My writing has stifled, but I am not talking about raw numbers. As far as numbers are concerned, I think I’m writing more than ever—mostly due to work demands. It’s just that the quality of my writing seems to be slipping, and this is apparent in my scholarly work. I just don’t feel like I’m living up to a certain standard, that I’m always falling short, that I’ll never be like the “cool guys” at the proverbial top, wherever that “top” may be.
I am, quite possibly, in a creative pothole. And an imaginary tribunal is standing on the edge of the hole, leering down on me judiciously.
Potholes are common especially in academia, where creative juices are often sucked dry by rigid bureaucracy, overwhelming professional demands, and those small yet vampiric administrative responsibilities. The problem isn’t that these potholes exist. They’re natural features of the road. It’s just that often there’s a systematic reluctance to admit that they exist. Perhaps it’s shameful to admit that we fall into these potholes (often!) and even more shameful to ask for a hand.
Sometimes these potholes are small and surmountable with moderate effort. Nothing a quick retreat or moderately long disconnect can’t solve. Other times, the potholes are larger. They may seem insurmountable. What makes it worse is not that there isn’t anybody around to help you out, but that you imagine them as a panel of reviewers, sitting at the edge ala American Idol, actively throwing dirt on your face and preventing any effort to get out. These potholes are the worst. The negative voices can’t be drowned out. So, you just sit there, hugging your legs, and waiting for help to come.
Help came to me eventually. And it came in the form of a series of YouTube videos titled “Catastrotivity”.
I’ve been obsessed with tailoring my writing to arbitrary academic standards of rigour demanded by reviewers in academic journals. Even though I realise these guardrails are important (despite the peer review process being deeply flawed) and that reviewer comments may genuinely be useful, the entire process means that I have to pre-empt any possible criticisms which may be launched. In other words, writing becomes a game of adding more bulk in preparation of an attack that may never happen. And there’s the problem: defensive writing is basically soulless, unimpactful writing. It also stifles creativity, encouraging us to not stray too far from the beaten path and beat our own ideas into submission unless there’s a citation to bolster our position. As Limerick put it (emphasis mine),
When you write typical academic prose, it is nearly impossible to make a strong, clear statement. The benefit here is that no one can attack your position, say you are wrong or even raise questions about the accuracy of what you have said, if they cannot tell what you have said. In those terms, awful, indecipherable prose is its own form of armor, protecting the fragile, sensitive thoughts of timid souls.
I realised then that keeping myself guarded all the time made me more miserable, which is then reflected in my writing. I kept holding myself back because I feared the scathing criticism from Reviewer 2. Instead of embracing my crazy ideas and trying to communicate them in a meaningful way, I insisted on playing by the rules: citation here, citation there, one polysyllabic term after another. I wasn’t expressing; I was trying to impress.
Watching the three-part “Catastrotivity” series gave me the jolt I need to wake up and claw my way out of the pothole.
I realised I had the freedom to create anything I wanted. I am allowed to have my own voice, my own crazy voice. That reviewers may not like it is not my biggest problem. What matters more is that I have the freedom to express this crazy voice of mine, to write what I want, to create.
Besides, it can always be edited later. That’s what editors are for, really.
So, that’s how I escaped my big pothole. I might never reach my arbitrary goal of mingling with the “cool kids” or writing my magnum opus, a piece of writing so powerful, it single-handedly changes the course of the field. But what I can do now is just write and express myself without fear of judgment.
Everyone has the freedom to create. They just need to use it.