On writing when the words want to be somewhere else

I am writing this from a writing retreat in the beautiful Devon Valley near Stellenbosch. I am hugely lucky to be starting my writing year here, away from the pressures and activities of everyday mum-and-wife life, where all I have to actually do all day is put words onto a page and make them make some kind of sense. However, I am finding the actual doing of the writing hard work this week.



I am writing a book. A whole one, on my own. I have been thinking and scribbling about this book for a long time. It has been like circling a huge obelisk, going round and round looking for a door or a way in, and finding none. Or circling a block of marble, trying to see the statue inside it so that you know where and how to start chipping away at it. But there is no door, and the statue is a fuzzy blur, so round and round I have been going, not quite writing, but not quite doing nothing either. It is just too big. How do I start? What do I write first? How do I get this right?

The first thing I have told myself, firmly but in a kind tone of voice, is that I must actually stop being such a faff and write something, anything. Just start, and try not to edit, and some words will come. They probably will not be right, but they don’t have to be right now. They just have to be written, and once I start, like a tap being turned on, the ideas will start to come from the swirly depths of my mind where they have been percolating and find their way out, and slowly be formed into a logical story. So, this is what I have done, yesterday and today so far. I have just made myself write, for 20 minute slots at a time. Freewriting, as it were. It’s slow, and difficult and frustrating, but I am slowly starting to see the statue. It’s just a finger, or an eyeball, at this point. But it’s there.


Interior with reading woman by Carl Vilhelm Holsøe

This brings me to the second thing I am counselling myself about, in a slightly more exasperated tone of voice. When I started conceptualising this book, and talking to one of my advisors about it, I had these romantic visions of me and my book, up late at night, lamplight burning in my office, typing away while the words and ideas flowed. We were going to be so productive, and clever, and it was all going to be so enjoyable, and intellectually stimulating. The reality is … less romantic. My office is such a mess I can’t even see my desk. I am so tired by 8pm there is no chance of coherent thoughts beyond that hour. And the words, they are not flowing. They are trickling, at best. So my romantic vision is pretty much shot to pieces, and this disappoints me. Which then leads to more circling of the obelisk, and less actual chipping away at the door or statue. Don’t get me wrong here: I expected much drafting and revisions and rewriting, but I just didn’t expect to not enjoy it. I hope I will enjoy it eventually, but right now I am not having much fun.

The final thing I am advising myself on comes from a friend and mentor: I have to be prepared to write rubbish that I will eventually delete or chop out in order to get going. This is a tough one. I know, of course, that with every paper and chapter and so on that I write, there are parts that are written and then later binned because they no longer fit, or strike the wrong tone, or just are wrong. I write rubbish, for sure. But writing a page or two of rubbish for a journal article feels like a lot less potential time wasting than writing pages and pages of rubbish for an 80,000 word book. I think this is what I am struggling with: I have a deadline, and other things to do as well as writing this book, so I kind of want to start writing and have it be the actual book, and not all the drafting and writing around that will eventually start becoming the book through cutting, deleting, selecting and more writing.

I remember feeling this way at the beginning of my PhD – staring up at this obelisk and wondering how on earth I would actually make it into something other than a lump of rock. Then, I had a supervisor to chivvy me on, and wonder where my drafts were and give me feedback. Now, I feel I just have me to hold myself accountable, and I am not always very good at that.

stone-dressing-tools-1-1-800x800So, I am trying to stop being romantic about this, I am trying to stop expecting all the words to be good, and perfect and erudite. I am trying to just write what I can now, and trust that the rest will come if I put in the time, slog through the difficulty and slow writing days, and do the work that I know needs to be done. That’s not a sexy, super-slick and easy plan. (Sorry about that.) But it’s a plan I can work with, that will break me out of the circling, put the chisel in my hand and start the chipping process. And that’s enough, for now.

Grappling with complexity in a world gone mad

I’m not sure how to write this post. I have not posted on the blog for a while. I don’t really want to write any more ‘I’m so tired I can’t write posts’, but I need to write something, if only for my own sanity.

