Review: Write No Matter What by Jolie Jensen

Jolie Jensen. Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

If you’ve discussed writing with me lately, online or off, I’ve probably already recommended Jolie Jensen’s Write No Matter What (2017) to you. This is the best book about writing that I’ve read in a long time.

Jensen is Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication and the director for the Henneke Faculty Writing Program at the University of Tulsa. She brings a wealth of experience to bear on her topic: her personal experience as an academic writer and her experience of helping other academics to write.

The advice in this book is clearly presented in a no nonsense tone. Jensen doesn’t wax lyrical about the beauty of academic prose or the ivory tower of academe. Instead, she offers practical advice that helps her readers identify what their problem really is and get to a place in which they can write again. Her chapters are short and the chapter titles are descriptive. These are important features for busy academics; it’s easy to identify the chapter that’s most important for you and your writing. I would recommend finding time to read the whole book, but it’s one you can dip in and out of–if you read chapter 4 without reading the preceding chapters, for example, it will still make sense.

Academic writers' most common explanation for why they don't write and publish more often is that they simply don't have time. Jensen makes clear that lack of time is often an excuse, not the real problem. We…
Academic writers’ most common explanation for why they don’t write and publish more often is that they simply don’t have time. Jensen makes clear that lack of time is often an excuse, not the real problem. We choose not to find time for our research when we are avoiding it for other reasons.

Part I (chapters 1 to 3) of Write No Matter What, ‘Writing in Academe’, establishes the book’s attitude toward writing. Jensen first insists we must let go of the dream of the ivory tower. However much we want it to be, academia is not some sort of idealised life of the mind in which we have endless uninterrupted time to play with ideas. Academia exists in the world and academics have lives like everyone else. Jensen then moves on to discussing helpful metaphors for thinking about writing. She argues that if we approach our writing as a craftsman approaches a project, we will be happier writers. A carpenter doesn’t set out to produce the best chair ever, she sets out to produce a chair that is better than the last one she made. According to Jensen, if we adopt this attitude toward our writing, we won’t be adding unnecessary pressure to the process.

Part II (chapters 4 to 7) ‘Using Tools that Work’, discusses just that. Chapters five through seven look at securing time, space, and energy for writing. The advice in these chapters is sound, but for my own writing right now, chapter four has proven the most useful. In this chapter Jensen discusses the three taming techniques she found in David Sternberg’s How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation (1981) when she was struggling with her own thesis; British readers, please note that Americans use dissertation where you use thesis and vice versa.

The three taming techniques are as follows: ‘Create a project box. Use a ventilation file. Write at least fifteen minutes every day.’ The importance of the project box is that it keeps your work from taking over every inch of your office or home; it allows you to visit the project daily, and then put it away. The ventilation file is for use on the days that you don’t want to work on your project; on those days for fifteen minutes you write about why you don’t want to write. Jensen argues that ‘[t]he ventilation file is the most crucial and helpful piece of advice I have to offer you’ (19). I was sceptical to begin with, but she’s right. In the ventilation file you have to face whatever it is that’s bothering you about your project. Through using it, a block that would normally have turned into a stalled week, was only a stalled day. Finally, the imperative that you commit to writing for fifteen minutes a day: this one helps in so many ways. When you don’t feel like writing or you’re really busy, you can usually make yourself commit to fifteen minutes; since that’s all you had previously committed to, you can leave it after your time is up without feeling guilty. However, writing for fifteen minutes often turns into thirty or more as you discover you do actually have something to say.

In Part III (chapters 8 to 16) ‘Challenging Writing Myths’, Jensen drills down and helps identify the real reasons we don’t find time to write and offers solutions to these issues. Being able to name your writing demon is helpful whether it’s impostor syndrome (ch. 11), the myth of the magnum opus (ch. 10), or the myth that the whole project will fall easily into place once you produce the perfect first sentence (ch. 15). Once you identify your demon(s) you can start finding ways of dealing with them.

‘Maintaining Momentum’, part IV (chapters 17 to 25), deals with everything from not allowing rejection letters to stall your writing to finding ways to make your breaks (whether they come in the form of a free weekend, summer break, or a sabbatical) reasonably productive; she recognises you need time to recharge and isn’t going to tell you to spend every minute working. Jensen’s discussion of ‘Relinquishing Toxic Projects’ in chapter 23 is very important; hanging onto a toxic project is miserable and it often impedes progress on the non-toxic work you’d rather be doing.

