Writing is Hard (and That's Okay!)
Danielle Fatzinger is the current PGR Office Intern and in the third year of her PhD in Celtic & Gaelic. In this post, she reflects on what she learned at a writing workshop called Writing is Hard, held as part of the Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities (SGSAH) Summer School in June, and invites you to complete some of the exercises to evaluate your own writing experiences.
If there’s one thing PGRs from any subject can agree on, it’s this: writing is hard. It’s one of the most difficult things we do, partially because writing also involves rewriting, editing, proofreading, and incorporating feedback…and because it doesn’t seem to get easier. Or does it?
In June, I attended the SGSAH Summer School, an annual set of workshops for Arts PGR students from universities in Scotland. I wanted to attend workshops that would prepare me for the third year of my PhD, so I immediately gravitated to the workshop called ‘Writing is Hard’. Was the workshop going to refute that notion, I wondered, or reinforce it?
The answer, it turns out, was a bit of both.
The Workshop Exercises
The workshop was designed to be full of discussions and reflections, and that was a big part of two relatively simple exercises that we did. We approached each exercise the same way: free-write about it in our notebooks for ten minutes, share our main takeaways with our small group, and then share those main takeaways with a large group.
You may not have a large group to do this with, or even a small one, but I invite anyone reading to have a go at the exercises and see what you learn about your own writing practice. And if you do have some nearby PGR friends who want to have a go, all the better!
Describe a difficult writing session.
Set a timer for ten minutes. Think about a recent time you struggled to write and try to go back to that moment. Describe your location, the sounds you remember, what you were drinking, how you were feeling, what you were working on (or stuck on), and anything else that comes into your head. You may have a hard time getting started, but remember that nobody is seeing this except you, so go wild.
Done? Take a few minutes to highlight the main takeaways in a short list, the emotions or circumstances that you feel are the most important. Now set that aside, have a break and/or a snack, and move onto the next exercise.
Describe a good writing session.
Do the same thing as before, only this time, think about a time when you were focused, and words came easily to the page or screen. Where were you, how were you feeling, and what do you remember about the environment?
When the ten minutes are up, highlight the main takeaways again, and compare the experiences. What makes them different, and more importantly, how are they the same? What did you learn?
What We Learned
At the workshop, there was one main takeaway from the exercises that we all agreed on and to which everything else was connected: a difficult writing session and a good writing session can be identical, but how we feel (whether or not we know it) determines how positive or negative the experience will be. This can be how we feel physically, like hunger, thirst, and fatigue, or emotionally.
And if how we feel is the biggest determining factor in our writing experience, there are things we can do increase our chances of having a good writing session.
Some Steps to a Good Writing Session:
Take care of yourself: stay hydrated, get enough sleep, try to eat healthy, avoid skipping meals, and stay active.
Evaluate how you feel about your writing before you start and try to address negative or uncomfortable feelings. For example, if you are worried the writing won’t be good, you can give yourself permission for it not to be: as my supervisor recently told me, ‘write it, then right it’. This is also a good start to becoming a self-reflective PGR.
Plan what you’re writing. Knowing where you’re headed and what you want to say can remove uncertainty about how to start.
Hide your phone and avoid social media. Phones can be very distracting, so try to keep them out of sight or even in a different room. If you want to avoid accessing social media on your computer, too, but still need wifi, you can try apps that moderate your access, like Forest (which has a Chrome extension). Successfully completing the scheduled time grows a tree for your forest, and when you get enough points you can donate them to planting a real tree.
Pace yourself. Breaks are as important as the writing itself, and it may be easier to work in defined segments of time. Plus, breaks give you a chance to re-evaluate how you’re doing or check the social media you’ve been avoiding. The Pomodoro technique is one way to schedule your working time, but experiment to find what works for you.
There’s one more thing we learned, and this may be the most important: it’s okay, even necessary, for writing to be hard. That’s how we make progress, and that’s how we develop as researchers. We can, however, make it easier by trying to have good writing sessions…and being understanding with ourselves on the difficult days.
What do you think? Did you try the exercises, and if so, what did you learn? Do you agree with the steps to a good writing session or have anything to add? Contact us to let us know or head over to Twitter or Instagram @UofG_PGRblog.
We are looking for guest posts. If you have an experience you want to share, attended a great event, or want to write about an aspect of PGR life that’s been on your mind, contact us and we’ll get you on your way to a UoG PGR Blog post!