Choose your fighter

Writing advice! I have given so much of it. As part of a general feeling of not knowing what the fuck I’m doing, I’ve been revisiting giving advice at all. In particular, I’ve been wondering if it’s ever good to give writing advice. This is because it is literally my job to teach people to write and to support student writers at all levels,

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and so I’m interested in getting better at that. I’m also writing about diagnosis and spiritual crises right now and have found myself reading a lot of self-help books, and some of them are relevant to the whole question of advice and the more specific possibility of identifying writing typologies, ours and others’, with care.
Here’s the idea: We could be more deliberate in identifying what helps us write – and, just as important for those of us who mentor other writers, working with them in terms of what helps them write without believing that what helps us write will help them write. Maybe you’ve already got this figured out, but I’ve been teaching writing for twenty years now, and it feels like this month is the first time I’ve really understood this idea: Maybe the things that help me write won’t help anyone else write!
This shouldn’t really be a shocking thought. I was trained in writing composition in the mode of Peter Elbow’s injunction to support Writing Without Teachers – the idea that people have what they need and we can get out of their way while supporting their writing process, rather than imposing our own process on them. Much of my reading in the study of teaching and learning has been interested in what it means to support people in their own process. Still, for a long time I was a proponent of the view, advanced by Robert Boice, that the best way to write was in short daily units, despite the fact that this is not how I write. This view is helpfully demolished by Helen Sword’s article “Write every day!: a mantra dismantled”. Sword says:

“In this article, I call into question the Boicean premise – often preached, seldom challenged – that daily scheduled writing is the one true path to scholarly salvation. Based on an international study of 1323 academic staff, PhD students and post-doctoral researchers in fifteen countries, I offer evidence that the vast majority of successful academics do not in fact write every day; that the correlation between daily writing and high productivity is a tenuous one at best; and that academics who explicitly reject the ‘write every day’ formula can still be prolific writers. This is not to suggest that daily writing is a bad idea (quite the contrary) or that Boice’s strategies for increasing productivity are ineffectual or unwise (indeed, I practice many of them myself – dare I say ‘religiously’?) However, my research underlines the importance, particularly for academic developers, of treating with caution any prescriptive, one-size-fits-all advice that demands unquestioning obedience from its followers and imposes guilt and blame on those who stray” (Sword 312-313).


