Giving Myself Permission

Among the many thoughtful comments on my post about the “PhD Conundrum,” one that really struck a chord with me is a remark by Joanna Scutts about “typical grad-student behaviors,” which she notes include asking for permission and working for praise. I would say that these are not grad-student behaviors only but good-student behaviors, in that they are typical among academically high-performing undergraduates as well: it makes sense that they appear in exaggerated form among graduate students (who were all strong undergrads to begin with) and are exacerbated by the grad school experience. I am surprised at how much I am still affected by the habits of asking for permission, the key difference at this level being that the person I really need to ask is myself. I’m also distressed at how much I seek praise for my work and feel disappointed in myself when it is not forthcoming: though I realize that my ongoing craving for external validation is inappropriate to my status as a qualified professional, that sense that if you do your work right you will get an A has never quite gone away. (I suspect that the years of being graded for our efforts set us up for the anxiety with which most of us look at our course evaluations.)

It’s the whole asking for permission thing that is most bothersome to me these days, particularly in the context of my writing. One of the payoffs I expected from my blogging is that I would shake off that nagging, doubting voice that tells me I’m not qualified or ready to write about something: that I haven’t read enough or done enough research, that my own opinion doesn’t count for anything unless it’s backed up and depersonalized and abstracted, that I haven’t justified or adequately theorized my approach. As a student, I found deadlines eventually forced me to write what I could, though I was often wracked with despair as I handed something in or presented it in seminar, sure it was a disastrous misfire. The feedback I got almost never (though not quite never) confirmed my worst fears, but somehow my confidence was never boosted. Since graduate school, I have hardly been the world’s most prolific scholar, but I’ve placed my pieces well and in general I’m satisfied that they are good work. Still, I usually declare something finished with a strange mixture of defiance and resignation, rather than satisfaction, and I have a terrible time starting to write something, because to do so I have to silence that voice. (Sometimes I try to drown it out with music!)

By and large I don’t hear that voice when I’m blogging, though, and that has been wonderfully liberating. It helped that I started my blog with no particular goals except to keep track of my reading: it was my space, and it was a kind of space outside the usual parameters of academic judgment. Also, blog posts don’t claim to be definitive or authoritative, the way academic writing does: when blogging, it’s OK (maybe even preferable) to show that you’re still thinking things through, that intellectual life is an ongoing process prone to discoveries, reversals, and confusions. By the time anyone besides my immediate family and friends was reading it, I was comfortable enough to just keep going as I had begun. Some early controversies in the comments set me back and made me more cautious in some respects (which is probably good, though I worry sometimes that the self-censorship I practice keeps my blogging blander than I am in other contexts). Overall, though, I have no inhibitions as a blogger that compare to the insecurities that slow me down when I write anywhere besides here in this WordPress box. My frustration is that the increased confidence I have found in my own voice and views as expressed here has not made a noticeable difference to my other writing. It feels as if I have given myself permission to write as myself, but only within this specific framework. Everywhere else, the old rules still apply! I notice this particularly when writing for Open Letters, where I have been encouraged to write more like I blog (this is not the only feedback I’ve gotten, and I think my co-editors are happy with the pieces I’ve done for OLM–but there I go again, worrying about external validation!). Even though OLM pieces specifically and deliberately are not supposed to sound academic, the minute I know I’m writing something official for publication, I get all serious and anxious again, laboring over every word. It’s nuts!

Yesterday I tried an experiment. When I decide to post on something here, my rule is: write it (online), tidy it, post it. No second-guessing, no (major) rewriting.  I think the longest I’ve spent on a post is 4 hours (oddly, that was the Sex and the City 2 post), but more often I write for an hour or two at most, and usually I’m pretty satisfied with the results–not that there’s nothing more to be said, or nothing that could be said any better, but I have said what seemed important to say, said it pretty clearly, and been myself. What if (I wondered) I wrote the review I’m currently working on right here in WordPress, pretending it was a blog post? Maybe at the very least in a couple of hours I’d have a draft I could work with.

Sadly, as my daughter pointed out, it’s hard to pretend to yourself, because you know too well what you are really doing. An hour or so in, I was not reviewing (as I would have been if I’d known it was really a blog post) but still taking notes. I gave up and pasted what I had into a Word document. What I need is not to fool myself into thinking I have permission to write: somehow, I need to believe it.

12 Comments to Giving Myself Permission

  1. April 21, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    A fantastic post–your feelings–about academic writing and blogging are so familiar to me that this made for uncanny reading. Lovely. Thank you.

  2. April 21, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Wonderful post. Yes, it is time to throw caution to the wind. Those pugnacious loons from the old days of book blogging seem to have found happiness elsewhere, so let ‘er rip.

  3. April 21, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful ideas, shared beautifully. I, too, started blogging in order to create a separate sphere from academia. I thought being an English major was beginning to suck all the fun out of reading, and I wanted to be able to talk about books (with people who also wanted to talk about books) without having to worry about being graded for it. And that’s what I’ve been able to do. Thanks for sharing your wonderful thoughts on the topic!

  4. April 21, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    “Also, blog posts don’t claim to be definitive or authoritative, the way academic writing does: when blogging, it’s OK (maybe even preferable) to show that you’re still thinking things through, that intellectual life is an ongoing process prone to discoveries, reversals, and confusions.” I was still working on my PhD when I began blogging and this is PRECISELY what I got, and continue to get, out of the exercise. And I also felt entirely powerless against the voice of my training when I wrote something for OLM! I think I surmounted that voice of academic nagging eventually but doing so took a long time and it was really painful. As you’re still in the academy, getting past it must be so much harder…but I think practice can’t do anything but help.

