Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Recently I have been trying to get material together for a book proposal that I am trying to submit (as second author to my former PhD advisor). And I am experiencing, in all the worst forms, the hallmarks of writer's block and procrastination.

Each time I look at what I have written, and what I know have to clean up, and I cringe. I know that it's partly just that I'm so close to the work. but it's also that I keep finding things to fix. Problems little and small, and by the time I've cleared away a whole bunch of little problems, I decide to rewrite the whole thing from scratch, thus creating a whole new set of little problems that need fixing.

I feel like I completely rewrote the cove letter something like six or seven times before I came to a draft that I stuck with and refined. But today I was reading a book that made me think that I should revise yet once again.

I'm not going to, though. By virtue of having a co-author, and a senior one at that, I have the opportunity to just trust his judgement and stop rewriting. It may be that he's wrong, but it's a good lesson in learning to let myself stop revising eternally.

Really, all I'm trying to do, as I struggle with the difficulty of letting go of my own imperfect work, is to accept the possibility of rejection ahead of time: my life does not depend on this.

As a writer--especially as an academic writer--one has to be able to withstand the blow of a rejected work. One has to be able to look at a work that is not good enough--for whatever reason it has been deemed not good enough--and to say "I can make it better." Even better is when, by learning through the feedback (even if the feedback is just bare rejection), we are able to look at ourselves and say "I can learn to improve how I handle this."

If we can do that--if we are ready to take the worst feedback we can get--then it's much easier to write.

This seems terrifying, I know. Imagine, for example, that the worst possible feedback would be for a committee to say "you should no longer be enrolled in our school." Can you imagine what kind of paper it would take to get such feedback? Can you imagine getting that feedback if you never turned in anything at all? (That's a rhetorical question: actually, if you never turn anything, you'll be more quickly asked to leave than if you're turning in almost anything moderately careful.) So if your fear is rejection, and this is keeping you from writing--struggle with that fear, but put it under you: the fear is more likely to lead to a bad result than taking a chance.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Writing and More Writing

The other day I wrote about 5000 words in the day. That's maybe fifteen pages, double spaced. In one day.

At that rate, someone could feasibly write a 100-page dissertation in six days.

Of course,when I write that much in a day, I also throw away a large part of what I write. This is ok if I can keep my eye on how things add up. If I write 5000 words in a day, and then throw away 80% of what I write, I finish my 100=page project in 30 days, not 6. And if I throw away 95% of what I write, I've finished my dissertation in 120 days--one semester.

All it takes is to write 5000 words a day, and then find that 250 of them are useful.

If you were to keep every word you write, then you would only need to write 250 words a day to write a dissertation in a semester. But that would be far harder, and would probably lead to a worse dissertation, than trying to write 1000 words a day with the conscious acceptance that you were going to only use 250 of them in the long run.

As a writer, what is harder: to write one coherent, well-formed page or to write four, rambling, poorly written pages? My personal opinion and experience say that I can probably write ten times as fast when I don't care about the quality of the outcome as when I do. When I worry about the outcome, each word is a struggle. When I write, on the other hand, just to put my ideas on the page to see how they work out and to discover if there are any weaknesses, then I write easily. I may hit many dead ends; I may struggle with obstacles, but in the end I produce more.

In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott titles a chapter "shitty first drafts," and says "all good writers write them."

Write and then write more. Don't worry about making it good; worry about making it express your ideas. Worry about it saying all the different things that you want to say. In whatever order it comes out. Just write. And write more. And try to learn as you go.

If you write regularly, the writing adds up. If you're too intent on getting it right the first time and therefore you don't write, you're not doing yourself a favor. Be willing to get it wrong first, and then fix it later using what you have learned.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Writing and Thinking

William Germano, in his book From dissertation to Book, says "Writing isn't a record of your thinking, it is your thinking" (p. 23). I don't entirely agree, but I do think it's a valuable way to think about your project.

I often talk with writers who tell me that they're confused or that they don't know what to say. My answer to them is to write.

I don't believe that our writing is our thinking, but writing can certainly shape our thinking.

What do I think our thinking is? Generally, I follow a group of researchers who believe in "the embodied mind." In this theory it is presumed that "mind" and "consciousness" arise from our physiology, and is rooted in our physiology. Our conceptual system is then rooted in these physiological systems, and shaped by them: we understand all concepts in terms of the systems we have for interacting with the physical world. And further, we understand concepts in terms of whole domains of experience. For example, we do not understand the concept of "supermarket" without having a wider set of understandings--buying, selling, property, money, etc.--in which that concept is meaningful.

