“The well of inspiration is a hole that leads downwards” (Atwood, 176).
Margaret Atwood and Hélène Cixous suggest that all writing is motivated by a compulsion to explore the deepest parts of ourselves. Both authors argue that writing serves to illuminate “an underworld” to draw unacknowledged or unexamined insights back into the light (Atwood, xxiv). Whereas Cixous compares writing to plunging deep into the earth or ocean (5), Atwood compares writing to entering a dark labyrinth or cave with no opening:
“Obstruction, obscurity, emptiness, disorientation, often combined with a struggle or path or journey – an inability to see one’s way forward but a feeling that there [is] a way forward, and that the act of going forward eventually [brings] about the conditions for vision.” (xxii-xxiii)
For Atwood, writing is midwifed in darkness through which inspiration appears as a flash of light (176). Simply put, writers who enter this underworld serve to illuminate that which is already present but unseen.
For Atwood and Cixous, the process of reading shares many of the same properties as writing: a reader enters a text from a place of darkness, unsure of where that text may take them, and temporarily loses then regains their sense of self in the process. As Cixous describes, to be a reader is “to lose a world and to discover that there is more than one world, and that the world isn’t what we think” (10). Ultimately, both authors acknowledge that writing-as-self-discovery is not an easy process – that any attempt to write with integrity is “an exercise that requires us to be stronger than ourselves” (Cixous, 42). It is perhaps for this reason that Kafka once compared writing to “an axe” to break “the frozen sea inside us” (as cited in Cixous, 17). Whether understood as a beam of light, a mirror, or an axe, Atwood, Cixous, and Kafka teach us that the process of writing, however imperfect, may gift the writer with the means to ascend towards a more luminous, expansive, or magnanimous awareness of self.
Atwood, Margaret. Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Cixous, Hélène. Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
About the author:
Emily Arvay completed her PhD at the University of Victoria in 2019 with her thesis “Climate Change, the Ruined Island, and British Metamodernism.” Since then, she has worked as a Learning Strategist and EAL Specialist at the University of Victoria. She is currently conducting further research on the intersections between literary metamodernism and contemporary climate fictions.
“Insisting on control, having a plan or outline, and always sticking to it is a prophylactic against organic growth, development, change. But it is also a prophylactic against the experience of chaos and disorientation which are very frightening.” (Peter Elbow, Writing without Teachers, p. 35).
As spring explodes into summer in the Northern Hemisphere, my thoughts are the upcoming year. Starting July 1, I will be taking a year’s leave from my job at the Centre for Academic Communication.
Since I started this blog in December 2016, we’ve published 44 posts – many by graduate writers graciously sharing their stories. In my first blog post, Writing Undressed, I wrote about the messiness of writing, an uneven process that occurs in fits and starts and not according to some smooth trajectory. In this post, I would like to return to the mysterious and magical process of writing, a topic that continues to fascinate me.
A friend who self-published a novel asked me to write a review, and I was happy to agree because I enjoyed his story. But getting traction on writing the review has been difficult. First I re-read the book, taking notes. The first read was for pure pleasure; the second time was purposeful—I was looking for key ideas and quotations to use in the review. I also looked carefully at the structure of the novel, which on my first read simply blended into the background.
Once I had my notes, the real difficulties began. How can I capture all of the different ideas I have? Where to start? Do I need to summarize the story first? But what about an engaging opening? Am I reading it correctly? Am I making too much of this idea? Self-doubt flooded me and I felt like a novice writer. I’ve written several reviews before that were published, but somehow previous experience didn’t seem to give me a leg up. I felt mired in chaos.
And then I realized: This happens every time. Lately, my self-doubt is laced with the added tang of ageism: “you’re getting old and your mind is deteriorating, you’re losing vocabulary, you can’t do this anymore.” Different spice, same message, just the familiar devil of doubt sitting on my shoulder. Recognizing the pattern means I know what to do. Ignore the voice as I muddle through. And muddle through I always do! I spent several evenings writing fragments and re-starting the review, mulling over it when I wasn’t actually writing.
