On Writing

Themes and motifs are important to me. They tend to give me a sense of wholeness and direction. I have long had a motif of courage. This word has become part of my identity; in undergrad I tattooed it on my back (in Chinese characters of course, which were trendy at the time). I am someone who often takes the tough path and has faith that I will get through it. In down times this word helps me remember to keep looking ahead.

I am developing a theme in my career: to teach. For me, that word sums up a broader set of concepts & actions involving creating conditions in which people might learn (a phrase adapted by Jim Sibley from Einstein, who purportedly said “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn”). My challenge is to link that theme of teaching to academic writing. Daryl Bem wrote “good writing is good teaching.” I don’t feel that connection when I write. I envision a disinterested audience who’s trying to get in and get out, but isn’t really interested in the ideas — or might be, and gets frustrated by repetition and bad writing (like I do when reading). I’m coming to realize that as a student I’ve been taught to write in order to demonstrate that I can think. The audience in mind is not a helpful one, but a judgmental one. It’s more about me than the ideas, and more about me than the audience.

What if I borrow from an idea in Heath & Heath’s “Made to Stick“? They talked about businesses that have an intricate vision of a single customer in mind, who made up their target market. Who’s my target market? For the chapter I’m (avoiding) writing, I immediately envision a critical scientist who’s disagreeing with every word. Wow. While this might be true, that’s not exactly a motivating image. What if I instead envision someone who motivates me to do my best: a bright student, who’s trying to understand what’s so important and interesting about self-control. Let’s call him or her PR. She’s busy, and doesn’t have time to read a ton. But he’s curious, and will respond intellectually to good writing. Writing that grips her. Writing that’s simple. It’s not about me, it’s about him and the ideas. Because they’re decent ideas. Maybe not earth-shattering, but they have their important implications. That’s it. I’ll write for PR.

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