Writing is often seen as a lonely journey. Whether you’re a content creator, a novelist or the author of a journal article. Imagine having to hide in a cubicle the whole day, not allowing yourself to get out, eat or drink, go to the washroom… Or picture yourself getting up painstakingly early just to write something, suffering from writer’s block, procrastinating. It is definitely daunting, and at times extremely frustrating. But all of this loneliness and worry goes away when you discover: the writing group.
I love reading and writing, but I often don’t act accordingly. Being a writer means writing a lot. I can do that. But it also means sharing a lot and getting feedback a lot. Though much needed, accepting comments is not something I’m comfortable with. It is my ego at work: I always want the first draft to be last; I want to “get rid of” what I have written so I can let go and move on.
I must admit: one voice in my head tells me my English is very good. I’m a teacher, after all. Another voice tells me I’ll never be good enough. My writing will never be good enough. This constant back-and-forth between pride and fragility can at times be paralysing. Either I don’t write at all, or I ramble on until I feel sorry for the reader.
But I do want to change this all-or-nothing mentality. Perhaps one thing at a time. I think the first thing to fix is that confused part of my mind that keeps saying “sorry” to whoever reads my work, while also telling me to be proud. Overly proud.
Always feeling apologetic
There are a few reasons why I have always been apologetic when it comes to writing. I’ve been overly aware that I am a non-native English user, who at the same time teaches and researches English. So this fact turns me into an awkward blend of confidence, insecurity and bloated ego.
As an educated man living in Hong Kong for 38 years, I’m proud of myself for being trilingual (Cantonese, English and Mandarin) and biliterate (Chinese and English). Being able to think, write and speak in different registers in English means a lot to me, as I was brought uparound people speaking mostly in Cantonese, and filling conversations with English words or phrases intermittently. I am not trying to say I’m necessarily better or more intelligent in any sense; rather I’ve made choices to master the languages and styles I like, and these choices boosted my confidence in meeting the demands of school, work, and the daily contexts in which I need to use English fluently and eloquently.
Confidence and insecurity together make ego. I cannot tolerate myself being wrong. I’m afraid of having my English commented on. I’m well aware of the fact that the mistakes I make are often the ones I ask students not to make. The use of articles. The overly complicated sentences. The overuse of nominalisation (like this phrase). I also know my writing will never look like something written by a native. I will always struggle to use idioms and dialects naturally. My first drafts will always feel messy and tangled.
Because of who I am, I often take the one-step-forward-two-steps-back approach to writing. Typing a few words and deleting a few. Pausing and thinking of better words to use. Checking the dictionary and thesaurus – that’s exactly what I did as I finished these two lines. And the rest of the article, of course.
I think, the more one masters a second or third foreign language, the more one is fixated with the thought that their proficiency has to be close to perfect, if not 100% percent. The constant awareness of my identity ties my hands with two ends of the same rope – one end having to do with progression and another perfection. And somehow both ends are constantly being pulled by the same person. Me.
That’s also why I become nervous whenever journal reviewers say, “this author needs to have his manuscript proofread” or “this draft needs significant revision to improve accuracy”. And I apologise more and more to people who take their time to read my work, to a point where it becomes a knee-jerk reflex.
“You need to ease out a bit, so the sentence is less dense,” my editor said.
“Thank you,” I respond. “I hope you don’t find my writing too amateurish.”
In retrospect, calling my own writing “amateurish” is both self-humiliation and hypocrisy. I know I write okay. Better than okay. There’s no point in telling people what you don’t believe in.
“Self-effacing,” Adam said. “You don’t need to be self-effacing.” This comment has saved my enthusiasm about and motivation for writing from entering a downward spiral. And this was the moment I realised I’m not writing on my own. There are always those who value my ideas, and who are willing to better them by helping me polish the language.
Another Type of Writing Group: With a Little Help from Our Reviewers and Editors
I can now see the relationship among the author, the reviewer and the editor in a more positive light. I do it by changing how I perceive their intentions as they read my writing.
In the days when I taught the undergraduate-level Intro to Semantics, there was a particular module on “metaphor”; not literary metaphor, but conceptual metaphor, one ingrained in our thoughts, like “time is money”.