“The turning point in the whole cycle of growing is the emergence of a focus or a theme. It is also the most mysterious and difficult kind of cognitive event to analyze. It is the moment when what was chaos is now seen as having center of gravity. There is a shape where a moment ago there was none.” (Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers, p. 35)
And then one morning as I rode my bike to work, it started to happen, the center of gravity for that review started to emerge. I need to trust that this always happens, eventually, if I muddle and mull long enough. It was as if my neurons were firing a mile a minute—ideas flowed and my center of gravity emerged like a hot sun around which my planetary thoughts revolved. I knew the key idea that I was to follow in the review and I had to stop twice, pulling my bike over to the side of Lochside trail to make notes so I didn’t forget what it was I wanted to say.
Peter Elbow’s wonderful metaphor for center of gravity suggests a place of equilibrium, where the ideas are pulled into a central mass of significance. And this happened for me when I recognized the argument I wanted to make about the book. Emergence of an argument signals the emergence of a center of gravity because for me, argument is the structuring principle of most of my writing. Once that starts to take shape, it gets easier.
I don’t make plans or outlines. Well sometimes I do, but they fail—they are provisional—I don’t stick to them. I’ve realized that I must honour the scary disorienting feeling of being groundless when I begin the process of writing. Tons of notes and scribbles and frustration and trying to find a thread. I need to trust that the mulling and stewing and casting about for words and ideas is a necessary messy and chaotic stage I go through. When I try to force a solution or structure too soon, the process becomes distorted and prolonged.
One dictum about writing is “clear thinking = clear writing.” I hazard a rewrite of that simplistic equation: “chaotic thinking and messy writing lead eventually to clear thinking and writing.” There really are no shortcuts. One stage leads to the next: the emergence of an argument or significant idea or center of gravity or shape. And from that center of gravity the work will build itself. At least that has been my experience.
Please enjoy the blog as it is–we will not be adding content during my absence. However, I will check my email at email@example.com if you wish to contact me with ideas for the blog’s future directions.
Take good care and enjoy the work and play of writing.
This is my first official blog post and I am thrilled and nervous to write at the same time. I have just finished my seventh course for my master’s program in Curriculum and Instruction focusing on Literacy. At this point in this 13-month journey I fall asleep if I sit still for more than ten minutes. Hilarious but true! Being a literacy consultant, doing a master’s program and trying to balance a family simultaneously is tough. What made the workload even tougher is having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and a learning disability. Translation: I do not process directions, readings, people’s comments or class discussions in the patterns my classmates did. My unique learning style translated to 25 very rewarding years teaching junior high, or as you say in BC, middle school, but the learning style has not made grad school easy.
I started a master’s program in July 2017 because as a consultant last year in Alberta, I supported 13 junior high schools and coached 100 teachers. I was asked to come back month after month and every meeting there were more and more teachers in attendance. Junior high teachers want to adopt practices that transform their student learning. In my school district in Edmonton, there are 100,000 students, and approximately 263 schools. Translation: many teachers want to adopt their classroom practices to meet the varied needs they see hourly. My master’s program has given me the language and capacity to walk into every classroom or school, see the strengths of the staff, listen to their “what if we could . . .?” questions and find the scaffolds and strategies to support the inquisitive professionals. The master’s program also highlighted my learning disability and required me to ask for help.
I have always had difficulty writing for academic purposes because I could not understand the patterns I was to follow. I saw connections between the theories and classroom practice. Twenty-five years of reading, studying, practicing and planning, which resulted in 55 to 60-hour work weeks, allowed me to find ways to motivate and engage my students. My whole career I was able to get results from students that were supposedly unattainable or from the students who don’t care. In my classroom I have LOVED making literacy theory practical for my students and my colleagues! What my insane work schedule did not do was develop my writing skills for academia.
