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.

 

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 it 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.
Sign up for my Newsletter

Writer’s Block

While researching writer’s block I came across an interesting article from the 14 June 2004 issue of The New Yorker called ‘Blocked: Why do writers stop writing?’. The article suggests writer’s block is a peculiarly American condition and quotes one British writer who claims not to suffer from it. I’m happy for him, but I’ve known far too many British writers (students, academics, poets, novelists …) who do suffer from it to believe this is true of all British writers.

What is more convincing is the article’s claim that we have the Romantics to thank for writer’s block. This argument makes sense because before the Romantics, writers tended to think of writing as an occupation. Meanwhile, the Romantics thought writing should be inspired. In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth argues ‘that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ (see paragraph 26 of this online text). This is where we get the idea that one has to be ‘in the mood’ to write.

Writers who cling to such notions tend to make themselves miserable. If you read further in ‘Blocked: Why do writers stop writing?’, you’ll find that many famous writers have suffered from substance abuse problems and mental illnesses. These writers believed their problems were caused by writer’s block.

Writers do not have to be miserable. They do not have to make themselves ill.

When you start a new writing project, just get words on a page. They don’t have to be good words. But they do need to be recorded somewhere so you can improve them later. Good writing rarely, if ever, springs fully formed from the writer’s mind as Athena is said to have sprung from Zeus’s forehead. The next time you get discouraged at not producing beautiful writing on the first try, remind yourself you are not a Greek god—you might feel better.

In Coping with Writers Block, I outline several practical steps you can take to deal with any resistance you have to putting pen to paper. I hope you find them helpful.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this, please follow my blog so you will be the first to know when I post a new one. If you have any specific writing topics you’d like me to address here, let me know. Until next time, take care.
Sign up for my Newsletter