Welcome to Part I in my first Ideospectus omnibus. Some background knowledge is assumed here, which you may find within Part 0.
To summarise Part 0, writing is a challenge akin to mountain climbing. You can improve your writing by contemplating certain mindsets, and playing their strengths against the metamorphic/metaphoric mountain:
This installment focuses on the first row of the table: Mountain, Wise warrior, Plan.
The writer’s mountain
As a writer, your current writing assignment is a mountain. In my theory, this is an object both distinct from the others, and encompassing them, because a mountain is more than a series of inclines and chasms leading to a summit. The sum effort required to pass various points on the mountain will always be smaller than the total effort required to complete the journey. To illustrate, your capacity to do star jumps decreases logarithmic to altitude; so, what does this have to do with writing?
In writing, the journey changes in a similarly nonlinear fashion. You may be drafting a paper on the health benefits of turnips, only to discover a set of recently published high-impact studies on the link between turnip consumption and flatulence. Prior to this, the drafting process was progressing smoothly. Now, the structure of your paper needs a rethink, as the honest thing to do is incorporate the unappetising finding. So you spend a few hours reading and taking notes from the recent flatulence studies, and discover that their conclusions are not new – these studies cite fundamental work from the 1970’s (when researching turnips was ‘in’, apparently). Now, you must rethink the structure again, to incorporate both the groundwork and the new wave of studies showing this stinky link. Suddenly, you realise, progress has reversed.
Writers sometimes hang up their hiking boots at such points. When I was in graduate school, I wanted to research whether haptic sensation – touch – could influence perceptions of moving images shown on a computer screen. At first this was very exciting, because I got to design and build my own apparati that would produce the haptic sensations. I made a trip to the local hardware store for supplies, including sand paper, which would be used as the ‘rough’ stimuli. I also went to the fabric shop for some plush velvet material – the ‘soft’ stimuli. I already knew that seeing the rough or soft (or control) touch stimuli would be an experimental confound. So, I sourced materials for an opaque box that would be lined with either rough, soft, or neutral material. The idea was that a participant could place their hand in to feel the material without seeing it.
The surprise realisation I had was that my supervisors wanted me to recruit participants simultaneously as a group, rather than to take my time recruiting person by person. I then found myself with a week to build multiple apparati that would accommodate a classroom full of students of numbers unknown! What started out as a simple project with linear steps toward a peak (i.e. getting the results published) quickly became a logistical nightmare that I had practically no control over. I still ran the ‘experiment’ in the class, but pitched it to the students as “a demonstration of what not to do when you run your own experiments”. Lo and behold, the numbers went nowhere, and I gave up on the idea of writing up the study for publication.
If I had have invoked the mindset of wise warrior, would I have fulfilled my goal of squeezing out a publication? Heck no! The wise warrior would never settle on such a naive, self-serving goal as that. Before approaching the mountain, the wise warrior would have had a clear line of sight for what is practically climbable and what is not, and to what end. Learning how to bring and sustain calm foresight to a writing project is understanding this character’s two main traits: belligerence and wisdom.
The writer’s mindset
Writers who are warriors view their project as an adversary worthy of challenge. They are prepared to fight and face extreme adversity along the way. They expect hardship; in fact they flourish from it.
The air is soft in the Field of Mars
Tears and loss feed the overgrown grass
— Marty Willson-Piper, ‘Field of Mars’, 1982.
In spite of this war-like mindset, warrior-writers are wise about how they approach their thesis, knowing that sometimes the best offense is a good defense. The wise writers’ crusade is never blurred. They will not set pen to paper unless they can envision a reasonable chance of acquiring more wisdom.
And you shall fall
Weakness suffocates your will
Yet never fail
Wisdom guides the one
— Vegard Sverre Tveitan, ‘Thus spake the nightspirit’, 1996.
In sum, the wise-warrior mindset lends itself to certain courses of action, that I believe will enhance your tenacity in the ceratoid shadow of any writing project.
The one piece of rhetoric forwarded by every professional writing course is that you need to plan your writing. The need to plan is so generic, that I feel a bit sorry for authors of ‘how to write’ textbooks. Their advice is often faultless, but also spiritless. It is usually all about the mechanics of writing – how to systematically source material, how to structure paragraphs – in short, how to write something boringly perfect.
