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Sometimes, when I sit down to work on my book, I hear voices in my head. Especially when I’m at the tricky bits—the parts where I haven’t quite figured out how to convey a nuance that’s a distinguishing feature of the work. When I’m wrestling with those sections, I almost invariably hear from the one reviewer (out of ten. That’s right. Ten.) who expressed even the slightest bit of skepticism about my book proposal: “This’ll be great,” I hear her say with a huff, “if she can actually do it.”
Now, here’s the thing. Every single one of those reviewers was thoughtful and critical and full of helpful suggestions. Including the one whose voice I hear in my head. And to be honest, I don’t really know if that’s exactly what she wrote. Those words are just what I hear when I start to get worried. In my head, this reviewer snorts before she speaks, and delivers the line with an impressively lengthy eye roll. Worst of all, after she says it, I hear a chorus of low-pitched chuckles from an invisible gallery of observers I didn’t realize could also hear her.
It’s clear to me, when I hear her voice, that I, in fact, cannot do anything as grand as what I claimed I could in my book proposal. She knew it. I knew it. And once I actually finish the book, everybody else is going to know it too.
When this voice gets in my head, there is suddenly a ton of reading that needs to be done. It becomes extremely important to go through the backlog of articles I’ve been collecting while writing and immediately and painstakingly read through, annotate, and refer to each of them while writing—even if they articulate ideas I’ve already heard/had/cited before.
I can barely get my own thoughts on the page without double checking the relationship between what I’m thinking and what others have written before me: I must cite the seminal articles to be sure I am not inadvertently claiming an idea as my own. I must note the distinction between my conception of the issue and so-and-so’s 2010 reframing of it. At the end of an hour’s work, I’ve nearly started to sweat, and the ratio of citation to prose is a good 4 to 1.
This might seem like procrastination. But it’s not, ‘cause I’m actually writing. It’s not even “workcrastination,” since I’m not doing unimportant work in an effort to avoid the harder stuff. The problem here is a different one, one we don’t talk about that much. It isn’t that I’m writing-avoidant. The problem is that I’m writing defensively.
* * *
What I mean by Defensive Writing is this: I’m writing in order to protect myself from the attack that I know will be waged on me when the outside world gets wind of what I’m saying.
I’m not writing to uncover my thoughts and help myself see what I mean. I’m not making things clearer or choosing words that better express what I want to say. In fact, I’m not really relating to the content of my ideas at all when I’m writing defensively. Instead, I’m in a full-blown battle against my worst fears and critics. This battle is about the value of my ideas, and more broadly, my value as a scholar.
Defensive Writing is different from a straightforward frustration with the difficulty of a task. It’s not just an interior growl about how long it takes to actually write a book manuscript. These articulations of frustration and self-doubt are more manageable. Fuuuuuck, I think. I’m never gonna finish this book. I haven’t gotten quite the right framing for it, and it feels like it’ll never happen. But I know that feeling this way is part of the process. And I can handle those feelings. Partly because this is my second book and partly because I’m expressing those feelings explicitly—I can respond to what I can see.
Defensive Writing, by contrast, often produces a whispering and unconscious sensation that’s hard to grab hold of. My explicit thoughts are replaced by a sort of rushing feeling in my chest. Tightness steals into my shoulders so slowly that I don’t even notice it. And I feel an overwhelming compulsion to do an excessive amount of work, no matter how tired I am. When I’m caught in the Defensive Writing grip, the world of ideas falls away. I am no longer truly interested in or connected to what I think.
* * *
The biggest problem, then, with Defensive Writing isn’t that it disrupts our productivity. The real problem is that Defensive Writing shifts the three most important relationships we have as writers. The first relationship is to other scholars thinking about the same or related topics. These scholars are no longer teachers and colleagues, people whose thinking paves the way for the development of my own ideas. Instead they become my opponents. Competitors who’ve already beaten me, because they’ve already said everything I’m thinking.
And you, sweet reader. You’re no longer someone I want to have a conversation with. You’re not someone whose writing suffering I see and I no longer have something important to say to you about the gorgeous place that writing could occupy in your life. Instead, I’m cowering before your judgment. I’m simply not up to snuff. We’re adversaries now, and the most important thing becomes proving to you that I’m:
In that order.
The way I prove those things is that I don’t Write-to-Think. I Write-to-Cite. I refer to every single, solitary source that has ever been written on the topic. I include offshoot topics as well. That way, nobody can touch me. Nobody can say I don’t deserve my PhD.
Nobody can read my writing either, but at that point, who cares?
The worst impact Defensive Writing can have is to shift a writer’s sense of and relationship to herself. When I am writing defensively, I’m no longer interested in clarifying or understanding my ideas. Instead, I am engaged in a conversation about whether or not I’m cut out for this work. And when I lose myself in that conversation? At that point, I am not myself, but my own enemy.
* * *
Because Defensive Writing is so sneaky, one of the most powerful things we can do to address it is to name it. Especially if your defensiveness shows up, like mine does, as a physical sensation, or a wordless compulsion toward work, it’s no mean feat to recognize what’s happening while you’re writing. Naming Defensive Writing brings it out into the open. And bringing something out into the open can loosen its grip, and keep it from driving your behavior without you realizing it.
To do this, ask yourself if you have a version of “if she can actually do it.” In other words, ask yourself if you have a thought, person, condition, activity—anything that, when things are getting tough, tends to pop into your head and make you doubt whether you’re capable of completing whatever writing you’re engaged in. The way Defensive Writing shows up varies from person to person: It might be a set of questions you pepper yourself with. It might be objections you throw up in your own face while working out ideas. It might be a vision of someone you tend to compare yourself to.
Naming Defensive Writing might seem like a weak strategy for managing such a powerful derailer. But naming it often allows us to see how ridiculous it is—not our fears, but the actions we’re taking in response to those fears. Janine, an pre-tenure scholar who recently attended a writing retreat told me that for her, Defensive Writing showed up as the first line of a manuscript she was working on: “This article contains a comprehensive review of...” This is how she often started articles, she told me, because it wasn’t enough just to know the literature, write on the topic, and add something new to the conversation. Without realizing it, she often organized her writing to ensure all her bases were covered, not to actually clarify her original idea. Once Janine was able to recognize this, it quickly became apparent what was essential, what could be cut, and most importantly—that she could actually manage the work.
If like me, you hear voices in your head while you’re writing, listen to them—then decide what to do. You needn’t believe them. But neither should you ignore them. Turn a light on them, so you can see what you’re really up against. Writing sometimes feels like a battle, that much is true. The trick is to make sure we’re clear on what the battle’s really about.