When Writing Feels Disheartening: Two Figures of Inspiration

It’s easy to lose heart when you are writing for academic publication. To reconnect yourself, it helps to see your writing in a different light. Here are two ideas.
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It’s easy to lose heart when you are writing for academic publication. Especially if you entered your field with all the signs in evidence that you’d be really good at this. A knack for really ‘getting’ the literature and ways of thinking in your field. A drive to dig deeper or to introduce new perspectives. An abundance of ideas. A way with words. A wish to make real contributions.

And then you find that translating all that potential into written work is mighty hard!

I want to name two kinds of pain that are intimately familiar to me, and that I’ve seen colleagues and clients struggle with as well.

(1) When writing feels like producing widgets.

It’s painful to be caught up in academia’s cynical culture of mass  production. If you want what you write to have meaning  – at least to you –  and be a genuine contribution, the advice to ‘just get your papers out’ feels alienating. In many corners of academia it’s considered normal, even reasonable, “to over produce the packaging in order to hide the meagreness of the content” (Magda Lewis, as cited in Berg & Seeber, 2016, p. 66). But this doesn’t lessen your resistance to doing it, or your regret when you have done it. You hold yourself to higher standards and feel like a fraud for writing things you would never dream of publishing – at least, not in an ideal world. 

(2) When you’re all fired up, but the words don’t come.

It’s painful, too, to feel stymied in your attempts to work on something that really matters. Your head is filled with ideas for that book or paper that you just know is yours to write. You long to work on the project, it keeps tugging at you. Yet somehow all efforts to work on it end in frustration. You’re too tired. You’re bogged down by other tasks. And when you do block off time and sit down to work, no inspiration is to be found, and you cannot access the bright ideas or burning energy that seemed so ready to hand.

In my experience, these two pains often show up together. Many times I’ve felt anger and grief over not being ‘on target’ with my academic writing, pouring so much time and energy into things other than the contributions I long to make. 

It can be hard to keep going in the face of these challenges.

What I want to offer here is not a ‘solution’ to what is ultimately a very complex issue with many roots, some of which are systemic. Rather, I want to point to two figures of inspiration that may prompt a shift in perspective. Think of them as unconventional travelling companions, on the journey of recovering what’s alive, both in your work and in you as you go about the work of writing.

Two figures of inspiration

The stories that follow are about the reverent art forger and the irreverent art teacher. Their predicaments are close enough to those of academic writers to make them interesting, yet far enough to avoid taking them literally.

The art forger pours his time and energy into creating ‘art’ that looks right but means nothing. The art teacher pours her time and energy into caring for the creative work of others, leaving little for her own pursuits. In different ways, they’re both at risk of losing the connection to their own creative expression.

How does a sense of reverence help the forger? What does the teacher get from turning to irreverence? In brief: they recover the capacity to invest themselves in their work on their own terms. 

The reverent art forger

Art forgers typically aren’t the reverent sort. Eric Hebborn (1934–1996) certainly wasn’t. He was a dealer of old master drawings in London and Rome, yet a good portion of the art he sold was made by his own hand. He had no qualms about leading experts to the wrong conclusions. Some have praised his autobiography for its clever wit and insight; others have condemned it as a feat of grandiose exaggeration and lies.   

But as he played the cynical game of making fakes and passing them off as originals, there was something else, too, going on for Hebborn. He brought a certain reverence to drawing, which allowed him to stay connected to his creativity.

A story in his autobiography illustrates this.

In Hebborn’s inventory there was a Bruegel that he suspected to be an engraver’s copy. All the details were precisely rendered, but it lacked a certain ‘aliveness’. Hebborn’s sense of this was shaped by his own devotion to the art of drawing since he was a teenager. He conceived of drawing as a gift from Nature that could only be acquired with “an immense amount of application” and was even then always at risk of being taken away.

He compared the art of drawing to learning a difficult language: the ‘language of line’. Not many people truly mastered it, but the old masters had, and so – after many years of dedication – had Hebborn. To him, the Bruegel drawing looked traced by a copyist rather than committed to paper by a draughtsman.

Hebborn devised himself a project. He would copy the engraver’s copy once more to give it back the life that would have been expressed in Bruegel’s original pen strokes.

He sourced the right paper, made the right ink. He studied the order and rhythm in which the lines of the drawing would have been executed by the master himself. He did some dry runs by drawing on scrap paper. The next day, after a sip of brandy, “the stage fright vanished and the connection between the conscious and the subconscious was unblocked” (p.217). He could now draw full out, even as he was copying. The result pleased him greatly: “Whereas the old version was impersonal as though it were the product of a copying machine, my own had, I hoped (and I am not ashamed of using the word), the authentic touch of a draughtsman’s hand.” (p.217)

Reverence as a return to practice

Recreating the Bruegel was an act of forgery, but it was also a chance for Hebborn to practise drawing as a genuine art.

To succeed in the cynical game of faking art, Hebborn may not have ‘needed’ to apply himself to this extent. But here’s the thing: doing so mattered greatly to his sense of himself as an artist. His reverence for the language of line gave him a sense of kinship with those who had mastered it in the past. It put him shoulder to shoulder with Bruegel and other old masters, united in the project of keeping that language alive and flourishing.

It also mattered greatly to his experience of his own work. Rather than putting his talent and ability in the service of ‘mere copying’, he put them in the service of art as practice, deepened with every bit of preparation and every stroke.

