Thursday, March 15, 2012

Concentration, Focus

It's not often that there's disagreement in the academic writing blogosphere. But I've got to take a moment to register my concerns about Tanya's approach to "clearing your mind", i.e., concentrating on your writing to the exclusion of other concerns. Actually, Jonathan's already beaten me to it: "concentration is similar to inspiration: neither has to exist before the work happens." Tanya, by contrast, leaves us with the impression that the "clear mind" (which is focused and able to concentrate) has to be established before the writing takes place. This advice strikes me as more likely to reinforce bad habit—or, rather, bad excuses—than foster good writing.

You write because your schedule tells you to write and because it allows you to do the other things you have to do later.

So, for example, her first solution to concentration problems, what she calls the "easy fix", gives you a reason to stop writing and start doing something else. Even emailing! "Do something about the situation instead of letting it bother you," Tanya says. Interestingly, the situation she imagines—an annoying student with an unreasonable demand—has a fix that is so easy one wonders why it would be hard to stop thinking about. (This is why part of her solution in her examples is also a solution to the problem. I.e., she's telling you to solve the problem rather than organize your time so that you have some time to deal with it.) But the whole point of writing discipline is to let the writing happen regardless of your other concerns, even when tricky problems remain unsolved. The "easy" problems are the best opportunity to train your discipline. Simply resolve to think about and deal with the student later, when your schedule doesn't say you're supposed to be writing.

Her second and third solutions aren't really about writing. They're general rules about facing your difficulties as practical problems and acknowledging your emotions. I'm not entirely sure what my position on them are, but they don't strike me as a related to writing. By relating these life skills to writing, I worry that we overcomplicate the problem of writing. It makes it seem like you have to get your emotional house in order in order to write. But that gets it backward. Writing every day, regardless of your practical irritations and emotional confusions, will help you compose yourself. It will contribute by putting your intellectual house in order. Or just keeping you in shape.

Finally, I would actually suggest that you do "hesitate to seek out professional help if you are having trouble dealing with your problems on your own", at least if you think this will solve your writing problem (or is a precondition for solving your writing problems.) This sounds to me like a way of making concentration way too big an issue. Exactly, like Jonathan says, it's like saying you need to be "inspired" to write. We're all just more or less sane and some may well need professional help to function in life. But if you immediately (unhesitatingly) seek professional help in order to concentrate in order to write then I suspect you're just coming up with an excuse. So, as I've argued before, do be hesitant about thinking about your writing difficulties as something "deeper" than an intellectual (having something to say) or moral (having the discipline to say it) problem.

I'm sure part of my disagreement with Tanya here is a misreading of her post. But I think it's a natural misreading (and one that her readers are also likely to indulge in) that I hope I've now offered a corrective to.


Tanya Golash-Boza said...

Thomas: Thanks for your thoughts! My thoughts when I wrote this piece were a reflection of times I have felt too emotionally overwhelmed to write. For me, this happens maybe once or twice a year.

The emotions can be 1) positive: If I win a major grant or 2) negative: If my manuscript is rejected with scathing reviews.

Your post makes me think two things: 1) These events are rare enough that it is okay to take time to process emotions and not write for that day. 2) Perhaps I should try harder and concentrate even when something major happens.

I'll let you know next time I am on an emotional roller coaster!

Thomas said...

Yes, it is true that sometimes things happen that force you to abandon your writing, and strong emotions are one of them. We just have to make sure that our writing is not the first (because easiest) thing to abandon. Like I say, it struck me that your post could be misread as saying "Of course, if you can't concentrate, cancel the session. Write that email to the student first." That's often exactly what you should not do. We should say, "Is that email really do important?" or "Well, I don't know what it means that I've been rejected (or accepted) until I sit down and read the reviews closely." In either case, do the planned writing (just as you would teach the planned class) first. Then, when you have time, consider the questions.