Two Myths of Technology that May Be Holding Back Your Writing

Close up of old Remington typewriter with circle-shaped keys.

What’s your favorite mythological creature? Unicorns are really popular right now, but dragons are a classic. Harry Potter fans might say hippogriffs or crumple-horned snorkacks.

Me? My favorite mythological creature is technology.

I’m kidding, of course, but the myths surrounding technology are almost as big and pervasive as the myths surrounding unicorns and chimeras and dragons—maybe even bigger. These myths pervade everyday discourse around technology, and especially around communication technologies. They may even seep into our beliefs about writing technologies. They may seem harmless, but if we cling too tightly to these myths, they may impact our writing practices in ways that aren’t so great.

And that’s why I’m here to BUST THOSE MYTHS because bustin’ makes me feel good.

Ernie Hudson and Dan Aykroyd getting out of the ghost buster-mobile. Text on image reads, "Get in loser, we're going busting."
Image source:Know Your Meme

Both of these myths are discussed in the 1996 book by Christina Haas called Writing Technology. Pick it up for a much more detailed busting of these myths—including actual empirical research! But for now, without further ado, let’s bust some myths!

Myth #1: Technology is transparent.

The myth that technology is transparent may not seem pervasive in a culture that just loves to whine about how the kids can’t write because they’re always twittering on their beep-boopers, using textspeak and emojis in their school paper.

And yet, this myth does still operate in wider cultural beliefs about technology today. This myth says that it doesn’t really matter whether I use a notebook and pen or a computer to write—it won’t really impact my writing practice that much, except maybe to make my writing faster and more efficient.

But anyone who’s tried to have a complex conversation on Twitter knows that writing technologies are not transparent—that they do, in fact, impact writing practices. Different writers have approached Twitter’s 280-character limit in different ways, but no matter the workaround, the limits of the platform do impact how writers work. And I want to say here that I’m not saying that you can’t have complex conversations or talk about complicated subjects on Twitter; I’m saying that it impacts both how you say what you say and the way in which you go about saying it.

Myth #2: Technology is all-powerful.

The other major myth surrounding technology may seem at first blush to be the polar opposite of myth number one, but in fact it’s deeply linked to it. Any time you’ve heard a technology called revolutionary, or heard someone say (or said yourself) that such-and-such a technology is going to drastically change how we do X, you’re operating under this myth.

Christina Haas explains the myth’s relationship to writing and literacy in this way: “New technologies for literacy are such a powerful force that simply introducing them to writers will change literary acts in the most profound of ways. […] This myth imbues computer technology with a number of qualities, among them that computers are unique and that they are active, independent agents of change,” (p. 35).

Haas wasn’t saying that technology doesn’t have impacts on the ways we write; in fact, her whole book was about some ways in which writing technologies do impact the ways we write. But the big issue with this myth is that it assigns too much agency to the technology itself—it sees the technology as deterministic, rather than as something created by people and therefore imbued with cultural attitudes and beliefs.

Even the example used in the first myth—that my computer is such a powerful piece of writing technology that it will increase the speed with which I produce writing—is bound up in attitudes about speed, production, and efficiency. It assumes those are good things when it comes to writing—that I want to write faster, that I want to write more; that these are inherently good things, and that there is no downside to producing more writing faster.

If you’re struggling to see how producing more writing faster could be a bad thing, that’s because those are deeply, deeply embedded cultural values. But writing more and faster may not actually be the best thing. Sometimes creative endeavors take time, and that’s that. Trying to rush through them with faster, “more efficient” tech may not actually make for better writing.

These myths are everywhere.

These myths about technology—specifically as they are applied to writing—are everywhere in our culture! I can think of several examples, mostly surrounding hopes or fears for student writing, but I want to hear from you. What examples of these myths have you seen? Have you perhaps said yourself? Let me know in the comments below!

Sources and Resources

For more great myth bustin’, check out Writing Technology by Christina Haas.

Featured image by Marco Verch. Used under the Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution License.

