Archive for November, 2014|Monthly archive page

Kaleidoscope mind

I’ve got to the stage of #AcWriMo immersion where my ideas are in constant motion: spinning around, forming new configurations and endlessly joining up to make new patterns. It’s like being a kaleidoscope. Colette has a great phrase for this: “mes idées sont en salade dans ma tête” (Claudine a l’école). It’s all very exhilarating as well as fairly exhausting, and it reminds me of J.M. Barrie’s description of a child’s mind, “which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time”:

There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island; for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. It would be an easy map if that were all; but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needlework, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, three-pence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on; and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still. (Peter and Wendy)

Underlying all the angst produced merely by writing (as if that weren’t enough) is a kind of infinite recursion caused by the fact that I’m trying to enact the processes that usually I just teach. My area of professional expertise is academic information practices – literature searching, critically selecting, reading, notemaking, bouncing off other researchers’ ideas like a springboard … It’s one thing to explore with students various techniques for approaching and enacting these practices, to discuss how encountering new ideas can stretch and unsettle you or challenge your existing mental model. It’s A. Whole. Other. Thing to go through it (again) yourself *grimace* *twitch*

And you don’t want to think too much about the conceptual slippage caused by trying to write about what you do, and simultaneously trying to do what you write about:

Then his mind’s eye looked up and caught his own image and realized where he was and what he was seeing and — I don’t know what really happened — but now the slippage that Phædrus had felt earlier, the internal parting of his mind, suddenly gathered momentum, as do the rocks at the top of a mountain. Before he could stop it, the sudden accumulated mass of awareness began to grow and grow into in avalanche of thought and awareness out of control; with each additional growth of the downward tearing mass loosening hundreds of times its volume, and then that mass uprooting hundreds of times its volume more, and then hundreds of times that; on and on, wider and broader, until there was nothing left to stand. (Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

In all this oscillation between pattern and chaos, however, it’s comforting to find that there’s a tiny part of my kaleidoscope mind that’s constant, that even feels fiercely triumphant. I’ve been arguing for some while now that information literacy – that is, the ‘good’ or appropriate use of information – shouldn’t be seen as a set of standards but in terms of an event: an encounter between a unique individual and a body of knowledge. What I’m experiencing in trying to write this book is precisely that encounter. I’m learning all over again that learning isn’t additive – you don’t just bolt on a new bit of knowledge as an extension to the structure you’ve been building since day one (and when was that anyway? First day of university? of your schooldays? Your first word? Birth?). Learning is transformative, dynamic, constantly in flux. There’s a rippleback effect every time you encounter new knowledge: your whole vision of the field undergoes a tiny shift, and the elements settle into a new pattern.

So amid all the upheaval of my mental furniture there’s a sense that I’m on the right track, that this endless movement and reordering of ideas is actually, paradoxically, a persistent element in knowledge creation.

Who knows, someday there might even be a book about it …

Writing from Attleborough to Wymondham: #AcWriMo in train journeys

#AcWriMo is genius. Started by the wonderful PhD2Published as an academic variant of #NaNoWriMo, it’s a self-forming, mutually nurturing community of people desperate to write something and not quite getting pen to paper on their own. The key is accountability: you declare your writing goals for the month of November by signing up to a spreadsheet, tweet your progress (or lack thereof), and maybe occasionally blog about how you’re doing.

Others in the same writing boat share tips on getting started and keeping going (my favourite this morning: “Press the bridge of your nose to stay awake” [?!]), pass on useful websites and apps, and tweet encouragement and sympathy as needed. Like this:

In between the moments of anguish caused by trying to actually write instead of talking to students about how to write, one of the aspects of #AcWriMo that fascinates me is how people declare their goals. Looking at the spreadsheet, there’s a huge amount of Pomodoro going on, along with other variations of time-based measurement. Another popular option is setting a word count. I’ve suggested both of these approaches to students as part of my former class on Academic Reading and Writing, and used to love when students, initially sceptical, would come back with the light of the true convert in their eyes to tell me that one of these strategies worked, just really worked, and was now part of their writing habit. It’s such joy when you witness something crystallising for students like that: you can see their confidence in their ability to actually write this damn thesis take a huge bound forward, along with their word count. Because although both these strategies may sound like productivity gimmicks, what they do – as ThesisWhisperer points out – is give you room to explore who and how you are as a writer without being stifled by the anxiety of perfectionism.

However, obstinate “do it my way” mule that I am, I seem to have decided on a different way to set and measure my writing goals, one that’s neither time- nor length-based. It’s … erm … spatial. Because I have a long train journey every morning, I figured that would be the best time to work: an hour and a half of time already set aside for me by the grace of Greater Anglia, and a surprisingly comfortable workspace (because I start my journey at the terminal station for that route, I’m one of those annoying people who’s already occupying a table seat when you get on further down the line). But when I record what I’ve done, I don’t write the length of time spent. I write the station intervals. Like this:

03 Nov  CBG-THF [Cambridge to Thetford]. Slow and sticky.

05 Nov  ELY-WMD [Ely to Wymondham – almost the entire journey!]. 4 pages. Not great but something there.

06 Nov  ATL-NRW [Attleborough to Norwich]. 2 pp. Unpicking ‘right answers’ [a key theme in my book].

07 Nov  ELY-HRD [Ely to Harling Road]. INTRODUCTION!

I didn’t intend to measure my writing in railway stations; it just came out that way. A bit like how I went from ‘slow and sticky’ to ‘INTRODUCTION’ inside the first #AcWriMo week. I didn’t plan it, any of it: it just came out

And there again is the crystallisation moment: the point when you look back at the pattern formed by your writing record and think: Hello, Muse.


[1] Thank you to everyone involved in #AcWriMo – and keep writing!

[2] I’ve used a bit of poetic licence in the title of this post. While I could in theory ‘write from Attleborough to Wymondham’ it wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment, since that leg of the journey only takes about seven minutes : ) But it’s the closest I can get to ‘from A to Z’!