Working With Rejection- part two

Writer’s have to live with rejection as part and parcel of the profession. Learn how to survive and thrive as a writer despite the common obstacles you will encounter to reaching your goals.

This blog has been on hold for some months due to a period of extreme busyness. In the meantime, I’ve become a regular contributor to the Positive Psychology blog where I cover many of the psychological issues mentioned in this blog in more detail. It’s worth a good look for free practical resources on many topics related to problems with your productivity as a writer. I’ll be linking to them more in future posts.

Anyway, following the intense activity of the last few months, I’m glad to be back with renewed vigour just as spring arrives in the northern hemisphere.

Taken on a recent ‘awe walk

In my last article, I covered how to deal with the inevitable rejections writers face as part and parcel of pursuing the profession. However, the bulk of the coaching work I do is with academic writers who are either writing a graduate thesis or dissertation, or are pursuing the publication of their research in peer-reviewed journals, so that is the focus of this follow-up.

Language and Style

There’s a range of established strategies academic writers can use to get a paper published or pass a graduate research degree. Yet, when I edited for various international academic editing agencies over the years, they perpetuated a lot of myths about academic writing with their clients, which I questioned. Needless to say, this didn’t always make me popular, but I have concrete evidence for my views that are detailed in the video below.

Myths included: academic writing should be impersonal, scientists never write using “I” or “we”, and complex abstract academic terms are preferable to more concrete terms because they seem more ‘objective’. “Not true” I protested. Don’t believe me?

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. The video resource below offered by research writing expert Dr. Helen Sword of the University of Auckland is worth watching because it busts a lot of myths about academic writing.

I really advise watching it to see how bad some published academic writing is, and the simple steps that can be taken to make communicating research findings more effective. Grab a coffee and take the time to watch this in full.

Tip- if you want the transcript of this video, switch on the subtitles by clicking the ‘cc’ button then click on the three dots under the video on the right-hand side and click again on ‘open transcript’ in the drop-down menu. The transcript will open on the right-hand side, and you can copy and paste this into a document for ongoing reference.

Problems With Structure

Sometimes, the difficulties my coaching clients face are not with language and style at all, but with structuring longer pieces of writing like dissertations and theses. All those notes, all those ideas, just seem to swirl around in a confused psychic soup that keeps them awake at night and impedes any kind of sense-making process. Don’t worry we’ve all been there, I say to them.

OK, they say, somewhat relieved, but how do I get out of it and start writing?

Recently, I suggested a graduate student client take a look at the formula that is often used to organise research writing known as IMRaD. In short: Introduction. Methods, Results, and Discussion. In case you’re wondering, the conclusion is normally deemed part of the discussion.

Adherence to this basic template has helped so many of my previous graduate students put their dissertation or thesis together, section by section, in a logical order. It’s also the preferred template of many academic journals across multiple subject areas, from the humanities to social sciences and life sciences.

It isn’t a one size fits all formula but can act as a useful set of guidelines about what is required to demonstrate your research skills and communicate research findings effectively.

When my academic writing coaching clients are blocked, attempting to navigate their way through a long piece of writing often leads to overwhelm, and a kind of shut down typical of the fight, flight or freeze response. Then, IMRaD can come to the rescue by providing a map for organising research writing content.

Meanwhile using the snack writing technique or the dictate function on your word processor can get you writing and help overcome writer’s block. Forget about perfection altogether, just write. Crafting comes later, editing after that, and proofreading after that.

More tips are coming on the crafting and editing stages of academic writing very soon, free of grammatical terms and full of common sense.

Yeah, I know, sense doesn’t seem that common these days. Nonetheless, we can try. Especially those of us that keep writing.

Stay inspired if you can, and if inspiration leaves, just hammer those keys. See you soon, Jo.

Setting Intentions and the Art of Self-Compassion

This blog has been dormant while I’ve been recovering from an eye infection- a complication of my periodic computer vision syndrome (CVS) that causes dry eyes, irritation, light sensitivity, and tearing up. I treated the problem with Ayurvedic eyewashes, rest and taking a break from the screen. The swollen eye also prevented me from videoing the content for my new app, but now it’s cleared up filming begins next week. This got me thinking about the impact of our health on our best intentions, and how an increasingly screen-based working life may be impacting many of us.

I had to consciously choose to take a break from working, despite another internal commentary blaming me for my eye infection and failing to meet my goals on time. In an effort to appease my inner critic, I even tried the compromise measure of one-eyed research and writing, but after ten or fifteen minutes, realised this placed a terrible strain on my remaining vision. There was nothing else for it, I had to stop and take care of myself properly. I remembered Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion and reminded myself that we all deserve care and concern during periods of suffering. I visited her site and plugged in my TV monitor to listen to her again.

