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.

Being a Beginner

It’s difficult being a beginner and trying to identify and negotiate the unfamiliar issues of unfamiliar work. It’s frustrating being unable to act effectively. Especially if there are other areas where you are used to acting effectively. As a result of years of practice as writer and editor, I have developed some facility with words and with writing. Although writing is often difficult in the sense that it demands effort and concentration, I can generally work quickly and effectively.  And that efficacy makes writing feel extremely easy compared to unfamiliar tasks, even though writing is still difficult.

When I write, because of my experience, I can sense the potential of a plan to create a coherent piece of work. I can make decisions about scope and focus, and I am not troubled about the possibility of making those decisions wrong.  I am confident that I can always write another draft (indeed, I will probably write another draft of something tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, and so on…), and this confidence in the process is a powerful emotional shield against the frustrations of the process. If I decide to throw a draft away, it’s not a problem, it’s just part of the process.

Recently, I have been working on making videos (and diagrams/images to supplement visual presentation of ideas) to expand the range of media in which I work.  I have experimented with basic videos in the past, posting several quickly made dissertation-related videos during the early months of 2018. The quality was unsatisfactory and I dropped the project to focus on finding a publisher for my book. Having found a publisher, I see my publisher suggesting I make some videos to help promote my book.  “Make a simple video,” the material suggests, “It doesn’t have to be fancy.” That framing of it—a simple video, doesn’t have to be fancy—is kind of inspiring or at least reassuring. But then I start work.

This is a field in which I am mostly a beginner.  My experience as a writer helps me with writing a script. Beyond that, I’m largely lost and kind of overwhelmed. The tools of the process are unfamiliar to me. Visual imagery? Soundtracks? I’m a rank amateur. But here I am, making a stab at it because it sounds like a good idea.  And because I’m a rank amateur, every step is frustrating. Mistakes abound. Doubts multiply. Every step is uncertain, uncomfortable.  Even trying to write scripts/outlines/storyboards…I mean I don’t even know how to apply words here. My instincts about how much to say in written form fail me when I contemplate the temporal structure of video presentation: I know how word counts relate to desired reading time, but I don’t know how word counts relate to speaking/listening time.  I’ll learn this, and other things with practice, as long as I practice. 

And images. I don’t work in visual media; I don’t really rely on images or diagrams when I think about the processes of writing and research. So I’m trying to imagine images that might help me convey ideas, which is hard, and then, when I get an idea, I’m trying to use unfamiliar tools to capture what I imagined (I’m mostly working on the computer, which is difficult, but produces better results than I do drawing by hand). And what I do create doesn’t look all that good to me.

Being a novice is difficult emotionally. Doubts about how to precede receive no emotional support from past successes in the same area of experience. Because of the doubt, the work is more tiring and more frustrating. I procrastinate—indeed, I’m writing a blog post instead of working on a video right now, even though my video still needs to be made. I try to focus on making a video, and my attention goes to other projects that are related. In response, I try to keep refocusing on the practice—the repeated attempt to make something connected with a video. Not on the weaknesses of the specific piece that I’m working on, but just on the process. On taking one step after another. On exploring. On making mistakes so that I can learn from them. On making drafts that I throw away, so that I can experiment with things to see what seems to work (very little, so far!) and what doesn’t.

Being a beginner is frustrating. But when the goal seems worthy, if you can step into a practice where you experiment, make mistakes and keep practicing, you will improve your ability and then, whatever abilities you have will be amplified by your practice-based skills.

Work on one thing at a time until finished

As number one on his list of 1932-1933 “Commandments”, Henry Miller wrote “Work on one thing at a time until finished.”

It’s an extremely valuable dictum, despite the difficulties I have putting it into practice.  There are two elements to it that I really, really like, and one element that is really hard or imprctical.

The first element that I like is the idea of working on one thing at a time.  At a very immediate, moment-to-moment scale, working on one thing at a time is the only way to go.  Over very short time frames—a few minutes, perhaps—the only real options for working are: 1. to work on/write about one thing with focus, or 2. try to decide what to work on/write about.  There is good value in spending time trying to decide what to do, but at some point it’s necessary to stop thinking about what to write, and to start writing.  When you do start writing, you want to focus on writing one sentence at a time—there is a larger goal, but it’s built up of the small steps.