When writing for publication feels cynical and disheartening, what can be opened up at the level of writing (or thinking) as a practice? 
What is there to hold on to – to be reverent about – that can restore your sense of yourself as a writer and your experience of the work as meaningful?

The irreverent art teacher

Art teacher Betsy is one of the coachees in Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast ‘Magic Lessons’, featuring writers and other artists who struggle with creative blocks. (You can find the relevant podcast episodes here and here.)

Betsy is looking for a different way into artmaking, because she feels stuck. She has been teaching art at a high school for nearly thirty years, while making her own art on the side. She’s raised children too, and now has grandchildren. Betsy has been aching to do something new with her art. “I am unravelling with this desire to do something else,” she says.

Yet following that desire has proved hard. Ideas come to her, in her dreams and during the day, but she finds that “the threads, the little filaments have just brushed past” before she can grab them. She makes plans to work on her ideas after school or at nights, after everything else has been taken care of, but it doesn’t happen. Caught in a cycle of exhaustion and depletion, she feels ever further away from what she longs to create.  

Elizabeth offers Betsy four words:

Sexy.

Dirty.

Naughty.

Wicked.

She laughs after saying these words: they feel so transgressive. Most things in Betsy’s life point to an archetypal expression of creativity as The Great Mother: nourishing, generating, teaching, raising, loving, sharing, giving. Elizabeth asks Betsy to turn the tables on this:

“Sexy, dirty, naughty and wicked are words of self-pleasure…. What I am talking about here is having an affair with your creativity, behind everybody’s back.”

Betsy gasps. “Why didn’t I think of this?” She’s into it.

She runs with the image of the affair and all the assumptions it questions. That everything she works on must be public. That it all must generate something worthy. Busting these assumptions feels freeing and exciting. She speaks of the “life energy that I’m trying to keep bubbling” the energy she feels she has lost. Having an affair with her art sounds like a way to get it back.

Like “getting ready for a date”, Betsy starts to clear out her studio space. She starts to think of time differently, being prepared to risk, to waste. To follow her whimsy wherever it takes, for a few minutes or however long. In search of a wink, a stolen kiss – and that is enough. “I’m entitled to be a little reckless.”

Elizabeth says: “you’re seducing this energy back to you”.

Irreverence as a return to playfulness

Betsy is finding a way to give expression to her desire for making something new. The image of the affair relieves her from the pressure of investing this new project with great expectations and great seriousness. It sets her free to play, but not just once. She’s set on a course of returning, again and again, to find out what more there is to the ideas and imaginaries that are coming up.

This matters greatly to her sense of herself as an artist. It also matters greatly to her experience of her own practice. The irreverence of prioritizing seduction over production restores her agency in relation to the work she wants to make, without immediately creating all sorts of binds.

When the writing that matters most seems perpetually just out of reach, where can you drop propriety?
What is there to hold on to – to be irreverent about – that fills your sense of yourself as a writer through acts of wasting, risking and defying?  

When writing feels disheartening: a shift in perspective

‘Producing the goods’ often feels like all that academia is about. But the reverent art forger and the irreverent art teacher are a reminder not to lose sight of what, besides outcomes, we can hold onto when writing feels disheartening. These figures of inspiration connect us to an approach to academic writing as a practice and ritual, as a site of struggle, redemption, resistance, celebration and aliveness.

A little reverence or irreverence can turn the tables… this may already be enough to recover the aliveness in your writing practice.

Pushing the lessons from these stories a little further, here are some related qualities to pay attention to:

Movement: The work of a copyist can feel stilted and mechanical, but the reverent art forger found a way to invest himself in the movement of the drawn line. The irreverent art teacher found a way to begin again and thread lightly: moving with the impulse to do something new while letting go of the notion that one already needs to know how. How are you moving with your words? What do you let your writing be moved by?

Community: Hebborn and Betsy aren’t solitary actors in their stories. Their very way of going about their practice expressed allegiance: in his case to those who speak the language of line, in hers to those who see making art as a practice of calling forth what ‘wants to be made’.   Which tradition or lineage are you renewing through your efforts? What shared pursuit are your investing in?

Delight: Betsy and Hebborn each access delight and pleasure in artmaking. Thereby they also do something Elizabeth Gilbert has aptly named elsewhere: they break away from casting themselves as capitalist subjects whose lives consist of producing and consuming. With their reverence and irreverence, the art forger and the art teacher take a stance. They assert that their creative life is more than ‘producing the goods’. How can you deliberately delight in your writing?

How do you know if it works, this shift in perspective? When you feel yourself occupy your seat as a writer a little more fully. When there’s an opening to return to your craft and your playfulness, even with projects that haven’t yet become what you hoped, and maybe never will… When you continue to take heart in your writing. Because it is yours. And what is the point of all our efforts to produce academic work if not to create more aliveness through it? Invest in that, in any way you can, when writing feels disheartening, and see what difference it makes for you.

This is a reworked version of my presentation at the 2020 EASST/4S conference, the largest annual gathering of academics in the field of Science & Technology Studies. My presentation was a response to the call for papers for the panel “Articulating and Relating to Different Forms of the Good in Bad Situations.” I am grateful to Sonja Jerak-Zuiderent, Jeannette Pols, Jonna Brenninkmeijer and Dick Willems for convening this inspiring panel.

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Catelijne Coopmans

Catelijne Coopmans

Life coach, academic researcher, activist for inspired paths in and beyond academia.

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