I wasn’t struggling with an internal obstacle such as procrastination or avoidance, this was my human vulnerability to illness preventing me from meeting my best intentions to meet my goals. I needed some self-kindness.

I pulled her book off the shelf and re-read her exercise that suggests writing yourself a letter as if you were writing to a friend in need. I didn’t write myself a letter, but I did choose to be kind to myself, slow down, and spend more time off-screen than on-screen while my eye healed. I even postponed some client appointments explaining my situation and received messages of care and compassion from them too. This led to reset my intentions to include self-compassion during difficult times when unexpected events derail my best-laid plans. While my intentions always include remaining aware of subconscious experiential avoidance strategies, it’s also important to remember that unexpected suffering requires attention and psychological flexibility.

This very concrete experience of physical illness led me to reflect on the impact of other unexpected events on our writing lives. What other situations might crop up in the life of a writer that require a resetting of intentions and a period of self-compassion? A common experience for most of us is rejection from a publisher, blog, agent, or journal, or getting a poor grade for a written assignment, which may or may not be accompanied by criticism and discouraging remarks.

Unfortunately, many decisions made in the publishing industry are notoriously subjective and even nepotistic. There’s also a lot of competition and bad writing out there. Getting attention is hard. Many choose self-publishing as an antidote to ‘the old boys’ network’ syndrome that haunts many major agencies and publishing houses. Others sign up for writing courses, join writers’ groups, get a writing coach, or even give up in the face of repeated rejection. The fact is that rejection is part of every writer’s life, and rejection takes its toll on us psychologically. An article in The Cut entitled ‘Rejection Is An Enormous Part of a Writer’s Life’ offers some tips on handling rejection by seven established writers who have accepted it as part of their working life. Samantha Irby writes

“Most people don’t tell you why they don’t want your thing. They just say, “Oh, thanks, but no thanks.” I find it soothing to think about how much of this is out of my control. The only thing that I can be sure of is what I’ve made. I wrote this thing; it made me laugh; I’m happy with it. Why they didn’t buy it, I’ll never know.”

The keyword for me here is ‘control’. So many of the factors involved in decisions to publish are not in a writer’s control. Meanwhile, Akwaeke Emezi recounts how rejections that hurt at the time have sometimes been followed by other opportunities offering something better.

“… one of the things I’ve learned is that, a lot of the time, rejections are like doors that close because there’s a path somewhere else that I’m meant to be on. I don’t really feel bad about rejections anymore because I’m like, Okay, that’s cool. I’m not supposed to go there. I can’t wait to find out where I am supposed to go, because that’s going to be awesome in a way that I didn’t even imagine.”

This attitude embraces the acceptance that is key to cultivating resilience. One strategy for managing disappointment is resetting your intentions in line with your values. When you meet a roadblock in one direction, try again using another route. Meanwhile, Alexander Chee takes a deeply pragmatic approach.

“Rejection is something that, in some ways, you have to work with as much as you work with language as a writer. It’s the other medium of writing, which is to say: Learning to work with rejection, learning how rejection can propel you forward, whether you’re deciding to get better or you’re deciding to move on — you just can’t let it be an obstacle.”

I find this the most useful suggestion given my commitment to continuous creative development in face of ongoing challenges, especially when coaching other writers. Language may be the medium that lights our path ahead, while rejection is the shadow that helps us hone and define it. One requires the other, like yin and yang, or as Thich Nhat Hahn put it ‘no mud, no lotus’. Every edit is a form of rejection, and yet editorial revisions are always necessary to refine our writing, blossom and grow. Rhonda Douglas recommends regular doses of self-compassion as essential to our craft.

“Can you see how this can help us as writers to weather the incredible amount of rejection that most of us are naturally going to experience in our artistic lives, no matter how hard we work or how talented we are? Rejection is just a fact of the writing life, and self-compassion can help us keep moving forward in the face of it.”

As writers, perhaps the key to working with rejection is cultivating the capacity to separate our writing from our sense of personal identity through acceptance combined with cognitive defusion. Of course, self-compassion when we feel the twinge of disappointment is always a good move, while judging ourselves as a failure or giving up may be rooted in a misunderstanding of the reality of the writer’s life. What do you think? Let me know in the comment section below. I will also explore this more in my next blog post. Meanwhile…keep writing!

