On academic writing and other muse-requiring activities
Author: Avital Rom
I am an academic who recently graduated her PhD in ancient Chinese history from the University of Cambridge, an amateur Celtic harp player, and a new mother. In my blog I aim to explore creative processes and how to untangle them (a completely selfish venture, but if it leads me somewhere I would love to share!)
My partner always tells me, like a mantra, to celebrate my wins. And I never do it. Because every single rejection trumps ten little wins, or so it feels. Because it hurts. Because I forget the wins so very easily, or because these wins are often so quickly overshadowed by a failure
It’s time to write.
Don’t get me wrong. In the (long) time that has passed since I’ve last posted here, I have written and submitted multiple postdoctoral fellowship applications – and got multiple postdoctoral fellowship rejection emails (too many to count – but I’ll try counting them when I write a post about postdoc applications), completed a PhD (I’ll write about that too), got pregnant (won’t write about that part. You’ll have to figure it out yourself), turned one of my dissertation chapters into an article, which got accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, gave birth to a beautiful daughter in the midst of a global pandemic, got one partial ‘yes’ that gave me a three months long postdoctoral fellowship (‘partial’ because I applied for a year’s fellowship and got three months), revised the article while watching my daughter asleep in the monitor beside me, won a prize for it (nope, not for being a writing-mum. For the article), sent a book proposal to a publisher – who then accepted it (!!!), and – hey, listing these makes me feel a bit better about not having an academic job yet! – here I am.
I really should write a post about all these rejections, how the future feels so uncertain, and how every rejection now feels like I’m letting not only myself, but my newborn daughter down. BUT – I woke up this morning (well, it was the third time I ‘woke up’ this morning. Babies do change one’s sleep patterns…) and felt like it was about time I set up some new muse traps. And I started writing this post – it’s been about ten minutes since I started, I wasn’t sure what I was going to write, just let it flow, and now I’m determined to just write one last paragraph and post it as it is (spoiler after finishing to write the post – it’s a bit more than one paragraph. But just a bit).
I started writing that first paragraph of this post with the intention of letting my multiple (kidding. But I am truly so grateful to all ten of you!) followers know what I’ve been up to, and possibly to make excuses for why I haven’t written here in over two years! And — Lo and behold! I accidentally trapped a muse. I swear I didn’t mean for it to happen. I guess sometimes you do just need to write and they will come (didn’t I say it myself somewhere in this very blog?). I’ve been feeling somewhat uninspired recently. It’s been almost a year since I submitted the final copy of my PhD thesis, and I still don’t have a ‘job’ – or a long-term postdoctoral fellowship, for that matter. My partner always tells me, like a mantra, to celebrate my wins. And I never do it. Because every single rejection trumps ten little wins, or so it feels. Because it hurts. Because I forget the wins so very easily, or because these wins are often so quickly overshadowed by a failure – e.g. being shortlisted to a fellowship but then, following an interview, being told that they loved me but I’m their reserve candidate (never got that fellowship. I’ll apply again this year). But writing that first passage, I somehow feel just a little proud of myself. Maybe I don’t ‘feel accomplished’, but it’s an accomplished feeling – if this makes any sense.
I want to remember this one. I’m celebrating this feeling as a win now. And all the wins I’ve listed above – if never before, and if never again – at this moment in time, they count. This one is for you Matthew – with an apology for never listening to your advice.
And for anyone who needs it right now.
Write down your wins. Count them – don’t enumerate them, but have them count. They make even the failures feel much more educating than depressing.
What were your wins since I’d last written here in July 2018? Or this year? Or over the last decade?
Hope to see you here soon. In the meantime, stay safe and take care. I hear there’s some nasty virus going around…
What if I told you that you could order your muse on Amazon and have it show up at your doorstep, all you needed to do is be home to sign for the delivery?
What if I told you that you could order your muse on Amazon and have it show up at your doorstep, all you needed to do is be home to sign for the delivery?
