“You’re a writer as much as you’re anything else, so why not enjoy yourself and write for pleasure?”
Wrapping up Series Two of our ‘Sustainable Cities’ podcasts Abi O’Connor and I have been talking about writing.
We often do as we spend so much time here at the allotment, even on freezing days like this one, writing our PhDs together. But this time we’ve recorded our conversation and put it out as one of our podcasts. And you can have a listen to us “Talking about writing” here.
Our conversation focusses on making sense of academic writing, though much of it could work for any kind of writing, I’d guess. And during the conversation you’ll hear Abi refer several times to ‘your paper,’ this blog post being essentially an edited version of that. A paper I wrote as part of preparing some teaching and discussion sessions I’ve been doing recently for post graduates from various north west of England universities. A mix of writing ideas, experiences and recommendations which Abi and I have subsequently improvised around for the podcast. Adding her ideas to my own and using this rough diagram of sections for us to talk through.
Writing by reading
First then, a few words about writing in academies generally. About the necessity to always read enough and to read until you understand. As a postgraduate maybe you don’t need to be taking those endless notes that being part of the undergraduate exams and essays factory might have forced you to take before.
So reading until you understand? I always start by skim reading articles or whole books I think might be useful. Reading the abstract, the intro and the conclusion. Much of the time that’s enough. But if it turns out the book or article feels really relevant to your work and is also interesting and well written, then settle down and read the whole thing until you understand. An unexpected positive for me in the mostly negative Covid closure of the university and its libraries from March 2020 was relying on such books as I happened to have carried home with me. Though I quickly discarded a couple of them, and did get some downloaded materials, the rest of the books at home were thoroughly read over the spring and summer into autumn months in a way I might not have done with open libraries. Where you’re always one restlessly searched for book away from the one that could be perfect.
Often writing enough involves reading enough.
And another thing, reading doesn’t have to all be academic. Good writing in a good novel can also build up your stock of writing energy, thoughts and even methods. So I always have a novel on the go, as I said recently on this blog, however busy I am with academic stuff too.
Writing by walking around
OK let’s go for an imaginary walk.
‘Moving beyond the blank page’ was one of the titles I considered for all of this, because that’s so frequently the big issue with writing, getting started or getting stuck. And for me walking around helps with both of those. By not spending too long in any one place, so your body, mind and then writing don’t get stuck and bored. Giving yourself the impetus of fresh air, the rhythm of walking and the light of the day can give your writing the momentum that would otherwise have slowed down if you’d spent all day in the university library, say. In the days when we could I’d go and do my writing in both cathedrals here in Liverpool, the Bluecoat Garden and several other quiet places around the city. And I miss them right now, but I still walk.
Writing is organised thinking after all, and I find that walking around helps me think, often giving me the first few lines or maybe even the whole structure I’ve been searching for. If you run that can also achieve similar effects. Though walking gives you more time to think.
So when I’m walking, and at all other times, I have my journal with me. To write down anything that occurs to me. And if it’s somehow impossible to stop and write my thoughts down I’ll record them on my phone. But capture the walking thoughts anyhow, I’d say. They’re often what you’re looking for.
And we’ll return to this later but having the right tools and equipment with you is an essential part of this mobile method of writing. Virginia Woolf, talking about writing and life, famously said that “every woman needs a room of one’s own.” And that’s true. But for writing while walking around it’s useful to be able to set up that room for ourselves anywhere.
Writing in your own voice
I’m writing this in my own voice because it’s the only voice I’ve got. Which seems obvious. But for years I struggled to write in how I thought I was supposed to write, which was various other people’s voices. And just when I thought I’d coaxed myself out of that by writing this very public blog for several years I came back to university and started doing it again, by struggling to write in a received academic voice. Something I’m not capable of anyway and which led me back into blank page syndrome for a while.
So always try writing exactly what you want to say in the way you’d naturally say it would be my advice. Maybe coax yourself round the academic writing block by telling yourself ‘this is not the final product after all’ and you might be surprised how often it is, in fact, the final product. Give it a go.
And while you’re taking that risk, take some others. Do a mind map or a drawing of what you want to say. Or express it in photographs, or a collage, or a rant, a recording or a poem. Let your own voice out any way you can. Because in the end, I’d say, it’s the only voice you’ll need.
“Talking About Writing” the podcast version is here.
Writing in rhythm
This is about turning up at the page. About getting into the mental space that I call ‘my writing place.’ Which as I’ve said can be all sorts of actual places but is always the same place inside my head. The place where I’m a writer, writing.
Habits and rituals help with this. Times of the day, days of the week. Work out what works for you, find your rhythm, and as far as you can, stick to it. And when you don’t sick to it, and you won’t always, don’t beat yourself up. Just start again.
And I’ll write about my own writing rhythm here. Not so it’s your rhythm, but so you can see and feel what one looks like. I work well in the early morning, so even before I check email or Twitter or the news I’ll turn up at my writing page and see if anything wants to get written down. After that I’ll make some coffee, check those other things I mentioned while I’m drinking it, and then go back to my writing place. Where I’ll mostly write with music playing. I have around twenty ‘music to write by’ playlists I’ve put together now, of mostly music without words. They’re all around two hours long and so I’ll write and read until the one I’ve picked is done. Then I’ll have a break, walk to somewhere else, even if these days that’s just a different room in the house, or over to the allotment where Abi and I recorded this podcast. Then I start writing again with a different playlist. And often by late morning or early afternoon I’ve done my best work for the day. So I’ll do something different then, like reading a novel or having a life. With maybe another writing session, possibly for a blog post, later in the afternoon, or maybe not. But I’ll still be in rhythm and, I find, I’ll still have ideas. Because I’m living in my writing place by then.
