Academic Writing and Getting into the Flow: “It’s mostly pain, let’s be honest”


Okay, so that might sound a bit dramatic to those of you who don’t spend extended amounts of their day banging their heads against a keyboard.

Today’s post is inspired by this awesome article by Helen Sword, How Academics Survive the Writing Grind, which has a load of tips and completely destroys the unhelpful and damaging “myths surrounding academic writing”, especially “the fallacy of effortless productivity”. 

That writing is the easiest part of a thesis. That once you’ve decided you have enough research to be getting on with, you should be able to neatly and quickly organise your thoughts on paper. Which really dismisses the hours and hours of effort, editing, redrafting, thesaurus-searching, dictionary-skimming, reference-checking that really go into writing up a thesis.

Sword quotes an academic as saying: When I’m really going, I just fly. It’s what they call “flow.” I love it. But I know that I’m going to have to go back later and take a third of the prose out. 

Whilst another admits:

It’s mostly pain, let’s be honest about it. It’s gruelling. Torture is too strong a word. But it’s hard. It’s draining.”

There’s truth to both. On a good day when all the stars align, you’re going to produce those polished, articulate sentences you long for. And another day, you will TRY AND TRY to string sentences together and it will sound clumsy and awkward and you’ll despair at the fact you’re doing a thesis and yet the most intrinsic part feels so difficult for you. Maybe you weren’t meant to do a PhD? Maybe you’re just not a talented writer like your peers? You’ll wonder why it doesn’t come naturally to you, like it does to others.

Psychologist Carol Dweck distinguishes between people with “a fixed mindset,” who believe that talent is a finite commodity, and those with a “growth mindset,” who believe that our innate talents can and should be stretched, challenged, and changed. For fixed-mindset people, Dweck explains, “effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort.” For growth-mindset people, on the other hand, “effort is what makes you smart or talented.” Writers with a fixed mindset are likely to resist learning new skills, whereas those with a growth mindset never stop seeking out new ways of developing and testing the limits of their craft.

I loved this concept, it reminded me that putting in effort isn’t a sign of how inept I am. It’s a sign of dedication to perfecting a craft. And I should value my perseverance, as I’ve done in the past.

To conclude, I just want to direct you to “Patter: academic writing and other eccentricities” ran by Pat Thomson. This site is amazing and full of advice on writing, supervisors, viva’s and just generally getting through a PhD.


Téa Obreht, Character Soundtracks and listening to music while you write?

Ok, so, I really can’t cope with any catchy songs when I’m trying to bang out an essay. I’ll end up mumbling along and tapping my pencil and fidgeting as I resist the urge to break into solo. Creative writing is slightly different, sometimes I can concentrate, only I find the tone of my poetry is effected by the tone of the music (which absolutely infuriates me).

But in fact, one of my favourite novelists Téa Obreht (of The Tiger’s Wife) has said she compiles a list of different songs for each character, so when she resumes writing them she can get into the right mind-set.

Personally I have a few bands I like to relax to (edit: ok turns out a bit more then a few) when I’m doing low-level reading/referencing/note-making. I thought I’d share them here.

Susan Sundfør. My favourite song right now is Mantra, romantic, slow with gentle guitar and lulling vocals.

Laura Marling, musically a cousin of Sundfør. Try  ‘Don’t Pass Me By’.

Lady Maisery play fiddle, banjo, concertina, accordion amongst other instruments. Their song Order & Chaos is folk through-and-through.

Gaelyn Lea has a penchant for Irish fiddle tunes. Her songs tend to be spine-tingling, slightly eerie love ballads, such as Some Day We’ll Linger in the Sun.

Sunflower Beam is actually an American rock band which Radio 6 loves to play at the moment but their new song is really more chilled-out electronic pop, I Was A Fool.

Joanna Newsom is an extremely unusual musician, she plays harps and has some of the strangest vocals I’ve ever heard but there’s something child-like and freeing about them. The Book of Right-On is my favourite.

If you want something more ambient (sans les paroles) so you can really focus, there’s a subgenre called Vaporwave which are hour-long tracks with slow, repeated melodies:

Japanese band 2814 make ‘cyberpunk-esque, dystopian [and] psychedelic ambient sounds’. Listen here.

Here are two more favourites of mine. They’re called f e e l i n g s and Remember Summer Days.

