1 Inspiration, Interest, Anxiety

Inspiration and Interest (A new project! YES!)

Although probably no one is immune from anxiety, many creative people feel excitement and anticipation at the thought of a new project. We find inspiration and a rush of energy as we begin a big writing project. There’s a saying, though, that you make your own luck. This book will show you several practical ways of improving your odds of being inspired when you’re beginning to write.

We’ve all heard stories of bestselling authors and brilliant academics who outproduced their rivals in books and articles. What you might not know is that several of these overachievers held themselves to a strict rule of never doing any writing that they were not feeling excited about. How could this be? Here are a couple of examples.

Dr. Niklas Luhmann was one of the foremost European sociologists of the twentieth century and the author of about sixty books and 500 journal articles. Despite being one of the most prolific authors in his field, Luhmann famously once said he never forced himself to do anything he didn’t like. Similarly, bestselling author Nassim Nicholas Taleb claims that he only writes when he wants, about topics that interest him. If he’s bored with a topic, Taleb says, then his reader will most likely be bored with it too. Taleb believes he’s doing both himself and his reader a favor, not forcing himself to slog through material he isn’t excited writing. In general, I agree, but I have a couple of thoughts about this.

While the type of advice that says things like “follow your bliss” or “do what you love and the money will follow” is inspirational and has important elements of truth in it about both motivation and ultimate happiness with your life, often you have to do things because you have to do them. We’re not always in control of our environments to the extent where we can say, “yeah, I’m not feeling it today so I don’t think I’ll do this assignment.” This is especially true for students.

Taleb is independently wealthy. He apparently made a lot of money in the market betting against the “suckers” who didn’t see one of the last market bubbles, in the way he describes in his books on “black swans” and “antifragility”. While this success validates his thesis and lends additional credibility to his arguments, it also makes him fundamentally different from those of us who still work for a living or study to gain a degree so we can begin working for a living. Taleb writes to please himself, because he has already paid his bills. This allows him to project an attitude that has become a bit of a trademark for him.

Luhmann, similarly, was already over-achieving when he said he didn’t force himself to write when he wasn’t feeling it. He was a tenured professor at a prestigious European university with a ridiculous publishing record. If we were already producing at a very high level and doing way more than what was asked of us, then we would be freer to set the terms of our work. But it may be worth asking, which is the chicken and which the egg?

In the United States, Luhmann is best known for a note-taking method he developed called Zettelkasten, which you’ll read more about very shortly. Although many of the techniques he used date back centuries, Luhmann put them together into a system that worked very well for him and allowed him to accumulate over ninety thousand cross-referenced notes during the course of his career. He did so much work, reading and taking notes on subjects that interested him, that topics for articles and monographs just seemed to jump out of his note boxes. The actual writing, he claimed, was the easy part.

Unlike Taleb or Luhmann, today’s students are typically confronted with a new set of information each semester, often from different fields of study. It’s no surprise, really, that they may not feel as motivated as people who have had the time and freedom to choose their topics. It doesn’t take a lot of will power to work on something you like, or even love. Is there a way we can take advantage of some of that energy, and make it easier on ourselves by following our interests?

Often, in the humanities and social sciences, there is a set of information with which we’re supposed to be engaging. But there are usually a number of ways we can do this; a number of paths through the maze of textbooks, sources, and lectures. It’s very unlikely, if you pick up your classmate’s copy of the textbook you’re both reading, that all your highlights and notes will be identical. The things that interested you will probably be even more diverse if the class is reading a novel! Similarly, if I’m lecturing on the first World War, I’ll probably want you to remember that it was fought from 1914 to 1919. But there are nearly an infinite number of ways to understand and talk about WWI. Some historians have looked at the ways the war changed culture and helped produce a “modern crisis”, while others have studied the battles. Still others have focused on political, environmental, or social histories of the war years, or the experiences of different groups of people such as women, minorities, or subjects of colonial powers. So there’s a lot of wiggle room even within an assigned topic. If you can latch onto an aspect or element of the assigned material that interests you, you’ll nearly always be able to find something relevant to say in a class discussion, on an exam, or in an essay that will satisfy your instructor.

And frequently, the topic will actually be up to you. In many classes, students are given a chance to choose a topic for a term paper, within a range of possibilities. This is a huge opportunity to follow your interests and research something that you feel curious or passionate about. Teachers prefer to read exam essays and term papers about topics that interested the writer. As Taleb observed, if you’re bored with it and just going through the motions, it will show.