The second element that I like is the “until finished” part, which is also the part I don’t like.  What I like about the “until finished” idea is the focus on finishing.  There is a place in this world for journal writers and free writers to write for the sake of writing or for the self-discovery involved, but if you want to get a degree or get published, you have to finish things in a timely fashion. When your focus is on the question of finishing a project, you’re less likely to get stuck with a project that is too large to complete, and less likely get stuck endlessly revising. Focusing on completion doesn’t guarantee finishing, but it does shift the approach somewhat from “what is the best work possible?” to “what is the best work I can accomplish in a reasonable time?”  Perfectionism is less likely to lead to paralysis if one of the criteria for perfection is “completed !” or even “completed on schedule!”  

The “until finished” aspect, however, has two problems: 1. it can be hard to know what “finished” is, and 2. it’s often impractical to focus exclusively on one project over longer periods of time. The first of these points is related to the question of not knowing enough. People looking for answers may feel that a work is unfinished if it leaves a lot of questions unanswered or raises more questions than it did answer, but answers always lead to new questions, so it’s possible to think a work is unfinished, even if outside reviewers might judge it as an interesting and valuable project. Secondly, the idea of working on one thing at a time is perhaps impossible (or impossible to define) in the context of a research career. What counts as “one thing” in a research career? Is a research career just a series of independent projects, each “one thing” taken one at a time, or is it a larger program that leads to a series of specific projects?  I think the second is more realistic for most scholars and grad students: They are driven by a larger question, but one specific research project only speaks to some of their questions of interest. (Whether seeking a professional or academic career, the researcher needs to consider the specific research project in the larger context of the career.) Miller, whose “commandment” inspired this post, wrote fiction, and perhaps it is easier to segment a career in fiction.

The “until finished” idea can be impractical, too, because finishing a work often includes delays when you can’t work on the project. For someone seeking an academic career, it’s valuable to be able to start working on a new project before an old one is complete because of the many delays that go into executing many projects. Publication, for example, is loaded with delays during which a work is not necessarily “finished” but you can’t work on it. During those times, it’s good to have some different project to work on, but then what do you do when it’s time to go back to the work in publication? Having multiple projects at different stages of development can help a scholar use time more efficiently.

But when you have multiple projects and demands on your time, it’s much easier to get overwhelmed. It’s much easier to spend time wondering what to work on next, instead of just working on one thing. And it’s easy to lose time switching between projects instead of focusing.  That’s why, in terms of developing a regular practice, it’s good to work on one thing at a time until finished. Miller called that a commandment. For me, it’s more a goal or a principle for which I strive, but with deference to practical concerns. For me, it’s a particularly useful goal that helps me focus on my writing when it is time to write, and helps me prioritize and act, rather than get stuck debating what to work on and overwhelmed by the many things that I could or should do.

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.

Trusting the Process in Writing

For some writers, there comes a point where it can seem like there’s nothing to write about, or at least nothing worth writing about.  At that point, one option is to simply stop writing.  But, of course, that might not be a good option.  Another option is to skip the big picture and reduce the process to a matter of small steps and to trust that a process of engagement will help you open some paths of development.

Trusting a process is difficult, especially when a deadline looms.  It can be hard to accept that you might benefit from engaging in some apparently trivial task, especially if you feel a lack of basic ideas worth writing about.  But again, if the issue is a choice between being blocked—stuck feeling that there is nothing that you can write or that you want to write about—and trusting the process, then trust the process!

You won’t find something worth writing about by avoiding your project.  And you won’t find much satisfaction in just stopping.  Just stopping leads to the certainty that your project will not be accepted.  Trying to get published? You need a manuscript. Trying to get a degree? You need a manuscript.

Trusting a process can be annoying.  You might ask, “If I can’t find a big issue to write about, what’s the point in engaging with some small tangential task?”  Or you might say “that suggestion is so trivial, it won’t help.”  Such complaints have some validity. There is no question that there is better efficiency found in working on something when you have a clear vision of what you’re going to do.  But, again, the context needs emphasis: saying that it would be better to have a clear vision of your goal doesn’t help if you have no obvious route to gain such a vision. If you are feeling stuck, and feeling lost, trusting the process may be the only alternative that leads to productive activity.

There are usually a large number of minor tasks that a writer can pick up to start engaging with the process.  There is always value in trying to make a one-sentence statement of purpose for a project.  A writer who has lost a sense of direction can particularly benefit from taking the step of writing a one-sentence statement of purpose, and even better if that task is engaged repeatedly: write that one-sentence statement. And then write another one-sentence statement. And another.

A similar task is to write an outline for the work you want to write—this is, in a way, an inversion of the previous task: writing a one-sentence statement of purpose focuses on the over-arching structure.  Writing an outline focuses on the pieces that make up the structure.  It’s certainly possible to write an outline without having a clear sense of what your final argument will be—perhaps you have a few examples that you want to discuss, or a few issues—even if you don’t know exactly how they are related, you can put them into some outline.