Comparison is the enemy of flow

During one of my coaching sessions this week we homed in once more on the problem of overwhelm and how it can be caused by comparison. Often, before any kind of writing project begins a period of research is required. When I’m coaching academic writers, they often begin writing by researching the work of their peers in the field, especially by focusing on keywords and terms unique to their own research. The result can be the discovery of an overwhelming amount of research papers that may have implications for their own work, which they then feed a compulsion to read to stay abreast of current developments. The result can be writer’s block, typically characterised by a sense of excruciating overwhelm, freezing, and feelings of not being good enough to write for publication as someone else ‘probably got there first’. One of my clients discovered that somebody else had once written about a term she believed one of her research subjects had coined during an interview, and asked if it was permissible to use this same term in her paper, or if it would be seen as plagiarism?

My response was ‘reference it’, note the source, and continue. However, the discovery of the previous investigation of a similar phenomenon risked overwhelming my client. Suddenly, she wondered if she would soon discover a well of information that would take months to process. We discussed whether any ideas were truly unique, as new ideas always build on previous research and tend to be eclipsed by emerging ideas later. This describes the evolution of the investigative process that drives all types of research. The answer we agreed upon was clearly ‘no’.

Often, as the writer and literary critic Raymond Williams once explained, new ideas tend to emerge spontaneously in geographically diverse locations in response to a given zeitgeist that characterises a particular period in history. Each interlocutor may well express an emergent idea in complete ignorance of others expressing something similar or the same elsewhere. Emergent ideas arise through a complex, dynamic and intersubjective cultural process that germinates the seed of the new in response to the dominant culture and the residues of tradition. Therefore, almost no ideas are unique due to their emergence from a historical and cultural process. Following this discussion, we returned to the issue of writing in the flow state, and how comparison and structural framing might be better applied after the raw content had been written in a state of flow.

Dropping into our flow state may also be disrupted by the overreach of digital communication and culture. After a discussion of my previous post, exploring awe-walking as a method for shaking off the energetic stagnation that can settle in at the writing desk, my client began to dig deeper. To access flow, it may be necessary to disconnect from the digital world for a while. For example, as I’m writing this, I see an email has arrived. I am in my flow and so I decide not to open it but am aware of the urge to open it disrupting my inner writing process. This overreach of digital communication posting notifications inside the very tools I use to create is disturbing indeed, so setting boundaries to minimise interference is required.

All too often I have followed up some notification, either an email or social media post and an hour later find myself overwhelmed with information; either of no purpose or indicating another line of enquiry that I could pursue. Also, other people’s reports on their progress with their projects surreptitiously invite me to compare myself with them and see myself as lacking. However, most people carefully curate their social media profiles. Each time we log into social media, we are invited into a matrix of online personas apparently untroubled by the everyday hassles and complexities of life. This social network of self-policed identities aims to persuade or celebrate rather than present any kind of truth, yet the act of persuasion involves a subtle form of comparison and plays on our desire to improve. Too much comparison can be paralyzing because there are always people who are doing better, know more than you, have achieved more than you.

Therefore, I asked my client to stop conducting research, or indulging in comparison, and instead focus on her snack writing exercises from the heart, free of referencing and editing. The result was a more poetic, nuanced, and original writing style that was able to express her previous research findings in the context of her new work. She explained to me that disconnecting from the internet and just writing a paragraph at a time had enabled her to write in a more embodied way that ‘flowed’. I suggested that setting a boundary around the overreach of digital communication had helped prevent her from indulging in comparison.

As the educationalist and philosopher, Krishnamurti said

…you are educated to compare…your brain has been conditioned, educated, trained to compare – right? … psychologically …We are trained, educated, programmed to repeat. […]That is how your brain has become mechanical, routine; it is repeating, saying the same thing over and over again: ‘I can’t do it, I must do it, it is too difficult for me, I don’t understand, tell me all about it.

Isn’t comparison a form of violence?

All comparison is based on competition, effort, and struggle. This is the very opposite of dropping into your flow state which feels effortless, joyful, and natural. The 6 -week Flow Writer Challenge will focus on removing all obstacles to dropping into the flow state while writing. Comparison is the enemy of flow and sabotages the content production stage of the writing process.  Structure and referencing may be important but should be the focus of form, not content production. Once this is understood, a writer can dig deeper and discover their unique voice.  Comparison dilutes individuality, promotes conformity, and prevents the perception of the present moment in all its immediacy and richness.

Writer’s overwhelm and the power of acceptance

Photo by Eugenio Mazzone on Unsplash

This week I have been busy with my Focused Flow app development tasks and learning how to make videos to promote my app when it’s finished. Therefore, the blog hasn’t been updated. I’ve thought about it often, but each time I sat down with the laptop and opened the page I experienced the common problem of overwhelm- that experience of having too much to do, too little time, and the temporary jamming of the cognitive processing required to write. This hasn’t been made any easier by my seasonal problem of hay fever that drains my energy and leaves me feeling unmotivated.