The final section, ‘Building Writing Support’ (chapters 26 to 28), discusses overcoming the isolation that often comes with life as an academic. I especially liked Jensen’s discussion of creating academic writing groups (ch. 27); many academic staff members simply don’t have time for a workshop style group (one in which each member reads the other members’ work), but they do have time for an accountability group. Having such a group not only increases productivity (you don’t want to go tell your group you haven’t written anything in the last six weeks), but also gives you a space to talk about writing. Not the subject matter, the actual act of finding time and head space to do the writing. One of the most important take-aways from this book is that academics need to talk about writing. When we don’t talk about it, it is granted more power than it deserves and we fall into the trap of assuming ‘everyone else’ is better at it. If you’re an academic struggling with writing, it’s a sign that you’re trying to write–not something you should be ashamed of.


How to Cope with Perfectionism

The last full week of September brought an outpouring of anxiety to my social media feeds and groups (Twitter and Facebook) about Impostor Syndrome, which I wrote about here. This morning brought an explosion of worries over Perfectionism. Perfectionism is related to and can cause Impostor Syndrome. As I did before, I’m going to offer what advice I can to help those who are trying to overcome perfectionist tendencies so they can be happier, more productive writers.

Please note that if you experience anxiety as a result of your perfectionism or see perfectionism causing problems in multiple areas of your life, you may need more support than the tips in this blog can provide. In that case, please seek professional support–both talking therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy are effective.

Why is perfectionism a problem?

Many of us are taught from a young age that we should always do our best; early on we are told we should strive to write (actually physically form the letters) clearly, while later on, we are told we should strive to perfect our grammar, punctuation, spelling, essay/novel structure, paragraphing, pacing, … Thus, throughout our lives as writers we are encouraged, implicitly or explicitly, to internalise other people’s expectations and ideas of what is perfect.

To an extent, professional writers and students have to meet other people's expectations. But too often, we inflate what others expect of us. We need to get some perspective and stop holding ourselves to…
To an extent, professional writers and students have to meet other people’s expectations. But too often, we inflate what others expect of us. We need to get some perspective and stop holding ourselves to impossible standards. If you don’t believe me, find a short piece by an author you admire. Read it carefully and critically. Is it really absolutely perfect? Can you really not find even a phrase that could be more elegant? a misplaced comma? a misspelled word? After you find one or more ‘problems’, ask yourself, ‘Do I still value this person’s work?’ The answer is probably ‘Yes’. If it’s ‘No’, spend some time re-evaluating your standards; we don’t live in an ideal world and only an ideal world can be perfect.

Slaying the perfectionist demon

Almost every writer I know sometimes has to slay the perfectionist demon. Actually, I can only think of one writer I know personally who doesn’t occasionally struggle with this—they were lucky enough to have learned, years before I met them, how to think through writing. The result is that they never get anxious about putting words on a page because it doesn’t feel any more permanent or stressful than having thoughts in the privacy of their mind.

The rest of us need tools for taming or slaying the demon. I say taming or slaying because I recognise that there will be days that you can’t vanquish your demon—maybe you don’t have time, or you’re ill and don’t have the energy—but you still need to be able to put a muzzle on it so you can get some work done.

I wish I could say that once you vanquish the perfectionist demon it will never come back, but that has not been my experience. You may need to return to the list below should it rear its ugly head later in your career.

I’m going to list (in no particular order) things you can do or remind yourself of when you feel your perfectionist tendencies getting in the way of your writing:

1) Tell yourself, over and over until you believe it, that you are not your writing. You are a complete human being. Those near and dear to you will love you no matter what you write or how it’s received. Since writing is a personal process for many of us, it is easy to conflate our identities as writers with our identities as people. If this is one of the primary ways your perfectionism presents itself, put a note above wherever you write that says something to the effect of ‘I am not my book/thesis/essay/etc.’ It will feel silly; if you’re in a shared office, you might want to put it inside your planner instead. Wherever you put it, seeing this message frequently will help you come to believe it.

