From the perspective of capital, what most of us see as tremendous ethical and even existential problems literally don’t count.Jason Hickel, ‘The Nobel Prize for Climate Catastrophe‘, foreignpolicy.com, December 2018
This year I’ve been reflecting on the many reasons that I find writing difficult, even when I’m apparently eager to write. I know from conversations I had at OER19 that others feel the same. This sense of being choked is spreading around a community of good writers I know, like ocean plastics. It’s as if we’re in an extinction-level event, even as we mostly work in universities, and we are also drowning in words.
What this feels like: I drive home from a day in my office with my shoulders in a kink from hours of sitting at a desk and writing that kind of writing that David Graeber hints at when he says that we are doing bullshit jobs. I write things that function within an organisational culture of timely responses, archivable compliance, planning and reporting on plans. I write and write and write and write, and all of these words could fall into the sea tomorrow without loss.
Brooding on this, I suddenly remember visiting a Nashville recording studio in a historic home, years ago. I was taken up to an attic to where the servants’ rooms had been converted into rows of identical tiny offices with desks, where contract songwriters churned through rhyming phrases that became parts of profitable things, the lowest form of work in a retail chain of words on their way to becoming lyrics rolling around in the mouths of others.
That’s my job.
And I’ve come to see that this is the problem for my writing — it’s not that I don’t write, it’s that I write too much of the wrong thing. Like my colleagues, I’m a scrivener. The environment that I write in, and the employer I write for, generates the writing that gets done. My day job is to fashion reasonable copies of bureaucratic phrasing, that sound right and fit in and don’t cause a stir. Sometimes I flinch from startlements, like “workflow” used as a verb. Sometimes I whisper to myself like Bartleby that I prefer not to. But mostly I go along. My writing flows serenely around “stakeholder” and “reportable” and “target” and “rapid growth market” without slowing down.
And what this is, is bullshit writing. As Don Watson says in Gobbledygook, his skewering of corporate jargon, we need to sit up straight when this use of language as a cover for tactics, this weaselling of language itself, is coming from inside the house where it should be least at home. Here’s what he says—and don’t blink or you’ll miss it—about my bullshit writing job:
In institutions where we might expect the most resistance the capitulation is most complete.Don Watson, Gobbledygook, reviewed by linguist Stan Carey here
Take it in. This is such singular writing, that you can turn it over in your hands and see his mark on the back.
So this week I made a small commitment that I would try to stop scrivening long enough to write every day, actual writing that matters to me. I will try to recover a sense of what it is I came to say, in my own words.
And now a fresh semester has begun, and a fresh group of thinkers and writers have joined the narrative class I teach. This class is a blessing to me every year. Those who have taken it before are all in my thoughts when I’m in the room. Every one has taught me something that is important to me. And again this year I have the pleasure of teaching it with Giverny Witheridge, whose writing about family stories told in the context of illness is a lantern for me whenever I lose my way as a writer.
The class is now focused on the future of work, because we might as well. Work is increasingly the framework for our political conversation about what matters about being human, and as a result, employability has become a key metric for how universities are regarded. In Australia, employability is likely to become one of the four measures by which we’ll be funded, as if we had any capacity at all to moderate the economic reshaping of the job market, the persistent biases in hiring practices, or the sleight of hand offshoring of work to cheaper labour markets.
So nope, I don’t believe we can hold universities responsible for the state of the labour market. But we can hold ourselves accountable for the promises we make to students about degrees as a pathway into higher paid work. We need to join with them in looking critically at work, and asking hard questions about whether its likely future is better for human flourishing. To this they bring considerable experience as workers, and we do too — because whatever is said about universities not being in the real world, as complex workplaces they are at its heart.
So Giverny and I are choosing to hold space in this class for a conversation about how narrative is one way to fashion and sustain a sense of self that you can live with, whatever you do for work. Being able to think with your own story is the first step in being able to work in a way that nourishes your values. And if your work clashes with how you think things should be, this same sense of an intentional and capable self is what will help you to call out the logic of productivity and performance, and protest its harms.
In opening up this conversation, we’re asking these students to value the time it takes to write regularly, not just to aim for the sense of having finished a writing task before moving on to the next one. We’re also asking ourselves to hollow out a little space for our own writing. We’re trying to think through with them what it means to ask for our voices to be heard, in whatever rough or self-doubting state we’re in.
How did this get written?
