Academic Writing: Allowing Yourself to Feel (2/4)
The first blog post of the series of reflections on academic writing as a bodily experience—here on an apparently innocent question: how are you doing?
In this blog post, you’ll find…
- A check-list to become more aware of what’s happening inside you when you’re (not) writing
- Some thoughts on the materiality of writing
- What writing with your body, writing as a body means
So, how are you doing?
If you want to go through the process of what writing means to you before reading this blog post, I suggest you try this small exercise and then go through the check-list you can download as a PDF below.
Are you okay?
- Yes, why wouldn’t I be?
- You mean, am I okay with my writing or in general, like in my life?
- I don’t know.
- No, I don’t feel so good today.
Did you write?
- Well, we had to, right? So yes, I wrote something.
- But it feels hard/wrong for me to actually answer “yes”.
- Do you feel that in order for you to be able to say “I wrote”, it would need to be…
- more substantial?
- more structured?
- No, I didn’t.
- I didn’t write anything at all.
- Well, I did write a few things, but this is not really writing, so…
Did you notice it when I put music on?
- Oh my God, there was music?!
- Yes, I noticed it…
- and it totally distracted me
- and I really enjoyed it
- and ______________________________________ [describe it in your own words]
Do you feel that these questions are irrelevant to your writing?
- Yes (“Academic writing is/should be (addressed as) a purely intellectual matter”)
- Mmh, I’m not sure (“I want to know more but I’m not super convinced”)
- Oh, no, these questions definitely resonate with me (“Tell me more!”)
And yet… there could be a lot more, such as:
- How did you sleep this night?
- How does it feel to be in a room with other people?
- Do you like that chair?
- Did you arrive just on time, too early, too late?
- Did you drink enough/too much coffee/tea/water/juice this morning?
- What language(s) did you speak, hear, read prior to the workshop?
Finally, let’s get a grasp at what how you could have interpreted the question—what writing means to you:
- How do you feel about writing?
- How do you describe the process of writing?
- What is your relationship to writing?
Partner exercise (in speaking, not in writing, but I mean, feel free to write if you want to): What counts as writing to you? Get to know your resistances, biases, and expectations.
The question is not as innocuous as it seems. For instance, for a long time, writing and reading were two very different, and very independent activities to me. I had reading days (those days when I needed to take it slow) and writing days when I was able to focus and produce something. It is only when I completely changed my readings habits and began annotating literature on my tablet that I also began seeing reading as an essential part of writing: Because I read with a specific goal in mind, I never read a paper from A to B but most importantly, I read a paper for a specific paragraph of a text I am currently writing. Concretely, this means that I see reading as inherently writing, too, and integrate notes from my readings directly into my texts. Then, I reformulate, cut citations, etc.
The materiality of writing
Oh, yes, I could begin by defining what the materiality of writing is—why speaking and writing are “material practices”: “how they are physically produced and apprehended, what material objects they produce, and what can be their characteristic durations and effects”. “Writing is multiply engaged in materiality, because it too is a physical activity of the body, requiring implements and surfaces and usually resulting in some graphic artifact that embodies a text.” (Irvine 2017: 281-282)
It would probably reassure the intellectual in you who may be freaking out about this workshop. But let’s be honest: we all have an idea of what I mean by ‘materiality’, and it doesn’t have to be contrasted with ‘the digital world’. So, no, ‘materiality’ does not only mean paper. But it also means paper. How often do you write on paper, by the way?
The aesthetics of writing
Before going through what you wrote, ask yourself how you wrote:
- on a piece of paper, and if so
- on a notebook that is special to you or that you’re using specifically for your research
- on a random piece of paper that you might throw away right after the workshop
- with a pen, or even several pens from different colors that you really like
- with the first pen that you could find
- with a pen that someone lent you (because you never carry a pen with you)
- on your laptop, and if so
- in a new document that you opened for the workshop
- this document already has a name
- with a specific font, which is the one you feel comfortable with
- with the font that was automatically inserted
- on your tablet or your smartphone
⇾ These questions may help you figure out whether aesthetics plays a part in your writing.
I keep reading that you should just put words on (digital) paper, no matter how they look like, and by that I don’t mean if they are the right words, but with no headings, no italics, no matter in which font. I strongly disagree. I cannot think properly if the document does not look nice.
It may be perceived as a form of procrastination but for me, it is actually an active preparation for writing: it feels like I have begun already, gives me a structure, a section to look forward to, etc.
It may not be the case for you, and it is totally fine. Or you may have done this only to kill some time, and this is fine, too, because it enables you to see how you react when facing an apparently simple writing exercise, and what strategies you put in place to avoid writing. Once you’ve identified them, you can also counter them.
On the other hand, if you have already identified that in the first ten minutes of this exercise, you needed to write on a notebook you like, or in a font that is aesthetically pleasing to you, this is a first step towards recognizing what works for you—help you be in the writing mode.
And then, what did you write, not in terms of content, but…
- were there words?
And how does it look like on your page?
- did you capitalize anything?
- did you underline anything?
- did you italicize anything?
- did you draw anything?
- did you make connections, for instance with arrows?
- did you delete a lot (on a laptop), or made any words look unrecognizable (on paper)?
⇾ These questions may help you understand whether you need to see a structure while writing, or whether you rather write as it comes.
This is important, as it will give you insights into whether you need to write the introduction first or not (more on this here), and whether you need a (fine-grained) structure before turning your thoughts into words. Here again, it may be a valuable piece of advice when you’re stuck to say that you should just write anything, no matter in which order. If you have not highlighted anything and if you have written in a linear mode, writing may mean throwing ideas onto the page, and figuring out what to do with them afterwards.
