“I felt like you were in my head.”
That’s what one scholar wrote in response to my last post on Defensive Writing. Another said they kept nodding their head and “wondering whether you are actually watching over my shoulder as I struggle with these same writing issues right now.” And those are just the things people said to me publicly! The private email I received echoed those same sentiments.
Over and over, scholars confessed how they too write in order to protect (rather than express) themselves. And they spoke, in far more poignant ways than I ever could, of the toll this habit takes on their work and professional identity. One comment in particular caught my eye. MFH wrote that Defensive Writing
What I love about this comment is that it points to one of the moments most likely to generate Defensive Writing. One that makes Defensive Writing seem reasonable, even though it’s completely counterproductive. That moment isn’t when we’re facing formal review, as MFH describes above. That moment is when we have a hard time distinguishing between the Hoop and the Skill.
The Skill is the thing we’re meant to learn how to do as scholars: understand an argument; assess its validity and contribution; theorize about what things are and how they work; gather, analyze, and present information in order to support our theories. These are Skills that all scholars must master, regardless of their field. They’re the backbone of the work we do, and if we can’t learn to do them well, our writing will always be weak.
The Hoop is an entirely different beast all together. The Hoop is a test that’s been devised to prove that you have mastered the Skill. Prelims. Third Year Reviews (and Fourth Year Reviews, when the Third Year goes sideways). Tenure files. Dissertation defenses. These are Hoops that most academics will face at some point. They require that you illustrate a certain level of proficiency to others, ostensibly people who themselves have mastered the skill. Thus, the Hoop necessarily involves assessment by others, and therefore a reasonable amount of anxiety. It is a moment at which you’re being tested.
When you are a junior or contingent scholar it can feel as though every minute of every day is a Hoop. Formal assessments such as annual reviews, research presentations—even classroom observations—can feel weighted with professional significance. And then there are the many informal interactions during which you must engage in deliberate impression management (some of which masquerade as casual encounters). Think: faculty meetings, departmental parties, seminar discussions, and hallway conversations.
Even senior scholars fall prey to conflating the Skill and the Hoop. It is hard, so very hard, to drop the decades long desire to please the advisors we so deeply admire. What about the first time you have to give a keynote? Or when you’re asked to write an Annual Review? Despite enjoying the protections of tenure and seniority it’s tough not to feel that we always have to prove ourselves.
But while each moment may feel like a Hoop, that doesn’t mean it is one. In fact, there are some moments in which it’s crucial that you not try to prove anything. Moments during which you must do exactly the opposite: you must free yourself to do nothing more than practice your craft. Take detours and risks. And quite possibly fuck things up.
Writing is one of those moments.
Let me offer you two reasons why that might be so. The first, is that making mistakes while practicing can actually help you. Stanford Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal points out that the brain can respond in two different ways to mistakes: it either “hones in on the negative outcome, and treats it like a problem that needs solving [and] increases its attention during the next decision.” Or it decides not to think about the mistake in order “to escape feeling bad, or doubting one’s abilities.” It’s tempting to do the latter. But the fact is, McGonigal says, when we treat mistakes like problems, we’re more likely to learn from them and to do a better job the next time.
Similarly, in his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett argues that deliberately making mistakes is actually a useful prod to our thinking. When we make mistakes and then reflect on why they did not work, we not only learn something, but we develop a resilience that is fundamental to intellectual work.
Dennett does not note that making public mistakes is a privilege that costs some more than others. He does not elaborate on the way that failure narratives suffocate those who are already marginalized by the ascribed characteristics we use to separate and dehumanize one another. Nevertheless, his attitude toward mistakes is still a useful one. Not just useful, but crucial. A scholar has nothing if she does not have the private, protected space of her own mind. Within that space, we must be free to be wrong: to practice our writing; to follow hunches that don’t bear out; to think through lines of reasoning that at best, are ridiculous; to make connections that simply make no sense. All so that we can see what we really think. What we really want to say when we’re ready to speak with the world.
The second, I think more important reason that mistakes are important, is that consciously giving ourselves the space to make mistakes is one small way we can transform writing from a moment of anxious drudgery to a small space of freedom. A moment when we can move unencumbered by the expectations of others, and experience the delight that first brought us to this work.
Louise Dunlap’s excellent work on writing for social change points out that what I call Defensive Writing is not just an intellectual problem; it is a political problem. That is, cramping and constraining our writing out of fear of being criticized is a form of silencing. (Yes, even though we are pampered academics.) “This is how silencing works,” Dunlap insists. “We develop our own internal judge. The blocks to freedom are right inside us!”
Because of that, finding your writing flow depends as much on your mastery of the Skill as it does on your willingness to practice it. To fail at it, at first. Over and over and over.
So. When you find yourself alone with your thoughts, ambling through a forest of ideas, and you spot a line of thinking—not an existing trail, but a possible way that no one else has walked before—the absolute worst thing you can do is to check to see if other people think it’s OK for you to follow it. Whether your path follows the same direction as other people who’ve hiked this area. Whether they agree that this terrain is even worthy of exploration.
This is why we spend so much time in our retreats identifying the moments that challenge us during a writing session, and how to move past them. Because the best thing you can do at that moment is turn toward that unknown, unproven area in your thinking and take it as far as it will go.
You must do this even if you’re not sure that the path is the right one. You must do this especially because you’re not sure it’s the right one. You must create a refuge for your writing that silences the voices in your head, instead of allowing them to silence you. This is what MFH did, and you can see the difference it makes:
Magical? Definitely. But not magic.
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Michelle Boyd. Writer, Scholar, Coach