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.

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.

Multiple Drafts and Writer’s Block

Writer’s block typically arises from a complex of issues. In this post, I discuss one factor that can contribute to writer’s block and how writing multiple drafts and thinking about the different roles of those drafts can help deal with that one difficulty. The idea of writing multiple drafts of a single work is hardly a novel one, but I have not seen this particular take on multiple drafts in relations to writer’s block (and now that I typed that, I’m definitely not going to go look to see if any one else written something similar! I wouldn’t actually be surprised).

One problem that can contribute to writer’s block is the conflict between writing to learn and writing to communicate/writing for presentation.  When writing early drafts of a work, writers are often seeking their argument and their focus, and in such cases, the concern for learning about the work can conflict with concerns for presentation. This can occur in a number of different ways: concern for grammar, spelling and punctuation distract attention from finding an argument. Worries about how readers will respond the work—fear of rejection or memories of previous difficult feedback—can create emotional stress that distracts attention.  One such conflict that can cause problems, which I’ve seen several times with academic writers, is the conflict created using a theorist that you don’t want to cite.  In one case in my experience, a writer who was interested in some ideas from Freud had a professor who hated Freud. Because his professor would respond poorly to works citing Freud, he quite reasonably wanted to avoid citing Freud. At the same time, however, he relied on Freud as an intellectual landmark.  He associated many of the ideas he used with Freud, and so when seeking to understand his own arguments, he turned to Freud. And this created a block: in trying to work through ideas, he would think of Freud, but then he would get stuck because he didn’t want to write about Freud, so his process of intellectual exploration was interrupted by his concern about how his work would be received.

Thinking about the different (and potentially competing) roles of drafts, can, perhaps, help reduce this specific conflict of interests.  If the specific role of your present draft is to learn and explore (and will be mostly private), then maybe you can set aside concerns for presentation and just explore.  Ask yourself: do you have a good sense of your argument—do you need to write to learn?—or do you already have a good focus and now need to think about communicating with your audience—do you need to write for presentation?  

Generally, in early drafts, the purpose is to learn—to learn what you really care about and what is most important for the project. Later, once you’ve committed to a sufficiently tight focus, then you start thinking about how to present ideas and communicate with your audience.  This is something of a simplification: you may never stop learning and changing what you think most important (thus stories of people frantically rewriting at the last minute), even as you try to complete a mature project; and you can gain some benefit from thinking about how to communicate (or at least with whom to communicate) even early in the process of research design.  

As a matter of process, this scenario with the writer trying to write around Freud displays how the two concerns—of learning and of presentation—are in conflict for a writer who is not certain of the precise content, focus and argument of the work.  By specifying the role of a draft as exploratory (and private), then he can go ahead and write about Freud as a point of reference that helps him learn about the shape and scope of his own argument.  Because that first draft is only for learning, there is no need to avoid Freud, who can thus play an important role as an intellectual landmark in the exploration of ideas that is occurring during the writing of the early draft. Putting aside the concern for presentation allows greater freedom in the exploration of ideas, which is crucial in the process of finding one’s own voice and in developing original research.

Once the argument comes into better focus, the writer can switch her/his efforts from learning and intellectual exploration to the question of presentation.  If a draft has already been completed, and the scope of the argument has already been set while using Freud as a point of reference, then the writer then has a much better position from which to work on the question of how best to present his/her own argument.

Basically, if you are not yet sure what you want to say, you benefit from exploring that first.  If you are not sure of what you want to say, it is crucial to explore those ideas with freedom before getting bogged down in presentational details.  If you think of some scholar—Dr.X—when trying to explain your work, explore that connection, explore that relationship. Why is Dr.X important to you? What aspects of Dr.X’s theory are like or unlike yours? What is it about Dr.X’s work that makes it a useful point of reference?  Write these things out to learn about the intellectual terrain on which your work is situated.  Use the landmark of Dr.X help you see the whole landscape of ideas, and thus help you understand your own position better, and also identify other scholars whose work provides useful intellectual landmarks for use in later drafts that get written once your argument has clarified. [This post is about writer’s block and using separate drafts with distinct roles, so I’m not going to get into the question of whether a scholar who “hides” a source by using alternative sources for citations is committing some ethical breach.]

The process of writing about a Dr.X in an early draft can help clarify a sense of purpose and a sense of argument.  Once you have a better sense of direction and focus, then you can turn your attention to crafting an effective presentation that doesn’t rely on Dr.X, ideally by citing alternative scholars who have expressed similar ideas with less problematic context, for example, as might be done by replacing Freud citations with citations from more modern psychodynamic theorists.

