Tweet, blog or dissertate? On being a writer.

Good evening, ladies and gentleman. My name is Orson Welles. I am an actor. I am a writer. I am a producer. I am a director. I am a magician. I appear onstage and on the radio. Why are there so many of me and so few of you? ~ Orson Welles

book, by @debsnet

Our splintered, kaleidoscopic identities are wonderfully expressed by Orson Welles in the above quotation. Mine include writer, reader, researcher, teacher, leader, learner, mother, partner.

Do you feel like a writer? Does blogging make you a writer? Does micro-blogging? Does being a researcher automatically make you a writer? Professor Pat Thomson has written about ‘being writerly’ and practices which help you to see yourself as a writer. I tried to channel my writerly self in my 2015 – the year of writing dangerously post. I suppose this post is more about Pat’s idea of ‘being writerly‘ rather than ‘being a writer’. If you feel and behave like a writer does that make you one?

From micro to macro, this post focuses on how I use and interact with writing, including writing for purpose and audience. I wonder, are there different keystrokes (or pencil scribblings) that work for different folks? While I’m sure some people prefer tweeting or blogging, or article writing, or putting together a visual or numerical representations of their understanding (interpretative dance, anyone?), I think each platform and tool depends on our purpose for writing and audience to whom and for whom we are writing; each has its usefulness.

Below, I reflect on the platforms and tools I engage with, and what I get out of each.

Tweeting as a writing practice

I find that Tweeting, especially in a Twitter chat, is a kind of speed writing and speed thinking. Graham Wegner recently reflected that a busy Twitter chat can feel like a stampede of groupthinking sheep. Yet it is the torrential speed of Twitter chat tweets that sometimes helps me to clarify my ideas. Being pressured to aphoristically express an idea or viewpoint in a 140-character nutshell often forces me to distil and crystallise my thinking down into its essence, without agonising over it. I have previously called micro-blogging ‘therapy for the verbose’ as it is the antidote to my tendency to say things using too many words. Even my PhD thesis is over its word limit and will need trimming, streamlining and distilling. I have found Tweeting is a writing medium that helps me to most succinctly channel my thinking and keep tangents at bay.

That said, I also like the potentially tangential nature of Twitter chats. Rather than having a fear of missing what’s been said as the tweets roar by, I tend to engage with what I can, and with what peaks my interest. This often means that I spend much of a Twitter chat off to the side in a peripheral discussion, but I tend to prefer this kind of more extended conversation to the one-liner answers to a series of questions. That’s why I like the format of broader chats like #sunchat which work with one question for the hour and allow the conversation to take organic shape depending on the participants. Without the interruptions of regular questions, conversations can be deeper.

Blogging as a writing practice

As I discussed here, blogging has been personally transformative and about global collaboration. I am relatively new to blogging, having started this blog less than a year ago. In that I time I have published 55 posts on my blog, which has been viewed more than 10,000 times in more than 80 countries. Wow! I know that these numbers don’t compare with the superstar bloggers out there, but I am surprised and delighted to have a readership, and more than that, people to whom I’ve connected as a result of my writing, their reading, and our subsequent online, face to face, and voice to voice, conversations.

More than that, blogging has allowed me to take my thinking further than micro-blogging will allow, but more freely and conversationally than academic writing. For instance, I find Twitter a difficult platform to discuss issues of ethics, equity and social justice. Sometimes the subject seems too big for the platform. Some of my blog posts have emerged out of conversations on Twitter in which I have felt too restricted by space to say what I want to say; in these instances a blog can provide the complexity of thought, especially around tricky or contentious issues, which can be lost in the pithy-one-liner nature of tweeting.

PhDing and other academic writing

My PhD is a different writing beast all together, a 300 page monstrosity of a work which I am currently whittling, sculpting and (re)building into a cohesive document. The PhD can feel like a gigantic quilt which threatens to suffocate its maker; it is beautiful, creative, borrowing fabrics and threads from elsewhere while creating something new. The threads of reading and writing overlay and weave together in complex ways which have to come together in a holistic totality, while also working at the level of the small square, each vignette perfectly stitched, formed and embellished.

I recently popped my 110,000 word thesis draft into, a website which takes text and distils it down to a visual representation of its most frequently used words. It looked like this:

my thesis wordle

my thesis wordle

I did this to see if my key themes emerged, but was subsequently more interested by words I did not expect to see there: “rather”, “just”, “really” and “something”. This led to an edit of my thesis looking for these words. I discovered that most of them were to be found in my participants’ language, but I did find that many of the “something”s belonged to me, and proceeded to weed them out of the document, replacing them with more precise or concise language. So, even turning words into a visual turned me back into my writing with a new understanding.

Academic writing such as abstracts, journals, conference papers and even the Three Minute Thesis, are others forms again. They require more laser-like focus than the big PhD book, and a clarity of structure and point. While trying to write smaller, more focused texts from the PhD can be a challenge, it is a good exercise in refining and clarifying thinking, while finding different ways to communicate important ideas.

Each of these writing platforms encourages different thinking and writing practices. Writing for different purposes and audiences allows us to layer, appliqué and augment our wordsmithery and our ways of communicating to others and to ourselves.