This week I’ve also been working closely with two academic clients who’ve reported a similar problem with overwhelm clogging up their cognitive gears and leaving them with a sense of dread. So, overwhelm seems to be this week’s issue all round, and is a common problem for academic writers who have to filter through piles of notes, references and ideas, focus them down into a coherent narrative and structure their research into a written paper.

While working with my coaching clients I’ve discovered one size definitely does not fit all when managing writer’s overwhelm. As I develop and refine the Focused Flow model, managing overwhelm appears to be key to overcoming procrastination and dissolving writer’s block too. In my short promo video, I focus on the problem of overwhelm that strikes when we’re faced with piles of notes, our mind is firing off in all directions with lots of ideas, focus deserts us and taking action by writing seems almost impossible.

One strategy for overcoming overwhelm is ‘snack writing’- making a pledge to jot down around 200-300 words a sitting, using cognitive defusion to stay on track should the inner critic emerge and start trying to edit what you’re writing. Another is to use acceptance strategies to make space for the discomfort of overwhelm and stop struggling against it. My recent experience of overwhelm led me to experiment with some acceptance strategies by leaning into the uncomfortable sensations I was experiencing in my body right around my lower abdomen- a sense of restlessness coupled with dread- and then once I had a clear visualisation of it, I stepped back from my thoughts about it using defusion strategies- specifically ‘I notice I having the thought that I can’t do all of this’. In the video below from ‘Therapy in a Nutshell’ a multitasking mother, therapist and writer discusses her strategy for overcoming overwhelm.

I did something similar, by making a list of tasks for the day and taking action, despite the feeling of dread I was experiencing deep in my gut. Overwhelm was blocking my productivity just as it had with my clients. I had too much to do in too little time, but really the timeline I had imposed on myself pointed to unrealistic goal setting. The solution was to review my goal setting, prioritise my tasks, and set more realistic goals that I could manage- not so challenging they’d cause anxiety and not so easy I’d get bored. This is key to dropping into the flow state, establishing focus, and optimising productivity.

I also bought a special journal to help me reorganise myself and record what I learn on a daily basis… including doodling and mind mapping my creative process and noting down what helps me to drop into my flow state. The pathway to the flow state is unique to each individual. I have discovered that leaning into uncomfortable sensations and emotions, defusing from my thoughts about them, while making bite sized daily short-term goals helps me to dissolve overwhelm and reorientate to the values driving my writing process. I had to remind myself not to underestimate the power of taking small steps to completing what appear to be formidable tasks- like building an app for the very first time.

In the video below, Russ Harris describes the ‘chess board metaphor’ to explain how acceptance and defusion combined can unhook us from inner struggles like overwhelm or anxiety and give uncomfortable feelings the space to move. When we become like the chess board rather than the chess pieces, we step back and observe our inner state rather than freezing in the face of overwhelm and the sensation of dread that accompanies it. Instead, we can embrace the power of the witness state and make space for the overwhelm to shift and dissolve.

Today, I’ll return to building the Focused Flow app after taking a short break to reorganise myself. The experience of overwhelm has receded but I’m aware it has the potential to return if I lose my focus. Finishing this blog post is one item crossed off my list for today! Without my experience of overwhelm the past few days, it’s unlikely it would have been written. As ever, I turn to my inner experience to guide my investigation of the writing process. I hope you find my reflections and the video resources I’ve shared useful. I look forward to any comments below or email me on info@focused-flow.com if you have questions you’d like to discuss in private.

What is writer’s block?

According to the ACT approach, experiential avoidance is always at the foundation of the internal obstacles that arise and prevent us from achieving our goals. This is the same for any kind of blockage, including writer’s block. Experiential avoidance in writers results in us behaving in ways that undermine the achievement of our writing goals. The ACT hexaflex is designed to overcome experiential avoidance and increase psychological flexibility through the acquisition of new cognitive and behavioural skills. However, before us writers can overcome obstacles to achieving our writing goals, we need to understand the avoidance strategies we use, albeit not consciously, and become much more aware of how our thoughts, feelings and sensations lead to avoidance behaviour- and even that dreaded writer’s block.