Well, you can’t. Sorry.
But wait, you almost-can. I’ve been thinking some more about that Pablo Picasso quote with which I started my first post at MuseTraps: Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working. I’ve recently been showing up at the library on a daily basis, sitting there for a few hours a day, doing some writing exercises (I’m hoping to review this wonderful free online course after I finish all fourteen days), reading some, essentially doing whatever, but… showing up. Showing up every day (with occasional days off if I feel like I really need them, but yeah). And the more I do this the more I agree with this Picasso quote.
Last night a little analogy came to mind that might help me explain just how effective it is to insist on sitting to write, rather than sitting and waiting for the muse to land on you out of nowhere and then write it down.
You see, in a way, muses are like parcels that you order over the mail. Imagine this: you order something you’ve really been wanting to buy for a while now. It’s a signed-for delivery. So, you order it but… then you go out instead of waiting at home to receive it. The next day, the delivery person comes again, only to find that you’ve gone out again. Let’s say, hypothetically, that they can leave you a message and leave it at the nearest post office. But you? You don’t show up to collect it. Remember, you were desperately hoping to receive this mu… ummm parcel. Yet, you do not pick it up.
Muses are the same. Little parcels of creativity sent to you (especially if you summon them, but sometimes, like bills and brochures, just out of nowhere, uncalled for). If you don’t show up with your pen to collect them and sign for them, though, you’ll never see them on paper. They’ll never bud and bloom and become wonderful ideas. And when they’ll be vacating in some land of the lost muses or something; or running off with your neighbour who found them quite attractive, you’ll be wondering why on earth you can’t find them.
Simply put, we work better when… well, when we work – than when we don’t (like a 100% better, right?). As I mentioned on the first post – I spent the last few months mainly conceptualising my thesis. I thought it through to the extent that I can talk about it for an hour without blinking if you just ask – I can describe the structure and the ideas, the methodology and the main arguments… but how will I ever see all these on paper if I don’t put them on paper? How will I find the words by which to write them if I don’t write any words?
So what are you waiting for? What was I waiting for those past few months?? Order your muse, find a comfy chair and a comfy desk, do your thing, write and write and wait for it to arrive. True, it might take a while (you never know, maybe the muse-men are striking, maybe there’s traffic on Idea Road), but you’re much more likely to end up meeting your muse if you’re waiting and prepared for it.
Let me know in the comments if you agree with me on this one.
This is something that probably every Cambridge University graduate student (and many other students in many other universities; and many other people doing many other jobs) finds themselves thinking at some point – and most likely at multiple points – during the course of their work.
“I know I’ve been accepted into this system, but I don’t belong here. You know what I mean? I mean, I don’t really belong here.”
We’ve all been there, waiting for the moment when our supervisors will realise they’d made a terrible mistake and kick us out of the programme; almost anticipating a letter from the university that goes “So remember that acceptance letter we sent over a couple of years ago? Sorry, that was our bad. Please go home.”, or a knock on the door, revealing a very big and frighting gentleman standing on the threshold, saying that we should evacuate all our stuff now or be physically evacuated by his very own tree-sized arms.
Everybody around us seem so brilliant and wise, so successful; in our minds, all of them totally have it all together – words just come naturally to them, ideas flow from them at the same frequency as sighs of despair do from us, they are just… better. And us? We are not enough. No, not we – I am not enough, as it is always a singular I within a sea of a super-human, uber-academic them. I am living with the guilt of someone who’s somehow accidentally made it, they all totally earned it; they are real academics, real intellectuals, and me? I am a fake.
This feeling has a name. It’s called the Impostor Syndrome and it is very common amongst high-achievers and in high-achieving environments.
The impostor syndrome is (I am borrowing this concise and useful definition from Wikipedia, who borrow it from Langford and Clance, 1993) ‘a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments, and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”’, or (I like this one) ‘an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness’ (Clance and Imes, 1978).
