“How we write” — (dis)assembled thoughts on thinking, writing, being, living


These last few weeks, every time the sun was suddenly showing up, even for less than an hour, you would find me in a park a few minutes away from my flat, trying to grasp light and warmth before the next rainbow (and these scattered showers, to me always new, sudden, unexpected). Reading. In the middle of a workday. Just like this, for no reason, with no intention.

This is how I read How We Write: Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blank Page, a wonderful collection of autoethnographic essays on (academic) writing edited by Suzanne Conklin Akbari in 2015. Personal, funny, sometimes confusing, often illuminating, always delightful.

You won’t get any writing tips here, but an assemblage of (partly disconnected) individual practices that change from person to person, evolve over time, get lost, and reinvented along the way—just the way life is. (My only critique is that from what I understand from the biographies and the pronouns used for self-description, there seems to be 9 male authors and 4 female authors.)

Because I’m profoundly certain that this — the messy, the emotional, the scary — is how I write (and, please (!), in no way how anyone should write), I share a few citations here. With you, for you, as part of an ongoing discussion. Sure, I have been tempted, writing this blog post, to organize these thoughts. To add something by coherently presenting what I read. Thematically, or per essay, or connecting the dots, showing what unites all these texts, these writers, these lives?

But no. This wouldn’t do justice to this book, which precisely refuses to see writing as something that could be tamed and neutralized. So here we go, here is what resonated with me, either because this is exactly how I feel or the exact opposite of my writing practice. To writing, again, always.

