Monday, February 26, 2018

Writing without inspiration

For people who have writing projects to complete, a regular practice of writing is valuable and effective. But keeping a regular practice means that sometimes it’s necessary to write even if you have nothing in particular to say. 

For people who don’t write regularly, it can be pretty common to slip into the feeling of not being ready to write, or of needing some sort of inspiration or focus.

I’m writing this today partly because I don’t have any particular inspiration, but want to write something to post on my blog.  And not writing, and not practicing writing, are big pitfalls that many people struggle with when engaged in a writing project.

If you’re not producing enough writing, or if you’re struggling with writer’s block, starting to write—writing anything—can feel like an almost insurmountable hurdle—one that can be overcome with inspiration. But inspiration is elusive.

For me, at least, it’s especially elusive when I sit down to actually write.  If I’m waiting in line at the grocery, or out for a run, or otherwise occupied, I may feel some momentary inspiration—but such inspiration often fades as soon as I sit down to write about it.

I have three suggestions for people who have writing projects to complete and who are struggling with resistance:
  1. Do something small and simple
  2. Write about one thing and one thing only
  3. Make mistakes

1. If you’re having trouble getting engaged with your project, do something small and simple. Fix a citation. Fix one typo. One little thing at a time, pick up the small and simple tasks that don’t require heavy thinking.  Consider such activities as a form of “warm up” exercise: start thinking about the project without having to worry about the large-scale difficulties.  Fix one thing; Celebrate fixing that thing; Feel good for having accomplished something. Repeat frequently.

2. I strongly believe that one of the biggest problems that many or most writers face is that they have too much to say.  Having a lot of ideas can often start to feel like having nothing to say at all: A variety of ideas compete for attention, and every time you try to focus on one, the others draw your attention away, suggesting that you’re not writing about the most important issue. It's a pretty short series of steps from "this isn't the most important thing I have to say" to "this isn't very important" to "this isn't worth writing about; no one will care." You don’t have to write about the most important issue—just write about one issue. Get into detail. Tighten your focus. Don’t get stuck because you have five equally good things to say, and all are imperfect: pick one, say something about it, and try to discuss the concerns that you have about that one idea. Write about whether that idea was worth the effort you put into writing about it. You’re never going to write out all your ideas—make a focused presentation about one thing. And then move on to others later.

3. Ideas that seem great at a distance, look more problematic when you put them down on paper and examine them. If you write something and it looks wrong to you, don’t cross it out, unless you have a better alternative. Instead, try to write about why it looks wrong to you—what is the weakness of the claim? What is the strength? Where do you agree and disagree with what you just wrote? Write with a willingness to be wrong, and then you can explore possibilities to see if you find something you like.  Researchers will often go through mountains of material looking for the few pieces that matter for their research, and at the same time, as writers, they will expect to get their writing correct on the first try, when they would benefit from a similar willingness to spend time on something that might be worthless in hopes of finding that one elusive thing of value.

It doesn’t take much to have a lot to say and a lot to write. Writing it all down, however, is difficult and frustrating, and can often make a person feel incapable. The feeling of inspiration can be elusive—chased away by the difficulties of the task. But inspiration isn’t always necessary. Engage in the practice of writing in some small and simple way—free writing, fixing grammar or citations, etc.—and keep at the practice until you come across some issue that you do feel motivated to write about. Inspiration blooms more easily when supported by a practice. Rather than looking for inspiration that will enable you to write, practice writing as a method of finding ideas worth examining.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Celebrate rejection

My biggest difficulty as a writer is not producing material, but in giving material to other people. Right now I have a book draft and a book proposal, and the next step is to send it to someone. I can do that now—sending it to publishers or agents—or I can put that off and self-publish. But even self-publishing involves trying to get someone to read your work, and risks rejection. (Update: the proposal was sent before posting.)

I don’t relish rejection, and I assume that you don’t either. But sometimes it’s necessary to take a chance, and if you are uncomfortable with rejection, as I am, it can be useful to look at what there is to celebrate about rejection.

As a writer, rejection presupposes an accomplishment: I can’t have a work rejected without finishing that work--without making a commitment to giving a draft to someone else (and thus a commitment to stop working on the darn thing). I absolutely should celebrate finishing both the draft and the proposal. Writing an entire book draft is a real accomplishment for me—something I’ve managed to do only twice before on my own (counting my dissertation in addition my book on dissertation writing)—and so, finishing a draft of a new book is something to celebrate, and finishing a book proposal even more so, because I find the book proposal much harder to write than the book. The proposal is all about acceptance/rejection. When I’m working on the book, it’s about helping people, which feels good. When I’m working on the proposal, it’s about getting my book accepted which doesn't feel nearly as good. Anyway, the proposal is finished (and now sent). I’m not going to rework it any more. It’s going to fly or crash on the merit of what is there now.

The well-known principle “you can’t win if you don’t play,” is important here. But the principle presupposes that you can play: in the metaphorical poker game of manuscript submission, I have something to ante into the pot.  I certainly ought to celebrate that good fortune (not really good fortune, but the product of a lot of consistent effort over several years). I already believe in the value of working hard, so I don’t begrudge that past effort, but rather view the effort with some pride, even if no one ever reads my book.