The past two months have been a weird, crazy, anxious and difficult time in South Africa, and globally. Here, apart from the ongoing awful behaviour of our president, we have seen violent, angry protests by students in our universities. At the heart of these protests have been calls for higher education to be free for students, especially poor, academically deserving students and middle class students whose family income is less than R600,000 a year (about $42000). There have also been calls for changes to the curriculum – mostly expressed as ‘decolonising’ or ‘Africanising’ the curriculum, and for changes to the ways in which teaching and assessment are constructed and effected. Too many students are disadvantaged by a system that has for too long gone unchanged and unreflected upon. Many universities have had to shut to keep their students safe, and have struggled to finish the academic year. People have been hurt, buildings vandalised, ugly things have been said in the name of progress and change, and many of us who work in education are feeling disheartened and sad. Where do we go from here?

There are significant problems in my country and globally that need to be addressed, and change must happen, but moving from that realisation to making the change stick will take time. And time is a tricky thing in a situation like this, where some students are claiming they will work to keep universities closed until their demands for change are met. This is, I believe, because we live in a world where things happen so fast that slow research, slow thinking, slow changes are less tolerated, or even seen as resistant or lazy. Academics who are under pressure to publish know this well, as do PhD students who take longer than 3 or 4 years to produce a thesis. We should all be able to teach and research and churn out papers, and present at conferences and tweet and blog and Facebook and still make it home on time for dinner. This is obviously a somewhat cheeky comment, but I know many people who feel overwhelmed by the growing pace that seems to surround our work. Reports about mental health issues on the rise among academics and graduate students are becoming more common, as are calls for a recognition of the value of slower thinking, and research, and deeper engagement with complex issues.

I recently facilitated a workshop with lecturers who were trying to work out a set of priorities for their curriculum, as part of a review process. What did they really want their teaching and learning to achieve, for themselves and their students, and their disciplines? What was striking was that one of the most important issues that came out was a desire to have students become more able to grapple with complexity. To not be so stuck on trying to find one single answer to a question, but to see and grapple with multiple perspectives, and learn to build considered arguments. This is a huge challenge for undergraduate teaching, because the average undergrad degree is so short – 3 or 4 years only – and this is a big thing to learn, especially when you consider that many students have spent 12 years in a schooling system that teaches them to learn the answers, rather than to appreciate the nature of working with problems.  I’m wondering how much of what we have been seeing in recent weeks in #feesmustfall protests here, in Brexit and its aftermath in the UK, in the election of Donald Trump and that polarising, ugly election campaign in the US, is many people’s inability or unwillingness to see, and grapple with, complexity in the issues we are confronted with. Climate change, globalisation, immigration, different versions of neo-liberal capitalism, state funding for social change – these are such big issues, and they connect into other complexities around race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and all of these issues are just overwhelming.

Grappling with this much complexity is a full-time job, and it’s exhausting. And if you don’t have an educational or home background that has encouraged or taught you to stop, and think, and listen and try to consider or empathise with perspectives other than your own, it is commonsense to try and find one answer that feels okay for you, and stick with that. Inviting other people’s reasoning and opinions to challenge your own seems like too much to deal with, so you shut that out and find opinions and ideas that shore up rather than challenge your own. And you mistrust ‘intellectuals’ like your lecturers who would ask you to read books you don’t like, or think about ideas that make you uncomfortable, or engage with theory that threatens to unseat your beliefs. All of this makes it far less likely that we will learn to listen to and talk to one another with compassion and kindness, which we so desperately need to do if these issues are going to be addressed constructively.

I have been struggling to think and write and concentrate in the midst of all of this, as I am sure has been the case for many of you. Globally we seem to be floundering on the edge of something, and we don’t know which way this pendulum will swing us. My research feels silly in the face of all of this. Why even bother? But, then I think about the argument I have tentatively made here, and I think about my kids and my students, and I think ‘No. Stop’. There is value in slower thinking, in deep engagement, and in research that genuinely seeks to build knowledge, and create space for change. Your research matters, and so does mine. Words and ideas that can inspire change matter. We must continue to work on grappling with complexities, and finding answers and ways forward that don’t oversimplify and divide, but create richer understandings of difficult issues from multiple perspectives. There is much to be done, and I think perhaps it is time to get back to work. Who’s with me?

