Writing is a roller coaster.

IMG_3743When talking with others about my writing lately, I spoke of this great clarity that I now had in how to re-structure the results of a manuscript I’m writing. Two days later, I’m back in the murkiness and ups and downs, back-and-forth, writing, re-writing, revising, and re-revising…

The lesson to be learned here is to ride the waves. Ride the highs and lows, and embrace the chaos of writing. From one writer to another:

“Learn to love revision” — quote not my own (See the “O” magazine May 2015)

A strategy I use for exploring a creative space is to create a new document. This gives me a blank canvas from which to explore my ideas in an uninhibited way. This is needed, just like an artist needs a blank page to sketch the form of a piece.

Conquer the Fear

Conquer the fear of being rejected.

Conquer the fear of not being well-received.

Take writing as an opportunity to embrace the world.

Take this opportunity to teach the world.

I use the opportunity to write as a way to tell my unique perspective and story about the experiences that I co-construct through scholarly inquiry. I embrace the practice of writing as a process, something that I work on every day.

Breathe.

We all breathe, but we may not be keenly aware of how we breathe. Through my practice of yoga at Perennial Yoga and Meditation I’ve learned that the exhale carries an immense power.

The power of breathing out can be one of letting go. Breathe out and let go of what doesn’t serve you. (Thank you, Katie Hill.) This applies in the context of writing as well. For example, when reading a review or another’s comments on your writing, do the comments serve you? Do they help you to teach the main point and strengthen your argument? Or are they ancillary and missing the point? In the latter case, let them go (and breathe while you do so).

The power of breathing out can bring the power of staying calm. By breathing out longer than we breathe in we tell our bodies and our minds that we are Ok. Do not panic, it’s OK. Breathing while writing is key for it allows you to be relaxed in your practice of writing, allowing the ideas to flow.

Generally, the practice of breathing keeps you centered. This applies across all contexts, the ones you cherish, the ones you loathe. Through a concentrated practice on my breathe I’ve experienced changes in my ability to more quickly turn stressful situations into more manageable moments. Pay attention to your breathing while writing. What do you notice. Does your attention to breath correspond to a shift in energy?

Progress blossoms in inspired settings.

I have accumulated a wall of positive expressions, quotes, and other superlatives that I keep just above the screens of my computer. These words may matter most in keeping me going, day after day. Especially as I sit down at my computer to engage in the process of writing.

I am thankful to have so many examples of engaged scholars and thought leaders who share words of wisdom, from which I use as inspiration to persist in my quest for knowledge.

A recent one I added was note I recently received from Barack Obama. The following excerpt particularly resonates with me.

Together let’s always remember to guard against cynicism, embrace hope, and work toward an ever brighter tomorrow.

Why we write.

I re-read a quote in my journal this morning that inspired me.

We write to experience life twice. Once in the moment, and once retrospectively.

I remind myself that it is more important to engage in the process of writing, without worrying about the products of that writing, than not to write at all.

I write today to teach, to tell a story, to clarify ideas.

I take one step up the sand dune, only to be moved three steps back down.

Today I am progress in press.

I believe in the potential of that progress in press to be in print.

Setting realistic “process” goals.

My realistic goals for the next several weeks will be based on advice to set process goals, as opposed to product goals. My process goals will be about writing. Writing every day is a reasonable process goal for me. There is something about writing every day that helps me to feel more fulfilled and accomplished.

By focusing on process goals I will be less focused on product goals, yet trust in the idea that by engaging in process goals I will eventually accomplish the product goals. My product goals (which I express here for illustration purposes only) are with respect to manuscript submission and eventual publishing. I am reminded that these milestones of accomplishments are few and far between with respect to other more realistic goals, such as process goals.

It is completely unrealistic to think that I will achieve a major product goal each time I sit down to put words onto the page. It is completely realistic for me to achieve the goal of engaging in the process of writing every time I open my computer. Let’s keep focused on the positive, the accomplishments, the doable things.

Worry less. Achieve more.

What might you learn with an open mind?

 Believe.

“I can make a difference with my ideas.” At a Research I institution they are training you to become a leader in your field. The goal is to make advances in theory, practice, policy, and otherwise through original academic research and collaborations.  99% of academic debate is chasing the idea (with only 1% being personal…). This wisdom reminds me of some of my daily mantras: Believe in your own work. Be confident. Be patient. Be persistent. In this same vein, Suzzane Collins eloquently wrote, “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear.” I have come to understand that through such hope and belief in one’s ideas, that leadership in scholarly activity may emerge.