  5. April 21, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    I hoped that once I retired and I no longer needed show the people who paid my monthly paycheque that I was worth employing this need to censure everything I wrote would go a way. Sadly, after striving for 50+ years, ever since the age of four, to meet the standards I thought others were expecting of me it is proving a very difficult habit to break. I try not to angst over my blog posts but the very fact that it’s going out to public consumption still haunts me. You have at least got further on than that.

  6. April 21, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Excellent post. I am sure you are not alone. I have long believed that the things that are rewarded in undergraduate education (and the early stages of graduate education) are actually liabilities later on. Your posts illustrates one way in which this happens.

    Here’s the thing. Academic writing isn’t definitive. It is all a conversation albeit a rather formal one. The most liberating thing I read as a doctoral student was a piece by Dorothy Smith in which she discusses the circulation of a conference paper and the comments she received from women (academics) that she had never met. The point she makes is that academic publishing is a way of talking to people you wouldn’t otherwise meet.

    When I wrote my blog posts about validation and communication as aspects of academic writing, I think I was trying to get at that. To help people see that the writing isn’t necessarily about validation, and maybe alongside that, it’s not (just?) about authority. (Definitive is impossible.)

    Could you believe that you have permission to write an intelligent, well thought out, contribution to the literature that wasn’t definitive or authoritative?

  7. April 21, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Really excellent essay. Thank you. I really appreciate the structure of blogging, because, as you say, it’s works much like a conversation, like a bunch of people sitting around (albeit in rooms around the world) talking about books and making literary connections and asking good questions. But it appears to be unique among other forms of critical writing, for that very feeling of liberation, of being able to write about thinking process, instead of final answers.

  8. Dorian Stuber's Gravatar Dorian Stuber
    April 21, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    I can’t decide if it’s counterproductive to your stated desire–but I share the sentiments of others, above, and so praise you for these thoughts, which really resonate for me as well.

  9. April 22, 2011 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    I’m in complete agreement with JoVE that academic writing might like to think it’s authoritative and definitive, but it isn’t. Every written piece comes with an internal use-by date, when it will be surpassed or qualified by another perspective. Believe you me, I had PLENTY of anxieties about myself as an academic, but they didn’t extend to what I was writing. Most things in academia are silly hoop-jumping exercises; once you’ve done the things you have to do to tick certain boxes, then you are free. I dutifully fulfilled the requirements for a piece of writing and then ran with the freedom for all I was worth. I suppose I felt that academic writing teeters so often on the edge of boring that I knew I didn’t want to conform, but to see how far I could push doing something different. I think our attitudes are wholly bound up with our relationship to authority. Authority is like stress – a bit of it can make us productive and disciplined, but too much of it (or not enough) can be crippling. Stick your fingers up at whatever mental authority figures are holding your confidence in check, Rohan. You are a beautiful writer, insightful and elegant, always with something interesting to say. Just think of your avid audience out there, longing for someone to tell them something interesting, finally, and something they can take away with them and use, and respond to their demands, not those of the harsh critic.

  10. April 22, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Thank you all for your feedback on this post. It is interesting to see how many of us struggle to find the confidence to write. I wonder how much this really does have to do with school or graduate school and how much of it is simply about writing. All of you who emphasize that academic writing is supposed to be about communication are right, of course. And yet, clearly to a lot of us, knowing that doesn’t make the difference it should. We can only embrace the Dory approach: just keep writing! Blogging is indeed a great venue for that, though one reason I think confidence as a blogger does not (for academics) easily translate into confidence in other forms is that so many academics (including the large majority of my own colleagues) are at best uninterested in and at worst openly contemptuous about it. It’s not “real” writing or publishing, after all. Though I take Dorian’s point about the paradox here, the encouragement and affirmation you all offer is much appreciated.

    AR: Yes, I hardly notice that old bunch any more, though I think a number of them are still around, blogging amongst themselves–and they are welcome to each other!

  11. April 22, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    That piece about the others being openly comtemptuous resonates with some things I’ve been thinking. A metaphor came to me yesterday that I want to try out but I’ll throw it out here, just in case one of you wants to ponder it as well.

    I’m thinking about vernacular bibles and the Reformation. I know very little about this, but it seems to me that it is a very similar problem. A particular type of writing (Latin bibles, academic prose in “proper” journals and monographs) serves to reinforce the authority of those who are able to read it and engage with it. And a shift like vernacular Bibles (or blogging, or any form that communicates scholarly work to a wider audience) is pretty radical. Obviously there are people with power in this sphere who are very scared of losing it.

    Seems to me that the Catholic hierarchy still exists and that even they use vernacular bibles (though it took them a few hundred years to get there). And you have the advantage that no one is threatening to burn you at the stake for writing in these ways.

  12. April 22, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure if it is significant/problematic to write about that metaphor on Good Friday. But I’ve done it now ;-)

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Summer Reading 2014

Rohan:
1. Julie James, It Happened One Wedding
2. Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter
3. Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
4. Elizabeth George, Just One Evil Act
In progress: Dunnett, Niccolo Rising

Maddie:
1. Judy Blume, Forever
2. Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars, an original mystery
3. John Green, Paper Towns
In progress: Blume, Then Again Maybe I Won't

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