By Susan Carter
The focus here is on the psychology of writing aversion. I’m working again with one of my favourite ex-students, let’s call her Dr X.

Dr X. left school at 14 after some unfortunate experiences there. Her passion for her practical work in health drove her into study. Older and wiser, but still with an admirable degree of attitude, she has since graduated with her PhD due to her sheer grit in persisting through the writing of her thesis. She was one of those doctoral students who thrive on the doing of research yet is intensely averse to writing about it. Takeaway message: Any relationship with writing is likely to be influenced by past experiences. These could be negative and can’t be changed, but luckily the relationship with writing is also influenced by who you are—and that’s in your control and can be changed.

With the PhD conquered, Dr X. is determined to become more comfortable with writing. How does someone get over phobia towards writing?

She would like to feel the same pleasure producing articles that she has when giving her popular lectures. I’ve suggested stepping out of the rigid hard science objectivity that she has used to date and trying some of the same things that make her lectures work so well. For example, the equivalent of her opening a lecture with a short Youtube clip might be to begin her article with a juicy quotation from fiction followed by a short gutsy sentence aimed to attract attention.

Could a relationship with writing be improved by changing how it is talked about? Rita Brause (2000: 11-16) considers metaphors commonly used for thesis writing: ‘mountain climbing, running the rapids, running a marathon, coming of age, a train ride or journey, a war or battle, a hazing experience, a birthing experience, a dance’ and ‘a blind person: An individual stumbling in a room never visited before.’ She suggests that individuals should develop metaphors consciously that suit who they are, and says perhaps cynically: ‘If you flourish in circumstances where you feel victimized and totally dependent on others, then consciously choose to use the metaphors that reflect this kind of behaviour.’ I guess Brause’s point is that cultivating an identity based on your own sense of yourself as a victim of academia or one of its dependents might not help you to settle in to your own writing as something that feels right—comfortable, homely—to do, own, enjoy driving (which is Dr X’s goal right now).
Maybe if you default to saying that writing is a pain, you could try shutting that story up. Don’t use your routine lament for at least six months and then see if writing feels any better.

At the same time, I know how therapeutic a good whinge session with fellow sufferers can be—that trusty Thesis Whisperer has written a great critical argument for its liberating work (Mewburn, 2011)—and you may find that this is really helpful too. But if you suspect that your own troubling experiences actually are way more catastrophic than the healthy social exchanges that energise doc student talk, and are really keen to change your own attitude….

Would it be possible to project from the gruesome writing stage to the elation at completion, when often new doctors recognise personal development and satisfaction: it isn’t just the degree they walk away with, but a better sureness of their ability to manage themselves. For example, one study began skeptical “about the Romantic project of self-discovery through education” (139) and found almost to their embarrassment that their new PhD graduate participants fairly often described the ‘joy’ of the doctoral process amongst somewhat ecstatic descriptions of how much they grew as people (Leonard, Becker & Coate, 2005). Maybe another self-help trick is to accept writing as an essential part of the struggle towards discovery. I like the practical advice from Murray (2012)—it’s so helpful—but I also really like O’Connor and Petch’s (2012) assertion that ‘the mechanistic model diminishes the experience of writing…. Writing must …be thought of as a form of truth emerging from self-development’ (82-83). I’ve got to say that is how it works for me.

You can, of course, choose to stage-manage your writing environment as a pleasure zone. O’Connor and Petch (2012) declare “we must take this active and dynamic sense of the body into account when constructing embodied writing environments. We must realise that the body in itself has its own traditions and history in as much as it is open to new possibilities. The body that writes is situated at the intersection of both practice and possibility” (O’Connor & Petch, 2012: 79). Not a bad legend for a writing averse jock.

Right now it is Friday at 4.36 pm and my body is stiff from sitting with books and a screen for company pondering about how to help the remarkable Dr X. Any tips that might help Dr X overcome a longstanding history of abuse from the writing process?

Brause, R. (2000). Writing your doctoral dissertation: Invisible rules for success. London: Falmer.

Leonard, D., Becker, R., & Coate, K. (2005). To prove myself at the highest level: The benefits of doctoral study. Higher Education Research and Development, 24(2), 135-149.

Mewburn, I. (2011). Troubling talk: Assembling the PhD candidate. Studies in Continueing Education, 33(3). You can see it here http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0158037X.2011.585151

Murray, R. (2012). How to write a thesis. 3rd Ed. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

O’Connor, P., & Petch, M. (2012). Merleau-Ponty, writing groups and the possibility of space. In L. Clughen & C. Hardy (Eds.), Writing in the Disciplines: Building Supportive Cultures for Student Writing in UK Higher Education (pp. 75-97). Bingley, UK: Emerald.