But having spent four years here, I think I found a cure for this syndrome, or at least a cure that works well for me, and has made my life here (and by extension my life in general – as I’ve been feeling like that pretty much my whole life) considerably more bearable and less stressful.
Let’s call it the “I suck, that’s true” method, or otherwise let us use more delicate language and call it the “What if I’m right?” method. Wait a moment, before you roll your eyes and click on that little x at the top of the screen that makes me disappear, just give me a chance to explain myself – I assure you, it is not a pessimistic, defeatist approach. Quite the contrary – if you choose to adhere to it, it might prove worthwhile and enable you to focus better on your academic research and maybe even find your own elusive muse.
I am not here to tell you “hey, but you are good!”, firstly because – let’s face it – I don’t know you and I don’t know if you are, and secondly and more important – because it probably will not help you at the slightest if I, or anyone else, tells you this. I am saying this as someone who’s had well-intended people trying to ‘fix’ her for years and years by saying this, which frankly at times only made this feeling worse and left me feeling like I was a bigger fraud than I had thought: it seems like we tend to trust others less when it comes to our own worth – “they know me and my work, and still say this??” we ask, and here, instead of saying “maybe I am worth something after all”, we automatically think “What have I done? How did I manage to fool them, too?!”
Many blogs and researchers remind you that you are not alone, advise that you talk to other ‘impostorists’ and suggest that you work on your conceptualisation of self-worth, and – by all means – you are advised to do that! However, perhaps surprisingly so, I am not going to do that. I am not going to try to convince you to change your ways of thinking about your own value.
Rather, what I suggest is a (relatively) quick-fix – but one that lasts – and I leave it for you (and for people more professional than myself) to find your own ways for enhancing your sense of self-worth and positive thinking in whatever way suits you.
Disclaimer: I am not at all sure that I have the impostor syndrome. How could I be? Most of the time, I just really think I am no match for the rest of them. That is, I spend my days thinking that rather than having the impostor syndrome, I might be a real impostor, in which case, strangely enough, I have a pseudo-impostor-syndrome (it’s just a bit too much for me to get my head around it – so… I’m imposing as someone who has an impostor syndrome, so that people would tell me I’m doing fine and won’t find out that I actually am a fake?! Wait, what?)
Anyway, you know what the good bit is? For this method, it does not matter if I do – if you do – have the real impostor syndrome or the pseudo-one. You feel like you’re unworthy of the role you’ve been allotted? Follow me in these three simple steps:
Step One – Acceptance: Yes, maybe you’re right. Maybe you are a fraud
That’s a pretty simple one. Don’t really accept it, just ask yourself for a moment – hey, what if I am right and they are wrong? What if I AM an impostor?
Well… what if you are an impostor? I mean, really, what are you gonna do about it? Have a heart-to-heart talk with your boss and tell them that they really need to let you go? Put an ‘impostor’ sign on your office door?
I have already refused to say that you were great at what you do, and I am also not saying that you are terrible at it of course. I’m just asking that you ask yourself – what if I’m right? What if I am a fake?
I think there’s not much you can answer to this, and not much you can do about it. And I think it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Step Two – Let it Go: Let others decide whether you should keep doing what you do
Did you ask yourself the question from step one? Did you find it as unanswerable as I have? Now, unless you feel like you are utterly unhappy in the job you do (in addition to or as a consequence of not feeling good enough at it) and are planning to resign, I suggest that you now leave it for other people to decide whether or not you are capable of doing it.
I understand that you think you are worthless, or at least worth less than others around you. But do you think the same of those in charge of you? Give them some credit, will ya? Trust them just for now that they know what and who they want to work with at the moment, and that if they are making a mistake in letting you be there it’s their mistake, right? Additionally, if they feel like they’ve made a mistake, they will not compromise because, hey, it’s them, remember? They are the worthy ones, and as such they get to decide whether you are in, or out.