‘Writer down, I repeat: we have a writer down!’*

I’m sick. I have been for a week, and it’s actually starting to get me down now because I am finding it really hard to get any work done. When you’ve been really busy, it’s actually quite nice to have a good excuse for not getting out of bed and watching lots of random things on YouTube for a few days (apart from the feeling sick part). But after a few days you start to feel well enough to get up and go out and see people, and there is no longer such a good excuse for not getting on with your writing, or email, or work more generally. And yet, in my case, I am finding myself paralysed over small writing tasks I have to be getting on with.

Writing paralysis is an odd thing. I like writing, but it just feels like too much work. And yet, the two immediate projects are not a lot of work at all, so I should actually be able to do this. I am a competent person, right? I have two papers that need revising, and one is due back to the journal within the week. My two co-authors have already revised the paper, and I just have to do the final round of tidying, checking, and writing up the response to the reviewers. This is not that much work, but I am paralysed about it. The files have been opened and minimised onto my desktop, so they are there and ready. I open and minimise them a couple of times a day, read a few paragraphs, and then check for new Facebook updates. Why am I so paralysed when I really want to get this paper finished so I can move on to the next one that need to be revised and sent back? Never mind start the new writing projects that are waiting in the wings.

I think my current paralysis goes beyond being a bit tired at the end of the semester that has just finished, and being ill. I think it has something to do, subconsciously, with all the bigger projects lying behind these small ones. Picking away at smaller pieces of work and emails and so on keeps the days full, but the bigger projects loom, and if I finish all the small ones then I’ll have to get on with the big projects. I’ll have to start actually writing the book I have planned, and the conference papers I have committed to, and finish the fieldnotes and transcription of two years of data I am pretending does not exist. And because this all feels like WAY too much work, I am paralysed now, putting off even the tiny projects so that I just don’t have to do anything.

The problem with this, of course, is that I am not actually doing anything, and none of the work is miraculously vanishing as a result. It’s just there, waiting and piling up and leering at me. Big projects we can break into smaller pieces, like an MA or PhD thesis, or a paper or book(chapter), can lead to writer paralysis like this. You have to do the smaller pieces as you go to get onto perhaps bigger pieces and larger projects. You have to read in order to write, and when you write you have to get feedback, and when you get feedback you have to read it, engage with it and make revisions, and when you have made revisions (especially in a thesis) there will be more reading, and more feedback and more revisions and so on. Being paralysed actually seems like a reasonable defense mechanism in the face of all of that, doesn’t it?

If you are, like me, in the middle of a project or series of projects that just seems too much, and you are paralysed as a result, try not to fret too much. The key, I think, is to allow yourself down time, but keep chipping away. Open the file, read a few paragraphs (if the whole paper is too much in one go) and make changes and revisions. Make some notes about thoughts for the rest of the revisions. Read a paper or chapter you need to read, and make notes. During my PhD I learned that this was a manageable way to keep going, even when I was down. It didn’t always work for me – there were stretches where I just couldn’t chip away – but trying to work like this kept me from being writer down for too long. To paraphrase Dory: Find your most realistic way to just keep swimming!

*Snaps to those of you who spotted the 90s film reference 🙂

What if I’ve got it all wrong?

Readers of my blog will know that I have finished my PhD, and am now working on postdoctoral research, and the seemingly endless process of trying to write, receive feedback, revise and (please universe) publish my research. So, I am not in the middle of the chaos and confusion that can often be so much a part of working on a PhD thesis. But, I am in a different kind of chaos, trying to work out what research I really want to do now, trying to find new questions to ask and find answers to in higher education that will make my research relevant, and useful, and trying to work out which theoretical and methodological tools and frameworks will help me do all of this.

I am currently at my alma mater for a week of research meetings, workshops and seminars centred around doctoral support for PhD scholars in the programme that I was part of while doing my PhD. Today, I spent the afternoon listening to a researcher I am going to now be working with, and whose work I have found very useful, talking about theory and how to use theory in educational research. I love and hate seminars like this one in equal measure: I love them because they always offer me new ways of thinking about my own work, and what I am doing with the theory and data I am using; I hate them because they always make me wonder whether what I have been doing up to this point is actually all wrong.

