Write. Just write. And be amazed.

You might be familiar with this advice often given to graduate students and research faculty alike: if you need to get something written, set aside a bit of time every day – we’re talking, like, 20 minutes, maybe 30 – and just sit down and do it already. Be prepared for a lot of what you write ultimately to go in the bin. Be prepared to find it cringe-inducing to begin writing, not like what you appear to be writing, and yet still have to keep going until the egg timer makes its pinging sound. And be prepared for the thing you need written, amazingly, actually to get written.

I freely confess I’ve not followed this advice myself in recent years – and I have to say I regret it. I’ve realised lately that I’m not getting the writing done that needs (or wants!) doing, and while I often blame my teaching and service workload for clawing time away from my writing, especially in the school term, the sad truth is that I could easily find 20 minutes a day to write. I just choose not to find it – and my mood suffers as a result.

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This truth was driven home to me in late January when Melanie Mills, the instructional librarian attached to the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western, visited my modern theatre class to take us through a time management exercise. (You can read a bit more about that here.) This exercise is attached to the students’ current research essay task: in addition to writing their research essays, the students all made time management plans, and I asked them each to keep a time management journal. (Handing in their plans and journals with their essays guarantees them a free 5% on top of their research essay grades.) I also asked them to select their own, custom due dates for their essays; the idea was to give them the freedom to work their essays into their term’s labour in a way that made sense for their own, individual schedules. Of course, the time management tasks, plus the customising of due dates, had another purpose too: to force students to confront their procrastinating tendencies head-on, and to reckon with them.

What happened when I did the time management exercise with Melanie and the class back in January? Surprise, surprise: I ran smack into my own procrastinating tendencies. I learned that, on the scale she gave us, I score a bare 6/10 for TM skills. In particular, the exercise revealed that I am bad at setting priorities for myself. I tend to do the work that will create an easy sense of satisfaction at the end of a day (teaching/marking tasks, addressing emails and shrinking the inbox, writing blog posts […ahem]), and I put off for another, “protected” day the things that I deem most challenging and often most important to my sense of self (like writing). Of course, those “protected” days are a ruse. They usually don’t come. Or they come rarely. And when they do, the build-up is so severe that sitting in front of the screen to write becomes a stomach knot-inducing burden, an all-or-nothing high-stakes game.

Scoring a C in time management lit a bit of a fire under me. No, I’ve not been writing every day – not yet. (See my last post for the panic under which I’ve been working this term; I’m barely hanging on, but looking much forward to the change that end of term brings in three weeks’ time). But I have been thinking more and more about the ways in which we all (including me!) tend to equate writing with the highest of stakes, about how to lower those stakes a bit, and about different ways to help students, in particular, to recognise the value of setting aside just a small portion of time in a day, sitting down with the anxiety, pushing it to one side, and writing something, anything, just to see what happens.

I’ve been an advocate for short bursts of writing in the classroom for a while; I got religion while at Queen Mary, and I learned a huge amount from the team in the Thinking/Writing program there. The ethos behind that program is nicely captured in a very recent article by Neil Haave for the National Teaching and Learning Forum, in which Haave argues that writing is a thinking process, not just its outcome or record. Citing scientific research into the cognitive changes that writing induces, Haave writes,

By placing thoughts in the structure of a sentence, we produce vehicles of thought that then may be manipulated on the page or screen (Menary 2007). The act of manipulating the thought vehicles (sentences) is a way of manipulating our thinking by integrating different ideas—it produces thinking: Writing is thinking. Thus writing is not just about enhancing memory and recording thoughts—it is not simply the recording and transmission of information, though it does play that additional role. Rather, when writing sentences, creating new sentences and moving the contained phrases and container sentences around in new structures, the writer is actively thinking, bringing ideas together in new ways that illuminate each other in a manner unknown until that moment.

What this kind of research teaches us is, I think, ground-breaking: that when we write, stuff moves in the brain. We change. We develop. We learn, and we grow. It might not feel like it at the time, but that’s what’s happening: we’re learning and growing as we struggle to get word onto page.