2) Change your writing situation. If you tend to edit as you write and find that instead of finishing that section you meant to write this afternoon, you’ve been writing and rewriting the first sentence for the last two hours, you need to short-circuit your inner critic. If you touch-type, open a new document and turn off your computer screen. Yes, you’ll have typos, but you’ll also make progress because you can’t edit what you can’t see. You can also try ‘tricks’ like writing in crayon on unlined paper while sitting in the grass outside (obviously that last part is dependent on the weather—I couldn’t recommend it in southern England today—far to gray and cold). I discuss other such changes you can make in my ebooklet on writer’s block, which you’ll find here.

3) Form or join a writing group. If your perfectionism is making you so uncomfortable that you just don’t even want to try to write, find some like minded people who will meet with you and write with them using the Pomodoro Method—briefly discuss your writing goals for that meeting, set a timer for 25 minutes and write, take a short break to discuss your progress, repeat. You’ll find some online writing groups that do this, such as this one.

4) Get someone else to read your work. If your perfectionism doesn’t really get going until it’s time to send your work out into the world, get someone to read it. Find a friend who’s also a writer and offer to trade chapters and offer each other support. Ask a mentor or supervisor to look at your work. Hire an editor. Join an online group in which members critique one another’s work. Whichever approach you choose, finding a way to have your work read in a less high stress situation than submitting it for marking or publication will make it easier for you to take that final step when the time comes.

If none of these strategies works and/or you find that your perfectionism is causing problems in your life more generally (or that it is so severe that it is crippling your career), you may need professional help. If you can’t afford, or are not interested in, talk therapy, investigate self-help options. If you live in the UK, you can get free help through the NHS; you’ll find more information on that here. Many people have had success using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy—either with a therapist or on their own. There are many websites and books devoted to CBT. I haven’t used any of them, so I can’t suggest anything in particular. Use what works for you, but remember to check the sources of any online therapy—you want resources created by qualified professionals, not quacks.

Further reading

Baty, Chris. No Plot? No Problem! –this is aimed at fiction writers, but all writers can find some useful tips—for silencing your inner critic, see chapter five.

Jensen, Joli. Write No Matter What—this is aimed at academic writers, but as with Baty, other writers will find it useful. For dealing with perfectionism, see chapter nine: ‘Demons in for Tea’.

Murray, Rowena. Writing for Academic Journals—this is likely only useful for academic writers; don’t let the title fool you, the advice in this book would work for other forms of academic writing, too. I haven’t read any of Murray’s other books, but she does have one that focuses on writing the PhD thesis.

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GSU: Regular Revision in 4 Easy Steps

Revision is most effective when it is an ongoing process. When should you start revising for exams?

a) A few days before.

b) A couple of weeks before.

c) After each lecture and seminar.

The best answer is c, ‘After each lecture and seminar’. Of course you need to consolidate your learning in the days and weeks immediately before an exam, but you’ll be less stressed and better prepared if you revise as you go along.

What might this regular revision look like?

  1. If you haven’t already done so, get out your module handbook (or pull it up on your module VLE—Moodle, Blackboard, etc.) and read it carefully. There’s a very good chance you find sections on the aims of the unit and particular skills and/or themes to be covered. Make a list of these. Look back at your notes from the introductory sessions for your module, and note anything your lecturer(s) particularly emphasised in them. You only need to do this step once per term/module.
  2. After each seminar or lecture, take a few minutes to jot down notes on how that session furthered your understanding of the items in the list you made in step 1 (most sessions won’t cover all of them, just make notes on the ones that were covered). Organise this in the way that works best for you—a Word document, an Excel spreadsheet, a section of a paper notebook. Whatever form you choose, make sure you leave yourself ample space for each week’s activities and keep it safe. I tend to use electronic documents for this sort of thing, then I can save backup copies in my Google Drive or email them to myself—that way, it matters less if my computer crashes or I lose my flashdrive.
  3. While you have your revision document or notebook open, make a few notes about how the session you just attended relates to the sessions that came before it.
  4. Do you have questions about anything that was covered? Good! Jot those down, try to find answers the next time you’re in the library, and raise them in your next seminar or tutorial.

