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.


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.

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.