And if they get to decide – we return to a question asked in step one – what can you do about it?? Nothing, really. You can just do your job and let them decide whether you can do it.
Step Three – Stop messing around and do your job. Do it the best you can.
Now that we’ve established that there’s nothing you can do about it… well… start doing nothing about it. I mean, stop doing that – stop asking yourself whether you’re good enough, because it leads nowhere really. Or ask yourself this question, but know that it just doesn’t matter at the moment whether you are good enough.
I am not saying that you should not give a damn, or that you should ignore some working standards or aspire to less. No, no, on the contrary – now that it does not matter anymore, go ahead and think of what you would love to do if only you were as good as they expect you to be around here… if you would love to do something new and courageous that requires practice, practice! If you need to acquire new skills, go for it! Learn. Teach. Be. Since you don’t get to decide what they think of you, why don’t you just do your job? Yes, that job that you came here to do, and do it the best you can, as if you really are exactly what they are looking for!
If you are an academic – focus on your ideas, present them to your supervisor, write articles and submit them to great journals, think about this edited volume that you want to publish someday. If you are a musician – practice, do auditions, compose your own or work on playing your favourite pieces. An animator? Try that new technique you’ve always thought of ‘someday’ trying. Whatever you are, just reach for the top – make a list of what you want to achieve and – bit by bit – fulfil it. Work hard. Practice A LOT. Dream. And for crying out loud – enjoy it.
Whether or not we are meant to do what we are doing is not exactly in our hands. We get decide upon two things. The first one – do I WANT to be here? And the second, If I want to be here, how do I do my job THE BEST I CAN? Yes, you hear me right. Just the very best you can. Whether it’s the best in the whole wide world does not matter.
I found that once I started clearing this space of ‘but what if they know I’m not good enough’ thoughts from my mind, many barriers just vanished. I used to think about it so much that there was only little room left for me to think about the more important things, aka my own research. However, at some point I realised that come what may, I cannot change the decision made in the past by those wise people, who somehow decided to let me be here. I can only work the best I can, aspire to be better for them and, indeed, for me, and hope that they would not regret their choice. I do not know if it’s changed my sense of self-worth(lessness), but it definitely reduced the amounts of time I spend worrying about my place in this big beautiful university.
So back to you now: ask yourself for a moment – what if I’m really not good enough? Asked? Great. Now, go back to work, focus only on your own work and on doing it the best you can, not on whether the best you can is enough. Believe me, if and when it is not enough – someone else will bother telling you this.
The reason why I called this post ‘managing’ impostor syndrome rather than ‘overcoming’ impostor syndrome was that I don’t know if this accounts for ‘overcoming’ it. If you follow these steps, I cannot assure you that you’re going to stop asking yourself whether you belong in wherever it is that you’re at. Every once and again (or maybe every day) you’ll still get that tiny voice in you that squeaks out “what are you doing here? You are not good enough for this place! They will figure it out! You suck!”.
When it does come to that, though, calmly smile at this inner voice and reply “Do I? Ah, alright. You know what? Yeah, I suck. But right now, I’ve really got some work to do…”
Let me know in the comments if you found this method useful, or if you have any additional tips for (pseudo/) impostorists!
I wish to thank Alina Senchko from MouseHousebyAlina for letting me use the picture of her beautiful hand-made bookish mouse as my logo.
** This post is dedicated to A for his graduation. You’ve always belonged here, even when you thought you didn’t. Congratulations! x
Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working
A few months ago, I was texting with a friend while wandering around the University Library. “I’m at the library” I said, “searching for my muse. I’m sure it was out there somewhere.”
“The elusive muse…” responded the friend, and – not knowing what his words would come to ignite in me – he added: “You should set traps”.
Muse traps! How did I not think of these before?!
It has been about four months since this casual correspondence, and this idea has not let go of my mind. How do I trap muses, and particularly elusive, intellectual, snobbish academic muses?