If you complete these steps as you work through your module, you’ll be in an excellent position when it’s time to consolidate your knowledge just prior to the exam. You will have:

  • Considered how the module content helps you achieve the module’s aims.
  • Made clear notes of each discussion or lecture on any given theme or skill covered in the Module—this means no more searching through pages of seminar or lecture notes trying to remember when something was covered. If you simply date your revision entries and your notes, it will be easy to find what you need.
  • Developed an understanding of how the different parts of the unit fit together. It’s important to do this while things are fresh in your mind, and having these notes will make it easier to prepare for discursive essay questions.
  • Identified any weaknesses in your understanding of the module and any points of confusion. Identifying these things will enable you to ask specific questions in any revision seminars or tutorials offered by your lecturers. Lecturers want to help their students, but there’s little we can do when students come to us and say ‘I don’t get it’ without explaining what ‘it’ is.

For further help with your studies, see my posts on succeeding in seminars and time management.

Until next time, happy revising!
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Research – L. T. Meade: Brain Surgery and Patient Consent

I’ve been researching L. T. Meade and rereading stories by her for my ongoing research. Meade’s full name is Elizabeth Tomasina Meade. She published extensively in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Meade as a Professional Writer

She was best known for her fiction for children and young women and her medical novels. However, she was also the second most prolific contributor to The Strand Magazine—second only to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. My work on Meade thus far has focused on the short stories she wrote for The Strand. In her Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Meade, Sally Mitchell credits her with inventing the sub-genre of the medical mystery story. Meade’s contribution to detective fiction in this sub-genre and more generally has often been overshadowed by Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

Doyle and Meade saw themselves as professional writers and understood the necessity of writing what sells when earning their bread through writing. However, where Doyle came to resent this necessity, Meade embraced it.

Doyle famously tired of Holmes and his popularity. He tried killing him off at Reichenbach Falls only to later cave to pressure to bring him back—first in The Hound of the Baskervilles (set prior to the other stories) and then to fully resurrect him in The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle’s resentment stemmed from his frustration with the relatively cool reception of the works he saw as his true art—his historical fiction. Doyle wanted to be known as an artist, not the producer of engaging, but formulaic detective stories.

Meanwhile, research has shown that Meade had a much more workmanlike attitude toward her writing. In March of 1897, Meade published an essay entitled ‘A School of Fiction’ in The New Century Review. She opens the essay by noting that there are schools of cookery, music, acting, and art, and she thinks there should also be a school for fiction.

Meade expects opposition to this proposal. She says her detractors will claim that ‘the novelist is born, not made; that writing comes by nature; that the novelist is like the lark with his Art all complete; that he needs no reading and no study’ (220).

After making the point that she is not writing of the ‘giants’ of the literary world (Austen, George Eliot, Kipling, Scheiner), Meade explains she is ‘speaking now of the novelist whose name is legion—the novelist who supplies the bookstall and te periodical’ (220). Though some literary giants did publish in periodicals, Meade’s point is that the majority of cheap fiction was not and did not need to be written by literary geniuses.

To support her claim that training is necessary for writers, Meade points out the large portion of their annual income people spend on reading material. She takes her numbers from those reported in the journal Book Bits. She reports that letters sent to the Book Bits editor in reponse to this question showed that people on a small income (<£100 per annum) spent at least 10% of their income on literature, while wealthier respondents report spending larger proportions. Also, two respondents earning £500 per annum report spending 20% (or £100) on literature (222).

Clearly, demand for reading material was high, but Meade despairs that increasing demand has not led to increasing quality (222). Thus, she calls for formal training for writers. She wants them to understand ‘[t]here are rules which belong to the art of fiction which cannot be disregarded if successful work is to be the result’ (225).

Meade was certainly not the first to criticise the poor quality of much published fiction. One important precursor is an essay Marian Evans (pen name George Eliot) published in the Westminster Review entitled ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ (12 September 1856). Though Evans does not call for formal training for novelists, she does, like Meade, object to novels by undereducated writers.

Meade’s fiction demonstrates that she not only understands rules of grammar and the conventions of characterisation, setting, and plot structure, she is also well-informed about the world she lives in and about which she writes. Many of her stories for The Strand, for example, demonstrate her understanding of current medical practice and the public’s anxiety about scientific advancements.

