by Sabhyata Timsina, Research Fellow
Feeling stuck as a writer
If you are anything like me, you probably find it really hard to write unless something is at stake. It could be a deadline or a reward of some kind waiting at the end. I’ve begun to realise that anchoring my writing habit to rewards or fears has made me develop a really bad writing practice, where I leave all of my work to the last few days before those rewards/deadlines are due. The in-between time is spent, well...procrastinating. Besides the pressure of last-minute work, I’ve also noticed that this has not allowed me to grow as a writer. Plus it’s hard to be proud of work that you desperately crammed in instead of consciously and deliberately laboured over.
A lot of people don’t have access to the stuckness that writers feel. What does that feel or look like? I used the word writer very freely here because anybody whose job includes getting things out in writing is a writer. Anyway, when I asked a friend to read the first draft of this blog, I was a little bit stumped by one of her comments. She said something like ‘You talk about struggling to write, and yet you write such clear coherent sentences, we don’t get to see the struggle’. For me the reasons for struggling to write have ranged from underconfidence to comparing myself to others to not having any passion for the thing that I’m writing about. One issue that made me take a long pause in writing was also that I was so bored of my own writing style. One of my writing strengths is that I can write very relatable prose about human relationships and connection, especially when I am moved by something that I experience. But at one point I felt being relatable was not enough for my growth as a writer. Evoking emotions wasn’t the only thing I wanted to do.
As a researcher, I needed to learn to make arguments and I wasn't able to do that successfully so I would abandon writing projects half way. It was a case of knowing how to write clear (even beautiful) sentences but not being able to make clear arguments. Also there are times when other types of work and responsibilities feel/felt more urgent and important than sitting down and writing like taking care of family, friends and myself. Writing takes a backseat during times like those. It’s this and also a kind of stubbornness that I will not write about anything I don’t feel connected to that stopped me from experimenting with writing earlier in my career- and also stopped me from failing and learning faster. As one of my mentors has reminded me repeatedly, our writing doesn’t have to be precious to us, it’s okay to let go of what’s not working. I would add that even our writing process doesn’t have to be precious; I should have tried as many ways and styles and topics as possible, especially in the earlier stages of learning to write well.
I continue to learn to write better. I am extremely lucky though, to have had all opportunities to keep coming back to it. But at this phase in my career I have come back to writing in a different way. It’s a lot more practical and nowhere near as romanticized as it used to be. I had to come up with a way to sustain and nurture my writing practice in a way that suited who I was. Because I am not a highly driven person, my passion for things ebbs and flows depending on the kind of day I’m having. For instance, I refuse to sit and write on a day that I am even mildly sick or on days that I am even a bit emotionally unwell. But without being disciplined it’s hard to write anything of value. This is where my writing group has stepped in to help.
Writing sessions to tackle stuckness
A few of my colleagues and I have been experimenting with different writing techniques and systems to produce more and better writing. One of those is a daily writing session. We needed a daily practice that would make us sit and try to write inspite of our personal and external conditions so we started setting up virtual writing sessions. We have one session at seven in the morning for early birds and people with other responsibilities during the day, and we have another slot in the afternoon for friends who can’t make it in the morning. So far we have five regular people doing this together and one person who hops into a session whenever they feel the need for company or conversation about their writing projects.
This idea was sparked by one of our supervisors who shared how she’d been writing with an ‘accountability friend’ during last year’s lockdowns. She’d been setting aside an hour or two with a writing friend in the day where they get on a zoom call, mute their microphone and simply use that time to write. Accountability friends in the context of writing are exactly what they sound like. At the bare minimum they hold you accountable for showing up for the writing session by calling you, reminding you to attend the session so you can write at the same time, and at the most they are the friend that asks you all the right questions about the writing you have produced to help you improve.
We have continued and discontinued the sessions at different phases during the past eight months. Like for most people the lockdown had pushed back our work schedules, projects and deadlines by many months so at the time we had really needed encouragement and support to get back on track with our daily schedules. Writing together brought some structure back into our daily life. Our longest streak so far has been about a month at a stretch with Saturdays off. We are 23 days into our current writing session. As with establishing most habits,for me, a lot of it has been about showing up. And to be honest, on some days I don’t even end up writing for the whole hour or so that we schedule. Sometimes I’m stuck because I feel I need more research data to write about the project I’m working on. Other times I use the time to brainstorm and plan or restructure what I’ve written, and sometimes I read something related to what I am writing. But most of the time, I write even if it’s a sentence or two. Yesterday I spent the whole hour wildly typing everything that was on my mind. I thought rather than struggling to make sense of my actual writing project, I would use the time to unload everything that was making me distracted.. Some of the pieces I write during the session will make it into our whole team Sunday meetings, where the group will give me feedback and advice to improve my piece.
The creativity and flexibility of writing groups
But without a little bit of interaction with each other, these writing sessions can feel a bit monotonous and can even recreate the silos that researchers/writers often work in. So we have established a ritual that makes me, at least, feel less isolated. At the beginning of every session we write together for five to ten minutes on a common prompt that has nothing to do with our solo projects nor needs to be well thought out - the prompt is a poem sometimes that we read together, a word or an idea. We use prompt writing to explore what we might write if we didn’t have an audience in mind. What does the writer want to say that might free their mind a little bit? My favourite one so far has been ‘things you didn’t write in your resume” which came off of a poem. Sharing these short pieces has given me a chance to get to know my colleagues as humans and also given me a sense of their writing style and inclinations. For me our beginning-of-session prompt writing also works to make sure I come to the session sharp on time so I don’t miss this fun and freeing start to every session. Writing for prompts feels a bit like exercising the writing muscles before other ‘serious’ thinking and writing can take place.
The morning and afternoon sessions, although similar in structure, function quite differently. They are not replicas of each other. The group dynamics in the two sessions add something different to the way the sessions are run. For instance, the morning session group doesn’t share their 10 minute free writing pieces with each other, while in our afternoon session we generally do. Also in the morning sessions, the group has been experimenting with writing about the same topic for ten minutes everyday of the week so they can fully explore the topic at hand. We plan to test that method out in the afternoon sessions soon too. We are beginning to see that the writing session can and probably will become more than just a space to sit quietly and write. For us, it has also somewhat become a place to experiment and reflect on ourselves as writers.\
The impact of accountability friends
Writing in the company of a group has given me the support I need to keep on working. I just find it so hard to focus on writing in general, it feels comforting that other people are pushing through right there with me in real time. My colleagues let me look through a window into that obscure thing that people call the ‘writing process’. Getting to see and talk about our writing processes with colleagues and supervisors reminds me that we’re all trying, writing, getting stuck, reviewing, procrastinating, winning, failing and trying to write some more.
I don’t know what the long term impacts these sessions might have on my writing habits and practice if we continue to meet like this. Right now I definitely feel an obvious increase in motivation to get writing done. I wrote this piece mostly during the session and workshopped it with the group, so that’s something! I think one indicator of its long term success for me would be my willingness to continue to write even after the 1.5 hour session. Or to carve out an additional hour in the day to write more. Or eventually, to bring discipline and regularity in my writing practice even without these writing sessions. These are things we’ll have to figure out together, by doing more experiments and learning other writer rituals - and overall just figuring out how we can improve our writing process individually and as a community.