Similarly, when I think about the author-reviewer-editor, I find myself using conceptual metaphors that reveal a competitive, even antagonistic, relationship. For example, addressing reviewers’ feedback is “fighting reviewer #3”, or “tackling reviewer comments”; then one defends their field, and anonymity in peer review has “the effect of abject surrender” (Bal, 2018, para. 6). Of course, this is true when reviewers are less friendly as we have always wished.
But we must take into account the fact that the “backgrounded” side of such a relationship, a critical yet supportive and constructive one, is always present. Consider the time reviewers and editors invest in (note the conceptual metaphor) reading, commenting and editing manuscripts. Most of them are doing these free-of-charge, out of their love for words, and out of their passion for helping authors advance the field.
This is especially so when I contribute to 2 Rules of Writing. As a non-native English user, the efforts of Adam and Erika have made my writing more presentable and readable, and have opened audiences I never imagined. Motivation, perseverance and passion are key, but the reviewers’ or editors’ constructive comments are the little pushes to direct things in a more desirable direction.
This means, there are now three people writing, editing and promoting each essay I post here. I’m not on my own anymore.
Writing Group: Assemble!
Writing as a teacher can sometimes be like driving alone, with other cars heading in the opposite direction. The other day, I was chatting with some colleagues to get some ideas for a book chapter I’m going to write. One colleague talked about the loneliness of doing research in an institution focusing primarily on teaching. “There’s nobody to talk to about my studies; some fellow lecturers found me a bit strange – why bother doing research?” Our roles as researchers are not explicitly defined in the system, either. Who are the research-active lecturers? It’s an open secret. We have to ask around to find alliances and support until research centres are established and we finally know who works on what. Imagine driving with fog lights off, and finally finding that other cars going in the same direction as you are (without tailgating them).
This is why we fellow writers need to assemble and form writing groups. A writing group, to me, supports the whole writer, not just their short-term productivity. Knowing that someone else is writing with you feels very different from writing inside tightly-sealed cubicles alone. Well, true, nowadays it seems more appropriate to observe social distancing and hold group writing sessions online. I have started a writing club with Wen and another colleague. We meet every other Wednesday afternoon via Teams. The distanced meetings lack a bit of personal touch; it would be better if we could have lunch together first. But we talk about our lives, as well as our topics and writing targets. We reflect on our progress after each writing “burst”, and congratulate each other when one of us finishes 500 words in 45 minutes.
The club is reminiscent of the writing bootcamp I attended when I studied in Sydney: the tranquillity in the distraction-free zone, the 4,000 words I wrote in 5 hours, the writing buddies who meditated and stretched with me during breaks, and yeah, the biscuits I devoured.
Even now, whenever I’m writing, I always remind myself that my writing buddies are doing the same thing in other locations. They are always willing to share. They will always be there supporting what I do. And vice versa.
I just feel that, when we are afraid to write, it’s usually because some combination of our environment and our sense of identity is pushing us towards pathological perfection. And that means dealing with impostor syndrome and the crippling fear of making mistakes. These feelings won’t go away just because you come to see your reviewers and editors as your trustworthy companions, or just because you form a writing group. Hostile people are omnipresent. And writing seshes can sometimes be called off because of other commitments. Whatever adjustments you make, “flight” often triumphs over “fight”.
But I also believe in small habits built along the way. Jot down some notes whenever you notice something important in our readings. Type a few words with your cell phone whenever an idea emerges as you’re commuting. Set aside just 15 minutes for writing 100 words. Leave whatever breadcrumbs for yourself to trace when you’re writing up a bigger project. Ask a friend or two to read your drafts, and listen to their comments with an open heart.
Again, doing all these won’t bring success overnight. And to me, success is not the goal, nor is it the sole source of happiness. What makes me happy is aligning what I believe, and what I do, with who I am. I learnt that to make something more likely to happen, I have to put it in concrete words and be committed to what I say. So here you go:
First, I believe in the aesthetic and intellectual power of language. Second, I love writing and reading. Third, I write and I read because I’m a writer, working hand in hand with a group of caring and supportive editors, reviewers and writing buddies.
There are no “single authors” in my world anymore.