I asked Joli Jensen, Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication and Director the Henneke Center Faculty Writing Program at the University of Tulsa, to revise an article she published in the July 9, 2014 issue of VITAE, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website. She generously accepted my invitation and in turn invites you to:
Invite Your Writing Demons in for Tea
By Joli Jensen
Writing can spark ambivalence, fear and uncertainty even in the most successful writers. In my previous guest post, I detailed some of the common writing myths – the unconscious, self-perpetuating assumptions about who we are and what our writing should be – that intensify fear and interfere with our writing. Let’s talk about how we can respond effectively to these myths.
When she was a child, a friend of mine misheard the phrase “taken for granted” as “taken for granite.” Writing myths seem engraved in stone until we recognize and address them. The best way to deal with them is to figure out what writing myths we are “taking for granite.”
Can you recognize which myth my colleague was “taking for granite?” She struggled with a writing a paper for her admired mentor as part of a training program she was thrilled to be in. When I asked her why she thought she was having trouble, she talked 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 colleague let go of her cover story and recognized that she had bought into the Imposter Myth.
Writing myths are revealed by the thoughts and feelings we try to eradicate. We stuff these feelings, hide from the thoughts or try to bully them into leaving us alone. But as long as the myths that feed them remain etched in stone, these thoughts and feelings will keep us from writing.
With my struggling colleague, an Imposter Myth with a side order of the Magnum Opus Myth, fueled her feelings of unworthiness. They kept her from a writing project she was fully capable of doing about something she deeply believes in. What are her options now?
I don’t believe that she should start pumping herself full of self-help slogans. She should not try to talk herself out of her feelings. Neither affirmations nor logic are effective antidotes to writing resistance.
And even though she becoming aware of a sense of fundamental unworthiness, I don’t think she needs years of therapy before she can write her paper. What she needs is to really listen to what she is telling herself and get curious about it.
There is a Buddhist story about the futility of trying to overpower whatever is bedeviling us. The monk Milarepa was trapped in a cave with demons and tried various attacks to defend against them to no avail. Then he remembered to open his heart and become compassionate and curious. When he invited his demons to talk with him over tea, they disappeared.
Likewise, our writing demons will be powerless to interfere with our writing when we find ways to converse with them instead of trying to defend ourselves against them.
Our writing issues are rarely about the practicalities of time, space and energy. If you are working on a project you care about, but are unable to move forward with short, frequent writing sessions, identify (with compassion, not hostility or criticism) what you are telling yourself. What belief about writing are you “taking for granite?”
Is the belief really true? If it is, what can you do to support yourself so you can write anyway? If the belief is not really true, what is more accurate, and therefore more reasonable, to believe?
This gentle process invites your writing demons in for tea. You learn to stop fighting, avoiding and denying your thoughts and feelings. You stop wasting energy resisting and instead learn from what is happening in your head.
What are your demons nattering on about? Give them a fair hearing. If they have something true or useful to say, take them seriously. But if they are telling you myths that stand in the way of your writing, you don’t have to listen to them any longer.
Compassionate exploration is far more effective than bucking ourselves up with slogans, or pretending we’re fine when we really are not. We can keep pretending that all is well, or keep trying to overpower our writing demons through sheer force of will. But these strategies don’t work. Instead, I suggest that we figure out which demons are bedeviling us and invite them in for tea.
This is a revised version of “When Doubts Bedevil Your Writing, Invite Your Demons In For Tea”, one of a series of columns on academic writing by Joli Jensen, Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication at the University of Tulsa, appearing in VITAE, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website. Related VITAE posts cover how hard it is to write productively in academic life and the three specific techniques – the project box, ventilation file and daily brief writing sessions – Joli recommends to “tame” our writing projects. She also provides strategies to secure the elusive but necessary writing time, space and energy we need to do our best work. You can reach her at email@example.com