Then the Learning and Teaching Centre came on my radar after a professor this summer handed back a paper saying, “Barb you get the ideas and theories, but you need an editor to find the transitions and develop the coherence.” The comment was said with kindness and in support, and I had already come to this realization during my last 12 months. One of my supportive cohort members suggested the Centre for Academic Communication (CAC). I was spending HOURS trying to meet the academic standards and barely making it.
It is so humbling to ask for help once again in my academic studies. New to me, NOT! My grade 12 Chemistry teacher was so excited when I got a 67% on the provincial diploma exam. He told me that mark meant more to him than so many of the students who got honors because of the hours of work he saw me put in that did not result in higher grades. Yet now I was in a master’s program asking for help. Did that mean I did not actually have the stuff to be here?
At the CAC I asked for an editor and received a writing coach! What a delightful surprise. Someone who read aloud what I had written and allowed me to hear the lack of coherence and then that same someone asked me to clarify how the ideas related? These were easy questions and I quickly rattled off the answer and then typed as if the keys were on fire and I had to quickly unload my ideas from my hands. The words flowed from me because the gift of ADHD is that I learn the material to a level of specificity that most people don’t see. My brain wants to understand the theory of literacy to the degree that I can disperse the theory into practical application for all the teachers I support.
I would leave an hour’s session at the CAC so excited and energized that many of my cohort group are planning on using the writing supports during the 2018-19 year as we complete our project. My fellow grad students could not believe I revised 800 words in 45 minutes and took the quality of my writing to a much higher standard. Not only was my writing more aligned with masters degree benchmarks but my confidence soared after each visit. I started to realize I could write and that I was in grad school for valid reasons. I want to help teachers so that I am really helping teenagers embrace the potential they have and encourage them to heal and bring hope to combat some of the ugliness in our world.
Who knew one hour could do so much? Luckily, I did not, and I was so grateful to have been able to sign up for three hours in my last week. My writing abilities can almost leap tall buildings in a single bound and it’s just in time. This master’s project is going to take every writing skill I have and now I have more.
Barb has taught junior high/middle school for 25 years and is now a literacy consultant with Edmonton Public Schools. She has taught for many years, in all four disciplines, but landed in English Language Arts. Her love of diverse learners has allowed Barb to teach the spectrum of learners who are gifted to learners identified with special needs. Barb is part of the international Freedom Writer Teachers and is looking forward to the year when she finally figures out all there is to know about teaching. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Last week, I wandered over to Cornett to visit Dr. Lisa Mitchell, Associate Professor and Graduate Student Adviser in the Department of Anthropology. We sat together in her cozy office on a cool March afternoon to talk about writing—a favourite topic for both of us.
I asked Lisa about her own graduate school experience—could she share any tips gleaned from writing her dissertation? Lisa admitted that she didn’t become as “deeply reflective about how to write and especially what to do if writing doesn’t go smoothly” until she had her own graduate students. We agreed that we often learn best by teaching. Lisa’s experience supervising graduate students exposed her both to students who experienced writing as pleasurable and to students who experienced writing as terrifying, and this helped her to a realization. “I needed to get more reflective about my own writing practice and what I might offer to them to work through problems or how to take the writing to a deeper level.” Here Lisa touched on a theme she returned to several times during our dialogue: self-reflection in writing. As we become aware of our writing process, we come to know and accept ourselves as writers, and therefore we become more effective at writing, making the most of our idiosyncratic methods.
Garnered from both her own writing experience and her experience supervising, Lisa shared some of the ways she guides graduate students when they run into writing trouble. “Don’t assume that writing is easy and don’t assume it’s something natural. Take it as an aspect of your learning process. It’s a skill and needs to be practiced. Do it regularly so it becomes a habit and something you think about through that regular engagement.”
