised and new introductions and conclusions were written, drafts submitted to committee members and revisions made with respect to the feedback received.  More importantly, perhaps, the writer went from saying “I can’t get anything done; I’m not getting anything done,” to saying “I am making progress.”  I can’t precisely quantify that difference, but that’s the real key, if we take the long view.

Emotions are key

I believe in practice. I preach the importance of practice. I push people to write every day (I also push myself to write every day).  But, in a long view, practice wants to be built on a good foundation—a foundation that brings the writer back to the writing day after day.  Emotions are key in that foundation.  If you feel bad about what you’re doing, and if doing what you’re doing makes you feel bad, it’s going to be really hard to maintain a good level of effort.  If, for example, writing is a source of anxiety, or if you resent your writing because it keeps you from attending to other important things in your life, then it’s hard to keep going.

In this long view of writing practice, taking time off for mental health and doing other things to support a positive relationship with writing help lay the foundation for a positive practice that allows the writer to access their abilities and put them into action on a more regular basis.  Writing is hard. It requires effort.  But, like many things that require effort, it is also rewarding.  If we develop a good relationship with writing, then maintaining a healthy and productive practice is much easier and helps unlock greater levels of productivity as focus and energy shift away from the anxiety or resentment and back towards the interests that really motivate us. And if we do that, in the long run, we’re going to be more productive.

The Writer’s Paradoxes of Passion

What are good principles on which to base a writing practice? In seeking such principles, it is pretty easy to find intractable problems or unanswerable questions.  Sometimes these intractable problems are tradeoffs, like the tradeoff between time and quality: you can always spend more time to improve the quality of a work, but timeliness is itself an important characteristic, so one is trading quality for promptness.  There’s no right answer there, but it’s not quite what I would call a paradox in that it is not inherently self-contradictory.  When it comes to passion in writing, however, there are paradoxical elements: you need to have a passion for what you do at the same time as you remain apathetic about it. This can manifest on a few different levels.

Passion for abstract quality

Whether artist or scholar, writers have a sense of what will make a work good. Having some vision of what you want to create—a sense that it must be just so—that it must have certain specific qualities—this is crucial to doing work of quality.  Sensitivity to the finer points of your work is invaluable, and a passion to get them right is important in finding the energy to deal with all the necessary details.

This same driving passion, however, can be paralyzing, as anyone who has ever struggled with perfectionism knows. So the writer (or other practitioner) simultaneously needs (1) to be passionate about creating a work of quality and (2) able to accept flaws in that same work.  This first paradox of passion is, perhaps, not so much a clear paradox in the sense that it is inherently self-contradictory, but rather a matter of finding the balance between the passion for precision and surrendering that care at certain moments.  It is a matter of striking a balance where something is good enough despite imperfection.

Passion for personal significance.  

If you care about something passionately, that can be motivating, and it can also be problematic. There is a dissertation-writing book that suggests that the best topic for a dissertation is basically something that you don’t care about but that can tolerate because caring too much can be a problem. I’m not a big fan of that idea or approach, but I do understand and agree that passion for a subject can be problematic in research. There are two problems: (1) passion about a project can certainly lead to being over-ambitious, which can lead to difficulty in completing a project,  and (2) passion can lead to disillusionment when the grand ideas meet the practical difficulties of bringing a project to completion. That’s the basic argument for how a passion for personal significance can interfere with action.

The flip side of that argument is that personal significance is crucial for motivation and for avoiding emotional malaise.  The basic principle of Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning is that people are emotionally healthier and better able to overcome difficulties if they see a meaning in what they do.

Personally,  I agree with Frankl. I think it’s crazy to start a project that you explicitly choose for being uninteresting.  I think that’s a good recipe for ensuring that you’re miserable with your work. Still, there is some truth that the same passion that motivates us and makes work fulfilling can become an impediment to dealing with practical limitations.  Our passion may be sparked by a grand, sprawling vision, and the work that we can personally realize may be so frustratingly limited as to disappoint, and thus interfere with motivation.

On a certain level, this is a question of risk and reward: the more passion you have for a project, the greater the impact you feel from any success or failure.  (There are, of course, other factors in measuring risk and reward.) As the level of personal care increases, there is greater motivation to reap the potential personal rewards of success, but that can be accompanied by an uncomfortable increase in apprehension about potential bad outcomes.

In any event, in this sense, we can say that there is a paradox of passion because the passion for personal significance can both help and hinder the creative process.

Passion for communication

If you’re writing to reach others—if you have some message that you want to share—there is an important role for caring about communication and communicating well.  Writers often care deeply about what their audience will think.  This passion can directly contribute to fear of writing: plenty of people get stuck thinking about the negative feedback they might receive in the future (especially if they have struggled to deal with negative feedback received earlier). If you’re writing a journal for yourself or making notes to explore some idea, of course, then there’s no real relevant concern for others.  But most writing has to do with reaching an audience.  

I would guess that the first audience most of us write for is our school teachers, which has the unfortunate consequence of getting many to think of writing as an unpleasant task whose primary upshot is criticism of the limits of our writing. As a result, thinking about writing for an audience triggers anxiety about writing well enough and about receiving negative feedback. Because of this association, one of my principles for developing a good writing practice is to write without concern for what others will think.  If you’re spending your efforts worrying about other people, it takes your attention from your subject, and increases stress related to potential outcomes of your effort.  You need, in other words, to put aside a passion for communication to write easily so that you can focus on your own ideas. But that’s an approach that is really only useful for breaking through anxiety-based writing blocks.  

Once, you start to actually write, it’s valuable to think about your audience and what they would like.  Focusing on your audience and on trying to understand them and their interests helps because writing is about communicating with others (at least sometimes).  Thinking about writing in terms of communication can help shift the sometimes problematic relationship with grammar and punctuation: if you think of grammar, spelling, and punctuation as complicated rules that you have to follow or be punished, then it’s natural to fret about whether you’re getting them right or wrong.  If, however, you think of them as tools that help you communicate more effectively, your focus will remain on the ideas you want to communicate, and difficulties with grammar, etc. will not bring your writing to a complete halt.  Thinking in terms of communication helps keep the focus on the ideas that you want to express: what is the message that you are trying to express? Please note that I distinguish between thinking about how to communicate your own ideas to various audiences, and trying to write what you think that audience wants to hear.  A passion for communicating your own ideas is good, so long as that focus on your own ideas doesn’t blind you to the difficulties in communicating to different audiences.

Writing is hard for many reasons. Passion can carry the writer through those difficulties.  On the whole, I strongly recommend trying to find things that you do care about when you write, and to care about how well you write. Nonetheless, passion can lead into some problems, too, and thus the paradox: the same passion that is beneficial can also inhibit the work.

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.