Monday, August 27, 2012

Writing With Soul

While I was out of the country I decided to read a writing guide, a book that I could never justify making time to read at home because I always rationalized, “The time I’m spending reading this book is time I should be using to write.” The text I brought with me was, How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silvia. Because I was on vacation, I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself to work, but I did have two goals in mind for the trip: 1) Create a new updated schedule for the year and 2) Create a new weekly schedule. I needed to do these two things because I knew they would be the documents I could look to for grounding and boundaries. I needed to recommit myself to writing, which has become difficult for me these days.
How to Write A lot angered me because the author who was anchored in the hard social sciences (psychology) focused on writing as a job, a job that I would never want. Silvia writes:
Academic writing should be more routine, boring, and mundane than it is. To Foster a mundane view of writing, this book says nothing about the ‘soul of writing,’ the nondenominational ‘spirit of writing,’ or even the secular ‘essence of writing.’ Only poets talk about the soul of writing.(7).
Now I believe this is too crass of an approach because I want to write poetry and Lord(e) knows I want/need my writing to have soul. I believe Audre Lorde when she writes “…there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.” (“Poetry is Not a Luxury”, 39) How can you get someone to feel something that’s soulless? That is definitely not the kind of writing I came here to do. I often times feel like the academy wants our bodies for the diversity we bring (all the work we can do as Black and Queer and…) but it also seeks to destroy our souls, our poetry from the future, our freedom dreams. Silvia’s anti-poetry endorsements are ones that I just can’t get with and I found myself wanting to prove him wrong. There were tools in the text that I found useful, like making a schedule and writing daily even if you don’t want to because the practice of writing daily can only help you to get better. But does the work we do require us to let go of the poetry? I think the academy can crush the poet and leave us with PhD in hand (if you make it), but when you are done are you happy? Or do you feel like you just got out of hell?
I have watched my brilliant friends write their AMAZING dissertations and usually I won’t see them for the last couple of months. When they return they look like they’ve gone through war and are in need of rest and wound reparation (but as academics when you finish one thing it’s on to the next hurdle). Is there a way to do this thing holistically, with love, with health and with friends? YES! I say yes because I refuse to kill my soul and my body in my attempt to get a PhD.
So how do we create new modes of getting it done? I say we must do it collectively even though this is not something our institutions promote. Some of the things that have been helpful for me are finding and creating support with other queer of color graduate students and the folks who have made it through. PhDoula, Alexis Pauline Gumbs is actively helping to make the path to the PhD for people, especially queer people of color, a feat that doesn’t require soul killing. Instead, Gumbs encourages us to find the poetry that we seek in future. She asks us to not only think about the questions that frame our projects, but how do those questions, those problems make their way into our daily lives.
Another important tool is a writing schedule that you stick with. This was one thing How to Write A lot helped me to think through. Sometimes you may not want to write but you have to do it everyday. How you do it is up to you. For me a writing schedule that blocks out increments of time isn’t the best because I am the person who always finds myself checking the time. Instead, I have committed to writing at least two pages a day, making time irrelevant. I have been writing everyday and it’s been a full week now--that feels great! In order to keep this up, I need to be held accountable. My advisor recommended a writing buddy or group where we check in simply to ask, “Have you completed your writing today?” This takes off any pressure of reading and responding to someone else’s work when you are in the thick of your own, but it still creates a kind of community accountability that I can get down with.
I am the person who waits to write until I have some spark of genius, light bulb moment. There is still room for that, but writing daily allows me to make use of another tool that helps me as a writer and a thinker. I have been trying to free myself from the burden of procrastination for some time now (of course the procrastinator would take a while to get to this;). I have found that schedules and lists are the thing that work for me. When I get to cross something off my lists I get a sense of completion. But of course when you write a dissertation, the check mark doesn’t come so easily or quickly. A dissertation is a much larger than a seminar paper and what has been keeping me from writing is the feeling of being overwhelmed and afraid that I don’t yet have all of the answers or even all of the questions worked out in my head. My approach to writing has been to first have a clear idea of the question and the map to a response in my head before actually writing, so when I wrote it would mostly be a transcription from mind to page. But again, a dissertation is much too big to work through in that way. This means that I have had to change my approach to writing and in doing so I realize that through writing you can and will also learn. This kind of writing requires one to relinquish control or for me the idea that I already have it all figured out.
What are some of the things that keep you from writing? What are some of the tools you use to keep writing? Do you write with others or alone? Do you have a particular writing space/time? (I have recently created a writing area in my living room with a simple room divider and having that boundary has really helped me to write) Do you have examples of positive collaboration in the academy?
Please share your thoughts.
I will be writing weekly updates again for this blog, even if it’s just to say I got my writing done this week. Feel free to hold me accountable:-)


  1. Over at UCSB Chicano Studies, Prof Chela Sandoval encourages us to write through S.W.A.P.A.: Spoken Word Art Performance Activism. You basically take a quotation or significant portion of a text that speaks to your 'mind-body-soul matrix' (this is what Chela calls it) and you reflect on it intellectually. So what you do is that you focus on what the words mean to you intellectually, what they mean to you emotionally and what your physical responses are and you write, write, write. Don't pay attention to structure or polish. Write what you think, write what you feel and then polish later.

    I use this sometimes when I can't think of anything to write. I open a book and read it until I find a phrase that speaks to me and then I SWAPA on it.

    I think Chela is in the process of putting out a book about her SWAPA ideas.