“The Writer’s Guilt Gene”: Neglecting my Creative Writing and Watching Peepshow

392567_4455763961755_1419123362_nMiracles of miracles I have found someone on the internet talking about completing a creative-critical PhD! Poet Anna Woodford in fact (you can read it in full here) and I’ve picked out some of what I think are her best tips to share with you.

I’ve been in a bit of a rut lately, I spend all day focusing on my thesis and by the time I try and turn my hand to writing I’ve ran out of steam. All I want is a ready-meal and a hot waterbottle and some Peepshow.

In essence, I’m struggling to prioritise my poetry over my thesis, especially when it comes more naturally than trying to say very intelligent things in academic jargon. The thesis is like a colossus, looming over me, it demands more time. And I’m finding it hard to know when to put a stop to it and get into that creative headspace.

“Stop. Write.  

Your own stuff now. Don’t forget this is what it’s all about. Having the writer’s guilt gene, you will probably give yourself a hard time for not producing poetry with your other hand as you simultaneously research your thesis. Try not to do this but equally don’t neglect your own writing. If you haven’t produced a poem for months, you’re unlikely to be happy in your academic work.” 

Yes yes yes. I fully expect that I should be churning out some amazing literature AND my thesis AND taking a language. Thank you Anna for reminding me I’m not a perfect soulless automaton as much as I want to be.

“And keep going!

And going and going and going. It’s black on white. It’s however many words a day.  It’s a slog. Don’t listen to your:

inner blurt/your sarcastic friend down the pub – or anywhere else – who thinks you’re navel-gazing/anyone who thinks Drs are only for medicine/any other academics who think its not a ‘real’ PhD. 

Keep on writing. It’s one word after another after another. Think of that Dr on your credit card!”

I DID very recently have a member of my boyfriend’s family ask me what field of medicine I was going into for what has to be the third or fourth time, and as usual I smile politely and tell them: No, it’s an English PhD actually.

Oh. Right. Yes.

If there are academics in my department who don’t consider it a ‘real’ PhD I’ve never heard them vocalise it, and I wouldn’t much care if they did hold those views. I have a smaller thesis to write and more time to spend on what I love and I’m not ashamed of it in the slightest.

Well, I say this, but I wonder if there isn’t a part of me that believes I have to prove that my research is as rigorous and sophisticated and exceptional as anyone elses.

And with regards to the ‘Dr’ title, I think my family are more likely relish the opportunity to brag that their daughters a ‘Dr’ than I am to actually use it, the thought makes me cringe a little but maybe that’s just me.


Found Poems, Kimberley Campanello and her collection “MOTHERBABYHOME”

kimberleyKimberley Campanello recently came to my university and gave a reading, amongst a few other visiting poets, but she was easily the most captivating. She quickly won her audience’s full attention, and at the end of her ‘set’ there was a pregnant, shell-shocked silence.

It wasn’t just the compelling subject matter behind her work (a convent in Ireland which abused its impoverished residents, unmarried women and their illegitimate offspring, with 796 children buried in an unmarked mass grave), nor her obvious talent for performance which worked together to create a devastatingly poignant series of sound-poems, but her intelligent, purposeful dissection of ‘found’ text.

The pathos she could create using these ‘official’ documents is more affecting than lyricism. The entire collection is composed of fragments of texts she has ‘excavated’ from death certificates, newspapers, historical and medical records in order to build of a picture of the reality of the children’s who lived and died under the care of the Bon Secour Sisters.

What interests me most, as someone passionate about visual poetry and artists book, are her plans for the final publication of these poems. There will be 796 pages, one for each child. She plans to print them on a transparent paper, similar to tracing paper, so the text will be faintly visible and stack up to cumulative effect along with the number of recorded deaths.

You can watch her read from MOTHERBABYHOME here.

Predictive Text Poetry- today’s Dada?

So above are some of my horrendous attempts at predictive poetry. I’ve decided my text vocabulary is a bit too functional (get milk from shop etc) to produce high brow-poetry and it’s quite easy to get stuck in a cycle of ‘the’ ‘of’ ‘it’ and other tiny articles that lead to a creative dead end. But there’s still something kinda exciting about the not-knowing, trying to fashion an interesting sentence from the 3 words hovering above your keyboard.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how an algorithm can mimic our language, a computer program can even write a book. Botnik (which recently went viral for its attempt at a Harry Potter chapter) and Dissociated press ingest the rhythms and patterns of our writing before randomising the words to hilarious effect. This complex software is really our predictive text and autocorrect, writ large.