Six Things Dungeons and Dragons Taught Me about Combatting Writer’s Block

Dungeons and Dragons. Given a current cultural context that has seen D&D references in shows like Stranger Things and Community, and an a recent explosion of actual-play podcast and shows like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone[1], Dungeons and Dragons hardly needs an introduction.

As a TTRPG (tabletop role playing game), it has offered players countless hours of entertainment, but it’s also served as inspiration for sci-fi and fantasy writers since its introduction in 1974. The first (unauthorized) novel inspired by D&D was written by Andre Norton and published in 1978, with authorized novels (currently numbering in the hundreds, and that’s not including novellas, novelettes, and short fiction) first seeing publication in the 1980s. Talk about your points of inspiration!

But what about when you’re stuck? When those moments of inspiration just don’t come? Here are six things Dungeons and Dragons taught me about combatting writer’s block. Let’s roll initiative.

Close up of three hardbound 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons books stacked atop each other: the Monster Manual, the Dungeon Master's Guide, and the Player's Handbook.
I cast Enhance (writing) Ability.

Leveling up happens through regular, consistent play.

One of the fun parts of Dungeons & Dragons—or really, any game with leveling mechanics—is leveling up. Leveling up means that certain challenges become easier; a level one party facing a young green dragon is likely going to get burnt to a crisp, but a party at level ten? Piece of cake!

It’s not a perfect metaphor, of course. The Behemoth Blank Page doesn’t have hit points and a challenge rating. Writer’s block is a sly, ever-changing creature whose face may be different each time we see it. But, as with D&D, the more regularly you can manage to at least sit down at the (writing) table, the more strategies you have for defeating it.

Close up of a black pen resting atop a blank page of a spiral bound notebook.
The thing all writers fear most… the Behemoth Blank Page!

But sometimes you roll with disadvantage.

One of the core mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons is dice rolls. Players describe a thing they want their characters to do to their Dungeon Master (DM), and the DM tells them what kind of a roll to make to see whether that thing happens. If the player rolls at or above a particular number, then the thing happens! Great! If the player rolls below that number, though, the roll fails, and usually, what happens is… not great. Sometimes, for whatever reason, a DM will ask a player to roll with disadvantage. That means they roll twice and take the lower of the two rolls. This increases the likelihood that the player fails the roll.

Sometimes, with writing, you’re rolling with disadvantage. One of the most memorable pieces of writing advice I have ever heard was at a panel at a sci-fi and fantasy convention where the topic was writing and mental health. One audience member asked how the panelists with depression managed to keep writing through a major depressive episode. And one of the panelists essentially said, “I didn’t.” Once he found the an antidepressant that worked for him, he was able to get into a productive writing routine, but during that depressive episode, no number of nifty tricks and tips could help him put words on a page.

And you know what? Sometimes that happens. And it sucks. Like, really sucks, and not just because it keeps you from writing. But it doesn’t make you a bad writer. Here’s a great, but longer series of posts from writer and Writing about Writing Facebook page admin Chris Breechen about the truth about writing routines that says a lot more about this issue than I have the space to say here [2].

Gather yourself a party.

Most D&D games consist of a smallish party of 3 – 6 people. Maybe some parties are bigger, and I’ve DMed sessions with only a single player. But the three main components of D&D—exploration, social interaction, and combat—are easiest when they’re done in a group. And believe it or not, the same goes for writing.

I have taught writing classes of various types[3] for eight years. And I was a writing tutor for five years before that. If there’s one thing I know about writing, it’s that sharing it—scary as it may be—is one of your best tools for moving past writing difficulties, and that includes writer’s block. Even just talking through a scene with someone can help you shape it more firmly in your mind.

Whether you’re part of a formal writing group, or you join a site like Scribophile to trade works with other writers, or you just hand your writing off to a friend or family member for a quick read-through, finding a regular, trustworthy writing party can help you slice through that writing block like a +1 Luck Blade slicing through a Gelatinous Cube.

But learn your party members’ strengths, and be clear in what you ask of them.