Brain Surgery on Children

My research has shown that brain surgery became more common, and thus more of a concern in the late nineteenth century. With the acceptance of effective anaesthesia and germ theory, brains surgery became more successful. Also, the understanding of cerebral localisation allowed surgeons to determine the location of a blood clot in the brain, thus allowing them to remove the clot if it was deemed to be in an operable location. Meade’s first series of stories in The Strand, ‘Stories from the Diary of a Doctor’, co-authored with Clifford Halifax, MD, address these issues.

In ‘The Heir of Chartelpool’, Stanhope is suffering from a clot on the brain as a result of a fall. Dr Halifax, the narrator, believes an operation to remove the clot is worth the risk, but Mr Parsons, a famous London surgeon, will not attempt it because the clot is too close to the brain stem; Halifax performs the risky, experimental surgery and the previously unconscious and paralysed child makes a full recovery.

The greater understanding of the development of the brain in the nineteenth century also allowed for the possibility of treating conditions such as microcephaly caused by craniosynostosis. This condition occurs when a child’s brain does not develop normally because the skull has fused prematurely. In ‘Creating a Mind’, Halifax performs a craniectomy on a microcephalic child, thus allowing his brain room to develop normally. Within six months of the surgery the intellect of the toddler at the centre of the story has almost caught up to that of his peers. Cranial enlargement was controversial in the 1890s owing to the high mortality rate associated with it, but Meade, rather than engage with this debate, depicts Halifax as an innovative surgeon curing a child.

While these early stories recognise the risk of dying in surgery, and Halifax warns the boys’ mothers of this risk, both Halifax and the boys’ mothers deem it a risk worth taking. In ‘The Heir of Chartelpool’, the child’s mother wants more for her son than the bare existence he would have without treatment. While in ‘Creating a Mind’, the child’s mother both wants her son to be able communicate and to be accepted as his grandfather’s heir—his grandfather refuses to leave his property to a child with compromised brain function. Thus, in these stories, Meade’s attitude toward brain surgery is largely celebratory; both procedures are successful, the boys make full recoveries and have the power of both movement and communication restored to them, and both inherit the family fortune.

Brain Surgery on Women

silenced 1

My research demonstrates that the stories in which Meade depicts adult women who are subjected to brain surgery are decidedly darker in tone as she considers the threats posed by unscrupulous surgeons and their knowledge of cerebral localisation.  As Anne Stiles argues in Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century, ‘cerebral localization theories […] undermined a sense of a stable human identity. By suggesting that certain parts of the brain controlled specific emotions and behaviors, localizationists contradicted the popular belief in a unified soul or mind governing human action thus narrowing possibilities for human agency’ (10). The experiments in anatomy and vivisection that led to localisation theory began early in the nineteenth century across Europe, but research activity in the area increased from 1861 when French scientist Paul Broca linked the third convolution of the frontal lobe on the left hemisphere of the brain to ‘linguistic ability’ (Stiles, 2). Meade resists the materialist explanation of human consciousness and identity championed by localisationists—in fact, all of the stories I discuss in this post link the mind and the soul. However, she could not ignore the fact that experiments showed that localisationists knew which part of the brain controlled certain behaviours, and this knowledge gave them the power to disrupt these behaviours. In both ‘Silenced’, a standalone story published in 1897, and the Mrs Kort plot line in Stories of the Sanctuary Club, published in 1899, unethical surgeons use their knowledge to silence their victims by destroying or at least hampering the part of the brain that Broca linked to linguistic ability.

‘Silenced’ is narrated by Nurse Petre; she happens to learn that Captain Gifford, the lost lover of a former patient and dear friend Miss Trefusis, is alive and in the house of her employer, Mr Hertslet. Hertslet is due to trephine Gifford the following day and to marry Miss Trefusis in six weeks’ time. When Nurse Petre tries to take the news of Gifford’s presence to Miss Trefusis, Hertslet silences her; he describes his actions as follows:

“I waited until you dropped asleep, then I administered an anaesthetic. The rest was
easy. With a suitable instrument I made a small opening through the bone at the top of your temple, just over the centre which controls the power of speech. Having made the hole through the bone, I introduced a probe and broke up the brain tissue.” (701)

