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Writing Group, Party of One

Examining those writing on the margins of Standard American English, your dissertation as a solitary practice.

February 14, 2019
 
 

Neelofer Qadir recently graduated with her PhD in English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is a Research Associate at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center. Follow her on twitter @_neelofer and check out her website.

When I pitched the idea of a solo writing “group” to myself last fall, I was really burned out and facing an intense six month push of finishing a full draft of my dissertation, revising it, and defending it. And, oh, yes being on the academic job market. With no other choice, I decided to take a page out of Snoop Dogg’s book and promise myself to show up for myself.

The extrovert in me was extremely resistant to a solo writing practice and I have to admit it, I never fully committed to a writing group of one. The very idea of that level of isolation made me panic. Instead, I set up a Slack group for cis women and gender nonconforming writers of color (who I knew personally). It was a writing group in the vein of an accountability system: no sharing writing, only daily goals with occasional synchronous writing (but given that we were spread out from South Africa to California, mostly asynchronous check-ins). This halfway point between a more “extroverted” and “introverted” writing group ended up working out fairly well for me. Because of the commitment to solo writing that I had made, I posted in the group whether or not anyone else was. I logged my time. In equal measure, I chidded myself for setting unreasonable goals and celebrated when the writing was fire emoji.

I was surprised when this new iteration of my writing practice turned out to be more pleasurable than I anticipated. I found new routines: getting up even earlier than I could have imagined — with the sun most days; way more podcast listening on my morning walks with dog. But, some things stayed the same: namely, a serious commitment to sleeping well. Best of all, as a solo writer meant I spent more time with myself as a writer. I paid attention to writing style, voice, and perspective in ways that I never could during my binge writing periods. As I re-read the chapters I drafted first, I noticed how much I’d grown as a writer and that the promise of the project evident in those early chapters — in stitled and pain-staking ways — had come full fruition in the chapters I’d written more recently. I admired the writer I had become, one who was less plagued by doubt and could quieten the voices of faculty who had questioned my writing chops over the years

The last part — about the affects and audiences of our writing — is really critical and it came into sharper focus for me as I interviewed nine colleagues last week. All of them, unlike me, are committed solo writers and have been for much of their graduate school lives. They are humanists, social scientists, and scientists. Nearly all are multilingual. Several are first generation, working class, and/or international students. Some are navigating chronic pain and other forms of disability. Effectively, I wanted to privilege the experiences of my colleagues who are writing from the margins of Standard Academic English.

Armanthia, a sociologist researching inequity, criminology, and law, told me the quiet retreat, crunchy granola vibe of writing groups wasn’t for her. She said, “Writing has never been this zen thing for me. I don’t think it is for many people of color. [It] has been a site of tension for me.” Yet, writing is also a space of solace and liberation for her: “I have all these identities — daughter, sister, friend — but the one that means the most to me is scholar. As tense as it is, as anxiety producing as it is, writing is one of my most effective tools for bring awareness, exposing, fighting the good fight. What gets me up is that this work is the work that Black people do to get ourselves free.”

Sean, who studies 19th century U.S. literature, suggested that we have been socialized to do the work alone and that the “mark of good work is that it was produced without ‘help.’” Despite being primarily a solo writer, he talked about his attempts to shake off imposter syndrome by engaging with questions of who and what the work is for, which sometimes does involve sharing writing in progress with colleagues. He told me, “The university does so much to individuate and isolate scholarship … there are so many incentives to do work that is ‘internally’ motivated rather than ‘externally’ motivated … But to act like the work is just internal to one’s self is destructive. We should do the work not just for ourselves but for so many others, too.”

Such themes also emerged in my conversation with Edwin, a toxicologist, who I spoke with about writing in STEM last spring. A scientist who loves writing, Edwin continues to struggle with finding a sustainable writing practice and healthy relationship to writing in the confines of academic writing in the sciences. He has been journaling and writing creatively to repair his relationship to writing as he inches toward finishing his dissertation. When I asked him who his favorite science writers were as a way of dislodging himself from a writing funk, he paused, before pointing me to outlets like Science and Nature instead of individual writers. The intersections of narrative, public good, and cutting edge scientific research are what he’s eager to write about, but this is not the stuff that dissertations or NIH funding are made of. “The bigger picture is more important to me: my research on pesticides and its impact on people living across Africa, changing the really narrow sense people have of the role of pesticides in daily life, the politics behind it all.” Even as he relents — “I can march to [this] beat” — he trails off, “why is it so rigid?”