One of the things I heard early on in my PhD process, and fairly often, was that I couldn’t just buy into my theory wholesale; I needed to retain some kind of critical distance. I needed to be able to see what it offered my study, and defend that, but also see possible occlusions in what I could see with it, or blindspots to be aware of. I must confess that I did, and still do, find this difficult, and unsettling. During my PhD it felt impossible to do this because I really needed the theory to be right about the world. I needed it to be robust, and strong and able to just help me answer my research questions and get to the end so I could graduate. I was afraid to be too critical, and then find holes, and then be unable to live with the holes and then feel like I was wrong and would have to start again. I didn’t, in the words of a wise therapist I once consulted, know how to hold the ambivalence – to be right and maybe also wrong at the same time, and work through that.

This ambivalence – where I like the theory I use because it makes sense in relation to the questions I am asking and the work I am trying to do, but where I also see now how other kinds of theory could complement or even replace it in certain ways – is still hard to hold. I have rather bought into the theory I use, and I really do like both it, and the community of scholars I am now part of because we all have this theory in common. It’s useful, and relevant. BUT, the danger, I feel, is that I am still not always able to see possible occlusions and blindspots, and some of these have been pointed out to me by peer reviewers of papers I have written. These comments are helpful, but also invoke great anxiety: what if I still have it all wrong?

I had a conversation with the researcher who spoke this afternoon, after the seminar, and it was heartening to be listened to and taken seriously (I hope). But it made me feel so young, in career terms, and so naive about some of the work I am doing, and I wondered, driving home, whether I am actually reading enough, or thinking enough, or thinking about the right kinds of things. I know this is what I’ve signed up for, and I can see how far I have come and how much I have learned, and that I am always going to have things to learn and a distance to travel in my thinking and writing. But, man it’s exhausting. All this writing, all this thinking, all this reading, all the seminars and workshops and scribbles and peer reviews – it just goes on and on and on. When you have a day where you learn useful things, but also stop and wonder, quite seriously, if what you have just learned calls into question theory and methods which you have invested much time and energy in learning about and using, it can just feel flattening.

I know, rationally, that my research is probably okay. Good, even. I know that I am driven, as I think we all should be, by the problems I am working to find solutions to in my context, and by the questions I am asking that I really want to answer, and that if I am finding theory that helps me work in this way and is relevant, that’s fine. I know that I have learned enough to be more comfortable than I was two years ago, with being wrong. I can hold, for some of the time anyway, a kind of ambivalence without wanting to rush too quickly to a resolution that does away with doubt or confusion. But, tonight, I am tired. Tonight, I just want my theory and methods to be right, and I don’t want to wonder if I have it all wrong. Tonight, I want my research to change the world just as it is, without peer review pointing out all the things I have not seen or thought about yet, and need to look at and think about next.

There’s no moral here: just a recognition that it’s really normal to feel like you have no idea what you are doing. It’s really normal to be close to finishing a PhD, or even to have one, and still wonder if you’ve got it all wrong. I think that if you never wonder if you’ve got it all wrong, you never get to push yourself to work out whether indeed this is the case. Research is not really about proving your assumptions right. Research is about trying to find out whether you have the right assumptions to begin with, and where you do have blindspots and where where you might have got it wrong, or at least less right, so that you can keep pushing yourself to do the kind of thinking and writing work that makes your research relevant, useful and transformative in your context. To adapt a well-known phrase: a pesquisa continua*!

*The research continues (Portuguese)

What if my thesis is not The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written?

I’m starting this post with a confession: I didn’t write the Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written, but I wanted to. I got things wrong in my thesis, and I didn’t really push myself as hard as I could have in the analysis of my data. While I am proud of what I achieved, and (mostly) believe the positive praise I received from my three expert examiners, I am mostly convinced that I took it a little too easy on myself and could have produced an even better piece of work had I taken more time, or read more, or written more drafts or tried harder.

