Monday, September 1, 2008


What Counts?
I'm thinking, in this case, particularly about what to count as "work accomplished", but it's a very interesting general question as well, because deciding "what counts" is a crucial decision.

Consider, for example, the United States Constitution in one of its darker moments:
Article 1, Section 2, paragraph 3: "Representatives...shall be apportioned among the several States...according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free persons,...and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons."
Indians not taxed counted not at all in determining representation of the new federal government. "Other persons" counted 60% in determining numbers of representatives, but of course those other persons didn't get 60% of a vote, being slaves.

It's nice and dandy to think of numbers as objective. It's one of the lovely myths of science. But what we choose to count is determined by how we see the world. What gets counted depends on our subjective decisions concerning what to count. This is true whether we are a physical scientist looking data sets and trying to decide whether some data can be considered outliers, or whether we are social scientist trying to decide whether certain data are coded as one thing or as another, or whether we are a politician trying to decide who to count as eligible with respect to some policy. It is inevitable that a value-laden subjective determination is made considering what counts.

While I mention this as a general principle that all academics ought to be aware of, my real concern here is in thinking about writers and how writers can sabotage themselves. I had a writer lament to me the other day "I didn't get much done; I only wrote abut 2000 words." When I wrote back "That's great 2000 words is a considerable piece of work and if you keep up a pace like that you'll finish in no time," I got a response "Actually I only wrote about 1000 words."

Well, we all have to figure out what to count. It's easy to count the words that we have written: lots of word-processing software will do it for us. It's not so easy to count if we start saying "well, these words do count, but those don't." But the determination is ours: we have to make the subjective decision of what counts before we can start enumerating.

But I wasn't so much concerned with counting words, as I was with counting effort and counting progress. The effort we put in, and the progress we make are not perfectly measured in the number of words we write. I think that writers with writer's block and related problems often suffer from not being willing or able to count what they did as actual work or actual progress.

It's important to learn to celebrate the fruits of our efforts, and even more important to learn to count the fruits as actual fruits. If we spend a day of hard work, thinking through difficult problems and then say to ourselves "I got nothing done because I didn't write enough words," we are counting our effort as worthless. And what kind of emotional state does such a method of counting lead to? It leads to depression, one can easily imagine.

Dr. David Burns, M.D., author of the mass-market book on CBT titled Feeling Good, argues that there are "ten cognitive distortions that form the basis of all your depressions" (p.32). Number four on his list of cognitive distortions is "Disqualifying the Positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they 'don't count' for some reason or other" (p.42). While I have reservations about any mass-market book on psychology, and don't know that I would accept Burns' contention that all depression stems from his ten cognitive distortions, I do believe that if we engage in his cognitive distortions we are creating a strong negative emotional state. If we reject our efforts as not counting, then each day that we make an effort, and each day we discount the effort of the day, we add to our negative feelings about ourselves and about our project.

It seems, therefore, important to be able to celebrate the effort, and to celebrate the actual progress that we do make, even if it isn't as much as we would have hoped. And in that celebration we definitely don't want to focus on the idea that it wasn't as much as we hoped.

In the long-term practice of writing it is crucial to be able to have days where the productivity seems low, and not berate ourselves for those days. Writing, like many practices, is uneven--some days go well, some go badly; sometimes we make a lot of progress in an easy, measurable sense. Sometimes we make progress by having some sort of epiphany--even sometimes when that epiphany leads us to want to throw away some old writing that we had previously intended to use. Writing is about creating a working whole: a complete, coherent written work. Some of the progress necessary in that endeavor will involve re-arranging ideas we had earlier in the process before we knew what we have learned during the process.

Finally, I want to note that yes, sometimes we get nothing done. Some days we don't try. Some days we may sit down and write nothing, or write a load of tripe that doesn't contribute to the project. It's okay to admit that you had an unproductive day. But it seems to me superior to try to focus--everyday--on the positive accomplishments, and to remember to count them and celebrate them. That whole load of tripe?: well at least you learned that that wasn't what your dissertation needed. Deciding what to count is a practice in itself; it's nice when we can get the practice to support us.

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