  • Every few weeks, I see a fellow academic on Twitter or Facebook asking for advice about how to simply write. At that point, loads of people share their experiences—the best feedback is often framed as “what works for me,” but occasionally you get a devout practitioner of some method or another. Other recurring pieces of advice involve regular exercise, working in particular or varying spaces, or the adoption of something like a standing desk.” (Richard H. Godden, p. 75)
  • “But becoming a better writer means knowing something about your own writing—your habits, your tics, your turns of phrase, your weak spots, your strengths. You can’t change what you don’t recognize in yourself.” (Maura Nolan, p. 63)
  • “Without such [structural] changes, promoting “writing groups” and “accountability groups” is merely the institution passing its education responsibility on to the graduate students who are the same students in need of that education.” (Michael Collins, p. 6)
  • “Or, the writer will not stop until they have written 500, 1000, or 2000 words. A variation of this would be the Pomodoro Technique, where you write for short, distraction-free bursts (25-35 minutes), scheduling several throughout the day, spaced out to preserve energy and focus. I deeply admire (and envy) the people that can commit to such disciplined schedules. I’ve tried to do this well over a dozen times, yet I have failed each time. Part of my failure might be due to my somewhat restless nature, but a significant part of it is simply that this system does not work for me.” (Richard H. Godden, p. 74)
  • I reward myself with small amounts of social media after writing for a bit. Reading blogs or Facebook doesn’t necessarily distract from getting work accomplished; sometimes it is the small break needed to return with more focus.” (Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, p. 47)
  • “We are never writing into a void even if it sometimes feels that way. Writing is a social act.” (Suzanne Conklin Akbari, p. 10)
  • “When you find something that works for you, that can be a wondrous thing, but do not assume it will work for anyone else.” (Richard H. Godden, p. 79)
  • “I write in short bursts of productivity that punctuate long periods of frustration and distraction; I don’t think that anyone would want to learn to write the way I do.” (Suzanne Conklin Akbari, p. 10)
  • “Part of signing on for a collaboration—maybe the most important and difficult part—is allowing another person to inhabit my words. […] It is a great act of trust and recognition to say, “Here are my words, my thoughts, my concerns and preoccupations. Do what you like with them.”” (Asa Simon Mittman, p. 40)
  • “Writing can be immensely pleasurable. I love it when I get a sentence right, or when a text opens as it never has before, or the argument I am formulating suddenly seems to work. But writing can also be agony, or just tedious. The only way out is a focus on a long view and small joys, because they alone will carry you through.” (Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, p. 48)
  • “The techniques I use are many and varied—loose journaling about an academic problem for fifteen to twenty minutes, sketching out visual maps of my argument, outlining, drafting the “shitty first draft” that Anne Lamott has made famous. Writing goals is itself a stage of writing, and listing my intermediate tasks to the goals group gives them a weight and legitimacy they might otherwise lack.” (Alice Hutton Sharp, p. 32)
  • “To put this another way, if you had to start writing your dissertation tomorrow, what would be your founding text or object, and with what particular fragment of it would you begin?” (Bruce Holsinger, p. 88)
  • “[If I had a co-author] I’d be thinking differently from the start, trying to think not only as and for myself, but also trying to think through and about the interests and concerns of my co-author, trying not to merely write “my half ” of an essay, but to write a whole, in parts.” (Asa Simon Mittman, p. 36)
  • Even writing is a corporeal process. I can’t think with my laptop on my lap—it has to be on a table or a desk—and I need a chair that I can push back or pull up; I need space to get up, scoot to a book-case, stand and gaze out of the window; and I write best in bare feet (seriously: perhaps that’s where the diving metaphor comes from).” (Derek Gregory, p. 111)
  • “What my disability has meant is that I can no longer work in the early mornings. Fatigue is also a serious obstacle to long stretches of work. I have nerve damage in my right wrist and hand, which prevents me from typing, so I now dictate everything using voice recognition software. Above all, as I think anyone with a disabling chronic disease will confirm, I have lost the ability to predict what any given day will be like.” (Maura Nolan, p. 68)
  • “Here’s the thing: you can only write what you’re ready to write, in a moment, in the encounter.” (Steve Mentz, p. 123)
  • “We don’t have perfect working methods, and we all have different approaches to how and when we get our work done. The secret is the community.” (Alice Hutton Sharp, p. 26)
  • “I work to help my students figure out what strategies work for them, and what don’t. I emphasize the notion of strategy over rule. If it works, it works.” (Richard H. Godden, p. 76)
  • “Small fun things keep your fingers, words, and mind working at times when you can’t face the larger mountains.” (Steve Mentz, p. 126)
  • “If I get stuck, I tend to write what I call my “stage directions” into the text, usually enclosed in square brackets and sometimes highlighted: “this bit doesn’t work”; “revise this”; “add references to X”; “what’s the point here?”; “does this make sense?” and so on.” (Stuart Elden, p. 97)
  • “The shock of fatherhood was so new to me then—he’s fourteen now, but it still feels new—that there’s no way I could have not been writing about it, through it, with it. I remember being frustrated that the paper wasn’t as polished as I could have wished […] But now I think of that paper as a transition, the first writing I did as a parent, an introduction to the distracted and emotional way I’ve been writing and living ever since.” (Steve Mentz, p. 124)
  • Another word for writing, then, is revision. I would guess that I spend four or five times the effort and energy revising my academic prose as I do in initially drafting it.” (Bruce Holsinger, p. 90)
  • “When I started writing the dissertation, I was encouraged—as I still encourage my own students—to begin with the material I knew best.” (Suzanne Conklin Akbari, p. 14)
  • “A child could better. When I’m sure it’s the worst thing that’s ever been written. Then I know I’m done. It used to bother me—a lot—this feeling of fear and self-loathing. Now I know it’s just part of the emotional conclusion of my writing process. When I hate it, I know I’m done, and it’s finished.” (Daniel T. Kline, p. 145)
  • “What kind of writing shall I do to continue to make sense of my life as it continues to change?” (Daniel T. Kline, p. 142)
  • “I only write when I have to. Because reasons. It’s just the way I write.” (Alexandra Gillespie, p. 19)
  • Writing is really about life, not work. […] Investigate and integrate the personal and professional through academic writing.” (Daniel T. Kline, p. 136)
  • Writing is like fishing in that it involves flashing a lure into the unknown and hoping that something bites. It also resembles fishing in that there’s a wanton cruelty to dragging living meanings up to the surface so that we can see them. Sometimes it feels as if they should stay in the water.” (Steve Mentz, p. 125)
  • “But if you find yourself thinking about many different things at once—the chapter you should be writing, and the conference abstract that’s due next week, and the guest lecture on Ovid you will give next month, and the baby you have to pick up from daycare in a few hours—maybe you simply are that sort of thinker. If so, embrace your process and celebrate it, because you will be able to create the impression of remarkable productivity through the means of what is sometimes called Structured Procrastination. If the chapter isn’t coming along, write the conference abstract, even though it’s not due for another week; if the abstract isn’t coming along, write the lecture that’s coming up next month. You procrastinate, avoiding doing the task you should be doing by doing a different task that you also have to do. And the illusion is created—the magnificent illusion—of being able to do a tremendous number of things.” (Suzanne Conklin Akbari, p. 17)
  • Good email management, note software, a good RSS feed reader and so on all make a difference.” (Stuart Elden, p. 101)
  • “Reading is a creative process, to be sure, though it’s usually an internal one as you work with the text to understand what the author is arguing (and why they could possibly be arguing that) while at the same time making it your own: not just putting it into your own words but working out what you make of it, where it’s taking you (and whether you want to go there), and installing it into your own library […]”. (Derek Gregory, p. 110)
  • “I think that like many of us writing for me is the place both where I examine the hidden parts of myself, reaching deep and meaningful insight, and where I encounter the deepest moments of anxiety, exposing something primal and fragile. It is the place where I am my most authentic and yet my most contrived, never quite reaching the ideal I have in my mind. Writing is a constant negotiation with grief.” (Daniel T. Kline, p. 131)
  • You are okay, and it will be okay (or else it won’t be okay, and that will be okay too). Once you truly believe that, writing and all manner of things will be well.” (Alexandra Gillespie, p. 22)
Cite this article as: Naomi Truan, "“How we write” — (dis)assembled thoughts on thinking, writing, being, living," in Ici et là, 22/05/2021, https://icietla.hypotheses.org/2600.

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