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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

You gotta find something to love about writing

Updated: May 30


A photo of a greeting card. The card is designed to look like an entry in a dictionary defining friendship as: "giving each other the same advice back and forth an no one taking it."
If this post seems like I'm giving myself some advice I need to hear right now, you're right. (Image credit: B.G. Merkle, 2024)

I'm going to say something that might not seem very helpful: I love writing.


So much of what we do as scholars/academics/people working in learning environments involves writing or some kind of communication. So, if you hate writing, it's going to be rough out there.


Since you're doing work and scholarship that is language-intensive, having a lot of angst around writing is going to make everything else that you do as a student, scholar, professional, and person, really miserable.


So, if you like writing, cling to that with all your strength.


(Again, I'm telling myself things I need to hear...)


I've burned my candle down to a nub this semester, and yet I still have things I want to write, never mind the things I should write or finish up. I'm trying to figure out how to walk away from "work" writing for a bit while holding tightly to some writing I really want to finish (a poetry manuscript and the inevitable edits on my first book). And, I'm pondering what new writing I may pursue this summer.


On the off chance that you, too, feel not-done-but-so-done, I'm sharing a few things I've been mulling recently. Some are prescriptions, some are observations. My hope is that they'll give you something to try, or at least something to react against that could suggest another possibility to you.


  1. If you have ever in your life loved any kind of writing, in any language on the planet, find that feeling back. Some how, some way. Maybe you'll do that by binge-reading novels [1], writing limericks, or line-editing letters to the editor in your local paper (at home over breakfast; (probably) not as a gig). Perhaps it will happen through helping someone learn to write in cursive or find the perfect way to articulate their work (that you're not involved in). You might spend the summer submersed in garden nerdery essays [2] or inhaling travel memoirs from a place you've always wanted to visit [3]. Or what if you write letters to the people you care most about, or people farthest away from you?

  2. You'll notice I did not mention start or finish any work-related writing (at least as it pertains to the work I do as a scholar-practitioner of scicomm and leadership/org change). In my experience, at least, it's vital to step away from work when I'm in a real burnout trough. Or, I risk needing to pivot fully away from what I did that led to burnout. I don't mean I'd leave burnout-inducing work habits or overload, just the topics, collaborators, etc. And, I don't want to pivot right now. I really like and care about what I do (mostly), and it's having real impacts. So I need to sustain my enthusiasm for it.

  3. I don't usually experience writers' block, per se. But I definitely experience (practice?!?) avoidance at times. It's especially frustrating to feel this way when I know I should want to be writing about xyz topic. I've found that I have to reckon with what is keeping me away from, afraid of, or resistant to writing. (If you're a grad student at UW, you can join a program I co-run to help you figure this out!) For example, I've figured out that I primarily finish projects I work on with other people. These create external commitments and momentum that pull me through avoidance. It's trickier for me with fully individual projects (like this blog or my poetry manuscript). Those solo projects benefit from me reconceptualizing (or tricking myself) them as somehow not-solo. (As in, this blog helps people to make change, so it's my words, but not just for/about me.)

  4. I have embraced that I have a terrible writing "routine." I have ADHD, which I figured out a couple years ago, and it explains everything in my life. All my piles, my 17 to-do lists that I write but never look at again...all of it. My writing happens in fits and spurts and moments of desperation and moments of inspiration. (And most especially, when I'm working with other people.) Everybody will tell you that you must write everyday [4]. Bless you if you can manage it. I have never been able to do that. But, I like to write, and I'm always writing something. I write rants and advice here, papers that share a lot of resources with the world, everything in between, and some poetry and popular science writing, too. If you can find something you like to write, that can keep you moving toward the writing that feels harder, or required. The workable advice for me is: always be writing. Doesn't matter what topic or genre, just keep writing, so that you keep that skill and keep building it.

  5. Find writing you love and soak it up. This is related to the earlier thought about how to recover a love of writing by doing writing or interacting with the written word. But, specifically, find or return to writing that is deeply satisfying, entertaining, engaging, or meaningful to you. This might be the way someone made a convincing point in an op-ed, or a pithy quip on a Sunday comic. It might be a favorite poem or the books that meant everything to you as a child. Pull these out, write them out, post them up in places where you'll see them regularly. Nudge yourself to notice and enjoy writing as a craft and communication mechanism that you appreciate.

  6. Read children's books. It sounds silly, but it's one of the best ways I've found to fall back in love with what words can do to convey learning, wonder, and every emotion under the sun. Children's books aren't for kids; they are distilled gems of literary power and the mighty way they wrangle words can inspire, delight, and re-energize me. It might work for you, too, given they tell the kind of stories we think we're supposed to and are thus usually the antithesis of what makes academic writing so soul-sucking.

  7. Share writing. Focus on appreciation, not critique or doom-spiraling. By which I mean, share a sentence or quotation, or discuss a poem, popular article, or book with someone else. Again, the emphasis here is on appreciating, enjoying and thinking about the craft and entertainment of writing [5].

 

NOTES


[1] I inhaled novels as a kid -- everything from "Animorphs" and "The Cat Who..." mysteries to historical romances and more -- and then I kind of veered (swore?) off them for almost two decade. I rediscovered novels as a spectacular source of stylistic (sentence, form, content, etc.) inspiration and entertainment when I was accepted into a competitive creative writing MFA program in 2015. Now, I'm happy to report I'm couple back to omnivory. A few novels that I aim to re-read this summer include Ceremony, Grief is the Thing With Feathers, and Under the Whispering Door. Each of these books rocked my understanding of how reality, culture, and learning can be conveyed (and pondered) through storytelling. I'm also going to re-read a bunch of my childhood deep-favs like My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, The Black Stallion, and a bunch of gorgeous, absurd children's books I've collected over the years. (Yep, I was horse-obsessed for ages.)


[2] A few possible starting points on gardening: AHP's Garden Study subset of her Culture Study platform, FedCo Seed's seed catalog -- the print one! --, plus poetry by Mary Oliver and essays by Wendell Berry.


[3] I suggested travel memoirs, but really, the books that have given me the richest understanding of a new-to-me place have been novels and poetry by people from a place I am traveling to. It's worth the effort to dig up novels by Kenyan and Tuscan writers, for example.


[4] Paul Silvia's How to Write a Lot is the classic here. But, as much as it seems like a good idea, I've never been able to sustain those methods. Fortunately, research from Helen Sword suggests write-every-day methods are far from the only ways to be a productive, prolific writer who keeps (and even enjoys) writing. On the third hand, Inger Mewburn (aka Thesis Whisperer) has some phenomenal resources for epic productivity (start with "How to write 1000 words in a day and not go bat-shit crazy") in case adreneline works for you.


[5] I'm deliberately not talking about work, i.e., co-writing, co-authorship, revision, editing, or anything having to do with creating writing of your own. Of course, these are important aspects of writing. And yes, if you're in writing (or work) burnout, working with others to grunt through a writing project can be vital. But, to get (back to) a point where you appreciate and enjoy writing (both the reading of it and the doing of it), you may well need some distance from the work of it.


 

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