One Hundred Words, Three Sentences

This is an editing exercise, using the power of constraint to liberate some creativity but also as a diagnostic to see what long sentences might be trying to tell us.

Start by finding a long sentence in something you’ve written – usually longer than 60 or 70 words. Break that sentence into exactly three sentences and expand until you have a total of exactly 100 words. For extra challenge you can mandate that one of the three sentences be quite short, like 7 words long.

The point of this exercise is to notice when, or if, a long sentence is something that you needed to get traction on something complex you were trying to say. A lot of the time in initial drafting we’re able to rush through something in order to allow ourselves to get it out, but it might be that there are actually a few different explanatory or argumentative “moves” happening in it, and our readers will benefit from us slowing down a bit.

Here’s mine, for example:

Original, long sentence:
“Implicitly, this focus assumes that the people trying to kill the Earth and its inhabitants are the people making bad or selfish lifestyle decisions – or, at least, it does not hone in on the greenhouse gas emissions of industry, mining, fracking, alongside the complex situations of volcanic eruptions, forest fires, and the melting of sea ice that currently captures greenhouse gasses.”

Edited, three sentences in one hundred words:
“Implicitly, this focus posits that what is killing Earth and its inhabitants are the people making bad or selfish lifestyle decisions, and that the solution we need thus requires individuals to change their lifestyles. This approach does not identify the greenhouse gas emissions of industry, mining, fracking, alongside complex situations like volcanic eruptions, forest fires, and melting sea ice that currently captures greenhouse gasses as core issues to address. It does not allow us to analyze complex issues such as the trade-offs between mining rare earth minerals used in solar power generation and storage and the carbon costs of petroleum.”

Not letting a quote hang in space

We often hear, or tell our students, not to just let quotes hang out in space. Sometimes we say that they should not end a paragraph with a quote, or that it’s important to explain why the quote is there, in the chapter or paper or whatever. This exercise is to warm up how to do that. So, pick a quote from something you’re working with – it could be an interview transcript or a text or a cultural artifact. Write the following four sentences in order. Don’t go back and fuss with each sentence after you’ve written it, just move forward.

1. The most obvious thing about this quote is (something that you think is really obvious)…
2. One could argue that (a contradiction or something that is not obvious about the quote)…
3. But what is really important to note/hear/understand in this quote …
4. And so/Thus/, “(Try to re-state a particularly poignant or important phrase from the quotation)”.

I think this is a useful exercise because it gives us some scaffolding for just getting an explanation out there about quotes we use – a subset of this exercise would be to look at several examples in your specific ongoing academic conversation and try to abstract out the general “moves” or implicit rules for unpacking quotes. When we feel like quotes are self-explanatory or just really brilliant, practicing laying out why they’re brilliant or what they’re saying is useful, because often we’re not conscious of just how much we’re bringing to the quote as writers. Bringing ourself to the quotes, and offering them to our readers, is really one of the things we’re trying to do as writers.

Good Old Freewriting

I think Peter Elbow’s great book Writing Without Teachers was the first place I encountered a rationale for freewriting. Freewriting’s a really useful technology for academic writers in particular.

The how of freewriting is very simple: You set a timer, usually for quite a short time (5-7 minutes) and write without stopping, editing, reading what you’ve written, or making any corrections. It’s useful to cover the screen of your computer so that you actually cannot see what you’re writing, or to experiment with writing long-hand, or writing long-hand with your non-dominant hand.

  • The simplest form of freewriting is just to write whatever comes up for the set time, reading it afterwards gently and without judgement, and turning the page or deleting the file.
  • The slightly more elaborated form is to take a word or phrase and repeat it over and over if nothing is coming to mind until you jump out of the groove you’re in: “I’m thinking about I’m thinking about I’m thinking about…”
  • The more elaborated than that form is to take a key word or concept you’re working with our struggling on, and repeat it until something bumps up: “Bad kin is bad kin is bad kin is…”. With this form, you can go back, gently reading, and underline phrases that emerged that were interesting or generative and use them as key words or phrases that you repeat over and over for another freewrite.

When I’m guiding freewriting sessions in classes, I always start with the totally open, simplest version and then go into a more directed version. This seems important to the process. It’s also workable to do just the simplest version for five minutes and then go into regular writing.