If tasks like doing a statement of purpose or an outline seem intimidating, there are also tasks that are more granular.  Pick one sentence from an old draft and focus on that one sentence. What is good about it? What is bad about it? What could you do differently? Pick one idea from an old draft and write about what you hoped for with that idea and what problems you have faced. 

Or pick some publication in your field to which you can contrast your own work. Why is it like yours? To what extent are you interested in the same issues? And where do your interests differ? If you don’t know what you want to write about, you might find some subject of interest by looking at what others have written and thinking about how you want your work to compare.

Or, if you have empirical data that you have gathered, go back to that data and ask yourself again what the data shows. If you have empirical data, you should be focused on writing what is there in the data.

I’m a big fan of having a clear vision of where you want to go—an overarching sense of purpose and sense of direction are powerful guides for a writer.  But it’s possible to lose sight of those goals in the midst of a project. If you are wandering around the conceptual landscape wondering where to situate your writing, don’t scorn taking small steps. Small steps may seem meaningless or worthless—there’s little clear direction in writing about an idea you’ve rejected, or about an author whose work you don’t think you can use—but the process of engaging them earnestly can at least give you more information to figure out where you stand in the conceptual landscape, and where you might want to go.

Taking small steps that seem pointless may involve taking steps that are almost no help whatsoever. Maybe some of the small steps you take lead directly to dead-ends.  Those steps don’t directly contribute to the draft you’re trying to create.  But such steps do contribute to the process—they may not help a draft directly, but a series of such small steps helps delineate the project: every step you take that leads to a dead-end also helps set limits of the project, and seeing limits on the project can be useful in understanding what is and is not part of the project.  And the more such small steps you take, the more likely it is that you will hit upon some idea that is valuable and interesting.

Engaging in a process of taking small steps can be frustrating, but if you’re paralyzed or confused, it’s a very useful process for getting out of paralysis and at least limiting confusion.  Stuff is complex, so I’m not going to claim that you will ever be able to eliminate confusion. But the more that you engage, the greater the chance that you will find something that you do feel confident about.

Of course, you need to engage with some energy. It’s not enough to look at an article or passage from an old draft and just say to yourself that you don’t want to use it—you won’t learn much that way. You have to try to explicate in writing why you don’t want to use it.

If you’re feeling lost or paralyzed and you have stopped working, don’t put pressure on yourself to find the big answer. Big answers are really, really hard to find.  Instead, try to take tiny steps: work over old material and ask whether you like it and how to adapt it. Pick something to read and to write about. Make a quick, simple outline. Write one sentence about something.  Trust the process of working on your project because a process can help guide your actions in moments when you are having trouble seeing a larger sense of purpose.

Persistence

In the last week or two, I’ve been hitting a rough spot in my writing practice. I don’t feel like I’m making progress on anything…more searching for something to work on, for all that I have several tasks that require my attention.  I’ve not been particularly disciplined in working, either: I do sit down to work and do some writing, but when I get stuck I have very little patience to push on in the attempt to make more progress.

This is less than ideal.  It would certainly be preferable to be consistently productive, consistently disciplined, and consistently focused.  But that’s not how it is, and there’s nothing I can do to go back and change what has already happened.  My best hope is to do better in the future.

Even looking back, I still keep attention on the little that I did do—I may not have done much, but I’m happy to say that I have done something. That’s a place to start—I didn’t completely get stopped.  It’s nice to be able to look back and count any positive progress or outcomes, even if that positive progress was small. And, from the perspective of practicing—the perspective concerned with writing as an activity carried out habitually and regularly for the purpose of improving skill—the fact that I engaged with the practice of writing at all is a bit of a win.  Being able to look back at a period of time and try to identify positive actions taken can be useful. Having practiced a little is better than not having practiced at all.

But even if I had gotten nothing done for weeks previously, I can still look to the future with some hope: perhaps I wasn’t regular in working in the past, but with persistence, I can develop such a practice. All it really takes is persistence, and some reasonable moderation.

If you want to develop a long-term practice, it’s important to recognize that there are ups and downs in any practice. There are days when things come more easily than others.  And on the days that things don’t come easily, it’s important to remember that those bad days help set the foundation for the good days.  Persisting through bad days helps keep projects moving, even if the progress is minimal in the immediate present. Persisting helps keep up the momentum on a project, which is valuable.