Every secret to a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works. ~ Virginia Woolf

Writing, by @debsnet

Gratitude, awe & delight: lessons from Pollyanna

“The game was to just find something about everything to be glad about—no matter what ’twas.” ~ Eleanor H. Porter, Pollyanna

suburban rainbow

suburban rainbow

As the parent of two pre-school age children, I sometimes wonder about the age at which we are expected to be less excited by the world and more serious about it. At our local park, there are always children rolling down the grassy hill, rolling themselves over and over into dizzy giggles. On occasion, I have joined in with my own children, but a ‘grown-up’ covered head-to-toe in grass and leaves, or with scraped knees from climbing trees, or cupped hands filled with meticulously-chosen sea shells, doesn’t seem appropriate somehow. Yet I have been known to race out of my classroom to get a better look at a rainbow, jumping and clapping my hands, a line of bemused high school students trailing behind me. Recently, my small children and I have been playing with mirror-ball Christmas decorations in the late afternoon sunlight, painting the walls with light patterns.

mirror ball joy

mirror ball joy

Finding daily magic, seeing things from new perspectives, and allowing ourselves daily moments of presence, connection and wonder are surely the starting points for gratitude. One of my fondly-remembered childhood stories is that of Pollyanna, the girl whose ‘glad game’ and glass-full outlook changed those around her. With her rainbow-maker prisms, physical symbols of everyday magic, she promoted thankfulness, wonderment, the search for everyday magic and trying to see the good in life. In Pollyanna’s exchange with John Pendelton, they bring magic to each others’ worlds, tranforming dreariness into a fairyland of wonder:

  It was toward the end of August that Pollyanna, making an early morning call on John Pendleton, found the flaming band of blue and gold and green edged with red and violet lying across his pillow. She stopped short in awed delight.

“Why, Mr. Pendleton, it’s a baby rainbow–a real rainbow come in to pay you a visit!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands together softly. “Oh–oh–oh, how pretty it is! But how did it get in?” she cried. …

“Well, I suppose it ‘got in’ through the bevelled edge of that glass thermometer in the window,” he said wearily. “The sun shouldn’t strike it at all but it does in the morning.”

“Oh, but it’s so pretty, Mr. Pendleton! And does just the sun do that? My! if it was mine I’d have it hang in the sun all day long!”

… in a moment he was slipping off the pendants, one by one, until they lay, a round dozen of them, side by side, on the bed. “Now, my dear, suppose you take them and hook them to that little string Nora fixed across the window. If you really want to live in a rainbow–I don’t see but we’ll have to have a rainbow for you to live in!”

Pollyanna had not hung up three of the pendants in the sunlit window before she saw a little of what was going to happen. She was so excited then she could scarcely control her shaking fingers enough to hang up the rest. But at last her task was finished, and she stepped back with a low cry of delight.

It had become a fairyland–that sumptuous, but dreary bedroom. Everywhere were bits of dancing red and green, violet and orange, gold and blue. The wall, the floor, and the furniture, even to the bed itself, were aflame with shimmering bits of colour.

“Oh, oh, oh, how lovely!” breathed Pollyanna.

At the end of this exchange, Mr Pendelton says “I’m thinking that the very finest prism of them all is yourself, Pollyanna.” Pollyanna’s view of the world influences those around her. She is prismatic in the way she acts as a medium through which others’ joy and gladness can shine.

Greenflea Market, NYC

Greenflea Market, NYC

On my recent trip to New York City, I was reminded of Pollyanna. I visited the chandelier stall of Montenegrin-born Ljatif Mecikukic at the Greenflea market on Columbus Avenue. This stall is one which I have visited on all three of my visits to New York. Previously I have photographed its sun-splitting glinting crystal prettiness, but this time I also brought home a little ring of Pollyanna-style prisms, my own rainbow-making iridescence-radiating magic, stashed in my suitcase. A little Spanish chandelier from the Upper West Side:

prismatic chandelier

prismatic chandelier

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the USA. As I, across the world, watch the light dance through my NYC prisms, I am contemplating Pollyanna’s ‘glad game’. My gratitude list includes:

  • Incredible support from those around me, which allows me to enjoy the multiplicity of roles and joys I have chosen: as parent, educator, PhD candidate, wife, daughter, sister, friend, adventuress, flâneuse, rainbow-seeker.
  • Being celebrated for being myself by family, friends, colleagues and PLN, no matter how random, left-of-centre or nerdy that is.
  • Being supported in my always-learning always-living, by my family, critical friends, affirming friends, PhD supervisors and online PLN.
  • Opportunities for professional and personal adventures, including macro ones like international travel, and micro ones like waterfall-clambering with my children.
  • Immersion in the power of storytelling: through reading the stories – real and imagined – of others, and through my own narrative research, my work as an English and Literature teacher and this blog. It’s an honour and a privilege to hear others’ stories.

Most of us don’t live in a naïve state of perpetual optimism, and there are circumstances and life events which make being glad, thankful or grateful, very challenging. Hopefully by looking for the good in situations (and in people), and by being present in our daily lives and conversations, we can connect for long enough to feel delight, awe and wonderment (thank you, Costa and Kallick). We can be the prisms which help others see beauty in life, themselves and others.

Broome beach

Broome beach, a place for reflection, wonder, delight & sand between toes