On getting out of a stuck place



I’ve recently completed the first draft of (what will appear to the outside world to be) my second book this year. In reality, it’s a book that has been three years in the writing. It’s about the use of a particular social theory in one field of scholarship. There is a lot of work already about the social theorist, so I really feel I need to say something a bit different. No pressure then. But I’ve been stuck in a hard place for a long time. Fortunately, my publishers know me well and have been extremely patient with my tardiness and the academic equivalent of the-dog-ate-my-homework excuses.

Don’t get me wrong, I did have a draft. But it wasn’t a messy first draft in which everything was roughly in the right place. This was a draft in which one chapter was distinctly out of sorts, and another wasn’t in rude health either. I’d got as far as understanding the problem – I wasn’t clear about what material I would use to stage the argument, and I was completely befuddled about the order in which the various chunks might be assembled. While I could see what was wrong – and this is the first step in sorting things out – I didn’t know how to fix it.

Now this is not the first time I’ve been stuck with Pierre Bourdieu in a writing cul-de-sac. I’ve written several papers which use his ‘thinking tools’ and each one of them has taken a very long time. I’ve been thinking about why this is the case and what my stuck-ness might be about. I’m not phobic about writing so I don’t need to do things that help me write anything. I didn’t have writer’s block because I kept writing other things, including other books and papers – and blogging twice a week. I was just stuck on this book. This (four letter word) book.

Well, there is the question of time. Always time. I don’t write full time. I haven’t had a big lot of days where I just sit with my writing problem. I have other work to do and, like most academics not on study leave, I write around my other obligations. For me this usually means writing early in the morning, something I achieve by trying to organise other commitments to start later in the day. But over the three book-stuck years I have had very many early mornings re-writing and re-writing the difficult chapter. It’s not that I haven’t been on it. I haven’t just been sitting on my hands. It’s just that what I’ve done wasn’t ‘it’.

As well, this is a single-authored book. Regular patter readers will know that my personal academic writing preference is co-authorship and that one of the ways in which the writing happens is through talk, lots of talk in order to sort things out. But there was/is no-one to talk and write with on this book. I could of course have found someone else to talk to. But my topic – PB in a particularly dull scholarly field – means that the people who want to hear about my problem are very small in number… So I have been on my lonesome on this text. I did however have a great critical reader lined up for my first draft. When it was done.

I can’t ignore the fact that writing this book was just hard intellectual work. It’s not simply the writing that was at issue. It wasn’t just a question of structure. It was also how to make the case. It was the tangle of writing and thinking together that was the problem. Writing can often help to sort out these kinds of problems and I did use a range of different writing tactics in order to try to unlock myself – but none of them worked in this instance.

I do remember my own supervisor putting me in a pressure cooker situation in order to get me to sort out the order of chapters in my thesis. I did my PhD by distance and only saw him very, very occasionally. On this occasion I was in town for two days and saw him on Day One. He gave me overnight to come up with a workable thesis structure. This was pretty difficult and I had to have several goes at it. I was staying with a friend at the time, she was an experienced academic and writer, and I was able to test iterative versions of structure out on her. (I’m still very grateful for this bit of free supervision Jane.) This strategy worked for me, and I was able to turn up the next day with a working and workable sequence of chapters which choreographed the big idea I had already identified.

But a self-imposed twenty-four hour deadline didn’t work with this book, and so I stayed sitting with the text, fiddling with it every now and then, and making excuses to my publisher.

So what got me out of this place in the end? Well interestingly it was a variant on the under-pressure strategy. One chapter in this book has been written by colleagues (this is the convention we are using in our book series), and they have been getting – understandably – increasingly anxious about when their work is going to see the light of day. A couple of recent polite but pressing emails made me decide that I just had to sort it out. I couldn’t dilly dally around any longer. I just had to stop faffing about and make the text work. It wasn’t fair to leave my colleagues hanging. I just needed to get on with it.

I still wasn’t sure how I was going to get going again, but I went back to the text – I hadn’t looked at it for a while – and started revising the first chapter, one I was relatively happy with. This got me back into the book properly. I then had to face the most troublesome chapter. The troubling two, double trouble. It took me a few early mornings to sort it out, and a few tiny texts, but I did finally come up with a solution to the problem. I created two chapters where there had been one, got rid of some out-of-sorts words and added more explanation and new examples. In spreading the argument out, letting it breathe, I was also able to emphasise the basic point I wanted to make about how to use Bourdieu in the field.The other ailing chapter then fell easily into place.

Now I’m hardly the only person to get stuck on a writing/arguing/theorising problem. Doctoral researchers often find themselves in a stuck place. They don’t have three years to just sit and wait around. They do have to sort their problem out. It is a case of having to get through it. (But full timers do have more available time to do this than those who are part-time.)

Alas. There is no magic solution, no one-best way to get through a stuck place. There are no easy answers, no blueprints – well, if there are I haven’t found them, or read any that are plausible. It’s a question of finding the right combination of:

(1) internalised external pressure – for me this was the moral obligation to other writers; for doctoral researchers this might be hand-in-time, or it might be something else…

(2) strategies to tackle the writing/thinking. These might include: talking the problem through with a supervisor and/or peer; writing to get unstuck; getting some help with locating the problem; analyzing the text using linguistic tools; meditating; free writing or shut up and write sessions; using reverse outlines; going to a coach; doing structured writing to prompts; attending a writing retreat or boot camp; writing tiny texts; reading; taking a break; brainstorming alternative ways to approach the issue; putting yourself in a pressure cooker time-limited situation; revising the bits that you’re happy with; writing exercises in order to improve writing even if not about the particular problem – and so on…

What works for one person might not work for another. And what works for one problem might not work for a different one. And what works once might not work the next time! The real trick in getting over stuckness is not to give up, but to accept the problem. This does very often mean a trial and error approach, trying out different things to see which of them might unravel the knot you’re trapped in.

And this also means taking on board the fact that doing a PhD – or any academic writing at all for that matter – is not only about writing the text and becoming a better writer, but is also about building your own set of diagnostic tools and a repertoire of strategies that you can call on at different times and for different problems.

Ultimately, you are the one that has to get you out of the rock and hard place. Building your writer’s repertoire is a key to academic writing and publishing. But understanding that being stuck is part of the practice of academic writing is also important. Being stuck is not something that happens to you, but to all of us. It happened to me on book 15. The crucial thing to grasp is that we can all move out and on. I have and so can you.