I was speaking with a writer who had a death in the family.  This quite reasonably interrupted the writing practice, but what then is the next step? Well, persistence, of course. Getting back to the process is what’s important, not looking bad and regretting the lost time.  Given the significance of a death in the family, it’s totally reasonable to lose time to grieving and to family gatherings to celebrate the person and mourn their loss. If some extreme and unusual event prevents writing, well that’s ok, too. But all the while, one can maintain an underlying idea of persistence—the notion that in the long run, it’s necessary to persist through the interruptions and distractions., but also that, if one maintains the long-term practice, then those unusual interruptions won’t actually pose a danger to the larger practice.

Keeping any eye on the importance of persistence is crucial after an interruption because after an interruption, there are two common responses, one is to shrug off the interruption and get back to work.  The other focuses on the interruption and on the lost time, and often turns that focus into critical self-judgement that then inhibits future work.

The persistent attitude can be flexible—it can decide to return to an interrupted project because that’s the place of persistence. Rather than letting the bad result—slow days or days with no work—dictate future behavior, the attention focuses on what can be done to keep moving. One small step at a time, but persistently!

Giving Thanks

This coming Thursday, the United States celebrates Thanksgiving.  Despite the fraught history of the holiday, I like it because I believe in the importance of giving thanks.

Gratitude is good. It is all too easy to take for granted the good things that we do have and to focus our attention on things that worry us. It is, indeed, quite natural because focusing attention on potential danger is a survival skill: if you’re starving, your attention focuses on finding food, and if you’ve had enough to eat, your attention focuses on other potential threats. Being aware of danger is important, but it also takes a toll on the body in the form of stress. Gratitude, by contrast, focuses the attention on those things that are going well and on things supporting us—on things that are good in our lives, but that can be taken for granted because they are familiar.

The good aspects of the familiar can fade into the background while the rough spots in the familiar move forward in prominence: if one eats the same nutritious food every day, for example, at some point the repetition and monotony get more attention than the good fortune of having nutritious food. Or, for example, good health can become familiar and taken for granted, and is then only appreciated once it has been lost.  A practice of giving thanks can help focus attention on those things that fall into the background of the familiar. I believe that gratitude can help reduce stress, boost emotions, and help us remember our positive opportunities, and I believe that there is empirical evidence for this, though I don’t have any citations to hand.  

For the US, the story traditionally told about Thanksgiving is the story of the Native Americans helping the Pilgrims, and this story opens the difficult and problematic history of how European colonists and their descendants treated the native populations—a relationship that is still fraught today.  Thanksgiving’s association with this difficult history, and the Thanksgiving story which presents the relationship between native and pilgrim as so innocent and pure, are all problematic.  But that history is problematic every day. I don’t believe that appreciating Thanksgiving—a holiday for giving thanks and showing gratitude–a harvest festival—should be prevented by the difficult history of race relations in America. (And I certainly don’t want Thanksgiving to become an excuse to forget that history the rest of the year.) Basically, no history should stop me from giving thanks for what I do have. Indeed, in giving thanks for whatever good I have, I become more sensitive to the plight of those who do not have the same good.

When I am thankful that I have clean air to breathe, then I have greater sympathy for those who do not. When I am thankful I have clean water to drink, I better appreciate the plight of those who don’t.  When I have food to eat, a home in which to live, good health, hope for the future, I have things to be thankful for, and in giving thanks, I have more feeling for those who don’t. I’m thankful for all these things and more—friends, family, teachers, colleagues. I’m thankful for music. I’m thankful for the beauty of trees, leaves, flowers, clouds, the moon, sunrises, sunsets, etc., etc.  There may be a lot of things that I could complain about, but none of those are so dire that they should stop me from appreciating what good I do have—perhaps if my life hangs in the balance, then it might make sense to focus my attention on things other than giving thanks, but as long as my troubles are a little more distance, giving thanks only helps me find a foundation from which I can try to deal with the problems.

Giving thanks is central to most religions that I know of. And harvest festivals or other festivals that celebrate the good things that we have are common.  Religions often have stories like that of Job, where even the person beset by ills, is called upon to show gratitude and appreciation. The religious focus on giving thanks could be seen solely through the perspective of the spiritual relationship with the deity. But if we think about the role religions play in society, we might wonder whether those religious calls to show gratitude are some form of public mental health: worshippers are kept healthier by focusing their attention on the things for which they are grateful. But that is speculation.

In any event, despite the difficult history of race relations in the US, I appreciate Thanksgiving because I like giving thanks.

Thank you to my readers for reading.

I hope that you can find something to be thankful for.

I have categorized this under “practice” because giving thanks is something that can be practiced with benefit.