Part of my commitment this semester is to make writing practice more visible to students who are writing in public. I hope it’s encouraging to know that this morning I blocked out time, cleared space, and sat down to write — and nothing happened. Nothing. Not a word, not even a wisp of an idea. After enough time staring at the blankness of the screen I couldn’t clearly remember having had an idea, ever.
Along the way I looked at the sky, I ate a mandarin and then a second mandarin, I made a cup of tea, I watched a family of wrens outside my window, I panicked. I let email divert me, and then remembered that was the opposite of the plan. I stayed off Twitter. Panic increased.
Then I did the one thing that absolutely makes a difference to me. I asked for help. I said “I write so many stupid words in my bullshit writing job that I can no longer write and that is the end of that.” And the person I reached out to said very calmly “Why not write about the thing you’re thinking about?”
Sometimes what you have to do as a writer is sit in place long enough, and sometimes you have to ask for help. Whatever works for you, is what works.
I love this Kate! As usual, your writing (even when you’re struggling) connects to my own experiences and sends me off thinking about something completely different. When I read your post, I wondered if I was a scrivener, even though I have been retired for several years now. Today, I have outstanding 4 promised pieces of writing – 3 to others and 1 to myself- and I’m stuck. Just as I read your friend’s advice, I heard a ping on my phone. It was a text message from a dear friend whose husband had surgery yesterday just days after they moved from their home of nearly fifty years to a new one. She shared a little tale of coping with caring for the sick after their recent house move and living around the detritus of the decorators in their hall and staircase. Rather than our usual phone conversations, we hace established a practice of text message support since our visit to help them 2 weeks ago. Her story took me straight back 30 years to a story of one of our many house moves (I’ll share it with you privately) that I wrote to her in a text response. It comforted her and made her smile. And I think I might be a bit unstuck with my other writing.
The tangent on which I spun off was to look for something I thought that Edna O’Brien had written about writing with young children. I didn’t find it but I did learn that Edna O’Brien (who made me long to write stories) wrote her first novel, The Country Girls, in three days https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2978/edna-obrien-the-art-of-fiction-no-82-edna-obrien . I also discovered that her husband falsely claimed to have written her successful novels but that’s another story.
I think this is very important Frances: the ability to think about something different than the sense of failed obligation sometimes requires only the smallest nudge, that little ping. What also happens is that a story of something can dislodge what is stuck, because when we hear or read a story, we do lean forward. Our imagination coughs back into life, even if we are only picturing the hall and the staircase fleetingly.
Thanks for your courage in telling about your struggles trying to write. This is very common but seldom revealed.
In our writing group (https://www.bmartin.cc/classes/hop/), we try to help each other get through challenges. Here’s a comment I sent to group members.
Here are some ideas for doing a bit of writing when you feel stuck.
1. Write a letter to a friend, about your research or anything else. You can send the letter, or not, depending on how you feel.
2. Write about something distressing in your life, present or past. Write about what happened and how you felt or feel about it. This is good for your writing and good for you psychologically, as shown by research by James W. Pennebaker and others.
3. Write about people you’ve known. Write about how you met them, what you know about them, what you’ve done together, what you’ve learned from them, what you’ve learned about yourself from them, and anything else that you think of.
4. Write for a ventilation file: “a confidential space for every hostile, resentful, negative thing” that you think or feel as you try to write. The idea is that when you feel yourself resisting writing, then write about the resistance. The quote is from Joli Jensen’s book Write No Matter What, recommended by Renee.
5. Do free writing, which is anything that comes into your head. You can write about what’s on the wall in front of you, what you had for breakfast, the chair you’re sitting on, etc. Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way tells about “morning pages” which are three pages written longhand first thing in the morning about anything that you think of.
6. Write a letter to the Illawarra Mercury (or some other newspaper or someone’s blog, etc.). Thanks to Ben for this recommendation.
So if you feel stuck with your research writing, just put in 5 or 10 minutes writing on one of these themes. Try different options and see what works for you.
Thanks for sharing all these practical steps, Brian. How helpful! I think I’ve come to the conclusion that we mostly have to try several small things. In my case, the commitment to not giving up had to be matched with deciding to seek help. And your suggestion about writing to a newspaper brought to mind an important conversation I’ve had recently about blog commenting. That’s how I started as a blogger — I just wrote comments on other people’s blogs until I realised I had something to say.
Thank you for not only sharing your thoughts with us/me, but for allowing us to find and recognise ourselves in the mirror – blemishes and all.
Much love and respect
From one scrivener to another
To you also, Paul. You are a writer whose voice I listen for alertly.