I didn’t write the Most Awesome Thesis Ever. And I really wanted to. I wanted it to be the best thesis my examiners had ever read. I wanted them to tell me it should be a book, and that they had sent it to a colleague at Oxford University Press, who would be in touch to fall all over me with heaps of praise and a book contract. That didn’t happen. What did happen, though, is I graduated. On a sunny, happy day in April with my mum, husband, kids and friends watching me and cheering me on. I received well-deserved praise from my examiners, and I made my supervisor proud.  I earned a title I finally feel comfortable with. I gained a great deal from the whole process. But, I have no book contract, no ‘this is the best thing I have ever read’ comments, no awards and accolades.

Image from lexisnexis.com

Image from lexisnexis.com

When I started out, I told everyone that I would be happy to get minor revisions and mostly complimentary comments, and that the aim was really to do the work, earn the degree, and progress in my academic career, rather than to write The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written. It was kind of true. But what was also true, and something I kept to myself, was that I really did want to write the other thesis – the Most Awesome one. I really wanted to be the very best. I was a top student at school, winning academic prizes and striving to get top marks. This drive was tempered in my undergraduate years and during my early postgraduate study, when I realised I was a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond. It was hard to be good but not the best, but I got used to it for the most part. Between my MA and PhD I took a 5-year break, so starting my PhD in 2010 I felt a little older and wiser than I had been but, oddly, this must-be-top-in-class-or-nothing-counts-for-anything drive returned.

This drive worked for and against me in certain ways. Doing a PhD part-time when you have a full-time life and job is really difficult, and most days reading, writing and thinking about the doctorate just feels like a bridge too far when your kids have school stuff on, your partner wants time with you, and there are work deadlines looming. Having the ‘I must be the best or I will be nothing’ drive can push you on when you feel you just can’t push yourself. That drive did keep me going when things got tough and I wanted to just stop and have a really long nap.

But, on the flipside having the ‘best or bust’ mentality made it hard for me to celebrate positive feedback because I focused on all the negatives and things I had missed or gotten wrong. This mentality makes it hard for me to celebrate small successes and see these as big gains, because I want all my writing and work to be the Best Ever. I don’t really want to just be okay, or even good. I want to be awesome, and I want other people to think I am too. So, I can get really bogged down in feeling like ‘my work is crap, actually, and so why should I even bother because no one will even read this paper, much less cite it?’

Is this silly? Perhaps. Am I alone here? Nope. I think anyone who has been really good at something in some part of their lives has come to like the recognition and validation that comes with being really good, or even the best. Not being really good or the best becomes harder to live with, because it means perhaps less recognition, less validation from those external people and sources. It means having to find more of that within yourself, and that self-belief is not always easy to offer yourself on a sustained basis. It helps to have others telling you that you are actually awesome, and good, and more than okay, right? But it also helps if you know that they are speaking the truth (or some version of truth) and not just being nice to you. In order to take on the recognition and validation and use it to drive you forward, you need to believe that you are actually smart, and capable, because then the praise makes sense. If you have people praising you but you really believe everything you write is crap, the praise falls on deaf ears.

Underneath all the focus on the criticism instead of the praise, and the writing paralysis that I struggle against, I do really think my work is at the very least okay, and some of it is good. Some of it might even be better than that. My thesis is good. It’s not The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written, but the colleagues who have read it liked it, and found it helpful. That’s pretty awesome. I have a PhD, achieved through my own hard work. That’s also pretty cool. I am writing papers, and when they have been revised and polished, they will be published. Again, a win.

Image from egosquared.com.au

Image from egosquared.com.au

Being the best ever, I have realised, is a) not possible, and b) not actually a very good thing, because it’s too much pressure in the end. I’d rather work my way, paper by paper, towards better writing and more refined thinking, rather than start out with the best thing ever and then decline from there while killing myself to maintain that unrealistic standard. This is how I look at it anyway.

The PhD is a part of the foundation on which you build your scholarly career; it’s not the career in a nutshell. If you try to turn it into everything about you as a scholar that is good and worthy of validation, you may never actually be able to write it. You’ll paralyse yourself with the fear that it won’t be The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written. But chances are it’ll be a good thesis. I think the thing is to really try to realise and remember that good in the world of doctoral study is actually enough, and that the goal is to lay a strong foundation for further work, rather than to encapsulate your whole academic self and career in one PhD thesis.