And what does this mean for the writer? Well, one thing I think that it means is that our thought--that is to say, our embodied conceptual systems--handles many ideas in combination and at the same time.
Writing, on the other hand, is sequential--one word at a time, and while language does support some degree of overlapping thought (e.g., in a double-entendre), it is basically linear and has (ideally) a unitary focus.
Writing, in short, because of its linear nature, cannot be our thinking, as Germano claims. But, it can help shape our thinking.

One aspect of our thinking is that our ideas are accepted unconsciously: we do not, for example, consciously consider all the different ideas, theories, practices and systems that make such a thing as a supermarket possible (much to the despair of the poor carbon-filled atmosphere)--we don't explicitly think: "Gee, this market can only exist because we have an idea of private property, and we have an idea that the most efficient society will be specialized, and that the most efficient way to grow food is on big farms a long way away from the people, and to then ship the food a long way to those people"--we take these for granted.
And this is fine: if we had to consider the full detail of every action we take, we would become paralyzed.
But, this lack of definition is a great hindrance to the writer, and at the same time, it is exactly what the writer is attempting to overcome. Our writing is not our thinking, nor a record of our thinking, but a product of our thinking whose creation forces us to refine our unconscious, synchronous conception of the world into a conscious, sequential explanation of the world, which is then open to the examination--whether theoretical or empirical--of other scholars and researchers.

Writing is not identical with thinking, but to write, one is forced to make conscious and explicit what has been unconscious and implicit. And this process often reveals that our unconscious reasoning doesn't live up to the standards we set for our conscious reasoning.

Writing shapes our thinking; it refines it and tempers it. It challenges our thinking to achieve a high level of consistency and clarity. It forces us to understand our subject better than we did when we were just reading.

A parallel I often find useful: most graduate students have had the experience of teaching and have discovered how much more they learn about their subject when trying to teach it, and how trying to teach a subject they thought they knew well challenges the limits of their understanding. Writing, and the experience of writing are much like the experience of teaching: you may think you know, but when you sit down to write, the blank page is much like the bright, inquisitive student who stumps you with a question. Writing, in a way, is teaching--just to an audience who will only read your words.

So, if you're writing and you find yourself confused: this is natural; this is the process of writing. The solution is to keep writing. What confuses you? In what way are you confused? What problems are cropping up for the other ideas that you're using? By writing, you seek to find answers. Sometimes you will find an answer, and sometimes, to be an honest scholar, you will have to admit that there is a question for which you have no answer.

But still, the way out is to write.
Write to structure your ideas, to test them, to expand them. Write with the expectation that it will not turn out exactly as you expect. Write with the expectation that writing will force you to learn something new, or understand something more deeply.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bracing for Feedback

A writer wrote to me:
> Ok, I'm tired and I'm probably being a little reckless here, but I ended
> up finishing some changes to ch3. Finished enough, that is. I cut out
> the entire section on the _______. It was a tough decision
> to do, but the chapter had already exceeded 31 pages...
> I went ahead and sent ch1 & ch3 to My chair.

I wrote back:

Hi Writer,

congratulations on sending off drafts!
Perhaps you were a little reckless, but we need to be able to take risks. There's no certainty in life.

What you have done is done. There is any range of possible outcomes. The thing to do now is to make plans for the future. Focus on what you can do.

In your case in particular, one set of plans that you may not be making is how to manage feedback. Of course making plans to manage feedback is difficult, because we don't know what the feedback will be. Still, there are things we can do to prepare ourselves. We can consider the range of possible responses and develop general plans depending of the rough outcome.

More importantly, we can step back and look at our work with a critical eye and say "what is a critical reader going to say, and do I think that response is important?" What are the different criticisms, and how can you plan to meet them?

Hypothetical responses:
1. You need to clean up your writing!
response to 1: I'm planning on hiring a proofreader.
2. Your argument is weak (generally).
response to 2: Could you give more detail on what you mean, and what kind of weakness?
3. Your argument is missing XYZ data.
response to 3: could you explain why you think that would further my general purpose of stating ABC?

There are any number of responses, of course, and it would be easy to get lost thinking about negative responses that you might get ("gee, you're stupid", "never talk to me again," or whatever insult), and get emotionally distraught from that process.
But if you think about the response that you would make, that can help defuse the emotion. On the one hand, what kind of response does one make to an insult? On the other, if you have planned a response--like #2 above--that places the onus of explaining the insult on the other person, you can turn the tables on them. Act as if it isn't an insult and ask for further definition and clarification.