He then staged an accident to explain the injury on her head and her sudden partial paralysis and inability to speak. Nurse Petre suffers in silence for six weeks, but the morning of the wedding the paralysis is starting to wear off and Miss Trefusis comes to visit. While she is there, Nurse Petre prays that she will be able to speak just enough to warn her about Hertslet; her prayer is answered, the wedding is averted, Hertslet disappears from England, and Miss Trefusis marries Captain Gifford. The resolution in the text is as sudden, and almost as short, as my summary. Though all ends well for most of the characters, Hertslet’s disappearance raises the question of whether or not such practitioners can be policed or controlled in a way that protects the public. This story is written and set well after the major Medical Acts of the nineteenth century of 1858 and 1886, but it raises the concern that though practitioners were required to be properly educated, the regulators had little power over how they would use their knowledge.

Similar research questions are raised in Stories of the Sanctuary Club. These stories are narrated by Dr Cato, who founded the club with Dr Chetwynd. In the third story, Dr Kort joins the establishment, and his wife moves into rooms in the Davos suite shortly after. Over time, Cato and Chetwynd notice that Mrs Kort is cheerful and intelligent when they visit her in her rooms, but when she ventures out into the rest of the house she often becomes extremely forgetful and ill. They also notice that after Kort joins their practice, quite a few of their patients meet suspicious and violent ends. In the final story, Cato and Chetwynd insist on speaking to Mrs Kort alone and the truth comes out. Kort is a murderer; he murdered both to conceal what he had done to his wife in the name of research and for money. However, as horrific as these crimes are, they pale in comparison to what he did to Mrs Kort.

She explains that they met when they were both studying medicine in Vienna. She was engaged at the time, but Kort mesmerised her periodically and used his influence to persuade her to break off the engagement and marry him. After their marriage, he reveals his ambitions to his horrified wife:

He told me on one special awful night that it was his belief that every thought or motion arises, not from a spiritual source, but merely from a physical change in certain cells in the brain. He said it would be possible to prove this by stimulating these cells, so that character, moral sense, even conscience itself, and all that had hitherto been accepted as belonging to the spiritual part of our nature would be really at the mercy of the physiologist. (674)

Sanctuary Club.png

He says he can only prove his theory through human experimentation, and then mesmerises her and makes her his experimental subject. To test his theory, and control his wife, Kort depresses a section of bone above the area Broca linked to linguistic ability. At an ordinary level of atmospheric pressure—in London today it’s about 15 pounds per square inch—this causes extreme pain and forgetfulness and would eventually cause death. To prevent this, Kort fits her with a small metal cap that relieves the pressure on her brain; she can only survive without the cap at lower pressures—in Davos today the pressure is about 12 pounds per square inch. He makes sure she knows that if he removes the cap she will die if she is not in a pressure controlled space. Once she is established in the Davos suite he can control her by removing the cap, thus preventing her from revealing the truth about him when she leaves her rooms; in her rooms, she is under the careful watch of a nurse in his employ. He furthers her torture by telling her the details of his murders; his first murder victim is her former fiancé.

Through Kort’s experiment on his wife, Meade engages with two important scientific debates of the fin-de-siècle: the theory of cerebral localisation and the practice of vivisection. It is, of course, well-known that antivisectionists were concerned with cruelty to animals and the infliction of unnecessary pain. But even those who were not against the practice of vivisection had long had serious reservations about it. For example, according to David Agruss, Jeremy Bentham, who was not an anti-vivisectionist, nevertheless worried that if the act of vivisection did not serve ‘purely scientific ends’ it could cause problems for the vivisector and ‘For Bentham, the danger of vivisection is that it risks veering from “medical experiment” to “bad habits” and to “amusement” at the sight of suffering’ (267-68).