This is a really liberating way of thinking about writing and the anxiety it brings, if you ask me. It puts in a very different, much more positive light those moments that, let’s face it, we ALL fear, that produce a lot of the fear that stops our writing from starting in the first place. That is: those moments when we hit a wall, don’t know where to go next, don’t see how all the ideas connect up… because our brains are in the process of making fresh, often complex, discoveries about how the ideas on the page will finally come together. We just don’t know what that looks like yet. We’re still working it through –  but we can only work it out by writing about and often around it. Ironically, these moments are the moments that necessarily precede the breakthroughs. They are also, however, the moments when many of us (me included…) often stop, panicked, and close the laptop.

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This photo is by Kalindy. See more here.

Haave says: “I believe that one of the reasons students have a difficult time writing is that they spend so much time thinking about what to write before they write as opposed to simply writing what they think.” The solution, for him, is to create as many opportunities as possible for students to write down what’s going through their heads as they work, and to share that low-stakes (not for grades!) writing with a peer partner as often as possible.

I use these kinds of low-stakes writing exercises in class all the time, and a number of past students have reported to me on their value for their own learning practices. But in honour of the specific challenges posed by our research essay task and time management meta-tasks this spring, last week in modern theatre I went one better. I turned our final class hour into a writing “retreat”, inviting students to come to class and just write for 50 minutes. Melanie was there to offer support, as was I and my TA, Meghan. We volunteered to talk through difficult issues with students, to read bits and pieces, to help with research challenges, and to brainstorm around thesis statements that just weren’t quite there yet. I explicitly styled this hour as a gift – students could choose not to come, though regular absence penalties applied, but I told the students that I hoped they would come, because when were they going to gift themselves a whole hour just to write, and then to put the writing away and get on with the day?

In the end, more than half turned up – and in mid-March. I’m calling that a win, for them and for writing-as-thinking. I just wish I’d given myself that hour to write, too.

Thoughtfully,

Kim

On writing “properly” – in the academy, and also in life

It’s term paper time: cue panic! As one of my students in History of Performance Theory told me earlier this week: “I am stressed to my core!” Enough said.

This year, term paper time coincides for me with a host of seemingly unconnected events that have me thinking anew about the old saw of a question, “what is good academic writing, anyway?” First, the eminently sensible and always provocative Melonie Fullick, regular contributor to University Affairsweighed in on the politics of academic style and the erroneous argument (much repeated) that all uni profs write indecipherable, useless theory-speak. Then, my friend and colleague (and soon to be guest-post author!) Kat Low told me about the most recent issue of Contemporary Theatre Review, edited by Joanne Tompkins and Maria Delgado, which focuses on the labour, the value, and the challenges of academic editing – an area of our jobs that is so, so important and yet receives far too little credit and attention. Finally, my performance theory students and I read the heartfelt preface to Diana Taylor’s landmark 2003 book, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, and spent half an hour “appreciating the text” (more on that later). During that class, I realised what I’d long suspected: that the most creative, most intimate, most personal academic writing is also the stuff that resonates most clearly, sticks with us, influences us, makes the most sense, and means the most to us. So why don’t we write more of it?

I have a personal history with the battle over “proper” academic writing, and the longstanding anxiety that the personal has no place in it. I was fortunate to arrive in graduate school with a superb education in reading and writing: I took my primary and secondary schooling in Alberta, in Western Canada, where I received intensive training in the rules of English and French grammar; I progressed through the International Baccalaureate program during high school, learning not just to love literature but to write creatively (in fact, my IB extended essay was a series of short stories); and I wrote constantly during my first university degree, where I both unlearned some bad, earlier habits and became comfortable with critical theory as well as secondary research in literary criticism. In all of this I am privileged in ways that many of my own students today are not. But this eclectic background has also meant that I rarely feel compelled toward the kind of formal, proper, academic prose that I have long been told I “should” produce. Instead, I prefer to write creatively, even at times performatively; as often as possible I get personal in my academic essays, spelling out what is at stake for me and why. (A recent example I’m quite proud of, about the superb Theatre Replacement show BIOBOXES, is here.)