Kate, thanks for writing this so succinctly, I so agree with you. For me the corporate report “wheel” took over the headspace for my crafting, and I felt absolutely paralysed by not being able to do the things I loved. It seems like the more we produce these “bullshit documents”, the more we are expected to produce. I know I am not the only one who questions where are the documents going, and where is the accountability to consider the recommendations given under such struggles.
Hi Chris! Yes, I did start to think about where the words are going, and what their worth is if the struggle we’re in makes it impossible to act on them. The critical thought here is about time. Where is the time to think about these words, to care for the effort they’re making to bring about good change?
The comment I made last night seems to have got lost. So I’m going to try this again. Fingers crossed it works.
First, thank you. This was a privilege to read. Paul is right: your writing is a gift because it allows us to find and recognise ourselves. So much of what you have written here speaks to me. What is most moving to me is when you write: ‘I will try to recover a sense of what it is I came to say, in my own words.’ I need to print this out and pin it someplace where I can see it. I’m writing my literature review and it is filled with other voices. But where am I? My own voice – the one that is most important – has been crowded out. I, too, need to remember what it is I came to say.
A few months ago I found a small book of Claude Monet’s writings in a second-hand shop. In the book, pictures of Monet’s paintings are placed alongside excerpts of letters he wrote to his family and friends. What I love about this book is that we can get a sense of how Monet felt about his paintings as he was working on them. In 1893, when he was painting his Rouen Cathedral series, he wrote in a letter: ‘I’m forcing myself to work, but can’t many any progress; looking for something, groping my way forward, but coming up with nothing very special, except to reach the point where I’m exhausted by it all.’ Another favourite passage of mine is from 1889 when he was painting in the Creuse Valley: ‘I … am in a state of utter despair and feel like throwing everything into the river.’ Writing can feel exactly like this. Monet has become a sort of companion to me; he understood the struggle.
Like you, I’m learning that asking for help when you get stuck does make a difference. I’ve come to realise that much of my own reluctance to ask for help with writing can be traced back to when I was little. My preschool report says that I rarely asked for assistance. If I was unsure I would ‘simply sit at an activity’. In some ways I still do this. I sit at my computer, staring at all the incomplete sentences and the paragraphs that don’t fit together, and I just scroll, and scroll, and scroll. You have taught me that writing doesn’t need to be a solitary struggle. We can help each other.
Two final reflections: Yesterday I read one of Arthur Frank’s articles on illness stories. He begins with this lovely quote by Foucault: ‘I need to put myself into words.’ I keep coming back to this. I haven’t found the context yet in which Foucault says it, but it makes me think about writing as a form of self-making. We write to give ourselves shape and direction. When I can’t write, I can’t put myself into words. That is hard.
I recently celebrated my birthday, and my parents gifted me these lovely antique intaglio earrings that have Shakespeare’s cameo on them. When I opened the gift my mum said to me: ‘That’s because you’re a writer.’ It meant so much to me to hear this. I think this is also what we need: someone to recognise what we do and why we do it, and who will make sure that all our words ‘don’t fall into the sea without loss’, as you describe so well. So to conclude, let me tell you once more dearest Kate: you are one of the finest writers I know, and I have such respect and appreciation for what you do and what you write about. Thank you for writing these words.
Hello! What a beautiful comment this is. I’d really like to know more about these thoughts about how we draw comfort from knowing that (admired) others have also wanted to throw everything into the river. “When I can’t write, I can’t put myself into words.” Yes, indeed. I felt myself becoming shapeless in the world. So this is a practical question for us in BCM313, how we make space for students to put themselves into words, bearing in mind that everyone’s experience with words will be different. How does all this work for people for whom words have been sources of discomfort and low morale?
I know similar struggles and frustrations.; thank you for your honest sharing.
I am of two minds…having practiced morning pages for years and then also going through dormant phases. When I return to morning pages with a renewed commitment , my writing emerges with more potency, in part because of the fecundity wrought by dormancy.
Writing for meaning….writing with insight has a waxing and a waning process for me. I have come to accept this cycling. I seek in my texting a few poetic phrases…a novel turn of phrase…in lieu of a grand sweep of prose. And even this commitment varies…
Connie, I so recognise that idea of growth after winter. For me when I try morning pages, which I don’t do often, I find that I’m as often churning my thoughts through a routine rather than listening well to myself. So I think accepting the seasonality of writing is very important to me too, and yes — let’s not overlook that sometimes we manage to slip a surreptitious bit of true writing into even the most dismal prose, like hiding a message in a tree.