Lisa noted that in anthropology, writing is sometimes the site or space for analysis, and students may get stuck in their writing because they are “still in the process of figuring out the analysis and trying to sort it out.” She went on to describe several ways to overcome barriers that arise when we try to think things through before writing them down. “When I start a piece, it’s not unusual for me to have a very hazy, broad idea of what I’m talking about, but when I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, I am working out the analysis as much as I am working out the narrative structure.” Lisa paused thoughtfully. “When things don’t go well, when you start to stumble in writing, change it up a little bit. Pick a different topic for even a few minutes or a day or two. If you’ve been sitting with your computer, stop and try pen and paper. In some of my classes, I have a session where you get a sentence fragment to start and you have to keep writing for five minutes. Just do freewriting. Unleash the initial apprehension about starting a writing session.”
Lisa also finds that using visual tools can help shift stuck writing. “I rely very heavily on making diagrams with my students when working through not just writing but analysis. I need to move between the word, the mind map, and the flow chart, and sometimes it is enormously helpful to sit and talk about what you are trying to write and try to represent it visually. So you have both a sense of the component elements of your writing, but also there is something very freeing, very stimulating in moving away from the word and putting it into circles and arrows.”
Another method Lisa uses when she needs to change things up is voice. “I turn on a recorder and just start talking. Sometimes it’s just me and my dogs and I’m going to start somewhere, sometimes in the middle or sometimes I think this is where I want this paper to end up. It’s a bit time consuming because you have to go back and see if there’s anything you really wanted and at times there is and at times there isn’t, but generally that process begins to bring to the surface bits and pieces that I know need to be in the piece I’m working on.”
Lisa then stressed the importance of sharing your writing: “We end up writing in little closed off spaces and there is much value in thinking about how you can make the writing more social. Talk to other people about writing – don’t assume that other people are writing without problems, without crisis. Sometimes, talking to other people about what you are writing is a way to express it differently.”
This led Lisa to think about how she shares her own work with colleagues: “I think particularly among faculty we are unwilling to share our unfinished, our unpolished drafty drafts, and I think there is enormous value in working through even some of the basic foundational elements of an argument or the structure of a piece by being willing to open yourself up a bit.” She elaborated on the metaphor of writing as conversation, a metaphor that can liberate us from the intimidating prospect of writing a thesis or dissertation: “Think of writing as a creative process. If you load it up by saying ‘I have to write my dissertation,’ that’s such a daunting process, whereas if you say ‘I want to ask some interesting questions’ and ‘I want to engage in some conversations,’ it’s so much more doable, and it also feels like something that is much more like our everyday lives. Although there are certain requirements for a dissertation or a thesis in the level of academic language, and you are engaging sources in a way you wouldn’t ordinarily in everyday conversation, by metaphorically framing what you’re doing as engaging in a conversation and asking interesting questions, you don’t take on that huge burden: ‘Now I must create original knowledge’ in five or seven chapters or whatever.”
I agreed that the conversation metaphor is very useful in academic writing, mentioning a helpful writing text based on the idea of dialogue, They Say/ I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Graff and Birkenstein (2010).
As the clock crept closer to the end of our allotted time, I asked Lisa for any further thoughts on how she writes best, and she reiterated the importance of opening up about your writing: “I sometimes think the reason we don’t talk about what we’re writing is there’s always a risk that we won’t finish it, so we don’t talk about it.” “Yes,” I said, “like telling people you’re quitting smoking then starting again.” Lisa laughed. “The list of things we would like to write is always longer than the list of what we actually manage to write, but I don’t think there’s any real shame in that. Sometimes part of the creative process is working through the possibilities and then settling on the one or the two that you’re ready to actually write. I tend to think of myself as a non-linear writer, so I really am one of those people that sometimes just starts in the middle. I kind of know where I should end up, but I’m not too sure where I’m starting from. I think by this point in my career I’ve made peace with that process; I don’t stress about it very much anymore and I’ve also made peace with the fact that sometimes I start articles or writing pieces that don’t get finished. Sometimes I lose interest, and other times I can’t figure out a way to tell the story that is compelling to others. It may be something I found deeply interesting, but I think why would other people care about this?”