The why of freewriting is more complex. I’ve seen a bunch of good effects of it, some of which make sense and others of which are kind of mysterious but real:

  1. It helps us disaggregate our creative self from our editorial self – both are really important, but because of the layers of pressure we academics have put on writing and ourselves as writers, we often try to edit at the same time as we’re writing. This shuts us down, and freewriting gives our creative self practice at saying to our editor self, “I really love you and think you’re important, but I need you to step back a bit so that I can generate some material for you to hone and refine. Could you stand over there for a while, and I promise I’ll bring you back in soon?”; it gives our editor self practice stepping back, based on affirmation that it is important and loved and that its care-giving in the form of critique and refinement is appreciated and trust that it will be invited back in when appropriate. Freewriting is like fighting with bamboo swords; you practice the moves and relationships in a safe-enough space.
  2. Freewriting is automatically successful. Did you write some gibberish for five minutes? You win! It’s a good productive procrastination strategy because it is a very low bar for doing some writing. You can almost always say, “I obviously can’t write my dissertation but I can ramble without editing for five minutes about my tea and my cat.”
  3. For some reason, even freewriting gibberish makes writing feel easier. This doesn’t really make sense but it’s true.
  4. Freewriting gives a palpable sense of the abundance of our writing. Usually we can write 200-500 words in seven minutes. They’re not, like, good sentences or very interesting, but there are a lot of them.
  5. Freewriting tunes us into a kind of vitality and directness that sometimes surprises us and allows us to see something about what we’re thinking that we didn’t know was there.
  6. Directed freewriting puts something on the page, so that you’re not writing into a blank sheet. This is very soothing, even if you just delete it later.
  7. It’s nice to have a form of writing that you don’t share with people – having this clarifies the difference between writing for ourselves and writing for others.

Anyhow, good old freewriting. I recommend it.

Impossible Task Exercise

My department has started a Discord server for students and faculty to support one another’s writing and teaching. This morning we had the first real-time audio meeting to do a quick writing-play exercise and a unit of collective work. Here’s the write-up for the Impossible Task writing exercise we did today.

Many times when we think about writing a huge, looming task that is clearly impossible plants itself in our way. M Molley Backes tweeted about this as a general but undertheorized feature of depression. As she says, it’s often something that looks easy from outside, or that you used to be able to do quite easily, or that you used to enjoy doing but now are completely blocked around. There arMr earbrasse some specific ways that Impossible Tasks show up in writing. “Impossible” here just names that we cannot currently do the task – though sometimes we cannot do the task because it’s more than any human can do in the time we’ve given ourselves. The Impossible Task Exercise is my favorite trick for this situation. It completely side-steps the impulse that academics in particular have, which is to believe our mind’s account of what’s happening and to intensify our conceptual engagement with and emotional avoidance of the task we cannot face. Our impulse is often to fling ourselves directly at the wall that we find before us, to hammer ourselves against it, and then to be quite mean to ourselves when that tactic doesn’t work. This exercise helps us just step around the side of the wall. It has three parts.

1. The Impossible Task exercise starts with just naming what task is that is looming bigger than it is possible to do. Write this down. These could be things like “write the reader’s report I have due on that journal article” or “write an abstract for that conference” or “write the opening lecture for class.”

2. Then write a sentence that begins, “Of course it is impossible to {x} because reason 1, reason 2, reason 3.” You are here affirming that the task at hand bring up obstacles, that they are real, and that you are experiencing them. You can list as many reasons as come to you why the task you have to do is impossible to do; they are all real and deserve to be clearly witnessed.

3. Then write a sentence that begins, Although I cannot [complete x, write y], I can: list at least three things that are ridiculously small, and that obviously are things that it is possible to do, related to the thing that is obviously currently impossible to do but so small that you have no resistance to doing them; e.g., get the book off the shelf, open the document that you feel you’re supposed to finish writing but cannot, read the final paragraph of that document, write an explanation of one quote.

4. Set a fixed period of time, say 45 minutes, and do just one of the things that can be done although the impossible thing cannot. See what happens next.

