Ever since I was a kid, I had a need to scribble my thoughts into being. To this day, my parents still come across my old notebooks, tucked in the corners of closets and the bottoms of drawers. Books filled with pen scratchings of personal entries and lines of poetry. I’d spend hours creating fictional characters, inspired by ones I read about in books. Characters that would come to life in the same way as Anne Shirley or Scout, and feel like they’re good friends.
Now I spend my days writing a PhD thesis and I find myself missing those times when I felt more confident about my writing. Academic writing can be challenging, especially when it comes under scrutiny by thesis committee members, peers, and the broader academic community. While there are days when I thrive in my writing and research, there are also days when I feel stuck and second-guess every word I type. Thoughts of, does this argument make sense? Does it connect to the broader themes addressed in my thesis? Heck – what ARE my broader themes?! (Cue meltdown.)
Adding to this lack of confidence is that I no longer live near the university. Recently, my partner and I moved closer to family and friends. I love being here but it means I am less engaged in academic activities. When I lived in Ottawa, I often met for coffee with my supervisor so we could touch base about my research. Other days, I met with fellow grad students for writing sessions and thesis seminars. These activities have all been wonderful in keeping me motivated and on track for completing my thesis.
Since moving, I experienced the dreaded writer’s block and couldn’t seem to find the push I needed to get moving again. Every time I sat down to write, I seized up. The ideas I had no longer seemed very good. I dissected my arguments until they didn’t make sense anymore. And the cursor blinked at me. Mocking me.
For two weeks, I kept myself busy in the hopes that a new research idea would bring me back to writing. I took walks to explore my new neighbourhood. I read a few fantastic books (Good Omens – why did I wait so long to read you?). I emptied out moving boxes. That was when I found my inspiration: my old journals.
I came across a box I had been meaning to organize but forgot about. The box was filled with random items from my childhood home. Sitting on the top were my old journals from Grade 3. Half curious, half embarrassed, I flipped through the entries. I learned cursive writing that year, and the pages were filled with my over-scrolled penmanship. For almost every day of the school year, there was an entry. Some of the entries were simple, such as descriptions about what I ate for dinner the previous night. Others were playful and reminded me of what I treasured when I was younger. In one entry, I describe my excitement in purchasing an old Underwood typewriter with my birthday money, and how I was going to write a story on it when I came home from school. I loved that typewriter, and still lug it around with me wherever I go.
Reading the entry, I realized what I was doing wrong: I had stopped writing. Not simply academic writing, but all writing. I had placed too much pressure on myself to write something academically “good” each and every time, and on the days I struggled, I didn’t write at all. Not my thesis, not my journal. Nothing. I had lost the fun in writing. What I need to do is just write – even a little – despite whether or not it is good. There will be days when the right words aren’t there, but if I keep writing through it, eventually they will find a place.
To doubt and seize writing is to lose the words all together.