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Writing Through Our Political Tailspin

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Image: Nose dive / Deseronto Archives

You write like a patriot and that is your blind spot. I’ve seen a lot of patriots and they all died just like anybody else if hurt bad enough and once they were dead their patriotism was only good for legends; it was bad for their prose and made them write bad poetry. – Ernest Hemingway (1936)

I am supposed to be writing. In all probability, so are you.

Instead, many of us are scrolling through news updates, skimming the latest hot takes, refreshing our social-media feeds, and worrying about our collective future. We’re in the midst of a strange whirlwind and trying to adapt to its vicissitudes, its cascade of happenings, its creation of new terms (alternative facts, anyone?), and its never-ending news coverage. In this political climate, we are going online more, clicking on more links, and devouring more content. It’s barely been a month into the Trump administration and the perceived need to keep abreast of events has already started to take its toll.

In short, we aren’t really writing anymore, are we? I know I’m not. Or at least not as well, not as consistently, and not as easily as I used to.

After surveying fellow writers on Facebook and Twitter, and judging by my own network of peers and colleagues in academe, I know I’m not alone. A lot of us seem to be having more trouble thinking, working, researching, and writing about subjects that don’t directly involve current events. Bourree Lam, writing in The Atlantic, reported that workplace productivity and civility both took direct hits after the election and the inauguration and have yet to recover, according to multiple recent surveys.

Perhaps worse than our dip in productivity and writing output is the fact that we all feel guilty about it. Writing is a solitary task and so it makes sense that a lot of us have been blaming ourselves, rather than the unusual situation at hand. Some of us also feel conflicted about the usefulness of our writing in general, quietly asking: What’s the use of writing right now when there are more important things to do?

The Facebook effect. Yet instead of doing things other than writing or research, we are often merely caught up in a stream of media — unable or unwilling to unplug. When I asked scholars if social media and online news were negatively affecting their ability to work, I received a flurry of responses. Most reflected what we already know: As digital citizens, we are caught up in the politics of posting and we have FOMO when we aren’t online. As one professor explained, “I’m terrified of missing an important political event, but it’s so depressing. I hit refresh constantly and there goes my energy for everything (writing, grading, reading, prepping, etc.).” It’s hard to work when you’re using up all your energy online.

“It is like I get sucked into a hole of negativity,” one friend and fellow educator echoed. “I’ve had to learn to absolutely disconnect from Facebook when I need to be productive — which is hard when I’m doing all of my work on a computer and Facebook is so tempting. I find myself researching the things that people post to see if they are accurate.”

When we are busily clicking on links and fact-checking arguments, we feel quite productive. Much like “rapturous research” — or the process of getting lost in searching for or reading about a particular topic — the act of reading up about something being deliberated in Congress can almost feel like one is doing something about it. It feels like active participation, even if it isn’t.

Getting involved in online debates can also feel like active work to effect change. It’s immediately gratifying, unlike the arduous process of sitting down to sketch out and craft a longer piece of scholarly writing. One of my colleagues lamented about his lost writing time: “For the first couple of months (after the election), I spent an unfortunate amount of time arguing with my Mississippi friends on Facebook — energy and time that would've been better invested in my own fiction or creative non, doing research, or any of a hundred more rewarding things.”

Even people whose writing is relevant to political debates are finding it hard to focus. “I do a lot of work around advocacy and political skills,” said an associate professor of social work, “and I’m finding myself distracted by working with people on their advocacy, which is great, but doesn't get the book written!”

Does scholarly writing even matter anymore? During these unusual and tumultuous times, it can often seem as if we are writing into a void. Not only are scholars often accused of being “elitists” in an “ivory tower,” out of touch and unreadable, but even when we write on topics of great importance, it can feel as though our arguments have little-to-no direct effect on policy.

As one colleague put it: It’s like a collective loss of the academic voice — an erasure of expertise and experience so completely encompassing that the only response that feels possible is silence.”

An assistant professor and anthropologist of the environment, fisheries, and eco-tourism —subjects that are clearly critical in the 21st century — assessed her own lack of motivation to write: “The new political regime makes me question if any of my research involving climate change will have current meaning if the national position on climate change is that it doesn't exist. Is my book suddenly obsolete?”

If scholars whose work touches on the toughest problems we as a society face today are struggling, then what about our peers working on other, seemingly less crucial, topics?

A historian and assistant professor at a state university told me that he is trying to cope with what he calls the “relevancy trap” in research. “It’s the need to tie your work, no matter how unrelated, to the current political moment,” he explained, “or the opposite effect that causes you to wonder why you’re working on what you’re working on.” In this political environment, the need to justify one’s research seems more critical than ever. That can be crippling to the creative process, and also a threat to the goals of higher education writ large. How can research be judged irrelevant when the definition of “relevant” knowledge shifts as often as the political and cultural winds.

I believe all research is relevant. What we do as scholars and educators is foundational to a well-functioning and healthy society. Writing well and in multiple registers (both for ourselves and for the general public) is critical.

Tips for writing anyway. Here is some advice from the trenches on how to get your work back on track.

  • Channel the energy. While some of us have been struggling to write, a lot of people are getting it done. Some have used this political moment to talk more about their relevant research — finding the tumult conducive to their momentum. A lot of venues need smart pieces on current topics. If you have expertise that lends itself to the moment, then write an op-ed or pitch an essay to an editor of a popular outlet. (If, for example, you write about medicine and health, you can pitch me at Medical Anthropology Quarterly’s new site for public writing, Critical Care.) The point: Try to redirect your political anxiety back onto the page. As one colleague working on women’s health told me, “I’m writing more than ever. Mainly because I’m using writing as my escape from the time-sucking endless anxiety of staying on top of every new development. Because I’m writing, I’m paying less attention to Trump — and avoiding Facebook more, which helps tremendously.” Write to effect change.
  • Step away from social media and the news. Don’t get caught up in the vortex of 24/7 news and opinion pieces. One colleague reports that he has started to write “old-school style” with a pad of paper and a pen, leaving all his devices — laptop, tablet, phone — in another room. Another trick is to have someone change the password for your Wi-Fi and not tell you until you’ve shown them your word count for the day. If a blocking app works for you, download one and use it. Do whatever it takes to get your writing time back. Remind yourself that even if news breaks while you’re offline, the situation will still be the same when you get back online.
  • Feeling guilty is not productive. It only feels like it is. There’s no need to beat yourself up about not writing. That’s not going to help you to write (in fact, just the opposite). If you do spend two hours reading about Elizabeth Warren being silenced on the congressional floor, then spend 20 minutes writing about it. Sometimes the simple act of writing — even if it’s simply journaling or free writing —will lead you back to working on your project.
  • Don’t neglect your mental health and your need for community. As critic and novelist John Scalzi wrote in The Los Angeles Times, you can connect with friends, attend protests, become more politically engaged, take care of yourself, and still be creative. In fact, doing all of those things will help keep your creative juices flowing and the words appearing on the page.

For myself, I keep thinking about what Hemingway wrote above to his friend during the rise of fascism in Europe. I remind myself that what I do — what we do — matters. I remind myself that I don’t need to let my anxiety, anger, or sadness infect my writing. Injecting politics into writing artificially can kill it.

And anyway, we don’t need to. Doing basic research and writing — the gathering and dissemination of knowledge — have always been political acts, even when the content itself isn’t overtly political. It is necessary, then, to persist in doing the work we have always done. To continue to write is to resist.

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