I responded: “What I am taking away from what you have said, Lisa, is that self-reflection, self-knowledge about being a writer is extremely important. Once we know what kind of writer we are, we can make peace with that, work with it, instead of thinking we ought to be a certain way.” Lisa nodded in agreement. I left feeling validated—I am one of those “start in the messy middle” writers, and I was happy to know that others worked productively, even confidently, in this manner. Thank you, Lisa, for sharing these ideas. There’s no shame in being the writer you know you are. . . in fact, it’s cause for celebration. Writer, know thyself.
Lisa M. Mitchell is Associate Professor and Graduate Advisor in Anthropology at UVic. Her research interests are at the intersection of bodies, technology, and inequalities. She has conducted research on prenatal testing, perinatal loss and reproductive politics in Canada, on the visualizing technologies of medicine, especially ultrasound fetal imaging, on experiences and meanings of body and risk among impoverished children and their families in the Philippines and among street youth in Canada, and on bereaved parents’ use of social media.
Writing is a process of thinking. In the process, ideas are recorded and become important sources for further thinking. Publication is a by-product of this process. Instead of keeping your ideas to yourself, publishing your work is a way to communicate with others and makes the journey of thinking less lonely. At the very beginning of my Ph.D. program, senior students in our program told me that being a Ph.D. student is very isolating, as you spend too much time in the carrel alone working on something that people do not care about. They said that you may end up spending five years writing a dissertation that only your supervisory committee members will read carefully. This does not discourage me to continue my studies, because I believe that writing a dissertation helps me address the questions that I am always trying to address or know more about. Besides, there are always plenty of opportunities out there to have our ideas heard during the process of dissertation writing.
One good thing about conducting a research study that you are passionate about is that often there are moments when you feel that it is your responsibility as a scholar to get your ideas out both inside and outside academia. Doing research on the impact of law on Chinese women’s choices in marriage and childbearing, I always feel the need to say something when I see any chance to contribute to social and legal changes to benefit women. In 2015, I wrote a commentary for Blogging for Equality when the law’s denial of Chinese single women’s access to freeze their eggs became a hot topic worldwide after a famous 41-year-old Chinese actress and film director announced that she had travelled to the U.S. to freeze her eggs. When feminist activists and lawyers in China put forward a report titled “Single Women’s Reproductive Rights—A Research Report on Policy and Lived Experience” and received media attention worldwide, I published an op-ed for Impact Ethics and argued that an overemphasis on state law’s impact on unmarried women’s childbearing may shift our attention away from some other social norms that are more influential than state law in stopping Chinese women from being single mothers by choice.
“Instead of keeping your ideas to yourself, publishing your work is a way to communicate with others and makes the journey of thinking less lonely.”
I also write journal articles and book chapters, but I have realized that it is more rewarding and enjoyable to write commentaries (also known as “op-eds”). Journal articles and book chapters may contribute to the knowledge in your academic field, while writing op-eds is a better way to disseminate knowledge to the general public and get your ideas out quickly. I remember it took me more than half a year to develop my first major publication for the Asian Journal of Law and Society, with quite a few emails back and forth with the editors. A commentary, however, usually only takes a few days before your ideas are delivered to the public. More importantly, op-eds can be very influential. In August 2017, I received an invitation from BBC World News to comment on Chinese women’s egg freezing issues for their live show. The journalists contacted me because they found my commentaries online when they were looking for a legal expert to speak about this issue. Although I may not be among the most influential scholars in the field of women’s studies and women’s rights, I got this opportunity because of my willingness to share my research outside academia.
I am very grateful to my supervisors Gillian Calder and Maneesha Deckha, as well as the founder of Informed Opinions, Shari Graydon, for always encouraging me to write op-eds about my work. As an international student coming directly from China, I had no experience in writing commentaries for Canadian blogs. Fortunately, my supervisor recommended Informed Opinions to me, and I learned how to write op-eds from this website. The website provides a variety of resources, which includes op-ed elements, engaging openers, editors’ advice, submitting commentary, turning media requests into opportunities, and even building relationships with reporters and columnists. If my experience convinces you to start the very enjoyable journey of blogging, you may find this website helpful to you as a beginner.
