Crafting Scholarship: Managing the Drunken Monkeys

by Robert Milardo, Ph.D., University of Maine
NCFR Report
Content Area
Robert Milardo, Ph.D.

Successful writers are superb at risk management. This is nice to know, because writing is a risky business: the risk of being found out that I'm not that talented a scholar; that I have nothing much to say that hasn't already been said better; that what I've written is all gibberish; and that others who once thought so highly of me will now regard my written work and my entire person as questionable and that, when you come right down to it, I'm just a fraud with nothing much to say. And, to boot, there are the criticisms of reviewers and journal editors in pdf files, indisputable and unchangeable.

In the miasma of the internal critics, what writer Anne Lemott (1994) called the drunken monkeys, there is always a chatter of critics, someone to confirm all fears. Stephen King in his memoir, On Writing (2000), observed, "If you write, someone will try to make you feel lousy about it." At a later point he adds, "Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don't have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough" (p. 50).

Regardless of how successful the writer, there are drunken monkeys and a continuous internal chatter of self-doubt as well as a few external critics who will question your work. In my experience as an editor, whether I'm working with a new professional or a well-established scholar, writers experience doubts about the quality of their work. The entries in my writing log speak of my typical experience and, I suspect, that of many others as well, including Stephen King.

May 6: The chapter is rolling. Wrote about half or more of the section on risk today.

May 7: About two pages written today. Progress but I'm not at all happy with it. Still stuttering along.

My experience of writing is much like this; regardless of whether I'm writing a brief article or a monograph, there are good and bad days, and whether the day is good or bad doesn't have much to do with what is written but more with the momentary ambiguities of direction and worth. It is not always a simple matter to decide how to organize an argument, chapter, or section on risk. At times — and, to be honest, this is more often true than not — it is not at all clear how to proceed with a chapter, how to theorize a set of findings, or how to correct an ill-defined concept. Sometimes (in my experience, nearly always) writing is difficult intellectually as well as emotionally. I surely enjoy the former and the challenge of making a contribution to a field of inquiry, but I can't say that about the drunken monkeys. I have simply learned to expect their appearance and control their influence; they are quite predictable. Once the sense of risk and doubt are corralled, writing is a welcome challenge, but it is not exactly fun, like hanging out with my buddies at the Martini Club. I'm just guessing that most writers are more like me than not.

A foundation of successful writing means knowing your particular process and developing strategies for managing risk and doubt. Doing so is more likely to lead to consistency in productivity, higher quality manuscripts, and success in publishing. If writing a new piece begins with trial and tribulation, it ends with a welcome sense of accomplishment.

My friend and colleague Heather Helms commented about her own experience:

Writing and being published is really, really hard. Sometimes it's all day for a paragraph. Then sometimes I'll go back and read what I've written and feel "Wow, I really wrote that." So that is a nice experience. That's the fun part. I have to write for my job but I'm really doing it because it's stimulating.

Heather's experience is similar to my own. At the moment a section is written, I am not always sure of the quality or worth of the writing, and in part I think that has to do with the residuals of ambiguity. It is only later — usually, the next writing session — that I can judge the quality of the previous session's work. This experience has remained unchanged over the course of my career, and the only difference is that it is predictable, and I know the drill. I know how the writing will go and how I'll feel about it. When beginning an article or chapter, the ambiguity and doubt are ever present and heightened. I know the precise arrangement of arguments may be unclear, the conceptual model still a bit fuzzy, the attendant analyses a bit incomplete, the final outcome of the work unknown. In all of this initial work I actively avoid any sense of paralysis and at the same time continually remind myself that solutions to each issue will appear. I can safely ignore the doubts and keep working. It's often uncomfortable, always has been, and always the work gets written and published.