Finally, returning to the example of Luhmann, it helps a lot to be over-prepared. It is much easier to write when you don’t have to “brainstorm” to come up with a topic. There may be some subjects where it really makes sense to memorize facts from flash-cards; but probably not as many as we think. The reason so many writers take inspiration from the German sociologist is that he was never at a loss for things to write about. His box of notes was full of information and the connections he made while reading and researching, which were captured in those notes, actually showed him what he had found interesting as he was reading. According to his own statements and reports of people who observed his work, Luhmann had enough notes in his box that he was able to work on a number of projects simultaneously and jump from one to another as the spirit moved him. This technique also allowed him to discover connections between different research topics or themes of his studies, which led to insights that people who were not so well-prepared wouldn’t have been able to discover. So that’s our aim here: to create a system for ourselves that will make it easier for us to understand what we’re reading and hearing in our studies. That will make the course content more memorable, better connected, and easier to use. And also more fun.

Anxiety (A new project? No!)

Not everyone feels a rush of energy with each new project. And even those who do, don’t always. Anxiety can be the writer’s first obstacle, and this feeling is not necessarily restricted to brand new writers! We sometimes wonder, “what can I write about this topic that hasn’t already been written by someone else, and probably much better than I’ll be able to do it?” The fear of a blank screen (it used to be a pristine, white page of paper in a notebook or blank new sheet inserted into a typewriter) has haunted experienced writers as well as first-timers. But this anxiety, sometimes called writer’s block, is not insurmountable, for brand new writers or for old veterans.

Writer’s block is most often a reaction to not being entirely prepared. It’s not the same as fatigue, although exhaustion is sometimes mistaken for writer’s block at the end of a semester when a big research paper is due. One way to break through the anxiety is to begin writing! As you can see, the author of this handbook is already on the way to overcoming any fears he may have had, getting started on this chapter, simply by writing a couple of pages. Often, we know more about a topic than we realize, and we discover that by writing. However, good authors are usually still a bit anxious about doing a good job and making their work something useful or enjoyable, that you’ll benefit from reading.

As the example of discovering what we know by writing illustrates, writing is thinking. Many people seem to believe that in order for it to count, you have to do your thinking in your head and only write down your thoughts once they are fully formulated and ready to be read by others. This may be the case for some writers, but none I’ve ever met! The two authors who have contributed to this text have over a century of writing experience between us. For us and for most of the other writers we know, the best way to discover and refine what we think is to write about it. Some of what we write may only be meaningful to ourselves. But even these private notes and lists and questions are a vital part of the process. We’ll return to explore this in more detail, soon.

Writing about anything – a novel, a historical primary source, an exam question – is at least a three-way dialogue. In the case of this handbook the conversation is between me, the writer; you, the reader; and the material. Similarly, writing about something you have read or researched should serve at least three purposes: to explore the material; to describe your reactions to it; and to communicate with your reader.

Waiting to begin reading, researching, making notes, and writing until you know exactly what and how you want to write is unproductive. You learn by writing. The way you begin writing notes, observations, and ideas may not resemble the final form of the output you want to create. And the ideas, interpretations, and themes on which you end up concentrating may also not be what you had originally anticipated. Don’t worry about that. Stay open to discovery.

Writing is a craft for most of us, not an art. This is not only an appropriate level of modesty for those of us who are more interested in communicating effectively than winning the Nobel Prize for literature; it is also very liberating. It means we are not seeking perfection and we don’t have to wait until everything is flawless before we let anyone see our work. It also means that like any other skill in the world, we learn by practicing.

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Then why bother to state the obvious? Because new (and even some old) writers have often absorbed myths about writing that get in their way. And because some writing manuals assume new writers know things that they don’t, because their authors have known those things for so long. It can be very difficult, when you’ve been doing something daily for decades, to remember what it was like to learn the basics for the first time. One way to be reminded of this, though, is to work with students while they are learning these basics. One of this handbook’s contributors taught high school English and then University Literature classes for about forty years. The current author (his son), has been teaching undergraduate History for about ten years. This handbook will take you step-by-step through the process of making effective notes on readings and research, organizing those notes into ideas and interpretations of your own, and writing an essay for a college course or an article for general readers. The handbook will use examples from literature and history, because one of us is a History professor and the other was a master teacher of Literature.

The advice you’ll find here will be relatively basic and direct, because most college essays or writing for general readers should be basic and direct. Remember, this is utilitarian writing, not poetry or the great American novel. You’re probably reading this handbook either because it has been assigned or because you’ve realized you need some help developing these skills (good for you!). Even so, to hold your interest, this book needs to get to the point. Nothing turns away readers as quickly as feeling that their time is being wasted. Therefore, just like you, I need to decide how best to use the time and space I’ve been given for this task. What words to use? What tone to set? How to organize the writing so that it makes sense and gets the job done; and so the reader feels the least possible amount of pain – or maybe even has some fun? These are all questions I’m asking myself as I outline, draft, and revise this handbook. These are the questions the handbook will help you ask and answer about your own writing.


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