Inquire.

“It’s not always about having the answer. It’s about the process of inquiry into an idea.”  This requires long-term thinking. This inquiry into questions also gets stronger when we have a greater sense of the history and direction of the work. In talking with others, and in engaging with them about their ideas, consider ways of framing questions and critiques in ways that further encourage discussion about the process of thinking. It is good, and often productive to push on ideas. Challenging ideas, and not people, is the nature of the academic dialogue.

To inspire my writing, I have gone back to literature on what others have done in related areas, specifically around translations between representations. With a lens on the theoretical approach to studying student conceptions and activity, I have garnered a greater sense of how my work fits with or complements, as well as differs from the approaches of other scholars. The process of inquiry into ideas, both others and my own, has pushed my thinking and subsequent writing in productive directions.

Teach.

If I’m no longer looking for approval, then what? Teach your ideas. As a student, you may have been looking for approval from your professors. As you transition to a postdoctoral researcher, and later to a permanent position (in academia or industry), you are now the one who is going to teach. What are the ideas you have to teach me? And why do they, or should they matter to the field of inquiry? Your ideas have merit. You have merit. I encourage you to teach me those ideas.

“The best way to learn is to teach.” To find clarity in ideas, do a thought experiment about teaching. How would you teach this idea? How would you build a course around a chapter of your dissertation? This is especially helpful for me as I think about writing several papers from my dissertation research. From the frame or perspective of teaching, I gain so much more clarity in my ideas and how I want to convey them to the world. I have something to teach the world, and I’m going to write about it in these journal articles. Of course, in putting this idea into practice, one must also have the confidence and belief that the ideas matter. Thus when a sustained process of inquiry and teaching are taken together, true progress can be made.

Clarity.

“Rejection” is part of the “building and expansion” of ideas. The harshness of “REJECTION” can greatly impede clarity. One important lesson is to consider the fact that “10% is writing, and 90% is revision.” In my first attempts at breaking into the world of publishing in research journals, I was advised that writing for research journals is hard work, and one goes through more rounds of revision and drafts of manuscript that one might ever want to.

If we approach the writing process from a mantra of “don’t take anything personally” (one of the four agreements), we may view reviews of manuscripts in one of three ways: (1) reject it, (2) accept it, or (3) consider it. Each reviewer will approach a manuscript from their own experience and knowledge, the ideas they present for ways to revise and improve the work reflect their stance, and are not directed at the person, but rather the form and substance of the ideas on the page. In framing rejection in a productive way, one might sort through comments that (1) you disagree with thus do no need to attend to in revision, (2) ideas that you agree with and thus can readily attend to in revision, and (3) those ideas that you take time to consider. “What can I learn form this?” “What do these alternative perspectives have to offer?” “How am I being asked to build and expand my ideas?”

What’s the narrative? In building clarity in your writing, in putting your pen to the page, ask yourself: What’s the story you’re going to tell? Craft the idea itself around this story. Telling a story in your writing helps convey the take-away message in a clear and compelling way.

So what? This is such a central question in writing. An approach to writing is to consider it a persuasive essay. After each sentence, after each paragraph, stop and ask yourself–so what? Why does this matter? Who am I convincing? And why?

Persist.

“The story never ends.” In this metaphor, the “story” is the “thinking process.” Thought is ongoing, and it is in our nature as humans to think. The persistence of thought is what makes the world go round in academia. My efforts will be focused on the belief in my own ideas. The hope that is stronger than fear. The inquiry into new ideas. Teaching others my ideas as a way to advance the field. And finding clarity in my ideas and intentions, taking one step after another, not looking to the top of the mountain, but instead, toward each next step, however small.

Footnote: This short essay was informed by several enlightening and uplifting conversations, three of particular import. First, with a fellow academic in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Second, with a mentor and yoga instructor, following a Dharma talk at Perennial Yoga and Meditation. And third, in conversing about the peer review of a manuscript I had written for (eventual) publication in a peer-reviewed research journal.

