advice · bad academics · saving my sanity · writing

Essential supports

I am a writer.

Phew, that’s hard to say! I write it down up there and I still experience cognitive dissonance. I mean, a ‘writer’ is someone who spends a lot of time alone, thinking. Always scribbling (or typing) stuff down. Someone who writes constantly, who chooses writing over stuff like reruns of Holmes on Homes or a yoga blog. Someone serious.

Someone, that is, totally unlike me. The idea of starting a nice fresh article draft from my own idea file literally makes me itchy. Sometimes, it takes me three hours of pfaffing around to settle in for 20 minutes of writing. I like to be around people. I find writing really hard and annoying. I am not at all confident about what I write down. It takes time and time and time and time and time for anything I write down to look like anything worth reading, and even longer for it to be apparent that what has been written might have any value to anyone.

As it turns out, a lot of successful writers look a lot more like me than like the vision of that imaginary writer I’ve always compared myself so unfavourably to.

Huh.

You know how I have finally (well, functionally) overcome the cognitive dissonance that for years kept me anxious and guilty? I played to my strengths. For me, being a real writer means setting the iPhone timer for 40 minute stretches of nothing-but-writing-seriously-now-leave-your-email-alone, then giggling over Go Fug Yourself for 10 minutes with one friend, or swapping grading and syllabus tips with another friend, topping up our lattes, and setting the timer again. Being a real writer for me means shitty first drafts, really, really shitty first drafts. It means posting daily updates about how many words written and how long, and writing little comments for 10 or 12 other members in the same boat as me. Being a writer means a weekly drinks date with my lady colleagues as a reward. It’s calling my husband up when I get blocked, and telling him my ideas verbally until I get it sorted out. It’s cupcakes and new pens and other daily rewards.

Since I’ve decided to just accept the kind of writer I actually am, rather than beating myself up every day for not being how I thought a real writer should be, I’m writing a lot more. Every day. And it’s easier. I mean, I still hate it, but that’s my process. That’s who I am as a writer. My essential supports are cupcakes, friends, Internet breaks, daily accountability to other writers, permission to write really awful prose that I rework, sometimes with a peer editor, and near-daily verbal processing of ideas with someone married to me.

What are your essential supports for writing? Does it match your idea of what a real writer needs? What if who you are is what a real writer is?

8 thoughts on “Essential supports

  1. Thanks for this lovely post, Aimee. As someone from a “creative” (read: non-academic?) writing background, I have often struggled with identifying what I used to do (scribbling poetry madly on the backs of paper place mats) with what I do now (using highlighters and sticky notes to colour-code my pages of research notes according to a colour-coded essay map before I begin writing). I appreciate the reminder that, whatever our process, what we are doing is still writing, and gosh darn it, it's still creative.

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  2. I suspect many writers fall into this camp. I am a terrible procrastinator. For instance, the other day I spent two hours finding anything else to do but start edits on the manuscript I have been avoiding. Once I got into it, I was so in the groove that I lamented the need to stop writing in order to pick up the kids from school. Always a study in contrasts. 🙂

    I always imagined published writers had a very disciplined approach to their craft: Putting in 3.5 hours first thing in the morning or requiring output of 15 pages before they can have a cup of coffee. In truth, they probably have to work hard to overcome their own personal intertia just like everybody else.

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  3. This is so funny, my timer just beeped so I could take a break from writing a literature review for my dissertation proposal, and I decided to check this blog to see what interesting things you were saying today.

    I have found the use of a timer to be especially important on days when I decide to work at home, like today. When in the lab I'm surrounded by people so it's hard to goof off too much.

    I also participated in a study that the writing center was doing recently to help graduate students in particular. It's amazing the stigma one feels going to a writing center, but the experience was truly eye opening. I thought that they would be focused on grammar and punctuation, but actually they helped me with flow and cohesion, clarification of ideas, and gave me lots of good tools to use to help with these things. Talking to a “real” writer, yet someone who was completely unfamiliar with my field was just super refreshing and helpful. I plan to continue to go back.

    I haven't really gotten to the point where I can call myself a writer with any seriousness. But I spend most of my days writing. It's odd isn't it?

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  4. Hannah, yes, it's all still writing, even if it doesn't look like how we think it's supposed to.

    Janet! Hello! Long time no blog! Yeah, I'm with you on the discipline part: I just hate that I seem to have no discipline. And that's weird, my most productive time is always Ten Minutes Before I Have to Pick up Munchkin.

    Maepress: HILARIOUS. I used blogs for my breaks, too. The timer seems like such a silly thing, but it totally works. And I LOVE that you've been to the writing centre. I'm in Academic Ladder, which is a lot of peer support, but also has a coordinator who helps us all to reframe or improve our process. I admit it: I totally need the help, but what I ultimately produce is my own writing.

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  5. Cool post, Aimee!

    My journalist friend and I were discussing what it means to be a writer over coffee just last week. He argued that writing and domesticity are at odds with each other… “You can't be a good writer if you're worried about life maintenance.” And I see what he means (enter image of absentminded novelist surrounded by dirty plates, teacups, looseleaf paper, typewriter)! I'm sure I'm rationalizing a bit, but I think it helps to think about how if we're really living life, doing our own laundry, etc., we'll never be “the real writer” but… we'll be really living!

    PS: My essential supports are romantic comedies, chocolate and cheese. So cliche.

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  6. Thanks for this post AM. I finally love writing, but I didn't always. I think it's because after decades of learning I do feel I have something to say that other people can learn from, however delusional that is. I love the spaced out, feet-don't-touch-the-ground feeling of the zone. What helps me get there: changing mediums and spaces (which for me means moving from the computer on the desk to the couch with a pad of graph paper or a notebook); setting page and time limits (if you get the page limits done before the time limit, you have freebie hours); making sure one day ends with something easy to do when the next one starts (e.g., proofreading or editing what I wrote the day before, or reading an article that might help); walking a lot, which helps my brain breathe; anti-rewards (e.g., wouldn't you rather finish this paragraph than clean out the kitty litter?); trying not to take myself too seriously, and never ever thinking about what the value to humanity is of what I'm writing; cheating the clock at one end (early mornings) but never the other (late nights). Oh, and indulging all my bad habits, of course. 🙂

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  7. One of my essential supports is writing group. We don't converse as often as we used to when we were working on our dissertations in the same place (now we're all over the world), but knowing they are there to look over my stuff whenever it might get written gives me the structure I need to write.

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  8. I'm primarily an academic writer, although sometimes I write creative nonfiction. My supports are: my partner, especially when we get to be in the same city; my writing group; a couple of colleagues; coffee; the internet.

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