Dear Graduate Scholar: Writing Writing Like a Writer

by David Bisaha, PhD

Writing, that is, putting one damn word in front of another, is the primary way we communicate as academics. It’s not the only way, something performance scholars know well. Writing is still as important as it is difficult and scary. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance, sees writing as an act of physical courage. He’s not wrong. I’m still battling daily with first-draft-itis, imposter syndrome, and perfectionism, and I don’t think those armies are retreating any time soon. We’ve just got to manage the process as best we can.

"It’s as though you have a certain music in your head, and trying to get that music out on the page is just absolute hell….but what you have to do is give yourself a day, go back, revise, over and over and over again." – Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Advice on Writing” from The Atlantic’s Creative Breakthroughs 

For a good chunk of my graduate career, I taught nonfiction writing at a summer camp for academically talented high school students. A lot of my ideas about writing come from the advice I read and explained to those high schoolers. They may have wanted to become novelists, screenwriters, or science writers, but being a theorist-historian isn’t really that different. No matter the discipline, the writer must clear aside the noise and find space to reflect, draft, and revise, revise, revise. 

Part of the reason writing is hard is that we use it to communicate finished results – the worked-out arguments that constitute academic productivity – and we also use it to help ourselves figure out what those results actually are. This trips me up a lot. Writing is both the product of the thinking and the method of refining the thinking itself. Somewhere in the middle of grad school I realized that I had conceptualized writing as an end product, what I do when I am “done thinking,” when I could have been using writing to figure out what I think in the first place. 

Unfortunately, word/page counts on assignments reinforce this mindset; they’re a necessary evil, but they do encourage us to think of writing as a product. Writing-as-process reveals your thinking to you, magically, simply because you have to put down sentences that more or less make sense in sequence. In nonfiction class, we called this “writing past the subject”: you don’t really know what you’re writing about until you’ve written it. Most of the good writing I have done, dissertation included, had some discovery midway or even at the end of the drafting process. You go back, you write again. 

"Very few writers know what they are doing until they’ve done it." – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I own two copies of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, one in my office and one at home. It was a mainstay of the summer camp curriculum. It’s special among writing advice books because Lamott lets it all hang out. She talks about how hard it is to write and she gives funny little names to all the critical voices telling her to stop. She makes herself the patron saint of shitty first drafts (her term!) and the spokesperson for setting small writing goals. The title, by the way, comes from a vignette she remembers in which her father found her brother in tears over a biology report. The brother hadn’t started it yet, and of course it’s due tomorrow. Dad’s advice? “Just take it bird by bird.” The book is practical advice from a successful writer who’s not afraid to let you into her crazy mind – it helps.

Okay, fine, but what do you actually do? No easy answer. Writing is an art, which means you really have to figure it out for yourself. In the interest of an advice post, though, here are some techniques I’ve found useful. I love morning pages, which is setting a word count to reach each day before doing anything else. I use when I’m prewriting. It’s a tool that pulls up a nice, clean page and I can even make it send me nudging email reminders to write daily. There’s something magical about that number too. Even if I prattle on about breakfast for five hundred words, 750 seems to be just long enough to open the verbal floodgates and get a sentence or two that is somewhat on-topic. Attaching writing to a daily or many-times weekly practice, like exercise, can help too. 

I have also read and believe it’s true that many writers are also runners, because both activities share a certain training-interval logic. Three miles, forty-five minutes, two thousand words for today. This systemic, by-the-numbers approach worked for me for a while, especially while I was researching and writing the dissertation full-time. For some people reward systems work better. I say, whatever gets you in the seat and going, do it. Make yourself a chart with stickers. Sit down with a fancy coffee drink. You can always adjust your Starbucks budget later. Now, find a spot and put ideas down, bird by bird.

"It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive patterns of behavior—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way." – Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

Don’t be afraid to draw artistic practices together. Writing about performance has a particular rhythm and bounce, and you also bring a particular voice to your own writing. Some of this distinctiveness comes from the fact that most of us are writing about something that isn’t itself textual, at least not entirely. When it’s done well, the translation of movement and environment and speech onto the page preserves some of the same gut impulse that animates performance generally. We put bodies on the line, and we build arguments out of actors and objects and spaces. Let the knowledge you have and the lessons you have learned in whatever creative practice you engage in guide your writing. Writing is similarly creative, even though academia artificially separates your “creative” and “research” work.

In fact, some of my favorite work on writing comes from theatre and performance makers. Anne Bogart’s work is awesome, practically all of it, especially her blog and her books. So is Twyla Tharp’s book about her creative practice. That said, be careful about people selling you procrast-information about how to “be more creative.” But if it inspires you, think about it, hold onto it, and buy the book so you can read it some day when you need a boost.

"One of the most radical things you can do in this culture of inexactitude is to finish a sentence." – Anne Bogart, And Then, You Act: Making Art in an Unpredictable World

So sit down, let yourself get out of your own way, and write what’s going through your head. Go prospecting in your ideas. Something is there – you wouldn’t be this far along in graduate study if there wasn’t some curiosity that you need to unlock. Write your way to the question that matters, and write more when you think you have figured out your first answer to it. And then, edit it down and keep going.

David Bisaha holds a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Theatre History and Theory at Binghamton University, State University of New York.


Series Editor: Esther J. Terry