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Processing the Writing Process

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My process of writing this blog post about the writing process was slow, circuitous, and emotionally fraught.  I started out with a clear idea of my overall structure—or so I thought—but ended up abandoning it after several hours of drafting, redrafting, and repeated applications of my Delete key.  Frustrated, I tried free-writing for twenty minutes: an unstructured word-dump to find out where “writing to think” might get me.  Unfortunately, it got me nowhere. 

By that time I had already spent several hours hunched over my laptop at a café table across from my friend and colleague Selina Tusitala Marsh, with whom I meet regularly to write and talk about writing.  Selina, who had gone for a run on the beach and a swim before joining me at the café, suggested that I start afresh and try approaching my topic creatively.  She gave me a prompt inspired by an exercise that she sometimes assigns to her creative writing students: “Make a list of 10 things that you have seen in the past few days.  Use all of them in a poem about your topic.” 

I closed my computer, pulled out my favorite notebook and fountain pen, and jotted down the following list: a child carefully drinking steamed milk with a spoon; milky-blue water at the beach on a day after heavy rain; a small white dog with very short legs; a sheet of handmade mulberry paper with pressed petals and flowers in it; a girl in a red polka-dotted bathing suit; a pair of colorful gardening clogs; a bus too big for the road; a crimson satin button; a bottle of champagne; a sculpture installation consisting of upturned rowboats from whose interiors emanated the recorded voices of recent migrants to New Zealand.  Then, without giving my inner critic time to start to kvetching, I wrote the following poem:           

The writing process stirs her coffee
with the spoon that measures out her life.

The writing process races for the ball
with stumpy legs and a wagging tail.

The writing process lumbers down the road
scraped by overhanging branches.

The writing process dances along the beach
and into the milky-blue water.

The writing process pops a cork
and fizzes in celebration.

The writing process buttons up her cardigan
and goes for a walk in the garden.

The writing process lies on a clifftop
and sings of travellers far away from home.

The writing process is a sheet of handmade paper
waiting for the right pen.

I had found my way in, my opening gambit.  Equally importantly, I had found my argument.  The writing process, I was reminded, is seldom a matter of discipline alone: “Put the seat of your pants on the seat of your chair,” as my dissertation advisor used to tell me.  Nor is it merely a matter of craft or skill; even an expert stylist can struggle to coax the right words onto the page and aerobicize them into shape.  Indeed, the more I write and publish about “fit prose” and “stylish academic writing,” the slower my own writing process seems to become. 

My kick-start came from social, emotional, and creative interventions of a kind that barely rate a mention in most academic productivity guides. By sharing my dilemma with a sympathetic colleague, I short-circuited my frustration.  And by following her recommendation to approach my topic sideways through metaphor and poetry, I accessed emotions of playfulness and pleasure that I had nearly lost sight of when the stress of the situation threatened to shut my creativity down. (“I promised to finish this blog post by Monday, I’m getting nowhere, what am I going to do?!”) 

I already knew all this, of course.  My new book about the writing process, optimistically titled Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, reports on the findings of a five-year research project that took me to more than 60 universities and academic conferences in 15 countries. During that period I conducted in-depth interviews with one hundred academic writers from across the disciplines (including a handful of modernist scholars), collected anonymous questionnaire data from 1,223 more, and undertook a detailed taxonomy of recent writing guides targeted at published academics, postdoctoral researchers, and PhD students.

In a nutshell, my research showed that successful writers draw on a far more complex and varied set of attitudes and attributes than the how-to literature generally acknowledges.  Most books, articles, and blogs on the writing process focus mainly on its behavioral and/or artisanal dimensions: when to write, where to write, how long to write at a stretch; how to compose a strong sentence or structure a persuasive argument. Much less frequently addressed are the social and emotional elements that shape our writing practice and provide the “air and light and space and time” that we need to thrive.  For whom do we write, and why? How is our writing supported by the various communities we belong to, and how might we better support the writing of others?  How can we learn to overcome inhibiting negative emotions of anxiety, frustration, and fear and to draw strength from positive emotions such as passion, pleasure, and pride?