I recently wrote about trusting the process in writing. This is, I think, one issue where it’s necessary (1) to recognize that there is an ongoing process, and (2) to give that process space and time to work.  If you don’t see your process as including both drafts for learning and drafts to refine presentation, then you’re forcing yourself into a situation in which your concerns for presentation will work against the necessary process of exploration, and that can contribute to a larger writing block.

If you’re stuck and having trouble finding your voice, put aside your concerns for presentation. First, write to learn, then, later, write for presentation.

Listening to Yourself

Recently, I saw a motivational quotation on the order of “Do what you love and it isn’t work.” It struck me as unrealistic and unhelpful. It fails to capture the difficult and intimate interplay between love and work—whatever kind of love we may be talking about.  Love calls on us to do things that are difficult, even unpleasant or painful. Often we surmount difficulties and minor discomforts for our proudest achievements and best experiences. But it’s possible to face too much difficulty, and too much pain, and then love can be destructive.  To have a healthy relationship with the things we love—whether people or activities or otherwise—it helps to be able to listen to ourselves and make good judgements about how much difficulty is the right amount of difficulty.

Passion often lies where there is great difficulty. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that the best moments in people’s lives occur in activities that present significant challenges—the “Flow” state that Csikszentmihalyi has researched occurs in difficult activities, not easy ones. The activities that he describes as flow activities are ones where there is a danger of failure and a possibility for growth.

Shortly after seeing that motivational quotation, I was out for a run. (I’m not sure I go fast enough to call what I do “running” anymore, but I’ll call it running.) While running, I was thinking about the practice of listening to myself and the value of self-knowledge, and thinking about that in the context of writing and developing a writing practice, as well as the context of going running.

Going running is difficult and it is also something that I love.  When running well, I feel better than I do at any other time.  But I’m liable to aches and pains.  Tendonitis is a frequent issue, as is tightness or cramping.  Understanding these pains and being able to self-diagnose—listening to myself—helps me decide when to run harder and when to stop and engage in some treatment (like stretching).  You don’t want to keep running if running is going to cause more damage or prevent damage from healing; you do want to keep running if the exercise will help resolve the problem. Being able to listen to yourself helps you make a good judgement.

This ability to listen to oneself is valuable in all cases where love leads us to a difficulty: do we continue to follow our passion, or do we pull back because our passion is causing damage? 

To develop a successful writing practice, it’s important to listen to oneself, and to understand which difficulties are a sign to stop and tend to yourself, and which are just difficulty and discomfort to work through.  

This is true at both the physical and emotional levels. Physically, to write, and to work on writing has real dangers—I have known more than one researcher whose work was brought to a near standstill by repetitive stress injuries.  RSIs are better understood now than when I was in graduate school, so fewer people are crippled by them—partly because we better understand the danger and the danger signs (as well as appropriate responses).

Danger of overwork also exists on the emotional level, I believe. It is possible to turn a work practice into something so unpleasant that it becomes hard to work.  The idea that obstacles to writing stem from psychological issues is hardly a new or inventive one. Two sources where I have seen this idea are Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit and Keith Hjortshoj’s book on writing blocks, both of which discuss different psychological issues that inhibit writing.

Whether the pain is physical or emotional, being able to listen to yourself and correctly diagnose the severity of various discomforts can help you develop a more effective writing practice.  And that understanding can help your realize a project that is important to you and also difficult—a project of the sort that is often called a “labor of love.”

A labor of love requires a positive and beneficial practice that provides sufficient rewards to justify the difficulties involved, and part of that requires the ability to listen to yourself in order to understand what the costs are relative to the benefits.

The “do what you love and it isn’t work” trope fails to explain or understand the idea of a labor of love, and so cannot support such a work. If you think that doing what you love means that you don’t have to work, then you will almost certainly interpret all difficulties as a sign of something wrong—perhaps, even that you don’t love what you’re dong enough.  A more realistic view of what constitutes a good relationship recognizes that significant difficulties are part of the best things in life.

For me, the difficulty and frustration of not knowing what to write, of feeling that my ideas are weak or of limited interest, of not knowing how to make a coherent argument, of feeling that my hoped-for and intended argument has totally fallen apart, all of these are real pains. There is real difficulty and distress related to these things.  But is it suffering that will cause long-term damage? Knowing yourself and listening to yourself helps prevent engagement from becoming unhealthy.  

Doing what you love takes work. It involves real frustrations and difficulties. That work and those frustrations and difficulties are not necessarily signs that you’re doing something wrong or that you don’t love enough.  That’s where listening to yourself is about: by listening to yourself, you get information about your processes and you can use that information to develop better, healthier practices.

In this post, I have focused on listening to yourself with respect to managing a writing practice, but as a final note, I want to point out that for a writer being able to listen to yourself—hearing your own voice, and trusting your own judgments—is crucial not only in managing the practice of writing, but in finding material to write.  To write original work, there is no other source than your own voice—but that’s a subject for a different post.