01 September 2011

Like it? or lump it?

This week (so far) I'm doing better by research and writing than last week, and I'm not so tired. I've used tricks like setting up my desk the night before with the materials I will need in the morning, and leaving myself a note with precise goals to meet, and reading a little bit in some "inspirational" writing book in the evening, to psych myself up.

But, really, though I enjoy such books and have a fairly extensive collection, some of them must be taken with a grain of salt. Or maybe not taken at all. Paul Silva, for example, says at the end of his book, “Writing a lot will not make you enjoy writing or want to write. Writing is hard and it will always be hard; writing is unpleasant and it will always be unpleasant” (130).

Jeez, Paul, speak for yourself. Or even, if you must, for psychologists, though I have trouble believing everyone in the field feels that way. I enjoy writing. I want to write regularly, I get grumpy and anxious when I can't write steadily, and (within reason) the more I write, the more I want to write. I don't mean going on binges, I just mean that if I put in fifteen minutes, I want to go for an hour, and if I write an hour a day, I'm happier if I can get to two hours. I don't think I need more than that on a regular basis. Sometimes writing is hard, for me, but really the hard part is organizing and working out an argument, which I don't think of as writing, but as thinking. Producing words, once I know where I'm going, is easy and pleasant. Editing is enjoyable.

So the mild pleasure and interest that Boice advocates is my natural state. For me, then, if I "don't feel like" writing, or am procrastinating or anxious, it's a sign that something is wrong. And I think it is worth figuring out what the problem is, rather than ignoring it.

Often, though not invariably, my problem is time management gone wrong. Today, for instance, I had a lot of trouble getting started on what I thought was a smallish task I had been putting off for no good reason. Well, okay, it seemed that the reason might be anxiety that a co-writer would think I was stupid. But once I got started, I quickly realized that this is not such a small task. It's not huge, but it does need about 6 hours and is really three separate-but-related tasks, not a single one-hour piece of work.

As soon as I figured that out and had a plan to tackle the work in an appropriate way, all the anxiety vanished, and I happily got on with things. The problem wasn't really feeling stupid, or fearing my co-writer's opinion; that's just a sort of reflex to "explain" anxiety in a plausible way. At some level, I think I knew that my one-hour estimate was wrong, but I hadn't considered the matter closely enough to be consciously aware of how far off I was. The anxiety is a symptom, not the disease.

I know Z is with me on pacing, planning, and work as a pleasurable part of a life. Writing is not the problem. Other things cause problems with writing. Sometimes, as when my mother was very ill, there is nothing much to be done about the problem except push it aside during writing time. But with tractable problems, it seems to me much better to work out what they are and then address them, so I can get back to working contentedly.

Are Z and I the only heretics who think writing is easy and publishing is fun?


Anonymous said...

The other half of our blog is having me read the Boice book on writing. Although I found his Advice for New Faculty Members to be incredibly useful, I'm not getting anything out of his writing book.

I don't have a writing problem. I have a work problem. I need to be able to sit down and do the difficult parts of research that don't just involve writing. The Virginia Valian essay she had me read describes exactly my problem. That and I need people to stop bothering me with unpredictable last minute beginning of the semester emergencies.

I'm working on it.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I love that Virginia Valian essay. And I think the emphasis in some quarters on "write write write" helps to lead to work problems: some of us need to "read read read" before we can write, or do other forms of preparation to write. "Keep moving a project forward" is a better mantra than "write write write." And in Silva's favor, he recognizes that, at least. I think the essays in Working It Out are very helpful models of how to move from work-conflicted to work-happy.

Anonymous said...

I'd read the Working it Out Valian essay before-- and definitely helpful.

The one she guided to me most recently is her second stage-- after she got denied tenure, what did she do. http://maxweber.hunter.cuny.edu/psych/faculty/valian/docs/1985solvingAWorkProb.pdf

Really, I'm matching her third stage that she mentions in her second stage essay (as some of her second stage solutions are no longer helping me), but I don't know that she's written about what her third stage decisions were! So we're working on figuring things out ourselves.

We're going to blog about this at some point, but one of my third stage solutions is using leechblock during the day so I can't get to the blog when I most want to procrastinate! In fact, I shouldn't be writing this comment right now... I should be fixing a program.