I vow to not make this same, well-intentioned mistake. Yes, in my writing course, planning is the essence of the wise warrior. Also yes, it is not my job to teach you how to write in a way that will convince others to surrender money to you – if I knew how to do that, this would not be a free online course.
While ‘writing for dummies’ textbooks focus on planning for technical mastery, I want you to plan for balance. Not your bank balance, but an equilibrium between belligerence and wisdom. This is not about planning what to say in your essay; it is about planning your life (wisdom) around the will to challenge your writing skills (belligerence), before, during and after a particular assignment.
The actual medium of the plan is irrelevant – go with what works. For instance, you could use a calendar, colour-coded journal, or Dictaphone to construct a plan. A few dot-points on a whiteboard should do fine. Once you have something in place, you can review and tweak to your heart’s desire, as new challenges arise in the current or subsequent writing projects. The substance of your plan is up to you, though I can advise a few parameters:
1. Put your needs before the project’s
The writer’s wellbeing precedes the writing’s excellence; self-care must come before all else. This rule is final and absolute in my lab. One-hundred percent of textbooks on writing will not tell you that this is the one necessary ingredient for excellent writing. Bugger what they miss – your plan should reflect this principle!
2. Go easy on yourself
The imposter syndrome pervades many technical and creative environs. Feedback and guidance from others can be extremely valuable, but you must plan for how you will incorporate this into your work. No-one knows exactly what you know better than you. It is therefore important to plan giving yourself some slack. Remember that it is not only you who is ‘just not getting it’ – it being entirely abstract, written communication.
3. Take time out
Make sure you factor in leisure and quiet time to your weekly schedule. You have 168 hours to play with when mapping this out. Even if just half a percent of this time (50 minutes) is given to doing something that actively interrupts your writing progress, I promise it is going to help you in the long run.
Recreation is not only crucial for self-care; research suggests that it is a very good predictor of quality work! When you are reading or writing and you begin to feel like you’re hitting a wall, take a break. Make sure you get sufficient sleep too, even if you are tempted to stay up late and write. It is astounding what fresh eyes will see that tired eyes miss!
4. Allow room for creativity
Creativity is often not valued in writing courses, or sometimes openly derided as a fickle distraction for some other, apparently more tangible/worthwhile objective. Even in primary and high school this is the case. I remember distinctly ‘creative writing’ tasks, where I would mistakenly believe that the objective was to write creatively. I would write as creatively as I could, only to receive a very low mark and the generic feedback that “you have not answered the question.”
Hadn’t I? Even in visual arts this kind of thing would happen. In year seven, my class was asked to paint a beach; although I ran out of paint fairly quickly, I was the only one who took my brushes beachside. The small section of beach I had painted received a score of zero and two words of feedback: “Smart arse.” Worth it!
Unfortunately, the modern university can sometimes be unforgiving of creativity too. Creative responses to “critically discuss the theory that blah blah blah” may be marked low for a variety of reasons unrelated to the substance of the work. For instance, the marker may have strict marking criteria and may be too time-poor to invest more than a skim read of each submission.
So, why am I telling you to allow room for creativity in your written work? Because creativity is fundamental to innovation, despite what anyone says. It is also fundamental to wisdom. Through creativity, you will develop your own ideas; of those you will learn which are the ones that people react to, which do people ignore, and what mode of an idea’s transmission has the greatest impact. Writing creatively may involve a large risk, but the potential payoff is much larger. So, by all means do plan to answer the topic question, but please also allow yourself space to do so creatively.
How do you plan to be creative, especially when your topic is something technical or apparently mundane (e.g. the health benefits of eating turnips)? By referring to the other three parameters (see above); plan to put your needs first, plan to go easy on yourself, and plan your down-time. In essence, genius needs time to flourish.
Summary and next steps
Invoking the mindset of wise warrior can help you to prepare for a climb: be it an essay, thesis, book, or whathaveyou. The key message is to plan your life while climbing (not your climb while living). With a whole-of-mountain plan drafted and readily sighted near your desk, you should find it less stressful entering the nuts and bolts phase of your writing project.
There is of course one immediate problem; how do you actually start writing? In mountaineering terms, you do not even know where base camp will be. Perhaps you had a path mapped out; still, what if you find a more apparently reasonable path that would lead to uncharted territory?
The Promethean poet is your ally when either actually writing, or feeling like you should be. How she can help you unpack your ideas and re-arrange them into cogent structures is the topic of Part II in this course.