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Academic Coaching & Writing

III. When Writing Seems Like a Dark Journey, Trust Your Headlights

Sep 15, 2014 by Amy Benson Brown

The last blog in this series debunked the myth that writing up your research is a simple and quick part of the process. In addition to the tools that blog described to help you finish a project, you also need to cultivate a mindset to help you stay the course—to keep moving forward even when you feel uncertain about your path.

The novelist, E. L Doctorow, said writing “is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
 How wonderful it would be to have a kind of navigation technology for writing that many rely upon with GPS technology when driving cars. But often your best tool is actually your “headlights”—your own intuitive sense of the route.

Strengthening your ability to tolerate some ambiguity as you progress along an uncertain route is vital to achieving greater comfort and ease in writing. Making an occasional wrong turn and correcting your course is not only common, it’s often an essential part of ultimately producing work of which you are truly proud.

Cultivating that trust in the process, of course, is easier said than done. If you've read some of my earlier ACW blogs, you’re probably familiar with my emphasis on the importance of being methodical in your approach to writing, about the power of habit to sustain writing practice. Showing up at your desk regularly is really more than half the battle. It’s been said that aspiring writers wait for inspiration whereas professional writers sit down every day and write something. But in our results-driven culture, living with some ambiguity about exactly where your writing is going and how long it will take to get there can be infuriating. You well may ask: How can I spend precious time working towards a destination I can’t clearly see or articulate now? An equally pressing question, though, is: how can you not?

As someone who has slogged many a dark road in finishing my own books, poems, and journal articles and witnessed the journey of scores of other writers traveling their own paths, trust me on this. One day, your understanding of the essence and significance of your work will be so distinct that you can distill it in a single sentence. But you won’t gain that ability to meaningfully articulate your research unless you are willing to tolerate some ambiguity about what you are doing along the way.

If you can push your anxiety into the background—at least for a time—and focus instead on your curiosity, the strength of the manuscript you produce may surpass your wildest hopes. The element of discovery, of trusting your headlights to illuminate what’s around that dark bend in the road, can reinvigorate your passion for your work.

Ironically, not having a crystal clear map of your final manuscript can generate energy for doing your best work. The desire for discovery, for revelation, can fuel your writing. Why would you keep showing up at your desk, after all, if you knew exactly what you would see on your computer screen hour after hour, day after day? 

Cultivating curiosity and strengthening your ability to tolerate some ambiguity about your writing process can also go a long way to overcoming writing blocks. The next several blogs in the series explore the most common sources of writing blocks and offer suggestions for overcoming those obstacles.

  • Audrey M. Murphy says:

    Jun 06, 2015 at 9:40 am

    PhD student seeking inspiration for thinking about writing up the final dissertation.

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