For two days last week, I was totally compelled by the book The Four Tendencies, a people-sorting modality by Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin . This was captivating because it’s a book about akrasia – willing or wanting to do something but then not feeling able to follow through – and I’m really interested in akrasia, in myself and others. This book really helped me identify something about how I am motivated to write, so I’ll start with what was so helpful.
On Rubin’s account, there are four fundamental tendencies that people fall into as regards our motivation to act. She is careful to say that this is a diagnostic tool just for this action-motivation, not for, like, whether you’re a nice person. We could be UPHOLDERS, who are motivated reasonably equally by external and internal expectations – who respond to things others ask of them, or also they can set expectations for themselves and then do the things. As writers, these folks would find out what the comprehensive exam or tenure review process is in their department, decide how to fulfill it, and then do that. We could be QUESTIONERS, who are not at all motivated by external authorities or expectations but who are very motivated by their inner, self-motivated reasons. As writers they might ask many questions about things like why the exams or review process is like that and only do things if they can square them up with their inner motivations. Questioner academics might have a really hard time writing stuff that they know is bullshit, like grant applications, or that they’re doing to fulfill some nebulous professional obligation that they don’t believe in. We could be REBELS, who refuse to act in response to either external or internal motivations and who in fact can be pushed into full on resistance whenever anyone, including themselves, sets an expectation. Rebel academic writers might write prolifically and with ease about something that they find interesting or compelling – but as soon as their supervisor says that they really could turn it into a publishable paper get completely shut down about it. Maybe worse, as soon as they internally think that they should turn it into something in particular they might get blocked and resistant. Finally, we could be OBLIGERS, who are extremely motivated by external expectations but have a terribly difficult time actually doing anything if the only motivation is an inner expectation. Obliger writers would be people who really like writing with others, or who can write with some facility when there’s a deadline or specific task needed but totally fall apart when they – or, I should say “we,” I’m a textbook obliger – are turned out into a field to roam and graze with nothing required of us. Obliger writers might be able to get lots done if other people require it of us but have a terrible time when we’re on summer break or if we have an advisor who doesn’t expect us to submit stuff. If you don’t immediately know which is your writing style, you can take a quiz to find out what you are.
Now, as soon as I read this it helped me understand why I’ve always set up writing groups everywhere I’ve lived, why the main way I write is through submitting an abstract, then having to write the paper, then submitting the paper to a special issue, and like that. As a writer I set up external scaffolding to help me do things and to make me finish things. Sometimes this causes me lots of suffering (for my second book, because I didn’t have to have the whole thing done before having a contract, I complained about Past Alexis and what a pickle she’d put me in signing a contract; now I feel much more forgiving! I would never have written that book without that contract and a deadline). Having external expectations is really the only way I write the things I want to write. When my doctoral supervisor – a very kind and hands-off person – submitted a narrative evaluation of my progress the term after I’d finished my comprehensive exams that said “Alexis has not made any progress on her dissertation this term” I was completely horrified – and suddenly I started writing, a lot.
The other thing this typology right away helped me think about is the way I work with my thesis students. I often try to set clear expectations for them, to hold them accountable, to check in with them. I have a monthly thesis group, where people come together to talk about what they’re doing and to share work or practice for job talks. These are all things that work great – for writers who write the way I do! But reading with this typology I can look at my seven thesis students and pretty quickly identify them in likely clusters, and it’s even easier when I look back at all the grad students I’ve supervised over the last fifteen years: There are Upholders, who set goals internally and in conversation with me, and then plug along and meets them. When we set deadlines, work comes in, but also these students keep working along even if we haven’t been in touch for a few weeks. There are Questioners, who only do thesis work when they’ve figured out what their internal goals dictate – setting deadlines and expectations for them just slides right off them. There’re Rebels, who gets grumpy when given direction, including self-direction. And there are Obligers, who ask me to help build in some external accountability for their work and who turn stuff in if they believe I really require it (though it’s also clear that this only kind of works, since they also know I’m not going to be actually mad at them, nor do they believe that they will hurt me if they don’t turn in work – so they also set up structures with one another for meeting to write or share drafts where they feel they’ll let someone down if they don’t show, or do the work). So being able to think about my mentees in terms of what works for them instead of what works for me can be helpful, maybe even necessary. Applying my own writing medicine – escalating external motivations – to my Rebel students or my Questioner students might actively shut them down instead of facilitating their process! A lot of departmental graduate handbooks are written as though everyone is an Upholder, who just needs to identify their internal motivations, understand the external obligations put on them by the university, and do the work. But if you’re not that kind of writer, you’d need to backwards engineer your own motivation for doing that work – lining up what your own internal motivation is, understanding the choices you have and the consequences for them, or figuring out how to set up a scaffold to help meet your goals.
A lot of self-help books, The Four Tendencies included, have the helpful orientation that we’re not actually trying to change how we are – we’re trying to figure out ways to have less pain in relation to how we are. I think deliberately and carefully choosing how we narrate “what kind of writer” we are is helpful. Along the way we could trust that actually we do know something about ourselves. I have a friend who says that sometimes when she notices herself asking herself, in a mean way, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you do this?” she turns it around and asks that as a genuine question – “What’s wrong with you, dear one? Why can’t you do this?” Maybe some of the time what’s wrong is that we’re applying medicine for a different problem than we have; cranking up the expectations when expectations make us flee, lowering expectations when we need expectations to fulfill our own goals. It doesn’t have to be these modalities. I could narrate my tendencies through my Chinese lunar astrological sign – fire tiger – or my hippie North American astrological chart (I’m a Capricorn with a Virgo rising and a Taurus moon, and yes it is amazing that I can even walk with all that earth in my chart, you should see it) or my Enneagram type (I actually don’t know much about this but people tell me I’m a Nine) or my Buddhist five wisdoms orientation (Padma-Vajra, I know, it’s weird), or the Sorting Hat (actually I don’t know what my House would be).
Anyhow, here’s the more general point than this specific self-help modality. What if we who are supporting other writers consensually and collectively thought through the ways we talk about “what kind of writer?” they are, knowing our own tendencies and tuned our writing support accordingly? I think it might be good.

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