Writing by writing something else
If you get stuck and you’ve done the walking around bit, tried the other methods I’ve mentioned so far and you’re still stuck, then stop. Put your ‘proper’ writing away for a while and write something else. Anything else, in fact, as long as it’s still writing.
Try things like these, for example.
One day I got stuck while I was writing, but I was somewhere close to an art gallery. So I went to the gallery, had a look around and then sat in front of one of the paintings for a while and wrote about it. What it meant to me, the images in it, the colours of it. And that writing got me going again, on a day when I’d thought I’d get no further. Plus I turned my exercise into a blog post called ‘The Art of Writing.’
Thinking of which, might it help to start a blog? Somewhere for you to go and be a writer? And or, could you write some fiction, make up a story about anything you like, or maybe express how you’re feeling as poetry? These don’t have to be publishable or for anyone other than you. But they’re writing and they might get you moving.
As might this. Write for a self-agreed period, say twenty minutes, about whatever comes into your head. Without your pen leaving the paper or your fingers the keyboard. You can moan, swear, howl or write about the weather or the texture of the table you’re sitting at. It doesn’t matter because it’s just for you. And it’s writing. This one might also get you going first thing in the morning when nothing else will.
Writing by moving in the right direction
Moving back to thinking specifically about academic work, try these if you’re stuck or slow.
If you’d usually type then write with a pen on paper instead. I’ll often use this switch even when I’m not stuck. Perhaps because it’s slower and gives me more time to think, or maybe comes from a deeper part of myself? Which sounds a bit ethereal I know, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Or you could record roughly what you want to say on your phone so you can listen back to how it sounds. Or play it to a friend and ask what they think? Sometimes it might be good if this is a colleague, though it can also be good if it’s someone who’s not currently deep in academic work like you are. It depends on context and circumstances of course, though my own firm belief is that anything we write as academics should be clear enough to be understood by any reasonably literate and interested other.
Writing with a friend
Then there’s writing regularly with a friend. Obviously Abi and I do and it’s one of the most effective writing methods either of us have ever experienced. We meet at agreed times, work separately on our own studies for agreed times, with music playing in the background to fill the silence, taking occasional moving around breaks between writing sessions. And there have definitely been days when one or other of us has got moving again during these sessions when we hadn’t thought it was a writing kind of a day.
Writing as if you’ve finished
This is a version of the fictional story writing I’ve already mentioned. Except it’s about your real work. A short story of no more than a few hundred words summing up your whole thesis as if you’ve finished it. Can be especially useful if you’re stuck on a difficult piece of theory or just on where to go next. Imagine yourself through the difficulty into a version of a happy ending and see where the story takes you. It might show you that the way through your difficulty is to step round it, avoid it or that you’d mistakenly gone down a cul de sac you’re not really interested in anyway.
And it’s ‘only a story’ anyway so what’s the harm of trying it out?
Another version of this being to think the opposite of how you’d usually think in your finishing story. Be a sceptic if you’re usually an enthusiast, adversarial if you’re usually a proponent. And maybe find the weaknesses in your own arguments before anyone else does? Weaknesses that might be slowing down your writing for a good reason.
And, having the right tools
Almost finally then, though this is really the first thing, have you got the right tools for the work you’re doing? What these are will differ for each of us, but these are mine and I never attempt to get to the writing place I’ve spoken about without them:
- My journal. I’m now coming towards the end of my eleventh of the same journals. Good quality 19x25cm Moleskines in my case. Soft backed and thin enough not to take up much space in my bag.
- Uniball coloured pens. Particularly useful for mind maps, which I’ll often do to sort out the structure of what I want to write. Like the one that’s near the top of this blogpost.
- A laptop, obviously. Light enough to carry round and which backs up to a cloud service anytime I’m connected to wi-fi, at home or wherever I’m writing. And can be set up as a personal hotspot with my phone for any searching, library or other internet access I might need while writing.
- Good writing software. I use Scrivener rather than Word type apps, as it’s designed for long form writing like novels and PhDs. And which exports easily to PDF, Word or E-book formats when I need to.
- Headphones or a bluetooth speaker. Sometimes I like to write in silence. But mostly I work best with music. Usually with one of the largely classical playlists I’ve already mentioned playing on my headphones, or on the speaker if I’m writing with Abi.
- Oh and a waterproof bag for all that in the climate changing times.
Which is what all the rest of what I’ve written here, plus your own thoughts and our podcast discussion is about. Only time will tell, of course, if any of this works for you. Experience suggests that trying out all or most of these methods, though, will help you to both view yourself as a writer and focus more clearly on the writing methods that will work for you.
But that’s enough writing and talking from us two. Now it’s your turn.
A highly recommended book if you want to read more about writing for pleasure is “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg.
“Talking About Writing” the podcast version is here.