I am a third year PhD student reading ancient Chinese history. The upcoming year marks the fourth and final year of my studies here, at the end of which I am expected to submit an 80,000 word-long thesis (PhDs in the UK last a maximum of four years. For any student, but for international students in particular, it is tremendously difficult to overdo this time).
This past year has been marked by a constant sense of struggle. By now my ideas are formed, I am excited about this work and feel like I’ve found my thing; I have a structure for my thesis and know what I want to say in every chapter, and what I want the thread tying the thesis together to be.
Yet words escape me, and my thesis remains silent; it exists pretty much in thoughts only.
With less than one year to go, and zero chapter-drafts submitted, this silence is accompanied by guilt and shame – what kind of an academic do I make if I cannot find the words by which to articulate my own ideas?
A year of struggles, it has become a year of exploration: I started reading blogs and books about academic writing; I watched videos and listened to podcasts, attended writing workshops – even organised some writing sessions of my own – all in order to solve my issues with writing. Occasionally these explorations helped a bit (although sometimes I still doubt it that I can ever get this thesis written). I now have a messy 18,000 words written (two thirds of two different chapters). But I have not yet cracked the mystery and found the secret to successful writing, and I suspect that I never will, as I have come to think that there is no one secret – no one secret to suit all people, but also no one secret for me as an individual writer. I have come to believe that the process of writing, like writing itself – needs to be refreshed, relearned, re-explored, and changed constantly. One of the tendencies of procrastinators such as myself is that we resent routine and seek excitement. After this year of exploration I know this, and I am coming to terms with the fact that my process of writing will have to continue undergoing constant changes if I want to keep doing it for the rest of my life (and I do).
I am starting this blog as a place where I can document these explorations, and will thereafter follow it wherever it leads. With time, I am hoping to document different types of creative processes (academic writing, but also other types of writing, music making, and so on) and different aspects of life as an academic. I hope that, in time, this blog will somehow become useful for other academics and people who work creatively.
My first task, however, is to trap (even for a short while, even for a few paragraphs, a few thousands of words) this academic muse of mine.
Whatever should comprise of a muse trap, I have no doubt in my mind that it must involve words. Written words, not only words thought of. Words for an academic muse are what cheese is for mice (within or without traps) – words are its food.
Inspiration has to find you working, as Pablo Picasso is known to have said. The muse of the painter feeds on colours and shades; the muse of the musician feeds on resounding notes. The muse of a writer (be it an academic writer, a novelist, a journalist – any kind of writer really) feeds on words. All of these are where skill meets magic, but magic does not come without practice of skill.
Fingers on the keyboard, pen touching paper, ink or pixels – this is what it takes for one to trap the muse of a writer. Intellectual thought, theoretical knowledge, research data, and big ideas – all these are of course necessary. But at the end of the day these are words. Letters, spaces, commas, full stops, semicolons – gathered into sentences and paragraphs – these are the food of muses.
This blog thus aims to act as a feeding station for my hungry elusive muse. I will try to write the blog posts as warm-ups for my academic writing (warm-up writing sessions are one of the tools I’ve come to know over the last year), and use them to practice my wording, as well as to document my experiences with academic writing, academic life, and other creative ventures.
While this is a more public one, it is still an experiment of mine – an attempt to learn a new thing. I am willing to accept the fact that it might not be the way. I am ready for the possibility that I might get bored, idle, or anything else – and give up. I know I might (like in my previous attempt of a blog) stop writing after two or three blog entries (I’d better not! I just bought this domain, trying to assure myself that I will, indeed, write!). But I’m willing to try. So here I am, setting muse traps word by word, searching for the words that are playing hide and seek with me (why am I always the seeker though?!), hoping that all this will end with a thesis, or – better yet – that the thesis will be just the beginning.
She’s a beautiful beast, this muse. Let’s find where she’s hiding!