I don’t entirely look forward to reworking my proposal for a new agent or publisher, so that aspect of possible rejection is not awesome. But the book process would hardly be over, even if I had a great response on my proposal. Getting accepted would almost certainly carry with it some specific requests for revision and for other information. The publication process would eventually require proofreading, too. So rejection doesn’t radically change the necessary effort. And, realistically, I like writing as work: it’s often frustrating, but I feel that the more I work at it, the greater are the rewards in proportion to the effort.

Submitting a proposal—whether accepted or rejected—is not the end of the process, but it is a real landmark. If bringing a book to publication is a road race, this is a significant milepost—it’s the halfway point, at least. And just as I would celebrate the halfway point in a road race, I can celebrate hitting this mark.

If you worry about how your work will be accepted, I understand. I worry about how my work is accepted, too. It’s natural. But rejection is only part of a larger picture, and in that larger picture—the picture of a person working on a piece of writing—the rejection is a real sign of accomplishment. That’s what I told myself as I geared up to hit “send” on my proposal. 

Now that I have sent the e-mail, a difficult period of waiting for a response begins. To help support my mood through that wait, I’m going to celebrate my accomplishments so far.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Sorting out complexity

A few days ago, I received a query from someone who asked “Now that I finished my dissertation, what do I do? I don’t want to pursue the career that got me into the doctoral program.”  And today a friend asked me to help with processing an annual job review. In both of those cases, I started to do what I normally do with feedback on written work (whether mine or other people’s): sort through the different concerns to try to focus on each one independently.
In both of these cases there’s good mixed with bad in emotionally loaded situations. The dissertation writer obviously should celebrate the big accomplishment (good! exciting!). And at the same time, the new doctor has to make big decisions about the course of his career, and no longer has the security of a concrete plan for the immediate future (scary!).  The job review recipient can celebrate the many areas of commendation (good!), but also has to deal with the areas of difficulty (scary!).
Finding good responses to big issues like these is easier if you can sort through the tangles of emotion to find a little bit of calm.  Sorting through the different issues can separate them out them out into distinct threads of consideration, and separate threads of emotion can be more easily processed. If you leave the good tangled with the bad, it’s hard to feel good about the good stuff. And if you only feel bad abut the bad stuff, then you’re not supported by positive emotions, which makes it much harder to make a good plan.
To take the case of the job review, it would be valuable to be able to think about the successes without thinking about the difficulties—the successes are real and should not be discounted or ignored because there are also difficulties that need to be resolved. And, of course, the difficulties are real, too, and also need to be taken into consideration. Responses to the review need to be balanced between the good and bad.
To take the case of the completed dissertation, it would be valuable to celebrate the success of completing a dissertation and to recognize the way that a doctoral degree can benefit a career. And at the same time, it is valuable to recognize the real difficulties: making new plans is difficult.  There is emotional security in a defined role. If you can say “I’m getting a doctorate,” you have a good, comforting answer to the question of what you’re doing with your life. If you say “I don’t know what I’m doing now, and I don’t have a plan,” that’s pretty scary.

The scary and difficult stuff in life—making plans to deal with the unknown, making plans to fix difficulties—is really scary and difficult (for a lot of people, anyway). It’s worse—more scary, more difficult—if you focus only on shortcomings and not on strengths. To respond to a situation, it’s great if you can do so with your best reasoning, and not just respond from a place of anxiety and fear.
So what is the situation, in full? For the recent doctor, there is, on the plus side, a doctoral degree and the potential job opportunities that it opens. On the minus side, there is uncertainty about the future, and a sense that previous plans are no longer appealing. The negatives are real, but a strength does not necessarily become useless if the original purpose is no longer a guide.
Yes, the recent doctor, has to pay bills. There may be student debt. There may be a present need to find a job. There may be the unfortunate fact that the planned training isn’t going to be used for the intended purpose. All that sucks. At the same time, the recent doctor has a doctorate degree. Even if the career that was planned does not present an opportunity, there are other opportunities that a doctorate can enhance.  Many jobs will appreciate an advanced degree. Yes, there may be some opportunities that are closed by choice, but that will only feel like a trap if you don’t spend time trying to figure out what opportunities are now open that were not open before.
And for the job review, there are the realities of all the commendations and all the successes.  These are real, and could be the foundation for a job application with a new position. The strengths allow the reviewee to say, “I have options other than this job.” And that sense of choice, allows the reviewee to approach the complaints saying “maybe I want to try to fix these things, if the critiques are sound; or I could just blow these silly people off, and go find a new job.” 

To focus on the choices that are available and that you can make provides a sense of opportunity and strength that is important in difficult moments. If you are faced with difficult and complex situations—a mixed job review, an unplanned future (with a fresh Ph.D. diploma)—it helps to separate out the different threads.
What are the good things? Focus on these, because these are the source of real strength and real confidence.  And don’t ignore, but separate out, the bad things: yes, problems need to be dealt with, and yes, they can be difficult, But they are not the whole situation, and it’s hard to make a good plan if you focus only on the negatives.