Anyway, we've all _got_ to be a little reckless sometimes. Take the chance that the work that we could work on more is going to at least speak to the reader enough that they see the spark that makes it fly.

With your chair, stay on message: For your part, keep in mind the main point of the dissertation, and how it manifests in each piece. And in response to any comment of his, remember you can always say "how does that help me explain my main point? Can you clarify how you see that working?" This response should be practiced and used particularly in the context of any emotionally difficult response.

But most of all: remember to be kind to yourself. And celebrate getting two chapters sent out. No matter what the response, being able to write, wrap up and send off the two chapters (with all the flaws that every writer sees in the work going out), is a matter worthy of recognition and celebration.



1. No guarantees exist. We always take a risk when we put ourselves out there--whether submitting a draft or looking for a job or asking for a date, we might get rejected. But the risk has to be taken because the paralysis is actually worse than the rejecion.
2. any rejection of our effort is evidence helping us refine our effort; if we cannot understand the rejection, it is worth our while to ask for additional clarification (especially in the context of dissertation advisors who have an actual responsibility to provide _useful_ feedback).
3. We can plan our responses to help focus our efforts and our energy during the periods of waiting for feedback. This helps us from being overtaken by anxiety.
$. It's hard to complete a draft! No matter what, that is worthy of acknowledgment--even if you have to go back and rewrite that draft (which is pretty much what an experienced writer expects to do with early drafts any way).

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A question of focus

I was thinking about a writer who likes the theories of a particular author, except that there is one part of the theory that bothers her.

I was thinking, in a parallel way, about how we handle anger.

Riding my bike today, I witnessed a man losing his temper at some mechanical failure of his bike.

On the one hand, I believe that emotions are real and that we do not make our lives better for trying to bottle them up. When we are angry, it is not inappropriate to feel the anger--the anger is an action signal--a sign that we want to change things and that we should take action to make change.

But as each moment passes, where do we focus our attention? The event that bothers us has occurred; the author has written the part of the theory that bothers us. Where do we focus our attention? On that which has gone wrong (in the past)? Or on that which is yet to come and that which we can still shape?

I was walking with my friend at the civic center park in Berkeley and a bunch of kids on skateboards passed, weaving between us and some mothers with their babies in strollers. My friend yelled at the kids to be careful. We went and sat down, and he was still fuming.

I understand the reality of emotions as not just passing instantly. They are physiological and the physioloigcal state of anger or fear doesn't just pass quickly. But that being said, he had a choice: to focus on that which had angered him or on something else.

I'm not saying that I know what the right answer to that choice was. I'm not sure that I believe that there is a right choice. But it is a choice. I think it's a choice that depends on what we think is important.

At any moment we are faced with many different choices of what to focus on--we can focus on what has happened to us in the past, any of many things; we can focus on what is happening to us in the moment, again, any of many things; and we can focus on the future, which yet again presents many choices of what to focus on.

Is there some rule that says that we must focus on the injustice that is most present in our consciousness? Is there a rule that we must focus on the aspect of the theory that bothers us? Is there a rule that says that we must focus on the problem?

I don't think so. We can look past the injustice to what we will do to prevent such injustice in the future, or to what we will do, if we will not act to prevent it. We can look to getting revenge or retribution, rather than just focusing on what happened before. We can focus on getting back to where we were before the problem.

We can look at the theory and abstract the parts that we like without having to accept the parts that we don't Thomas Jefferson's claim that all men are created equal is a claim that has an abstract meaning that each person can respect (at least if we interpret it to refer to all humans). The fact that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and might not have even considered them people, is a difficult, unpleasant fact. But it does not mean that the ideal that he recommends is any less beautiful.

If a problem exists, must we deal with that problem? Or can we strive to make proress in other ways? Sometimes, of course, there is a problem that requires immediate attention, but what about problems that do not? Can we not choose to focus our attention elsewhere?

Our lives are complex and filled with many competing demands. We do not want to shirk responsibility, but are there not times when we can choose to look at something other than the negative things that are presenting themselves?

Progress can come in many forms; progress provides new resources and new opportunities. But if we focus on what has gone wrong already, on that which we cannot fix, on the fact that some imperfection exists and we need perfection, then we will be stuck.