Kate, this is a beautiful piece of writing, thank you so much for expressing what so many of us feel. Your support for me with my writing has made such a difference to me. I look forward to reading more from you about your new class and really about anything. Yours in struggle.
I love this idea that we can be “in struggle” together. Today I spent quite a bit of time talking about the struggle with students who write, and I came to think that it’s helpful to name it. Lovely to see you here, let’s keep going.
Thank you for sharing this thoughtful and honest post with us Kate. There’s so much here I just want to sit and think about. Sometimes I look back over all the “professional” stuff I’ve written and wonder what the point of a lot of it was; standards, specifications, reports, papers, funding proposals, so many words that just sink into obsolescence. And then there’s the other stuff; the blog posts, the shouts from the heart, the book on naval history (where the hell did that come from???), the fiction, the “trivial” stuff that years later still mean something to me or to random people who stumble across it on the internet. Sometimes I get frustrated that the former pushes out time and energy for the latter, but for better or for worse, I guess I wouldn’t be able to write the latter if I wasn’t paying the rent with the former. At least that’s what I tell myself, but sometimes I still struggle with the cognitive dissonance, so what you’ve said about fashioning a narrative to sustain your own sense of self really resonates with me. It’s a work in progress, just like writing itself I guess.
Oh Lorna, it so is. Something Catherine Cronin does so often is bring poetry to my reflection, and that very precise use of words always makes me think of the time is takes to put 37 words together, as opposed to the way we pile up words in day job writing.
I wonder what it would mean if we were all given an allocation of words, a ration, for the day? If I had five hundred words, what would I save them for?
I must admit, speaking of my own future present of not getting enough work and most time spent doing bits I do have pursuing more even just trying to get paid for work done, that I would not mine a salary of a scrivner. It sounds rather delightful.
The writing for self is something that does cycle. Like the seasons maybe? Some fallow time not always bad.
The signal to pay attention to, one I’ve let wither a bit, is that thing that gets in your brain that nibbles way that whispers, “I cannot not write this.” I’m so joyed your writing light is on.
What a beautiful use of joyed. I’m here for joy as a verb, I really am.
You and Lorna are raising the hard question: what does a scrivener wage make possible that poetry doesn’t? Food on the table, car repairs, care of others in a material way. And it’s easy to chafe at a bullshit job when you have one.
I want to know if we can make educational work good from inside the house, or sustainable from in the wild. Increasingly I worry that we can’t.
Your name here is a source of joy.
So much in here Kate, as always your writing connects but also makes me think differently. As a sometime academic writing teacher and now some kind of para-academic and part-time researcher your reflections on writing always resonate. No matter what our job title is, many of us actually do a lot of writing, and a lot of writing whether about the thing we want to write about, or the thing we have to write about, takes a lot out of us.
But the thing I especially wanted to thank you for was this:
“The class is now focused on the future of work, because we might as well. Work is increasingly the framework for our political conversation about what matters about being human, and as a result, employability has become a key metric for how universities are regarded.”
Yes. This is going to keep coming up. Governments keep demanding employability-focused curricula. Students-as-consumers are told that employability, rather than education, is the product they are purchasing. I worry about this in relation to my work, in the ways in which I sometimes frame ideas about asking students to produce different kinds of assessments (blogs, for example) as being an opportunity to develop skills that the work-world wants, as well as to be creative, inclusive, different. And I think about it with my open education hat on, a hat which contains the idea of lifelong and lifewide learning, as well as alternative pathways to access knowledge and perhaps ultimately credentials. I want people to want education for its intrinsic value, but I also think people care about credentials, and it is a lot easier to say oh I don’t need a credential for this, the more of them you already have. We need to have the conversation about how higher education is both less and more than a ticket to a job, but you are right, we should be having it with students instead of just amongst ourselves.
Leo, I think this is the exact issue that catches us all half in and half out of the door. Do we promote employability? Do we critique the labour market and its trashing of lives? Can we do both?
In my experience students aren’t just listening, they have insights we can’t see. Back on Twitter, I’ll share a link with you.
Lovely to see you here, welcome.
[…] I read Kate Bowles piece today in which she reflects on the reasons she’s been finding writing difficult, and concludes that […]
[…] blogging genres, blogging about blogging or writing about writing. Kate Bowles started a wave with lamenting the weight work related writing, Martin Weller cues the Fab Four , Alyson Indrus is focused on writing writing, and while […]