Furthermore, Bentham worried that practicing vivisection on animals could lead to practicing it on humans (268), a fear shared by fin de siècle anti-vivisectionists. Kort’s experiment on his wife confirms these fears are well-founded. When he first tells her he needs a human subject on which to conduct his research, she expresses pleasure in the idea that he will never be able to prove his theory because he cannot experiment on humans. That is when he reveals the discrepancy between their moral or ethical codes: he has no qualms about experimenting on her or anyone else. He seems to think anything justified in the name of research when he asks her, ‘“What is your life? … “What is the life of any woman, any man, compared to the knowledge which through you I am gradually obtaining?”’ (675). These are exactly the sorts of questions Bentham and many others feared physiologists would ask, and gothic literature in the 1890s questions time and time again. To name just a few examples, the issue is central to James Machen’s The Great God Pan, Arabella Kenealy’s short story ‘A Human Vivisection’, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. These texts share with Meade concerns about issues of patient consent, human autonomy, and the nature of the mind. Unlike the gothic texts, however, Meade’s more realistic narrative of Mrs Kort’s suffering has a happy ending. She is finally allowed to tell her story and Cato and Chetwynd restore her health by repairing her skull. After their restorative surgery, however, she has absolutely no recollection of her marriage or any of the suffering that followed it. Cato, in a rather paternalistic way sees this as a blessing and he and Chetwynd never tell her what she’s forgotten. There is no indication that withholding this information is a violation of her rights or of her sense of self. Finally, though Kort is hanged for the murders he committed, he is not punished for his experimentation on his wife; as in ‘Silenced’, Meade leaves open important questions about the possibility of effectively regulating medical practitioners, which leaves open avenues for research.

SC 2
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Impostor Syndrome

There’s been an outbreak of impostor syndrome in my social media feeds lately. I’m not going to be terribly specific because I don’t want to embarrass anyone, but I belong to several Facebook groups about writing (fiction writing, academic writing, editing…) and follow several twitter accounts and a few twitter chats on similar subjects.

A common theme over the last couple of weeks has been people wondering if some colossal mistake has been made—the hiring committee wouldn’t have hired me if they knew…; the publisher wouldn’t have accepted my manuscript if…; how could they give me a degree/certification/job? All of these worries stem from the worrier thinking they’ve somehow erroneously achieved whatever it is they’ve achieved. And now the worrier fears everyone will find out the truth—that they aren’t good enough.

When I was researching this topic, I came across several TED Talks on impostor syndrome. I watched four of them: ‘Thinking Your Way out of Impostor Syndrome’ by Valerie Young, ‘Impostor Syndrome’ by Mike Cannon-Brookes, ‘Why Does a Successful Person Feel like a Fraud?’ by Portia Mount, and ‘The Surprising Solution to the Impostor Syndrome’ by Lou Solomon.

The speakers all mentioned the statistic that 70% of people have experienced impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. I, however, have to agree with Lou Solomon when she suggests that number sounds rather low. For the general population, perhaps it’s correct—I have no way of knowing. But for the highly-driven creative types I spend most of my time with, 70% is way too low.

The very qualities that are necessary to be a writer, an academic, or an editor are the same qualities that lead to impostor syndrome. We have high standards, tend to be perfectionists, and care deeply about what we do. I’m not suggesting that you lower your standards or stop caring, just that you find a way to put your inner critic in their place.

The Effects of Impostor Syndrome

The very qualities that are necessary to be a writer, an academic, or an editor are the same qualities that lead to impostor syndrome. We have high standards, tend to be perfectionists, and care deeply about what…

Impostor syndrome can cause significant physical, emotional, and professional damage. Near the end of her video, Valerie Young discusses the effects of impostor syndrome. She says it can cause sufferers to ‘fly under the radar’ at work; by this she means sufferers don’t take risks or speak up. They don’t want to draw attention to their perceived imperfections, but in the process they don’t call attention to their strengths, and they risk being overlooked for promotions.

This image made the rounds of a few of my social media feeds; try to remember it the next time you’re struggling to speak up:

tornado full of sharks

Impostor syndrome, according to Young, can also be responsible for procrastination. The logic of the syndrome can be ‘if I don’t do anything, I can’t fail at anything’. Of course we all know this only works in the short term, but if you’re just trying to avoid the negative feelings brought up by the syndrome, that can be enough.

Young also links impostor syndrome to workaholism. Lou Solomon and Portia Mount address workaholism as well. In all three talks, the link between workaholism and impostor syndrome is perfectionism. Our education system tends to teach from an early age that it’s good to always have the correct answer, to always present work in the correct way, etc. This becomes a problem, though, when the need to be perfect leads to agonising over insignificant mistakes.