I am indebted to my friends who have shared several things with me from their own training, experience, and wisdom that have been garnered from various academic and spiritual advisors. It is because of my openness to learn these new ideas that I am able to learn and grow from this wisdom.

A Marathon, Not a Sprint

I’ve never trained for a marathon that I’ve ran in as a race, per se, but I’ve been advised to adopt this metaphor as a means to characterize the experience of a successful scholar in mathematics education.

I am engaged in a myriad of research, professional development, writing, and networking activities, all of which have a certain (and relatively high) degree of interest. I suppose it should be no surprise that amidst this scholarly activity, I find myself over committed. How is it that a high level of activity may not be the same as high productivity–in terms of writing output, specifically?

What is a person to do when the hours in the day are seemingly not long enough to “finish” all of the tasks one has set out to do? Recall that it is a marathon, not a sprint. Otherwise I will find myself burt out.

Telling stories.

I was recently inspired to tell stories. In a talk by Dr. Susan May Basalla, she told of the stories she has learned from others seeking positions outside of academia. In her talk she spoke of being inspired by things that motivate us, that we are passionate about, taking our own paths that are certainly not linear, nor pre-determined in any particular way. Being comfortable with flux, with uncertainty, with change, and unknown are important facets of that learning.

In Dr. Basalla’s recommendation to write notes of gratitude, I took this recommendation to heart. I have always been one to write letters or notes, telling others of their great acts that have impacted my world. In this new perspective, these notes of gratitude, for me, are focused toward different learning opportunities regarding my professional and personal pursuits of knowledge and happiness. She recommends that over time, we might then take these as objects to analyze, looking to identify themes in them, uncovering a hidden or tacit thread that we may not have known to be true.

This is certainly a theme in my work right now — uncovering hidden truths that spark and motivate great productivity. The sense of being overwhelmed can be debilitating. I seek to gain more control over that feeling of being overwhelmed. I often try to be as specific as possible when ~everything~ seems to be out of control. What do I have control of? What are the specific things that are on my “to do list” that are causing me the most unease or mental dissonance? This is part of my own story, which I intend to shape by the stories of other people.

Dr. Basalla, is one such inspiring person. I met another inspiring person, Dr. Martina Rau, in educational psychology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. We have closely aligned research interests–student learning, representations, and technology–yet these interests and queries are being investigated in different ways. Her delineation of daily “morning-deep thinking” and “afternoon-tedious tasks” is one mechanism that works for her in dividing and conquering the myriad of tasks and responsibilities that she faces in her assistant professorship.

I will work to keep track of these inspiring stories, notes of gratitude, and other informational networking opportunities, as a way to better understand and characterize productivity and happiness in both professional and personal endeavors. Interdisciplinary connections seem to be some of the most fruitful (at least at the moment)…

Believe in your own work.

One lesson that I’ve learned in my post as a postdoctoral fellow is to Believe In Your Own Work. A mentor of mine told me a story about how a senior scholar had submitted his master’s thesis to JRME. His submission was originally rejected. Upon receiving the reviews, he responded to the editor in disagreement with the reviewers, claiming they had mis-interpreted his findings. He later submitted a revised (new) manuscript back to JRME upon which it was accepted for publication. This story attests to the power of believing in your own work.

For me, writing about my work in the form a biography or “about me” section is a helpful step toward believing in my own work. Clarifying my goals, my intentions, the things I have accomplished and had experience doing, and the thing that I am actively working toward was a very helpful exercise.

This experience of crafting a bio is related to crafting other profession sites such as Linked In, or creating a Google Scholar page, or maintaining a Google Plus page in which posts about professional ideas and exchanges with colleagues are welcomed and expected. In some form, I suppose it also is related to having a facebook page.

Believing in my work today takes on the form of working on a manuscript that was originally rejected. My process is to go through the reviewers comments, if I agree with them, then comment on my paper as an area that needs to be elaborated or expanded. From these comments I will prioritize the ones that are “easy fixes,” leaving more complicated ones to “dwell on” for more extended periods of time (maybe a week). From this I can make the review into a more manageable task, instead of something that I dread or don’t believe I can accomplish.

It all starts and ends with a belief. Just like the cat poster in the Lego Movie— ~BELIEVE!~

In close, I should also note that the emphasis on Believing in your ~own~ work also implies a sense of ownership, which can be a healthy motivator for maintaining an active research program and development of scholarship.

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