Subhalakshmi, a postcolonialist and gender studies scholar, noted that while so much of our scholarship hinges on our ability to communicate well, there is little to no attention within the formal structures of the academy that attends to our relationship to writing. She said, “Graduate programs take it for granted that [we] enter with knowledge of ‘how to write’ and/or expect [us] to develop it [ourselves] with no guidance, which results in people having very tense relationships with writing itself.” This point goes compounds when one considers the different genres in which we write over the arc of a graduate program — seminar papers, lab reports, journal articles, lectures, comprehensive exam papers, dissertation chapters. A great deal of the time, we are tackling particular genres of writing for the first time, sometimes with no previous exposure to them. For instance, we will take comprehensive exams only once, yet this is one of the most challenging stages for many students often due to the writing components.

Leslie, another 19th century Americanist, is currently writing her exam rationales. She offered me a line from the Handbook of Conscientious Objectors when I asked her why writing groups are a no for her. She cites, in prison, you “do your own time and no one else’s,” adding, “I find this applicable to where I am now.” The pressure of completing exams in a tight deadline has her working “unsustainable hours.” She tells me how she sat on the bus one morning — having written 15 pages in the previous 24 hours —  but couldn’t recall how she had arrived there. “This is obviously unsustainable. This can’t happen again. My next draft is due in a week and talking myself down from that edge again has been hard. Those feelings and the constant knowledge that I have no safety net — that my funding is my only livelihood — culminate[s] in an anxiety that drives me to do more work and faster in order to prove that I’m deserving of being in the academy, that I’m not just playing pretend, that I’m just as academic and rigorous as anyone.”

Saumya, who studies affect in contemporary post-conflict literature, echoed much of what Subhalakshmi told me about the experiences of international students who wonder if the educational systems in their home countries prepared them well enough for the demands of graduate education in the United States. The lack of explicit conversations around writing prove a challenge once again. But, Saumya, who locates part of her solitary writing habits in her introvertedness, said that writing her exams developed her “confidence [in her] writing” and allowed her to become comfortable with sharing it: “working on dissertation chapters has definitely made me cognizant of the significance of getting good feedback.”

Like many others, Maryam, a comparative literature scholar, found her writing habits shifting when she started her PhD program. A reformed, or reforming binge writer, Maryam has been transforming her writing practice to one that privileges consistency. In that way, the summer - semester divide continues to haunt her because the semester simply does not allow for the “cherish[ed] feeling … that I can potentially do a repeat performance the next day … of 2-3 hours a day, every day.” Being a new parent has brought about another change as Maryam now finds it impossible to write from home. She and her husband trade off 3 hour shifts, where one heads to the library while the other cares for their baby. This change made her realize how much she relied on her husband (also an academic) as an accountability partner and how integral that is to her writing practice.

Writing for Sharanya, like for several others I interviewed, means taking up space in a variety of ways: through where one’s seated, gestures, noises (or lack thereof). She told me, “I need to be as informal as possible when writing, which is why solo writing is better for me. Approaching writing informally and casually helps me enjoy it more.” In this way, she echoed a lot of what Armanthia told me about her need for writing solo, but always in public spaces, like cafes and bakeries. Armanthia wants “voices, movement” when she writes. They help her focus. She says, “Little things will happen that will inform my writing in ways that I wouldn’t have expected.”

The meta-reflection on writing processes, shame and anxiety, and the infrastructure of the Academy have become a research focus for Kate Litterer, a rhetorician, whose fantastic blog, The Tending Year has been featured on GradHacker before. Kate reflected on how chronic pain dramatically reshaped where she could work and for how long: “I struggle with workaholic tendencies, so it's been immensely valuable for me to shift my perspective from ‘must work nonstop and through pain’ to ‘hey, let's do these small goals as best as we can and take breaks when we need them.’" As she made some major lifestyle changes and sought assistance from healers, Kate realized the import of a much broader conversation about the “unachievable expectation for writing and productivity” that undergirds our profession. In that way, writing about how she was changing her writing practice allowed her “to walk my talk” and realize that her “practice can help other graduate students to develop habits that work for them.”

Thanks to Armanthia Duncan, Maryam Fatima, Sean Gordon, Subhalakshmi Gooptu, Saumya Lal, Leslie Leonard, Kate Litterer, Edwin Murenzi, and Sharanya Sridhar for chatting with me. Check back for a follow up post in which each of these solo writers shares “A Day in the Life” of their writing practice for the nitty-gritty details.

[Image from Flickr user RobinJP and used under a Creative Commons License.]

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