Sort out the different threads of emotion in complex situations. Focus on the good points if you’re feeling distressed. Make plans to deal with the concerns when you’re feeling confident.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Expectations, Attitude, Approach, and Effort

How do you feel about writing? Is it pleasurable or painful? Or something more complex? When it comes to a difficult project, your attitude and expectations shape your approach. If you expect pleasure and get pain, you might try refining your approach. If you expect pain and you get pain, well, your expectations are met, and you might just keep pushing through. Writing can be frustrating and difficult—I can’t deny it—but it’s not all pain and suffering. If you expect suffering, I want to point out that there’s another way: you can shift your approach, shift your expectations, develop a better approach, and have a better experience of writing.

Recently I read the book Born to Run (Christopher McDougall) about ultramarathoners and long-distance running. It suggested a number of ideas, one of which arose from a set of observations about running and attitude. In one part of the book, the author is talking abut running with an ultramarathoner who instructs him to try running “light and easy.”  Another part of the book speaks of a group of racers in an ultramarathon who were observed laughing while running up a hill where most of the runners grimaced in pain. 
I was thinking about this while I was out for a run, and thinking about the parallel with developing a writing practice.

Once, I worked with a writer who was using the following epigraph for her work: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead” (attributed to journalist Gene Fowler). That creates a very powerful set of expectations, even when taking into account the obvious jest.  No one really believes that writing involves bleeding foreheads, but one can dismiss the ridiculous bleeding forehead and simultaneously accept the premise that writing is painful.

Is writing painful? Well, it depends on how you approach it. Again, one group of runners in the ultramarathon ran up the hill laughing instead of grimacing.  Were they just so much more physically prepared and suited to the race? Or was the attitude part of the success?

Expectation, attitude, approach, and effort are related.  One can approach tasks with a variety of attitudes and still put in equal effort.  A writer can say, “this is painful, but I’m going to force myself through the pain until I get it right, ” and then work hard for five hours. Or they can say, “this is going to be an exploration, maybe I’ll even have fun and come out of it with some good writing,” and then work hard for five hours.  

Writing requires effort. Sometimes it’s difficult, and even painfully frustrating. But sometimes the difficulties are rewarded by an exhilaration and a sense of accomplishment.  The same could be said for running and other exercise. As both runner and writer, I can experience the pleasure of accomplishment and the pain of frustrated effort within the same work session. Having a sense that both possibilities exist changes how I approach both activities.

If you’re sure that the process is going to be painful, you don’t do anything to reduce the pain that you may feel, because you tell yourself that’s what should be happening.  

My experience is different, both as a runner and as a writer.  I’m no hero at either one—my ten-minute miles will never compete in a high-level race, and my writings are not likely to earn me Shakespearean immortality. In my experience, running can be painful, especially on a bad day, but it can also be exhilarating. Writing, too, can sometimes be painful and sometimes exhilarating. The outcomes may not be objectively great—I may run slowly, and my prose may also be halting and overburdened. But in the process, I often feel a certain excitement—a potential for a better future combined with an immediate sense of personal ability—that I can run or write—that I have ability that I can use for my own benefit.

It seems to me that there is a similarity between what I’m suggesting here and the lessons of many spiritual traditions: the value of attention on the immediate moment, on the process, and on a sense of potential in self and future, without becoming attached to or focused on the long-term outcomes.

How you feel about your outcomes is up to you (e.g., for me person a ten-minute mile is just fine, while for you it might be terrible), but part of a good attitude, in terms of effective action, is to focus your attention on the process and not on the later outcome.  This can help the outcome if it allows you to work more and more effectively.

Trying to work “light and easy” does not mean abdicating responsibility to strive for the highest quality. One can do good work and try to do good work while also maintaining a “light and easy” attitude. Such an attitude helps me run differently: when I’m forcing myself through a run, my posture becomes more hunched, and when I remember to be light and easy I stand up straighter. I don’t think it makes any real difference to my pace—not that I care about how fast I run—but it feels better, right then, in the moment as I run. By remembering to run light and easy, I run differently and my experience of running improves.  My experience of writing is similar: when I’m intent on pursuing an idea, there is a certain excitement in learning, in working out the questions, and in feeling a sense of my ability to answer questions. When I’m forcing myself to write (especially when trying to finalize a document), the process is not as exciting or enjoyable. There is a time for painstaking attention to detail (with emphasis on the work “painstaking”), but there is a time for "light and easy" writing, too.

It is important to seek to maintain the highest possible quality for your writing, but during the process, you need not focus on that outcome, only on going through the process with integrity and with an eye to the possible enjoyment in the process. That will leave room for thinking about what your writing is really about—whatever story or argument or idea you want to present to your audience--and for thinking about things that interest and excite you.

Writing is a challenge, and it has difficult moments, but it’s not torture. Expect better and you will have a better approach and a better experience. And you might have better outcomes, too.