At the end of a recent course on thesis writing, I received an interesting note from a student, Ann Sirek. We had spent our final class talking about productivity: what impedes thesis writing and how we can overcome those impediments. Ann wrote later to say that our conversation had inspired her to think about the challenges of thesis writing from an ethical perspective:
The writing of the dissertation could be viewed not so much as a patchwork of duty, obligation, punishment, and even self-effacement, but as a fulfillment and culmination of a certain kind of personal maturation, that comes, as all maturation does, with some travail and adversity. Sometimes in the name of virtuous discipline, violence gets perpetrated in subtle ways, and that kind of discipline paralyzes creativity. But, if I reward even the slightest flicker of creativity and growth, I start developing habits of creativity, rather than habits of fear. From this point of view, times of chaos and non-productivity require balancing out with intentional times of quiet and stillness in an attitude of self-compassion (eg. yoga, meditation, prayer, music, painting, etc). I think you were getting at all this, but obliquely. The ethical paradigm that rewards growth and creativity is quite different to the one that adjudicates and punishes. This insight from the world of ethics might bring to awareness a question worthy of consideration. Is writing a dissertation more about obligation and getting stuck in one’s own limitations, or is it more about creativity and exploring my own personal, undiscovered potentials? For me it has been about increasingly fostering my own creativity and turning away from voices that would adjudicate and make me anxious about failing. I may not be the exemplar of PhD perfection, but I am getting towards the finish line, and that’s the goal for most of us! My comments are not meant as a critique of you, but rather as a sharing of my own process and my own work with the intention of perhaps reassuring someone else in the same boat! Thanks again for this very excellent course and for your warm teaching presence!
I was so pleased to get this thoughtful response from Ann because it gives me an opportunity to address something that is obviously missing from my discussion of writing productivity. When we treat writing as something to be managed or as a chore or as a necessary evil, we are foreclosing the possibility that writing might be joyful or that we might use the occasion of writing to be kind to ourselves. Ann is absolutely right to see a notion of discipline inherent in many versions of productivity; while we often think of self-discipline as positive, it’s important to be mindful of what we are doing when we view writing as something that has to coerced out of us. Coercing or disciplining ourselves into being productive writers can preclude us from seeing writing as valuable way to express our developing selves. Reflecting on Ann’s observations allowed me to think more about my usual approach to writing productivity. That approach—both here and in the classroom—tends to focus on two things: the value of admitting that writing is inherently hard and the importance of acknowledging the systemic obstacles faced by graduate writers.
As anyone who reads this blog knows, I talk often about the inherent challenge of academic writing. And I definitely see a great deal of benefit in acknowledging that difficulty. Doing so allows us to ask this crucial question: ‘how can we write through the difficulty?’. Like many people, I’ve been thinking of late about the influence of William Zinsser on the way we approach writing. I often return to this passage: “Writing is hard work…. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard” (On Writing Well, 2005, p. 12). As a teacher of writing, I feel obliged to offer a bit of pragmatism: you don’t need to enjoy writing, you just need to get down to it and work through the difficulty. It seems so important that each struggling writer be reminded that the problems aren’t theirs alone—everyone struggles with writing.
Second, I also think it is valuable to recognize that the inherently difficult task of writing may be hard for reasons that are beyond our control. We need to be sure that we don’t use discourses of productivity to overestimate the power of the individual to minimize systemic hurdles. Encouraging people to write in an atmosphere that neglects their barriers to writing seems genuinely wrong.
While I believe that these two approaches are valuable for most writers, I’m intrigued to engage with the ethical challenge that Ann has raised here. Any approach that is premised on the notion that writing is hard has to confront the hazards of negativity. While I don’t think that the writing-is-hard narrative is necessarily negative, it can easily crowd out a more positive attitude. On the other hand, I often worry that encouraging people to find joy in writing seems a bit risky; the last thing I want is to annoy students or to make them feel that they ought to be enjoying the writing process more. My yoga teacher is able to deploy, at the absolutely perfect moment, the phrase ‘with joy’; the class always laughs because her suggestion comes just when practice feels the least joyful. Being reminded to do something that’s important to us with joy—when it’s done right—is a gift. But done wrong, it can just make everything worse.
I don’t mean for this to sound like a dichotomy between effective pragmatism and unattainable idealism. That dichotomy is false because Ann is illuminating a third possibility: productivity through meaningful self-awareness. In her vision—which is a lovely one—productivity comes from self-realization which in turn comes from self-awareness and deliberate self-care. We don’t discipline ourselves into productivity; instead, we nurture ourselves into productivity. This view doesn’t diminish the trials of writing but rather reframes our response to those trials.
I would love to know what others think. How do we define our work in order that the completion of that work becomes an authentic and satisfying expression of ourselves? If we confront the undeniable challenge of graduate writing by turning it into an unpleasant task that must be handled with discipline, are we in danger of damaging a valuable dimension of that work? For me, this comes down to a set of questions about what sort of writing advice is likely to do the most good. Do you want tools for disciplining yourself through the daily slog of writing? Would you rather be encouraged to view writing as form of self-expression that can be drawn out if we are sufficiently attentive and kind to ourselves? Or perhaps something that tries to encapsulate both approaches? Again, many thanks to Ann for raising such provocative questions.