For me, it has never worked. If I cannot write, it is because I haven’t processed where to begin and where to end. What happens in the middle is always a mystery, but I need to know where it starts and how I want to conclude, which is also why I always write the abstract first (for a paper). I will end up rewriting it, of course, but this is my starting point. I also begin with the introduction, an outline, and then I feel up the blanks.
Writing with your body, writing as a body
During that process, you felt…
- … or anything on this figure?
- or anything else?
⇾ These questions allow you to examine the possible inputs you may get before or while writing. They do matter, and to be honest, I’m not sure I need to develop this point, as I am preparing this material in the middle of a pandemic.
Still, ask yourself: how focused are you when you are… falling in love? mad at one of your close friends, siblings, or partner(s)? worried about your relatives? anxious about your future? overexcited because of a new skill/hobby/project you didn’t know you enjoyed? trying to get out of an abusive relationship? unsure how to pay your rent next month? etc.
I have listed both really nice and really difficult thoughts and feelings because both play a role. Being happy or excited does not automatically mean you’ll feel more confident and more apt at writing, as it can be overwhelming, too. Similarly, being sad or angry does not mean that you’ll be incapable to write. You may find comfort in being by yourself to process your thoughts in challenging times.
What does it bring, then, you may ask, to just know how you feel?
First, it may be a relief to just acknowledge what’s going on. When I allow myself to say that I’m lost, confused, impatient, etc., I become able to not write (academically!), because I decide to honor that some feelings, thoughts, and emotions are more central right now. It may mean not writing for a couple of hours/days/weeks/months (!) (hello 2020), or not writing a paper that may trigger me (i.e. avoiding certain projects for a given time, for instance because writing on gender, multilingualism, in my first language, or anything else is too much right now). All of that is okay.
Second, you may then be able to develop strategies relating to particular emotions. Being sad or overexcited does not feel the same in your body, and may (should?) not be connected to the same response regarding your writing.
I’m happy to discuss with you what works for me (when I’m overexcited I just dance it out like crazy in my living room on some bad music because I need to exhaust myself), but since the whole point of this workshop is to help you find out what actually works for you, I don’t want it to take too much space. For more resources, I found this thread amazing.
Writing as a reaction to an external stimulus
Delving further, whether you could write or not…
- you found the writing exercise too unspecific, “I mean, how can we say anything about what X means if we have not defined what X is before?!”
⇾ Then you may be someone who needs to have figured out the (very narrow and concrete) concepts you need before writing. It seems like common sense—of course you have to do a proper literature review and define the concepts you’re using. Do you need to begin with this part, though?
I don’t. (After having structured my paper and written the abstract, see above) I usually begin with a qualitative example that really talks to me because it gets me into something concrete that reminds me of why I love what I do. The concept(s) usually ‘pop up’ in this first round of analysis, and I then feel legitimate to develop the theoretical framework because I have something tangible to rely on.
- you found the writing exercise too personal, “I mean, why should I be saying what writing means to me, aren’t there any (great, senior) academics who have already said it (better)?!”
⇾ Have you ever heard of the imposter syndrome? It is different not to write because you know you that need more time, or more readings, or not to write because you think what you have to say is less important than what others have already said or will ever say.
An idea to develop your confidence is to write a lot, but not only academically (and not necessarily every day, but I’ll come back to this). To just write: journaling, poetry, thoughts, maybe a short story on Instagram or a long WhatsApp message. When you develop this habit of writing and communicating about your needs, you also become more aware of what not writing means. For me, when something is off, I ‘disappear’. I stop replying to messages, I purposely ignore people asking how I am doing, and I eat a lot of sugar. I begin to doubt everything. Specifically, I convince myself that I have nothing to say. And I stop writing. In these cases, I have to actually force myself to write, and give myself (very) strict deadlines (with accountability buddies).
But sometimes as well, I stop writing because I actually need a break. I feel intellectually challenged, don’t know where to begin, and I’m not sure whether I have anything to contribute. This is stressful, but it is by no means the same feeling as when my imposter syndrome kicks in.
I have learned to make the difference. Sometimes, when I am too agitated, I cannot write, because I know, profoundly, that it is not the right time. Then I wait. Weeks if I need to. Yes, I have already spent weeks not writing. Or, rather, not writing anything academic. When I’m in such a phase, I know it will come back, which is why I let it be.
- you found the writing exercise too quick, “I’m happy to give it a try, but ten minutes?!”
⇾ Then you may be someone who needs some time to ease into writing, or some preparation.
I am like this, which is why the Pomodero technique (setting a timer for, say, 25 minutes, and shutting down any distraction) has never worked for me. I usually need more than 25 minutes to actually begin academic writing, but I do a lot of writing before. Similarly, when I’m on a timer, I feel urged to write, which puts me into stress mode: “Write, but now! Be quick, hurry up!” and I almost get a panic attack.
Before delving into the next section I want to invite you pay attention to what’s happening to you, inside you, after these first inputs:
What’s going on in your body now? Sit back now and move your gaze to something external like the view out the window. Allow your shoulders to drop and the body to be as comfortable and relaxed as it can be at the moment. As you [heard me talk about feelings, emotions, colors], how has your body reacted to [these inputs]? Have you felt a slight quickening of the breath and alertness of posture as some ideas and sentences ‘hit home’ or resonate with your own experience? Alternatively, which [suggestions] have been met with a numbing of bodily response—perhaps as others work is referenced and our writing has obeyed conventional academic norms? Tune into what your body might be telling you about your appetite for the next section.(adapted from Sinclair & Ladkin 2018: 419, citing Gallop 1995)
If you want more of this, keep reading “Academic Writing: Debunking Some Myths.”