Join Vitae's writing discussion group, On Scholarly Writing, to share your tips for fighting through doubts about your work.
We’ve acknowledged how hard it can be to write productively in academia, and I’ve described three techniques—the project box, ventilation file, and daily brief writing sessions—that can help us “tame” our scholarly projects. I’ve offered strategies for securing the elusive but necessary writing time, space, and energy we need to do our best work. And I’ve recommended that you “follow the lilt” and focus on writing about things you really care about.
But in my experience, no amount of time, space, or energy will make you a more productive writer if you let your inner writing demons (that is, your secret fears and self-doubts) sabotage you. So let’s examine them and talk about how to deal with them. These demons can surface even when (and sometimes especially when) we are deploying effective writing strategies on a project we care about. They may manifest as unconscious, self-perpetuating assumptions about who we are and what our writing should be. If we allow them to take hold, they can petrify us and keep us from writing.
A childhood friend of mine once misheard the phrase “taken for granted” as “taken for granite,” and that phrase stuck with me for a reason. Our fears and doubts, after all, may seem etched in stone—until we learn to recognize and address them, that is. Once we identify them and see them for the insecurities they really are, they usually lose their power over us and crumble into dust. If we don’t name them, though, they can emerge at various junctures in the writing process—when we choose a focus, apply for funding, gather our data, create a first draft, revise, and especially when we’re preparing to submit or resubmit.
Your ventilation file should be filling up with the distracting detritus these debilitating inner demons generate. One of the best ways to identify them is to listen to what they’re telling you—that the project is stupid, that you’ll never really get it done because you are on the wrong track and don’t have what it takes to complete it, that once you do get it written you will be criticized and humiliated. If allowed to fester, they can engender even more doubts and negative thoughts, and the best way to chip away at them is to figure out what, exactly, you are “taking for granite.”
In the coming months we’ll examine the most common ones, including the magnum-opus demon (My work must be magnificent!); the hostile-reader demon (My work must be impervious to every possible criticism!); the impostor-syndrome demon (But it might reveal me to be a fraud!); and the compared-to-X demon (I’m not measuring up!). There are related lesser writing-process spirits, too, like the cleared-deck djinni (who claims that writing will be easy when my current distractions disappear); the perfect-first-sentence djinni (who assures me that once I know how to start, the rest will follow); and the need-more-research djinni (who whispers that I can never have enough relevant sources).
Just last week I talked with a friend who was struggling with a paper for a mentor she admired, as part of a training program she is thrilled to be in. When I asked her why she was stuck, she offered various explanations about not having enough time or the right focus. Then she stopped, and her eyes filled with tears. “It’s worthiness,” she said softly. “I don’t feel I’m worthy of writing this for her.”
In that moment, my friend let go of her cover story, and recognized what was really going on. Our writing demons often masquerade as convenient justifications for why we aren’t writing. We may claim that we can’t find the time, or the space, or the energy to put words on the page.
Other times they may manifest as thoughts and feelings we try to eradicate. We stuff them, hide from them, and try to bully them into leaving us alone. But as long as the demons that feed our doubts remain hidden, we remain blocked. In my struggling colleague’s case, an impostor demon, along with a magnum-opus demon, were fueling her feelings of unworthiness and keeping her from a project she deeply believes in and is fully capable of doing.
So what are her options now?
While she might be tempted to pump herself up with self-help slogans, it’d be a mistake to deny her feelings. Motivational talk may help temporarily, but ultimately neither affirmation nor logic is an antidote. And I don’t think she needs years of therapy before she can write her paper. What she needs is to listen to and learn from her inner demons, then decide whether to believe them. And I’m pleased to report that she is writing again, having recognized her feeling of unworthiness as real, but not necessarily true.
There’s a Buddhist story about the futility of trying to overpower the fears that bedevil us. The monk Milarepa is trapped in a cave with demons, and he tries various ploys to get them to leave, to no avail. Then he remembers to open his heart, and invites his demons to talk with him over tea. They disappear. Our writing demons may evaporate once we face them, rather than fruitlessly denying their existence or trying to ward them off.
That is what I recommended to my unworthy-feeling colleague, and what I am suggesting for you. Understand that writing issues aren’t always about time, space, and energy (or a lack thereof). This is especially true if we find that we’re still resisting writing after consistently using strategies like the three taming techniques.
Here are a few books that may help you identify the writing demons that may be standing in your way:
- Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance, by Roseanne Bane (Penguin Group, 2012).
- On Writer’s Block: A New Approach to Creativity, by Victoria Nelson (Houghton-Mifflin, 1993).
- Unstuck: A Supportive and Practical Guide to Working Through Writer’s Block, by and Jane Anne Staw (St. Martin’s, 2003).
Once you know what you’re up against, ask yourself: Are my fears or beliefs really valid? If they are, then you can arm yourself accordingly and face them head-on. If they’re not, then why not simply ignore them or let them go?
One thing’s for sure: wasting a lot of time and energy denying and avoiding your demons (and your writing) isn’t going to exorcise them. So invite them to tea and get to know them. If they have something useful to say, take them seriously. But if they’re just messing with your head and coming between you and your writing, then pay them no mind. Just remember, sitting down with your demons is the first step to freeing yourself.