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.