But I’ve run into some trouble with my urge toward personal, creative, “crossover” writing. That same essay I link to above went through multiple drafts and a number of different peer reviews, some of which were furious, even vindictive; one anonymous reader was enraged I should dare to be so personal in an essay that was not “about me” but about the show, and about the ethnic minority subjects that comprised it. Another accused me of sounding racist – in a moment in the paper when I was trying to come to grips with a difficult, but honest, reaction of my own to the performance I had attended. In both cases, as in many others I could cite from my own and colleagues’ writing histories, I was being challenged, even attacked, for daring to insert my own human fallibility, vulnerability, and culpability into writing for an academic audience.

I know well this challenge: my students remind me of it every time they approach me, tentatively, and ask me if it’s ok for them to use the pronoun “I” in their essays. Of course students learning to write formal essays often need to be trained out of the habit of defaulting to their own personal, anecdotal experiences as “evidence” for their arguments – our worlds are so much bigger than the boundaries of our bodies, and it can be hard, but essential, for young scholars to develop the skill of looking outward with compassion and some objectivity. But I’m a strong proponent of nevertheless returning to ourselves, in order to understand how the things we explore in our writing impact us personally. Which means I always tells my students that yes, they absolutely may use “I” in their papers, and their personal experiences too – just as long as they also consider the perspectives and evidence of others alongside their own. And as a reader of manuscripts for academic journals and presses I take the same approach, lauding colleagues whenever I can for taking the risk of being personal and professional at the same time.

Being personal as well as professional; regarding the two as interlinked: women know this is a constant challenge, burden, and privilege, one in which feminist movements have been invested for decades. There is ample research demonstrating the difficulties women face in academic professions as they attempt to balance personal responsibilities with professional expectations (curious? Look here), and my own experience of trying to be myself – a flawed woman scholar, warts and all – in print has suggested to me that the harsh backlash that accompanies “personal” academic writing can often be gendered. It’s true that outstanding women scholars are among those who have paved the way for many of us interested in creative academic non-fiction (I’ll name my favourite two here – Jill Dolan and Peggy Phelan – though I could name many others), but on balance it’s harder for women – in the world at large, let alone at university! – to express opinions based on personal, gendered experience and be understood to be sharing sincere evidence about what it means to navigate a human life. By way of contrast, I recently peer-reviewed an article for publication by a much-admired male scholar that contained an extensive, arguably excessive, amount of personal detail, some of it quite sexist; in my review I supported the author’s desire to be personal while resisting some of the assumptions the article made, but I privately noted the tone of secure authority with which the author reproduced his experience as proof of a much broader worldview. Time and again, male scholars have regarded their “personal” and the “professional” as coeval; no wonder women who dare to tread this ground, even today, fear being rebuffed!

So what can we do, those of us who value creative academic prose, to further encourage the expansion of “good” academic writing? I’d say we need to listen more carefully to our students! When my performance theory class and I looked together at Diana Taylor’s preface to The Archive and the Repertoire, we tackled the text with an exercise in “appreciating”: I asked them if there were moments in the piece that they had found surprising, or even inspiring; I invited them to highlight those moments and then reflect on them, in writing, for two minutes. (Write about the thing you think for two minutes: this is a favourite free-writing exercise of mine in all of my classes. Conversation is much easier as a result!) Afterward, I asked them if they would describe their chosen passages as “good” academic writing, and why or why not? They reflected for a further minute on paper, and then we shared our thoughts. Their choices were eclectic: from the fanciful to the relatively theoretical, but of a piece they were moved by the combination of a personal tone and a genuinely provocative argument. And they generally agreed that their choices might not be considered “good” writing by the powers that tend to judge these things, but perhaps they really ought to be. Because they had been moved to imagine, to grapple with, even to cherish, Taylor’s points as a result, rather than to throw their books against the wall in frustration. Surely that’s a win for us all.

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Write on!

Kim