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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Happy Engagement vs. false positives

In a writing session of happy engagement, you are focused not on your ego (either negatively or positively)but on the work in front of you. We've already shown that seemingly "positive" ego can also be detrimental. Having a "strong ego" can mean two things: not worrying about the ego one way or the other, or having an exaggerated sense of self-worth that is, consequently, easily bruised. (The latter is really a form of weak ego, not a manifestation of a strong one!)

So the kind of inner monologue you will hear in a mood of happy engagement is more like this: "That paragraph is almost done, but something is missing at the end... Oh, I see, that last sentence needs to be the topic sentence of a paragraph of its own... How should I end that paragraph, then?... I need a better transition..."

It might help to realize that you don't need to worry about getting to a zone of perfect egolessness. That may never even happen. As long as your main focus is on the work rather than on your self, you can simply accept that you will still have distracting thoughts related to your adequacy or inadequacy. If you spend too much energy trying to banish those thoughts, you will be doubly distracted: "Gee, this egolessness is hard to achieve, I am horrible at this...I'll never get this right." Instead, you could imagine yourself saying: "Oh, I just had one of my 'underconfident' (or 'overconfident') moments... Not very helpful, so I will return to the business at hand."

It might also help to know that everyone has moments of self-doubt and / or overconfidence. The negative thought is not, itself, a sign that you are deeply flawed or doomed to failure. Thinking you are brilliant, by the same token, does not mean that you are. It is just a natural reaction when things are going well.

Believing in yourself is fine. Earnest exhortations to have a positive attitude, however, are not very useful, because a positive attitude cannot be willed into existence. If crippling negative thoughts are dominating your inner monologue, you cannot just replace them with a different, more positive sort of self talk. If you are in state that the ego is out of control, no amount of "writing advice" will really help. Instead, the remedy is to analyze the reasons behind the negativity. If you experienced "happy engagement" in the past, what was different about that time? Maybe there was no pressure for tenure? Maybe you had a better mentor at the time?


profacero said...

All the writing tips seem strange to me when applied to writing, because my writing issues lie elsewhere, but I find they work perfectly on certain kinds of things that actually intimidate me including: grading, assignment construction, syllabus construction, and dealing with difficult people. They work shockingly well for these things, actually. I only recently figured it out.

profacero said...

AHA, I think I may know the secret now - degree and type of interest.

In my case,

originally: this is an interesting topic and working on it is part of my interesting job, that I want to keep, so let's go.

in another era: this is not what I want to do with this topic and if I publish something along these lines people will think I mean it, so I will either have to continue or recant, and I would rather take things in a direction I believe in; furthermore, the reason to rush this along is to keep a job I am ambivalent about, so what is all this for?

in another era still: ack! why am I working on this? It is interesting but others are doing great work on the same topic, and every minute I spend working on it is a minute I do not spend figuring out how to get out of this place!

now: hm. I am really curious about this topic. There is no particular urgency that I work on it since others are, and am unlikely to receive any form of tangible award for succeeding in saying something, but I am quite curious to see what I will come up with if I keep digging here.

I have been wondering for years why people suddenly have writing trouble as faculty. My theory has been that they didn't learn how to do it in school or they don't like it, and the dominant theory is that they do not know how to manage time.

I really wonder whether it is just that they are as I was: ambivalent about their topics and jobs, and not allowing themselves to say so - and having this manifest as a writing problem they cannot understand because it isn't really a writing problem.

From that perspective the false positive is the requirement to be glad one survived this far but it occurs to me that that is too low a bar to set. Raising the bar to something like loving your project might then be the better antidote.

Jonathan said...

Yes, it is easy to become estranged from own's own work. To discover that you don't really want to be doing the work you are doing. What then? Is there ever a perfect match? I experienced it once with my book Apocryphal Lorca, but not with all my projects.

profacero said...

Estranged, yes that is an interesting word.