You may be wondering whether you, as a graduate student, have the authority to speak to the public about a particular topic. This thought haunted me for a long time. Sometimes, however, somebody just needs to stand out. A message from Shari after my BBC interview reconfirmed the belief that I should get my ideas heard by the public. Shari said, “diverse women’s voices are so necessary to address topics that otherwise get little attention.” Still not sure whether you can write and publish commentaries? As I said before, writing is a process of thinking and publication is the by-product of this process. If you understand writing and publishing in this way, you will find that publishing is simply a way to share your imperfect ideas in order to get some useful comments to help you think.
Qian Liu is a Ph.D. candidate at the Faculty of Law, University of Victoria, Canada. Her research interests include gender and China, legal consciousness, legal pluralism, feminist legal theory, reproductive rights, law and policy implementation in China, and qualitative research. Qian is the recipient of an IDRC Doctoral Research Award from the International Development Research Centre, Canada. She has published in the Asian Journal of Law and Society and the Asian Journal of Women’s Studies. Please direct correspondence to Qian Liu at email@example.com.
“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” – Douglas Adams
A younger me learned to love deadlines, too, but for a different reason. A deadline was the only thing, I mean the only thing, that could force me to draft a piece of writing.
As a top-notch procrastinator who submitted assignments just in time for deadlines, I wondered why I struggled so much to get my thoughts down on a page. Why was drafting so hard? The “linear” process of writing: choosing a topic, generating ideas, planning, drafting, revising and editing – seemed easy enough. What was it about the drafting – the movement of fingers across keys, translating ideas into text – that made it so painful?
Almost 25 years ago, I attended the 1993 ATESL (Alberta Teachers of English as a Second Language) Conference, eager to learn how I might teach writing better (and how I might write better myself). I attended Ernie Hall’s excellent presentation. He explained the cognitive processes writers engage in. He described the heavy demand these processes place on writers and that these contributed to writers’ frequent pausing. He outlined the following intricate purposes for which writers pause as they draft: search, plan, evaluate, describe, question, and revise.
We search for new ideas and the words to express them.
While we plan before we write, we also plan as we write. We consider order and arrangement of ideas. We plan our next steps as we draft, for in drafting, we gain insight into order and idea development.
We pause to judge as we draft. We wonder if it’s good enough. We critically analyze what is on the page before moving on. As a result of a pause to evaluate, we work back through our draft, revising and rewriting what we have already drafted.
We pause to wonder as we draft. We ask ourselves questions as we write. “How do I know that?” or “Where did I read that?” or “What else do I know?”
We pause to fix. We fix content, organization, word choices, sentence structure, grammar, and spelling. We revise so much that we forget to draft.
Decide (proceed without solution)
We pause but decide to proceed, to move on, to continue drafting. We may worry that we might forget the reason we paused. We capture the essence of our struggle, perhaps via track changes: “Add a citation here” or “Find more data for this argument” or we open an additional word document to note issues we face as we draft. We keep drafting, though, trusting a solution to the problem will emerge as we go.
Writers employ strategic pauses, meaningful pauses, necessary pauses when drafting. Writers pause for a reason. I had always thought that my pauses meant there was something wrong; that I couldn’t write; that I had nothing worthy to say. Now I understand the cognitive processes drafting involves. When drafting, I pause and analyze my pause. I strategically search, plan, evaluate, question, revise, or proceed without solution. Drafting is hard work because it involves constant, relentless monitoring and management.
I still love and need deadlines to get started on my drafts. However, understanding drafting’s complexity and the intricate decision-making it involves helps me embrace the process, capturing my ideas into text just before the deadlines whoosh by.
As the Manager of the Centre for Academic Communication, Nancy loves working with her CAC team to support UVic writers, collaborating with UVic partners and faculty. As an EAL Specialist, she’s taught international students for 25 years, in both public and private institutions.