Four cornerstones, I found, anchor the foundation of any successful writing practice:

  • Behavioral habits of discipline and persistence; 
  • Artisanal habits of craftsmanship and care; 
  • Social habits of collegiality and collaboration;
  • Emotional habits of positivity and pleasure. 

Just as there is no single blueprint for building a comfortable house, no two writers will start from the same “writing BASE” or build up their practice in exactly the same way.  However, the BASE model provides a flexible heuristic for understanding the complexities of one’s own writing process and developing strategies for lasting change. 

Humanities-trained academics who try out my online visualization tool may well find that their “Writing BASE” looks more like a triangle: long and strong on the behavioral, artisanal, and emotional dimensions but rather stunted on the social side.  (I call this profile “the Lone Wolf”).  But things don’t have to be that way.  Indeed, I was struck by how many of the modernist scholars I interviewed spoke unprompted not only about how, when, and why they write but also about the social dimensions of their practice: the readers they aspire to reach, the teachers who have inspired them, the colleagues who have mentored them, the students whose writing they nurture, and the co-authors who have pushed them to interrogate and extend their own writing practice. 

For example, Marjorie Howes noted the pleasures and challenges of writing for a non-academic public attending a campus art museum:

That was very interesting and very difficult, because you have very, very limited space, and you’re trying to explain sometimes specialized academic knowledge to a very general audience.

Stephen Ross credited his “amazing PhD supervisor” with having taught him how to cut out superfluous prose:

One day, he actually took me down the hall to a classroom and sat me down and showed me what I was doing wrong with my writing. He put stuff up on the board, and it was humbling. It was sentence-level redundancy and superfluous words, things like that.

Lesley Wheeler said that she remains “endlessly grateful” to the two anonymous reviewers whose thoughtful responses to her first book manuscript set her on the path to becoming a successful scholar:

They told me bluntly what was wrong with the book, but they also found the time to praise it; and that was enough encouragement.

Victoria Rosner recalled her experience of publishing an article about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the Huffington Post:

I wanted to model for my students a literary scholar engaging with a critical public in real time. 

And Eric Hayot, who has published a book on the artisanal dimensions of academic writing as well as an article in Critical Inquiry broaching its emotional dimensions, extolled the benefits of co-writing with a colleague, a practice rare in the humanities: 

It forced us to make explicit a series of conversations or ideas that you only have internally or implicitly when you’re writing by yourself. 

My own writing process has changed a great deal over the past few years, largely as a consequence of interviewing successful writers for my book.  I no longer believe, as I once did, that becoming a productive academic writer is mainly as a matter of developing consistent daily habits and a confident sense of style.  Now, I consciously cultivate the social and emotional dimensions of my writing practice as well, looking to colleagues for inspiration and feedback and opening up my writing to serendipity and joy. 

Thus, when I was struggling to find a graceful way of ending this blog post, it seemed only natural for me to email a draft to my friend Selina and ask her for suggestions.  She replied with a poem of her own, an affirmation of the benefits that come from sharing the writing process with others:

writing                                                                                                

like running

needs a place, a little time, good shoes

a lot of grit

to run that coastal trail

through gorse and bush

over shifting rock and rubble

 

means to keep putting

one foot in front of the other

 

to know you are running

whether bounding or hobbling

 

to know a friend’s waiting

for coffee and writing

 

to know that round the cliff edge

a vista of prehistoric islands

rests in a gravel nest of

boulders draped in sea spray

swathed by an emerald bay

waiting for you to say

yes

Thanks Selina, I owe you a coffee!

Comments

This is a wonderful post. Thank-you! If I may toot Stephen Ross's horn (ahem), my supervisor Ted Bishop did something much the same. His method for cutting redundancies has stuck with me. When I start feeling something's too wordy (I should feel this more), I go back to his trick: a paper copy and a black jiffy marker. The fumes keep me happy while redacting en masse, and once it's under the marker, I can't read it anymore to feel precious about what's lost. I only afterwards return to it with the pen.

I agree, James Gifford--this is an inspiring meditation. Shifting modes, from one kind of writing to another, is one of the best ways I know to get past a block (the other: taking a walk). I do turn out to be a "Lone Wolf" according to Helen's BASE tool, surprise surprise, and mine are definitely lone wolf strategies, but I love that this post also puts so much emphasis on writing's social aspects.