I’d heard of predictive poetry a few years ago through my boyfriend, who’s a big fan of Steve Roggenbuck and the alt-lit community online. But I have to admit, I was put off by the confessional, stacatto texts I read (Megan Boyle and Tao Lin in particular). They felt like a stream of consciousness, too forthright. Kenneth Goldsmith has referred to alt-lit as ‘wide-eyed sincerity’, often mispeled and lower case in the style of internet communications.

But I’m trying to look at new ways at getting in a creative head space and I thought I’d try it out. I ended up really enjoying the odd combinations of words. It produces a sort of free-association in the reader, and even though its nonsensical and syntactically incorrect the brain scrambles to find meaning. It automatically bestows meaning on these bizarre fragments. It can’t help itself, it wants to create a narrative.

The whole process got me thinking about the Dadaists cut-up techniques, slicing up newspapers for collages, making new poems out of old text. Tristan Tzara suggested pulling words at random out of a hat. They embraced a creative chaos, the potential for chance rather than a carefully constructed poem.

Is this the twenty-first century Dada?  Instead of reaching into a hat, we can chose absurd, funny, illicit word-combinations from the grey belt of our imessage.

There’s a whole word press account (now inactive) with an archive of people’s text poem submissions here.

Camille Ralphs’s ‘Malkin’


My friend picked up this slim pamphlet in a tiny unassuming bookshop in Sheffield, drawn in by the stark illustrations and the promise of magick. I still haven’t given it back which I guess hints at how much I’m about to rave about Camille Ralphs.

Firstly she loves Anne Carson, which is really no surprise given her willingness to try something as unfamiliar to British readers as free spelling. And Malkin is so delicious and different I’m definitely willing to overlook her love of Ted Hughes.

The collection was inspired by the Pendle Witch trial which took places in the 1600s in Lancashire, England. In short, a whole bunch of people in a close-knit community accusing each other of witchcraft. Some confessing to it, some protesting their innocence and almost all reaching their inevitable demise at the end of a rope.

And while the historical event is fascinating in itself, it’s the way Ralphs unorthodox spellings encourages you to linger on words, she literally softens the edges of ‘soft’ to ‘sofd’, the sharp fricative replaced with a gentle thudding ‘d’. ‘Knew’ becomes ‘gnew’, which I immediately connected with ‘gnaw’ or ‘chew’ and suddenly the verb became so much more visceral. She describes this process as ‘semantic bridging: polysemy – an opening of doors, within and between words’, a ‘proliferation of meaning’.

a boy gnew me […] He steemed

in th sun stone-kneading, lighting trees like wicks

his eyes were sofd as ash […]

fraille in the rocking lihgt, I foamed

at the mouth like the sea. He ssuppd the moyst

unplundered of my underarm; he yessed

impressed on me

In short, the subtle internal rhymes and the strange and new orthography makes me fall completely under the ‘spel’ of her writing.

The afterword also makes reference to HG Well’s essay ‘For Freedom of Spelling’ which argues against convention and ‘Philistines’.

You can read an interview with her here.

Erica Baum’s ‘Dog Ear’


Erica Baum’s series ‘Dog Ear’, from the idiom meaning:

 1. The corner of the page of a book, etc., turned over or creased by repeated or careless use, or to mark a place

It’s actually a beautiful and quirky phrase and I’ve never thought twice about it until I spotted Baum’s work in The New Concrete anthology by Chris McCabe. I loved the antiquarian feel, the yellowed pages and old type.

It feels different to the clean, white page and neat black type we expect of Concrete poetry, almost a sterile kind of newness or cleanliness. But, despite its aesthetic, Baum’s photographs adheres to the Modernist principles of chaos and coincidence. The works are accidental, like the poem experiments encouraged by Tristan Tzara (cutting up a text and rearranging the individual words into new lines) and Brion Gysin (folding two dissimilar texts in half and reading them all as one poem).

The thoughtless act of marking your page for letter creates new poetry. A found poem.

You can see more of her ‘Dog Ear’ series here.