On not writing about what we love

I read a piece somewhere. I can’t find it now but I think about it often enough that maybe some of what I think about it wasn’t actually there. Anyhow, I remember that it made an argument for Peter Schjeldahl as a significant critic in part because of a pedagogical mode in his critical writing. The piece argued that he enacted for the reader the possibility of careful attention through the way he wrote about experiencing an artwork with careful attention. This was quite lovely. Reading Schjeldahl’s reports from the art world, I think of that piece often, because it in its turn enacted a kind of loving and careful attention to Schjeldahl’s criticism. Such an approach models and offers a spiraling loop of appreciation and a deepening capacity to attend that seems to me to be at the hopeful heart of aesthetics. [ETA: Thanks to the glorious and generous C. Thi Nguyen, who knew about the original post, which is even better than I remembered (please go read it now!).] In my first book I was obsessed with the question, coming from marxist aesthetics, of how we combat alienation and deepen our love for the world, or our living entanglement with it – and this question turns out (in that tradition, anyhow) to have a lot to do with the capacity for play, for putting our solid sense of self up for grabs, for being or becoming available for transformation.

This week, as the novel coronavirus transforms the world, it feels  ridiculous to think about how we appreciate the world. And yet, many people I know are thrown right now into the question of what use our work is, whether it’s a good time to write academic work at all. Some of us are answering those questions by deciding that we should write about the coronavirus, plunging ill-advisedly into writing hot takes about the pandemic. Another option is to write about things we love, or about things that are close to us. This is a long-standing feminist tradition, taking seriously the possibility that hobbies, domestic arrangements, various kinds of fandoms, and other perhaps small or particular things are worthy of serious attention. Some of my favorite philosophy comes out of such an approach, from Ladelle McWhorter’s incredible writing about subjectivity through understanding gardening and line-dancing as worthy of attention to Donna Haraway’s care for being with dog agility practice. And yet I’ve been practicing resistance, even before COVID-19, to writing about things I love.

Schjeldahl had a piece in a December 2019 issue of the New Yorker in which he reflects on his impending death, parts of his life, and his work as a critic. There are a number of lovely, heartbreaking, and incisive bits, often all of these at once, in it. I very much liked these paragraphs about how he selected art to write about:

I retain, but suspend, my personal taste to deal with the panoply of the art I see. I have a trick for doing justice to an uncongenial work: “What would I like about this if I liked it?” I may come around; I may not. Failing that, I wonder, What must the people who like this be like? Anthropology.
I assess art by quality and significance. The latter is most decisive for my choice of subjects, because I’m a journalist. There’s art I adore that I won’t write about, because I can’t imagine it mattering enough to general readers. It pertains to my private experience as a person, without which my activity as a critic would wither but which falls outside my critical mandate.

I’m fascinated by the idea of that which pertains to my private experience as a person but without which my activity as a critic would wither. It feels critically (ha) important that we critical theorists would have to maintain some conscious control over what we write about in order to maintain some reservoir that is not made available to others. Until reading this, I hadn’t had a way to think about the importance of having things in our lives, maybe lots of things, that we do not write about in our critical work, that doesn’t meet our critical mandate (however we have constituted it). Not everything should be written about because it is important to have a significant chunk of things that are personal experience – necessary to the liveliness of the critical work, but necessarily not included in it.

Schjeldahl is also generous here in offering a model of the critical endeavor as partially imagining that something could be otherwise, including our own response to a thing. I’m imagining now what would happen to my readerly attention if when I encounter theory I hate or disagree with I made a habit of asking “What would I like about this if I liked it?” Or what if I started asking about things I adore,  what would I hate about this if I hated it? I know that this is pretty basic, but I’m finding these useful in the overall project of offering attention to that which is uncongenial, the world that should not now exist, which is so much of the world right now. Aside from the prospect of holding some things as personal, as not available for translation into academic or scholarly currency, the question of significance helps me think about clarifying the stakes of what we work on and why. Not everything should be written about, because the resources of attention are political. I think we could benefit from better being able to assess something both for quality and for significance, and from having having an account of what makes something significant.

Fred Moten thinks about conceptual and theoretical terms or moves as toys rather than tools, as ways we can put ourselves into play. He says,

“In the end what’s most important is that the thing is put in play. What’s most important about play is the interaction… If you pick them up you can move into some new thinking and into a new set of relations, a new way of being together, thinking together. In the end, it’s the new way of being together and thinking together that’s important, and not the tool, not the prop. Or, the prop is important only insofar as it allows you to enter; but once you’re there, it’s the relation and the activity that’s really what you want to emphasize.”

