Dear Destabilized Writer

Portrait of woman with book

Madame Francois Buron, Jacques-Louis David, 1769

By Nicole Y. Gaglia (6th year Ph.D. Candidate in Art History) and Kelly C. Tang (6th year Ph.D. Candidate in Art History)

So, courses have moved online. Doctoral defenses are happening on Zoom. University-wide directives on how to Keep Learning, Keep Teaching, and Keep Working are in place. President Price has even joined Instagram to show virtual solidarity while we #stayathome.

For the many of us who are not in classes and are not finishing our degrees this year, there’s only one thing for us to do: Keep Writing. Our capstone, master’s thesis, or doctoral dissertation seems optimized for an easy transition to “Shelter in place and work remotely!” Yet it is work itself that feels like it is anywhere but at our fingertips. This piece is a meditation on closing the social distance between us and our projects.

Dear destabilized writer:

Yes, keep writing. Maybe you aren’t writing right now. That’s real. It feels confusing, shameful even, why writing is not happening. You don’t know who to ask about its not-happening-ness. Your problem, your inability to Keep Writing, sounds like the least important thing compared to All Daily World Events Under a Pandemic.

Fellow destabilized writer, we wrote this essay to affirm our work in the light of the stunning dismantling of everyday academic life. We are beleaguered, late-stage dissertation writers in the humanities. We are reaching out to all writers of all disciplines, in all stages of their studies, who are now left with projects in transition. We want to find our way back.

Who is the writer in a pandemic?

The closure of campus and stay-at-home orders have exiled us. The disappearance of collegial spaces uproots our collective identity as scholars. Remote work is a rupture in the boundary between the personal and professional spheres. These disturbances require us to reimagine what it means to be writers beyond the conventions of steady progress and productivity.

Difference marks our unique, individual experiences. The multiple roles and identities belonging to each writer are present in the homes where writing is expected to be done. The writer who is a caregiver, the writer whose partner is on the front lines in the healthcare or service industries, the writer who relies on campus access to technology, the writer who cannot return to his or her home country, the writer who contends with food insecurity…

The material realities of everyday life in a pandemic leave us with little grace. We can no longer count on previous metrics, now ill-suited to our new reality, to guide our writing processes. The intermingling of our identities requires us to approach our work with new values that see our whole selves.

Nicole Gaglia

Nicole Gaglia

Writing is vulnerable.

It requires you to acknowledge the uncertainty of the process, put aside the fear that tries to shield you from it, and trust that you can transform thoughts into words. If you can quiet the internal critics and the naysayers long enough, you become free to reconcile your thinking with your knowledge. The psychic liminality of writing when you’re “in the zone”—its characteristics of isolation, escape, and curiosity—might be more difficult to embrace when the everyday is lonely and surreal. But your composition is the reward. The way writing honors our personal, intrinsic reasons for pursuing a life of the mind are enough of a reason to continue.

Original research is an expedition into the unknown.

Contending with our projects’ contingencies now competes with the precariousness we feel for ourselves and our communities near and far. In the current situation, it may be harder to dispel the self-criticism that our failure to pirouette into these new working conditions is a failure of our projects or our work ethics.

Remember: we have experience navigating unfamiliar terrain without a set destination. In the face of setbacks and unexpected findings, we falter, but we learn to adapt, adjust, and lay a path forward by making new connections. Your tolerance for uncertainty is a part of your original research. By trusting in the skills we’ve honed over the course of our education, we can step into the coming weeks and months with renewed courage and resolve.

Upheaval in the writing process is difficult to overcome.

Kelly Tang

Kelly Tang

The hesitation to ask for help might keep you from renegotiating relationships and work structures to better correspond to new needs that you have. Advocating for yourself can be difficult when other people don’t reach out to help first. But it is more important now than ever to ask for help when the entire world is struggling to stay afloat. When everyone is overtaxed, it may not be apparent what unique struggles exist for each of us. Sharing your needs can help others recognize the ways that they can help you, themselves, and larger communities at Duke.

It is also necessary to contend with the fact that, regardless of how hard the University, your department, or your advisor tries, they still might not be able to support you fully during this time. We can grieve the absence of their support and guidance. No technology suffices to ease this sense of loss.

Your project will change because of this disruption.

You don’t know how it will change, but you will adapt the best you can. Moreover, you don’t need to evaluate the changes or deviations from your perfectly planned project right now. There will be time to reflect later.

Ingredients for today’s writing ritual can be repurposed from yesterday’s habits.

A folding card table for weekly game nights is transformed into a makeshift “carrel” just for your writing when placed in a designated corner of the apartment. An aromatherapy diffuser that was a nighttime accessory for winding down with the scent of lavender, provides a zesty morning spritz of lemongrass for when you sit in front of your computer. Feedback from your advisor last semester that you squirreled away to follow-up on “later” can be the readymade task that gets you going now.

Writing processes are unique to individuals, and there isn’t a secret recipe that blessed writers hoard and stranded writers do without. Make your own magic: circumambulate the apartment ten times, drink a specific kind of tea from your lucky mug, and hide your phone in the back of the closet when it’s time for your date with the dissertation. Acknowledge the quirky, bespoke demands your writing makes of you. Brave the wildness of writing as you are.

Dear writer, write.

We can write without the many things we have come to believe we need in order to write. We can be curious about our writing process again. We can conjure new working routines. We can slip back into the ritual of writing and engage the hope that something beautiful will emerge by the end.

Additional readings:

Berinato, Scott. “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” Harvard Business Review online, March 23, 2020.

Brown, Brené. The Gifts of Imperfection. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden Publishing, 2010.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1997.

Shahjahan, Riyad. “How To Overcome Shame, The Imposter Syndrome And Become A Prolific Scholar.” National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, March 19, 2014.

Silva, Paul. How to Write A Lot. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association LifeTools, 2019.

Duke University’s resources for writers:

Thompson Writing Program’s Graduate Writing Lab and Writing Consultations

Membership to the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity