Among the many thoughtful comments on my post about the “PhD Conundrum,” one that really struck a chord with me is a remark by Joanna Scutts about “typical grad-student behaviors,” which she notes include asking for permission and working for praise. I would say that these are not grad-student behaviors only but good-student behaviors, in that they are typical among academically high-performing undergraduates as well: it makes sense that they appear in exaggerated form among graduate students (who were all strong undergrads to begin with) and are exacerbated by the grad school experience. I am surprised at how much I am still affected by the habits of asking for permission, the key difference at this level being that the person I really need to ask is myself. I’m also distressed at how much I seek praise for my work and feel disappointed in myself when it is not forthcoming: though I realize that my ongoing craving for external validation is inappropriate to my status as a qualified professional, that sense that if you do your work right you will get an A has never quite gone away. (I suspect that the years of being graded for our efforts set us up for the anxiety with which most of us look at our course evaluations.)
It’s the whole asking for permission thing that is most bothersome to me these days, particularly in the context of my writing. One of the payoffs I expected from my blogging is that I would shake off that nagging, doubting voice that tells me I’m not qualified or ready to write about something: that I haven’t read enough or done enough research, that my own opinion doesn’t count for anything unless it’s backed up and depersonalized and abstracted, that I haven’t justified or adequately theorized my approach. As a student, I found deadlines eventually forced me to write what I could, though I was often wracked with despair as I handed something in or presented it in seminar, sure it was a disastrous misfire. The feedback I got almost never (though not quite never) confirmed my worst fears, but somehow my confidence was never boosted. Since graduate school, I have hardly been the world’s most prolific scholar, but I’ve placed my pieces well and in general I’m satisfied that they are good work. Still, I usually declare something finished with a strange mixture of defiance and resignation, rather than satisfaction, and I have a terrible time starting to write something, because to do so I have to silence that voice. (Sometimes I try to drown it out with music!)
By and large I don’t hear that voice when I’m blogging, though, and that has been wonderfully liberating. It helped that I started my blog with no particular goals except to keep track of my reading: it was my space, and it was a kind of space outside the usual parameters of academic judgment. Also, blog posts don’t claim to be definitive or authoritative, the way academic writing does: when blogging, it’s OK (maybe even preferable) to show that you’re still thinking things through, that intellectual life is an ongoing process prone to discoveries, reversals, and confusions. By the time anyone besides my immediate family and friends was reading it, I was comfortable enough to just keep going as I had begun. Some early controversies in the comments set me back and made me more cautious in some respects (which is probably good, though I worry sometimes that the self-censorship I practice keeps my blogging blander than I am in other contexts). Overall, though, I have no inhibitions as a blogger that compare to the insecurities that slow me down when I write anywhere besides here in this WordPress box. My frustration is that the increased confidence I have found in my own voice and views as expressed here has not made a noticeable difference to my other writing. It feels as if I have given myself permission to write as myself, but only within this specific framework. Everywhere else, the old rules still apply! I notice this particularly when writing for Open Letters, where I have been encouraged to write more like I blog (this is not the only feedback I’ve gotten, and I think my co-editors are happy with the pieces I’ve done for OLM–but there I go again, worrying about external validation!). Even though OLM pieces specifically and deliberately are not supposed to sound academic, the minute I know I’m writing something official for publication, I get all serious and anxious again, laboring over every word. It’s nuts!
Yesterday I tried an experiment. When I decide to post on something here, my rule is: write it (online), tidy it, post it. No second-guessing, no (major) rewriting. I think the longest I’ve spent on a post is 4 hours (oddly, that was the Sex and the City 2 post), but more often I write for an hour or two at most, and usually I’m pretty satisfied with the results–not that there’s nothing more to be said, or nothing that could be said any better, but I have said what seemed important to say, said it pretty clearly, and been myself. What if (I wondered) I wrote the review I’m currently working on right here in WordPress, pretending it was a blog post? Maybe at the very least in a couple of hours I’d have a draft I could work with.
Sadly, as my daughter pointed out, it’s hard to pretend to yourself, because you know too well what you are really doing. An hour or so in, I was not reviewing (as I would have been if I’d known it was really a blog post) but still taking notes. I gave up and pasted what I had into a Word document. What I need is not to fool myself into thinking I have permission to write: somehow, I need to believe it.