So the idea of the personal, of making space for not writing about what we love, also comes back to play, to de-alienating our work, or refusing to alienate our love through writing about everything we love in an academic register or in a way we can count as part of research productivity. Not everything significant to us needs to be shared, especially not in academic writing. For those of us working as academics right now, we could productively resist speed-up as a response to the pandemic, not write for publication, but think and notice a lot, just like Schjeldahl.

 

Grounding in why we write – internal and external motivations

In my thesis writing class this term we discussed Joe Kadi’s brilliant piece “Stupidity ‘Deconstructed’,” which looks at the experience of working-class people in the university. I teach this piece alongside Eli Clare’s book Exile and Pride pretty much as often as I can, because I find them both incredibly nuanced, beautifully done, and useful for students in thinking about why they do what they do, as students. It’s useful to have such outstanding examples of what theory can do, if we think about theory as a technology for explaining something that matters to a life. Every class we had an “activity” part of the course, where we do some kind of exercise or skill-building thing, and this class about the uses of theory focused on articulating why we write. We talked about the difference between external and internal motivations for writing, which I find that sometimes we don’t think about enough in academia.

Questions of how to assess whether our academic writing is worth doing and why we do it are heightened during the coronavirus pandemic. I know a lot of people who are saying that their work feels meaningless, empty, parasitic, useless, or laughable in the face of the tragedies and hardships rolling down. As with many other things, before thinking about why we write I think it’s good to first think about whether we’re in a place to even think about thinking about academic work. While it isn’t news that a lot of academic work is irrelevant to transforming the injustice and suffering of this world, we might not be in a space to confront additional layers of existential doom right now. But it has been helping me as I consider whether the work of my life so far has been worth the life I’ve spent on it to think about external and internal motivations for the writing part of that work.

External writing motivations in academic spaces include credentialing (getting a degree or diploma), money (getting grants, merit raises, honoraria, prizes), and recognition (having someone like something you’ve written and acknowledge it in some way). Extrinsic motivations usually have some marker in the world and a yes/no answer: did you get or not get that grant, job, publication, conference invitation? Internal motivations include the felt sense of goodness or completeness – what Audre Lorde talked about as the erotic – that emerges through the difficulty of putting something down. There are craft pleasures of making a beautiful or effective sentence, and a particular satisfaction of formulating something new or documenting something that can offer information to the world. There are also kind of neurotic or repressed internal motivations, which usually don’t have such easy markers – proving to your fourth grade teacher that you aren’t in fact too stupid to go to school because look you got a PhD, or having a felt sense that you have done something well, or being present in office hours with a student having a hard time figuring out a knotty idea – these are not easy to measure from outside.

Intrinsic and extrinsic reasons for doing academic work are often conflated or cathected. This is only a problem when a disavowed intrinsic motivation, like proving to a disapproving parent that we are worthy of love, cannot be solved or met by the things we actually are dong, like trying to publish a paper. The editor is not our parent, so they cannot actually resolve the question of whether we’re worthy of love – and they may not be even able to adequately address whether we’ve written a paper worthy of publication. So, if we funnel all the feelings and needs associated with proving our worth to someone in the past, or trying to live a meaningful life in the present, into professional activities , there will be a misfit between what we need and what it is possible for the scholarly world to offer us. Extrinsic motivations, like getting a paper accepted at a conference, or getting a job, or getting tenure, will never perfectly address intrinsic motivations, like feeling that we’ve crafted a beautiful sentence, adequately articulated something important that one of our interviewees told us in our research, or taught a class in which students really understood something.

I think that academia as a structure and mode of being tends to shape us as people towards cathecting internal motivations onto external motivations – it’s a truism now that academics frequently tether our sense of self to our place in the university, and that universities extract quite a lot of labour from academics based on the idea that we are simply doing what we love. The extractive force of this pattern falls disproportionately, of course, on precarious workers in academia – contract instructors, adjuncts, graduate students. It is sometimes considered crass or opportunist to talk about money or a secure job as a motivation for academic work, and this makes it difficult for us to understand that thinking and writing is work, which deserves to be paid.

As with so many other things, it’s important to be rhetorically strategic about how we disclose our motivations. But we can reflect on what brings us to our writing in ways that can clarify what we can actually get out of it and perhaps that can allow more internal understanding of whether there are intrinsic motivations that will not be solved with the external rewards that are available to us. And internally at least, it can be useful to acknowledge without shame if we’re doing something simply to credential – such as getting an graduate degree. We can give credentialing (or needing to do work to fulfill the formal demands of our job) the dignity it deserves (because there are reasons to get credentials) without needing the degree or academic work to also bring meaning and beauty to our life or the world.