Solomon tells a story about not being able to sleep because of a typo in a memo she’d distributed at the office (in the days before email); she got out of bed, went back to work, retyped the memo, and redistributed it. She didn’t get back to bed until about 2am, but no one knew she’d made a mistake. For a mind controlled by impostor syndrome, that lack of sleep was justified.

Portia Mount describes how impostor syndrome felt to her: “I was unravelling; the more success I experienced the more anxious and insecure I became. Thoughts kept racing through my mind; I couldn’t shut the voices off. I lost weight; I couldn’t sleep. On the outside I looked happy and successful, [but] inside I was dying”. This idea that success worsens impostor syndrome was common to all four talks.

Impostor syndrome doesn’t only effect you at work; it causes problems elsewhere, too. Whether it’s causing procrastination or workaholism, it will be having an effect on your personal life. If it’s making you miserable (emotionally and/or physically) it will affect your relationships.

How Can We Deal with Impostor Syndrome?

Valerie Young suggests changing your thinking—she says the body doesn’t know the difference between fear and excitement. So, when you feel your nerves kick in tell yourself you’re actually excited. She acknowledges that you won’t believe it at first, but in time you will.

I’ve had some success with this in certain situations. When we expressed performance anxiety, my flute professor always told the flute studio to ‘fake it till you make it’. She was right; week after week in studio, I walked onto that stage and pretended I was confident and happy to be there. By the end of my degree, I really felt that way.

Mike Cannon-Brookes takes a different approach. He doesn’t believe one can overcome impostor syndrome; instead, one must learn to use it and to slightly reframe it. He says successful people still experience doubt, but they don’t doubt themselves; they doubt their knowledge and skills—things they can change. Most importantly, he says successful people don’t see asking for help or guidance as a weakness, but as a necessity.

Portia Mount emphasises focusing on facts; you have had some success, so don’t diminish it. She also encourages people to challenge limiting beliefs. Finally, she says we need to ‘talk about it’. We aren’t as perfect as our overly curated online lives suggest; our meals are not always picture perfect, our hair is not always perfectly coifed. Find a time and a place that you can discuss the realities of your life.

Lou Solomon suggests dealing with the inner critic’s voice directly. She says having impostor syndrome is ‘like having a crappy best friend in your head who says mean things’; she’s named hers Ms Vader.  She deals with Ms Vader through another internal voice, ‘a radical hero’ she’s named Betty Lou. Betty Lou calls out Ms Vader’s nonsense.

As this list demonstrates, there may be as many ways to deal with impostor syndrome as there are people suffering from it.

What Can You Do About It?

imposter 3

First, remember that you are not alone.

If impostor syndrome is causing writer’s block, try some of the tips I cover in my post and ebooklet on dealing with writer’s block. If it’s keeping you from submitting your work for publication, get someone else’s opinion. The options for finding someone to read your work are endless: a friend who doesn’t sugar-coat the truth, a writing group, an editor, a mentor, a writing coach… Also, follow through on the age old advice—if it’s rejected, send it off to somewhere else as soon as possible.

If you’re a student (undergraduate or postgraduate) and impostor syndrome is making it difficult for you to participate in seminars or conferences, you’ll find some helpful tips in my post on succeeding in seminars. To recap the main points; set small, achievable goals (like speaking once per seminar and building up from there); discuss the issue with your personal tutor or supervisor; seek support from your university’s counselling services; and talk to your GP.

If you’re in an academic post and your impostor syndrome is making it difficult for you to assert yourself in staff meetings or in lectures and seminars, your university likely offers a lot of support options. The teaching support department probably has workshops on running effective seminars and giving lectures. You may have access to confidential counselling (some universities require you to go through occupational health to access this—if that sets off a whole different kind of anxiety, and you can afford it, hire a private counsellor or talk to your GP). Make contacts with academics at other universities (private social media groups are great for this); it may be easier to ask for help from someone you won’t see at the next board of teachers. Find someone you can talk to about this. It’s a common problem, but if feels lonely when you have it.

Editors suffering from impostor syndrome should engage with continuing professional development to keep your skills up to date. Also, remember it is okay to ask for help. My feed is full of editors asking questions about grammar—you aren’t expected to always have the answer; you are expected to know how to find the answer. Often that means asking someone else.

Until next time, happy writing.
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