If your writing flows constantly and effortlessly, this is not the post for you. I am deeply, unattractively envious of you sitting down at your laptop and playing it like a sonata. I am not one of those people. I could liken it to the difference between those who let one solitary tear fall down their perfect cheek when upset, and those who are purple faced, red-eyed and runny-nosed. I am the Kim Kardashian’s crying face of writers. I need pliers, a blow-torch, a deadline and the fear. I second guess myself, occasionally swear at the blank page and regularly throw drafts out in a huff. Yet, somehow, I seem to have finished some things that have ended up in print and, occasionally, people ask me to write things for them. These are my tips for climbing your way out of the long night of the writer’s soul, much like Buffy when she had to climb out of her own grave.
– It’s not you, it’s me. Diagnose whether you are being defeatist, or if the project isn’t right. If the reason you can’t write is because you don’t believe in your project, then change or tweak it if you can. This also goes for PhDs: there is no law against reframing your topic during the writing process. You might find you have a great intervention into one area and want to run with it. If you feel this, trust your instincts and bring them to your supervisor: ‘I’m finding X really generative, maybe it’s two chapters instead of one?’ If you’ve been commissioned to write something, or you have the contract, you can often negotiate with editors if you feel a stronger piece of writing could result. Genuinely sit down and ask yourself why this writing is difficult: is it that you can’t find something to say in a crowded field? Articulate what it is that could make your contribution distinctive and important, and your writer’s block may fall away.
– Hurry up please, it’s time. We’re all busy, some of us competitively so… How do you find time, then, to do the work that needs to be done? I recall, with nostalgia, my PhD and postdoc. I used to write for a whole day, a whole week, a whole month. But, my life is different now and yours probably is, too. Most PhDs now teach or work, leading to often bitty days. Now that I’m a full time lecturer, convening two large undergrad modules and Admissions Tutor, my days are taken up with teaching and swathes of marking, teaching prep and admin. But, I try to do what I can to stay research active during the semester by doing what is achievable every day. I guard my research day like a Mama Bear so I get some actual thinking time and make sure that other useful research tasks are ticking over. For example, I might have a few hours between classes, so that time can be sent compiling reading lists, doing article corrections or writing a very small section of a proposal. Big projects scare me, but ‘Read and summarise that new chapter’ doesn’t. Some days you can’t get room to breathe, and this is often the time to do a small, menial task that is useful to your research in the long run.
– If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else? This is the horrible one to talk about, so let’s just rip off the sticking plaster. What do you do when you get a knock to your confidence, professionally or personally, and your writing goes wrong? Confidence can be a particular issue if you don’t feel that you have a voice which is listened to by the academy, and a selection of microaggressions leads to you feeling you don’t have a place. For anyone who is a first generation academic, this can be particularly acute, but this is where realising how important you are to the health and future of your discipline is really acute. You may not have the same support and citational apparatus as your peers and that can be a terrifying experience. Try to find kinship where you can but, most importantly, appreciate why your voice is both useful and needed. For more general knocks, such as a bad review from someone you respect or being rejected for a job, you have nothing but my sympathy. It’s really hard to keep sticking your neck out there then get to the keyboard and be expected to make the magic happen.
Be kind to yourself in the terrible moments, and try not to believe either the worst of it or the hype-man introductions. Take time away to refocus your energies and spend time with the people who love you. We over identify with our work and criticism can feel like a punch to the gut. To mix my bodily metaphors, it can often paralyse us from feeling we have anything to say. For two years this happened to me: I got some shocking reviews and had a few knock backs, so every time I got to that judge-y keyboard, I felt constrained that anything I might have to say would be panned in a similar fashion. Writing felt impossible. But, the kindness of friends old and new saw me through, and now I’ve been getting the words out into the world. What also saw me through was a sense of genuine vexation and a political imperative to write: if you are motivated by similar forces, use that anger to force you to write.
Here are the practical tips which I used to get me out of that rut:
– Write every day, even if you’ll never use it. Get those half ideas down on paper. Everything can be revised.
– Find a colleague or a friend you trust, and get them to kindly diagnose your writing issues. Ask them to be specific: are there issues of structure or argument? Quite often we have the same issues in our own work that we tell our students.
– Get some quiet thinking time. For me, it’s Sunday afternoons with my email switched off (I sometimes knock off an hour or two early on a Friday, so don’t come for me, Academic Weekend Police), or my Research Day. Sometimes under pressure of deadlines, we try to write before we’ve thought our ideas through (Guilty as Charged) so take some non-writing planning and thinking time, before you jump to that blank page and the demon word count.
– Accept that the academic life is seasonal: you might get your best thinking time in the Summer, but are able to edit, seek out new articles or do other professional activities during term.
So, that’s it. Write. Write. Write. Even if it’s terrible. Even if it doesn’t make sense yet. Even if it’s hard. Don’t lose it: you have something worth saying.