I'm outie! Otherwise I'm gonna have to leechblock more blogs...

p.s. Word verification: redlice. EW.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

FWIW, I like writing, too. I mean, I have lots of ways to put off doing it, but once I get the butt into the chair, I like it. I really like revising. (I'd probably agree that it's often hard, but it's fun hard.)

I agree that the "write write write" emphasis does tend to separate the process too much from the "read read read" part. I wonder if this is because psychologists tend to have "experiments" and to actually do things that are not reading as part of their research (labs and whatnot), and therefore tend to follow the more "scientific" method of do stuff from beginning to end, then "write it up." I know that's an oversimplification of how scientists work, but it still seems to me that scientists (and probably psychologists) can make a clear distinction between research and writing. (Sure, once they write they might realize they have to go back and do more experiments, but the processes are still pretty distinct.)

For me, though, since research is basically reading stuff, it's a lot harder to separate that from writing, and I'm someone who starts writing very early in a project (as a way of figuring out what I've learned and what else I need to learn). And I agree that it was often harder to make the time to read enough stuff to be able to write, than to write per se.

(That said, I do write to organize and work out the argument - I can't do those things without writing - but I know a lot of people who don't work that way.)

And about Boice's books - I think that either one of them is helpful, but the new faculty book basically repeats everything he said in the writing book (though a bit more concisely and is a bit better written), so that reading both isn't all that useful. I still need to read Silva, actually (if I decide I want to try to publish any of the various things I wrote for law school).

Anonymous said...

I really like the Valian essay. I still like the older book, The Compleat Academic, for new faculty members better than Boice, it's less concescending, assumes better graduate training and higher levels of maturity, and it's collectively written so authors have direct experience of more kinds of institutions than Boice does.

Keep moving forward for me, too, is much better than write write write -- I may be in the minority but I love writing and don't need to be pushed; I do need to cut all my projects down in scope and allot more time for each piece of them than I do.

I didn't know Valian was denied tenure and I will have to look that essay up now. Being denied tenure was one of the most validating academic experiences I had since it proved me right -- it really was true you had to make university standards on publication, and I really had been right initially, when I had insisted to my colleagues that it would be true and that I should plan for it to be.

Anonymous said...

Hm, her website is a gold mine of documents including an essay called "Solving a Work Problem." Which is the denial of tenure one?

undine said...

I've done better this week, too, by the simple expedient of writing the writing time down in Google Calendar. I know--that's suggestion #1 on every list, but I had never done it.

Writing has sometimes been fun in the past, but it hasn't been for about 6 months. I'm hoping that will change.

Captcha: "joyeusi"--a coincidence?

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Thanks for the "new" Valian ref, N&M. Undine, I hope the captcha is a good sign. Mine is "sionsi" so maybe they're just generating -si suffixes today.

Servetus said...

I think writing is easy. I do not think publishing is fun, but that's because I was intentionally given a neurosis about what kind of writing and publishing were "worth it" and which were not. Now that I've abandoned publishing, I've rediscovered what fun writing is. Still working on a way to figure out how to get back to publishing.

Narya said...

Late to the party but . . .

I very much enjoy writing, and one of the things that bums me out the most about not getting an academic job when I finished my degree is that there's a type of thinking and researching and writing and collaborating that really cannot be done anywhere else, and I miss it, even all these years later. The writing I do for my job just isn't enough.

Anonymous said...

Other half here. I have The Compleat Academic but I find it less useful and not in-depth enough where I need it. A lot of the chapters are about stuff I already know or never had trouble with. I actually hated the Silva book, found it way too simplistic. I keep coming back to Boice's Faculty As Writers because it gives me what I need right now. Whatever works for each person is what you should use! (and, to clarify, I'm in an experimental discipline so reading is not as useful to me [though still necessary] as lab research and then writing about it.)

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

N&M, I think of reading as the English professor's version of lab work.

My favorite Boice book is _How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency_, a longer, more complex, more nuanced and thoughtful study of writers, including but not limited to academic writers. The main points (schedules, contingency, etc) are the same, but the greater thoughtfulness about the "journey" makes a big difference in palatability, I think.