balance · best laid plans · heavy-handed metaphors · writing

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: the pros and cons of self-reflexivity

Do you know that ’80s hit from The Clash, Should I Stay or Should I Go? No. Well, indulge me. I swear I have a point, and it’s coming up right after this musical break:

In the chorus, The Clash moan: “If I stay there will be trouble/If I go there will be double.” What can I say, commitment is hard, you guys. However, I’m not here to dispense any relationship advice. Goodness help you if I start doing that! Instead, I want to talk about how hard it is to balance a healthy self-awareness with turning the self-reflexivity button off when it comes to writing.

A while ago, during one of our weekly Shut Up and Write! sessions my friends and I were talking about how important self-reflexivity is when it comes to writing. What do I mean by this awareness? Well, understanding what the writing process entails for one, and knowing what works for you personally. Things like:
– What helps you start writing (raise your hand if you’ve never despaired in front of the blank page or document. What’s that? Crickets? I’m shocked!);
-What keeps you going, especially for larger projects;
– What helps you structure your project or map out components, issues, methods, etc.;
– How do you best keep track of research sources;
– What keeps you sane? Is it binge-writing? Is it a routine? Is it a combination? What’s your balance?
– When do you write best? Morning, mid-afternoon, evening, night?
– What stars have to align for you to get in the zone? (23.2 degrees centigrade, 63.9 % humidity, and the like?)

Ideally, to be a professional writer, whether you’re a student (under-/graduate), an academic, a freelancer, etc., you have to have answers to at least a few of those questions. If you do, you become a more efficient writer, and possibly a saner one. When you know what works for you, and what your ideal process is, you can also be flexible. Sometimes, I have to be at my desk at home. Especially when I start a project, I need the safety of my most familiar surroundings to map out the unknown (I also need a certain proximity to my refrigerator, but we’ll leave those issues out of this, yes?). Other times, when I get stuck, I need to take my writing somewhere else.

On Tuesday, for example, I wrote in three different places: I started out at home, where I did one successful pomodoro, then started dilly-dallying and had lunch at 11 am. When the second pomodoro attempt produced nothing but the glazing of my eyes, I packed up and went to the library. I was good for one pomodoro there, but then two people decided to have a conversation (in a quiet room!), and that threw me off completely. I packed up again, and went to a coffee shop, where it turned out that what I needed was not silence, but the white noise of multiple conversations (some more annoying than others, especially when two young nurses talk about how they don’t like addicts and alcoholics) and coffee machines and the like. On the bright side, I got my article written and sent! On the other side (I wouldn’t really call it dark), I am aware of my own privilege: I can move around, have money for coffee shops, have access to a library, etc.

All this is nice and good: it’s awesome to be brimming with self-awareness. However, and it’s a big HOWEVER, self-awareness can and does kill my writing sometimes. Why did I have to move around so much on Tuesday? It’s because I was constantly checking in on myself. The internal editor suddenly turned into Bob Costas, commenting on my progress in a most annoying way. Here I was, writing an innocent sentence, when suddenly, I’d hear–in my head–“And here she goes, ladies and gentlemen, another sentence written, another sentence closer to the bringing this whole thing home. Take a closer look at that turn of phrase: it’s gotta be nearing the Olympic record for pretentiousness and obscurity. If nothing else, this one will certainly bring us into overtime.”

Actually, I don’t watch too much sports (yes, I know, one shocker after another, eh?), but that incessant checking in due to the anxiety of the impending deadline was sabotaging my productivity in a major way. And here is where The Clash come in: too much meta-analysis can paralyze, rather than benefit your writing process. Too many questions–especially while writing–can definitely impede it, bringing with them, even more anxiety, which throws us into a circle so vicious, it can be traumatic to the point of endless repetition. Writing as trauma. I think it’s been said before.

So, where’s the balance? Should I stay or should I go? What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: the pros and cons of self-reflexivity

  1. I try to break things into smaller tasks. If I can set my system in place then I have an easier time getting things done. But binge writing is also a good last resort.


  2. I agree, Stephanie. Right now I'm trying to break down writing into units as small as I possibly envisage, short of setting word count goals. It's a good exercise, but as you point out, sometimes, one just has to binge-write. There is always a moment in my projects, when writing just comes naturally, and more easily. Of course, it happens after many sessions of despair and despondence, but when it does, it's beautiful. If only there were more time to edit and revise after.


  3. I know what you mean! And when you have time to only focus on writing these lovely systems we can construct are much easier to maintain, but when you add in course work (in my case) or teaching, or life situations, and what have you, it becomes harder to maintain. And there really never is enough time.


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