To aid my initial work, I limit writing sessions to 2 to 4 hours; decide on a specific stop time; plan something more immediately enjoyable following the session; and set my goals or number of words per session fairly low, about 250 words. Social psychologist Harry Reis called this phase of writing: "butt to chair." I know, too, that once a piece begins to take shape I'll find the writing easier and more rewarding. As a consequence, writing sessions will be longer when time permits, and the writing may go faster. The drunken monkeys are still present, but less active.

Robert Boice (2000) compared two groups of writers early in their academic careers: one group who wrote irregularly, typically in binge sessions (e.g., over semester breaks), and another group, who wrote more routinely as part of their weekly schedule. Both groups reported surprisingly high levels of self-doubts about their writing and their progress toward completing a work. The group of new professionals who wrote regularly did not differ in the degree of negative thoughts; instead, they simply directed more self-talk at quieting the negative intrusions (e.g., "This will be pleasant enough once I get going"). My own interviews with successful academic writers, some of whom are quite established professionals, indicated that they were often highly skilled at recognizing negative intrusions and containing their influence. It did not appear that they experienced fewer drunken monkeys; they simply didn't let the primates distract their end game.

At all phases of writing, success comes from perseverance, and this means expecting doubts about quality and worth, and then designing writing sessions that take these feelings into account. Plan for the drunken monkeys, and trust in the force.

Mindful writing practices

A variety of practices accompany successful writing, and they all require a certain degree of self-observation, what Boice (2000) referred to as a mindful approach to writing. In his observations of new faculty, which span many years, productive writers evidence a persistent consistency in their approach to writing. They write regularly with moderate expectations. They eschew expectations of experiencing great insights, preferring to simply work steadily at their craft. They have occasional bouts of peaceful "not doing" or periods when they are planning a project or thinking through an argument or conceptual model. All of this activity is part of the writing process, and it is largely welcome and integrated into writing sessions. Great work derives from consistency of effort — butt in chair. Readers who take a mindful approach avoid negative emotions — the drunken monkeys — or at least set them aside as much as possible and seek moderation in their emotional responses to writing. This requires that one suspend doubt, self-criticism, and disbelief, placing one's trust in the efficacy of constant effort. Then, too, a mindful practice means knowing that a first draft is apt to be less than stellar but still a necessary part of the process. Such writers transform criticism into a welcome process, one that has the potential to improve the quality of their work. They are not angelic, or necessarily immediately embracive of criticism, but simply persistent.

Often, we assume great writing, a great theoretical insight, or impressive new analysis derives from some spectacular insight. The muse visits, and "Presto!": An article spills forth. Sometimes insight is helpful, but it doesn't get the writing done. Insights are more typically derivatives of writing, of working through draft after draft, each improving on the other. Insight is most often the outcome of a writing session. Our friend Stephen King commented, "Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work."

Concluding thoughts

If you are anything like me, you rarely talk about your writing process, not necessarily what you're writing but how you experience writing and all the messy drunken monkeys that writing entails. Having an awareness of your writing process, of how and when the drunken monkeys appear, and your reaction to them, are important parts of any successful writer's process. In the effort to understand your own writing process, it can be helpful to share your observations with other writers and to learn of their process. I'm ever curious about how other writers work, and it helps knowing I'm not the only one who sometimes gets a little nutty. Then, too, I sometimes learn new techniques for writing more comfortably or with greater awareness. I've summed up a few best practices below, but really you need only be mindful of your process (or self-reflective, if you prefer) and perch at the screen regularly.

Best practice: Managing risk and writing mindfully

  • Know thyself, which is to say your writing self; the other selves can wait.
  • Practice mindful writing strategies.
  • Cage the drunken monkeys.
  • Expect criticism, and seek out kudos
  • Never let bits of foul weather disturb your vision.
  • Compare your writing practices with a colleague.
  • Remember, writing produces insight, not the converse.
  • Keep writing.   

Copyright © 2015 National Council on Family Relations (NCFR). Contact NCFR for permission to reprint, reproduce, disseminate, or distribute by any means.