The Focused Flow model approaches writing coaching by establishing values-driven writing goals, and then taking an inventory of obstacles that arise when a writer approaches their writing task. For each person, the obstacles that arise will be unique. Yet there are some common problems that many writers face when they approach a writing task. One is procrastination, which tends to be driven by overthinking the writing task, leading to uncomfortable sensations or feelings and the perpetual delay of writing to avoid this discomfort. When faced with a blank screen or page, many experience overwhelm due to overthinking the task ahead which puts the brake on the writing process. Procrastination helps writers to avoid this common experience of writer’s overwhelm. From an ACT perspective, Russ Harris calls this behaviour an ‘away move’ because procrastination diverts us away from the achievement of our goals.

I have noticed that before I sit down to write about any aspect of the writing process, I seem to experience the very problem I’m thinking of writing about. For example, today, I intended to write a blog post about experiential avoidance- and I finally started writing about it after 5pm, but not before cleaning my apartment, sorting out the laundry, ordering my food shopping, taking out the trash, giving myself a facial, and looking at various freelance writing and editing opportunities to boost my income across about twenty websites. This resulted in a growing sense of agitation and even dread. I was aware I was avoiding today’s writing goal, yet there I was, saying I could coach others to achieve theirs! Cue the emergence of the internal critic in full self-condemnation and judgement mode… ‘you haven’t got what it takes, you’re out of your depth, you should stick to editing, who’s going to take you seriously? Why would anybody part with their hard-earned money to learn from somebody like you?’ And so on and so on… which is my version of what ACT practitioners term the ‘I’m not good enough story’.

So, I connected to that experience, and became aware I was feeling uncomfortable and agitated. I connected to the sensations in my body- a kind of dread in the pit of my stomach, a heaviness in my heart that I associate with disappointment, not about a cancelled event, but disappointment with myself. I realised I was at what Russ Harris calls ‘the choice point’, like a fork in the road, with one path taking me away from my writing goals- by going for a walk, having a glass of wine, or finding some other task such as doing a tiny bit of washing up that could easily wait. My ‘I’m not good enough story’ was kicking off along with all the uncomfortable feelings that accompany it, and I had to choose whether to get hooked into the story or remain aware of my uncomfortable feelings, sit down, and just start writing instead. This short video illustrates ‘the choice point’ visually.

I became aware I was at my choice point by connecting to the present moment and noticing my thoughts, feelings, sensations and the urge to indulge in further procrastination, more avoidance and ‘away moves’. According to the ACT model, this dropping into awareness and connecting to the present moment is termed ‘mindfulness’. By becoming more mindful, I was able to choose a ‘towards move’ while remaining aware of my discomfort, picking up my laptop, sitting down and starting to type.

Next, during the writing process, I remembered the problems I’d encountered with potential coaching clients who’d queried the use of mindfulness as a solution to overcoming obstacles to writing. So much so, that I’d been careful to remove the term ‘mindfulness’ from my promotional material and website pages. Then, my mind began to comment negatively on my use of the term mindfulness. The reason? Almost all my potential clients were put off by the idea of having to meditate in order to write! They had associated mindfulness with meditation. I was surprised, but then I’ve been an ACT practitioner for eleven years and had chosen to practice ACT as a coach because it doesn’t involve meditation! I’d previously trained in other mindfulness-based therapies- MBCT and MBSR -which do require a regular meditation practice. This requirement led to problems for some of my peers who found making time to meditate difficult, and had undermined their progress with the approach. Then, along came ACT- a mindfulness-based active coaching approach that required no meditation- so I jumped into further training then began using it with a lot of success, especially with writers in my retreat house in Sri Lanka.

So, I decided to ignore my mind telling me it was a bad idea to discuss mindfulness in this article about the writing process. There are several myths about mindfulness, but instead of avoiding using the term I decided it’s time to do some myth busting instead. Take a look at the short video below by the ACT coach Russ Harris.

Thanks to my mindfulness skills, I was able to choose to behave in a way that achieved today’s writing goal, despite all the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that arose when I thought about sitting down to write. In addition to connecting to the present moment and noticing the thoughts, feelings and sensations driving my procrastination, I decided to let them be there and unhooked from the impulse to avoid them. In the ACT hexaflex model, these further skills in mindfulness are termed ‘acceptance’ (allowing uncomfortable aspects of our experience to just be there) and cognitive defusion (unhooking or refusing to ‘fuse’ with the ‘I’m not good enough story’).

The next post will discuss these additional mindfulness skills in detail. Acceptance and cognitive defusion enable us to choose ‘towards moves’ by making space for us to enter the flow state, maintain our focus, and achieve our writing goals. Thankfully, mindfulness helped me achieve my writing goal today, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this post now! If you like my investigation of the writing process, please click and subscribe in the sidebar to receive notifications by email. My posts will be full of tips and techniques to help overcome obstacles to all types of writing in the coming weeks ahead.