By Susan Carter
‘We’re mimics, we’re parrots—we’re writers….You may start to feel [as a writer] that you are trying to pass off a TV dinner as home cooking’ (Lamott, 1995: 177).

I want to make the case that applying humour to doctoral writing is helpful, a great coping mechanism. Jorges Cham has grown famous because the world needs what he does.

I’ve been reading books about how to write, and thinking how their advice might apply to doctoral writing strategies. Paul Sylvia takes a hard-nosed pragmatist approach (Sylvia, 2010), detaching all emotion and treating writing like any other task. He’s cheerful about this, and irreverent about the need for inspiration from within, advising ‘put your “inner writer” back on its leash and muzzle it’ and focus on the ‘outer writer,’ productively outer facing (Sylvia, 2010: 3). It’s a good-humoured survivalist approach given the relentless accountability regimes that we currently work within.

Sylvia waves aside the idea of emotional blockage: ‘I love writer’s block. I love it for the same reasons I love tree spirits and talking woodland creatures–they’re charming and they don’t exist….Saying you can’t write because you have writer’s block is merely saying you can’t write because you aren’t writing. It’s trivial. The cure for writer’s block–if you can cure a specious affliction–is writing’ (Sylvia, 2010: 45-46). Those who find writing really tough to crank out will hate such an attitude, but those who find it difficult to wring writing from their doctoral students might identify with Sylvia. And it is useful to most of us to find different ways to ensure that writing gets done.

Sylvia’s (2010) practical workerly advice is to use an excel spreadsheet, set daily writing chores at the start of the week, with columns for the date, the task, whether it was achieved that day or not, and the word count if relevant. He includes data analysis and literature review as possible chores, but the day’s work needs to be measurable, and you need to log in whether you did it or not. That way, says Sylvia, there’s no need for emotion—you simply know you will get the writing done within the time-frame you want. If you are so inclined, you can produce bar charts of your monthly word count to cheer yourself up. I tried this for a while, but kept forgetting about the spreadsheet for days at a time. However, on a couple of days it pushed me to grouchily churn something out just so that I could tick off I had done it.

What I like, besides advice that would be very useful for some people, is the steady sense of humour throughout Sylvia’s book. I believe that maintaining a sense of humour helps any long, tedious discombobulation, which is often the experience of doctoral writing. Doctoral students who manage to see the funny ironies of their experience probably end up better equipped for completing and for what comes after graduation, I suspect.

Another writer-on-writing raises the necessity of humour for survival. Anne Lamott takes an almost opposite position to Sylvia, rampaging through writing-based emotions that she drammatically feels demand suicide or murder of critical reviewers (Lamott, 1995). Yet her exaggeration is premised on humour: by overstating, she spoofs and thereby mitigates the negative emotions of writing and feedback.

She’s wise to self-doubt: many doctoral students trying to capture academic tone and discipline epistemology in their writing will warm to the thought that ‘We’re mimics, we’re parrots—we’re writers….You may start to feel that you are trying to pass off a TV dinner as home cooking’ (Lamott, 1995: 177). It’s nice to hear an experienced author with multiple editions talk like this about self-doubt.

She describes drafting and revising realistically: ‘Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly’ (Lamott, 1995: 114).

And Lamott also spells out that when a close family member was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she became ‘desperate for books that talked about cancer in a way that would both illuminate the experience and make me laugh.’ It was at this point that I saw that these two writers, seemingly at opposite ends of the spectrum on the role of writers and emotion, both demonstrated a lively respect for the power of humour.

Maybe a sense of humour should be added to the transferable skills that graduates should have.

How would we teach that?

I’m wondering whether other academics talk to doctoral writers about humour, or make use of humour, to mitigate the writing-feedback-revision iterations that can seem relentless for students and supervisors? I’d love to hear what you think and what you do in this regard.

Lamott, A. (1995). Bird by Bird: Some Instructions for Writing and Life. New York: Anchor.
Sylvia, P. (2010). How to Write a Lot: A practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing (6 ed.). Washington: APA Life Tools.