Existentially demanding self-inquiry aside, right now it’s also worth doing this delimiting work because most academics are in a triage situation, deciding what actually *has* to happen because we’re working at really low cognitive capacity. I am confident that the meaningful or useful or uselessly beautiful work we all were doing before the pandemic is still worth doing – but we might not need to do it right now.

Deciding whether to do academic writing right now

It is always a good exercise to think through why we write, though we pause to reflect on this question relatively rarely. In normal academic times, we might say things like:

◦ I need to finish this paper for my class because I’m trying to get through my first year of grad school
◦ I am trying to get tenure, and I know that the departmental norm is two publications a year, so I want to submit three things this year
◦ I wrote an abstract for this conference and it was accepted and now I have to write the paper because I already bought my plane ticket
◦ I feel called to contribute to the academic discussion about this topic and I have helpful insights that will move the conversation in useful directions
◦ Writing grounds me and helps me feel like I know who I am

And so on. Academic writing, like many things, is quite vulnerable to co-optation by what Jay Smooth calls “The Little Hater,” that part of ourselves that criticizes our creative production even as we’re trying to write. Many academic writers have a version of the Little Hater psychically transcribed from some teacher who was mean to us or in some way told us we weren’t smart and would never make it as a scholar, and we fold that voice into a neoliberal productivity fetish. During a global crisis, like our current pandemic, a lot of the normal reasons for academic writing aren’t actually very appropriate, and in particular the productivity demon version of the Little Hater is especially pernicious. Since nothing is normal right now, and since all of us are carrying various denominations and sorts of anxiety and stress, we should be actively rejecting logics of productivity as guarantors of self-worth. As I’ve been saying over and over to my students and colleagues: this is not a time to expect ourselves to get any work done.

Still, there are some reasons we might want to or need to write during this time. Reasons could include:

◦ It is really important to me to have a regular time to touch in to something that is not doomscrolling through the news, and writing can be that.
◦ Even though it feels like the world is collapsing, I still need to show productivity to my Dean for some reason.
◦ I have a defense date set for my comprehensive/thesis/etc, and in order to to take up the next thing I’m doing I really want to finish it.
◦ I’m working on something that is meaningful to me
◦ I need to manifest the confidence that my work is worth doing even if it’s not directly related to the pandemic, and writing affirms my belief that we will collectively make it through this, like an anchor cast into a future.

So, the writing exercise has a couple of parts. (If you want to listen to me talking through this with my writing class and follow along, there is a recording here.)

1. Start by sitting in a comfortable way. You might close your eyes for this part. Just begin with feeling how you are – how you are emotionally, physically, how your feet feel touching the ground, how your clothing feels on your body. You’re just getting a baseline of how you feel right now.
2. Call to mind a piece of writing that you are or were working on. Notice how thinking about that work lands in your body, what that feeling is. The idea here is that you’re just feeling the feeling, not judging it or making any particular decision based on it.
3. Notice if some other piece of writing comes to mind as you’re thinking of it, and how you feel about that.
4. Spend a couple of minutes writing down what comes to you when you think about these pieces of writing. What are they? Why are you doing them? How do you feel about them?
5. You could repeat this about any piece of writing that you’re thinking through that feels useful or possible to work on right now.
6. Re-read what you wrote, underlining things that are internal reasons (like, “continuing to write makes me feel grounded”) and things that are external reasons (like, “I think my scholarly work on this topic would be useful to people right now,“ or “My final project is due in three weeks.”)
7. Breaking down the reasons for writing like this can be helpful in checking if things are actually doing what you think they’re doing. If you’re writing because your work is useful to someone, how would you know if it was useful? It’s okay to have your metric of “how I know” be “someone re-tweeted an observation I made” or “my colleague told me they appreciated how I explained x.” If you’re writing because you need to credential, the metric could be “I got a revise-and-resubmit!” If you’re writing because writing helps ease your anxiety, it could be “I felt really rotten, and then I wrote for 45 minutes and felt a bit better.” If your reason for writing is that it helps with your anxiety, but you’re in fact feeling much more anxious after writing, anxiety-management might not a good reason to be writing right now for you.