Here’s the thing, though. One of the great things about Dungeons and Dragons is that each player’s character has their own strengths; on the flip side, each has their own weaknesses, too. And the same likely goes for your writing party.

Just like you wouldn’t ask your lawful-good paladin to use thieves’ tools to break into a locked treasure chest (that’s your rogue’s job), you don’t necessarily want to talk to your Plot Hole Detector when you’re staring down a Behemoth Blank Page. Now, if you’re actively trying to find those plot holes so you can fill them up—of course, call that Detector over. But for a Behemoth Blank Page, you likely want someone you can bounce ideas off instead.

Now, that’s not to say the same person can’t do both of those things, and that’s why it’s so important to clarify what you’re looking for when you’re asking someone to help you work through a writing difficulty. When you ask for help, be sure you ask precisely.

Rests are good….

In D&D, after several grueling rounds of combat, a party might elect to take a short or long rest to recover some or all of their hit points before they move to the next room in the dungeon. And if you’ve been staring at the same blank page for the last twenty minutes, maybe you do, too. Get up; stretch your legs; make some coffee or tea; meditate. Recover some hit points, and then try tackling that Behemoth Blank Page once more.

…in the proper environment.

In the wrong environment, though, a short rest can prove dangerous. If you don’t properly barricade that door, a wandering Bugbear may burst through and foil your attempt to regain that HP. And most writers know how easy it is for a five-minutes social media break to turn into a whole hour of scrolling. I’m not saying never use social media to break up your writing; I’m saying be honest with yourself about what kind of break will be most useful in any given moment.

What do you think? Do you play D&D? What other lessons does it have for writers? What about other TTRPGs? Let me know in the comments!

Footnotes:

[1]: The McElroys have described it as explicitly not an actual-play podcast, because their goal is not so much actual play as it is comedy and storytelling. But, still.

[2]: Incidentally, as I was scrolling through the Facebook page trying to find that post, I also found a post he wrote titled, “9 Thinks Dungeons & Dragons Taught Me about How to Write.” I didn’t read it until after I wrote this post, but there’s a chance I saw the link on Facebook and it gave me the idea for this post. #nowriterisanisland

[3]: Full disclosure: these classes have been of many types (first-year writing, tech writing, professional writing, digital writing, stem writing, etc), but not of the fiction writing type.

What if I could be a writer?

Sigh.

I’ve started this post twice already over the past year and change. I’ve been trying to write a post describing several major changes in my life, and I keep starting and not quite finishing.

There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that some of these changes come with some heavy (negative) emotional baggage that I both do and don’t want to air out in pubic, so I err on the side of caution.

But on the flip side, the tiny optimist that’s still living somewhere inside me sees these changes as an opportunity and wants to talk about them and actively work to keep making them happen.

But back on the other flip side, talking about these changes and trying to make them work for me (by talking about them here on the blog) leaves me feeling vulnerable. What if I talk about what I want to do, what I want my life to be, what if I try to make these changes happen, and then they just… don’t?

But enough vagueblogging.

Here’s the footnotes version:

  • I got my Ph.D in 2016.
  • Then I got a two-year postdoc.
  • Then I went on the (absolutely excruciating) job market again and received precisely zero job offers.
  • My husband got an offer for a postdoc in Luxembourg. He took it, and we moved.
  • I continued to work as an adjunct and an online tutor.
  • This summer, I lost one of the adjunct gigs for the time being, and the other didn’t offer any fall work. SO:
  • I am a quasi-ex-academic currently without any adjunct work.
  • I have picked up a few semi-steady freelance writing and consulting gigs.
  • But otherwise, I have a bit more “free time” than I used to, thanks to this “quasi-ex” status.
  • I have been using this “free time” to write. Quite a bit.

And I remember how much I love it. I used to write a lot. Pretty much from the time I could use a pencil, I wrote things, and if I wasn’t writing things, I was reading them and thinking about writing things. I wrote poems, stories–I even wrote an entire YA novel one summer while I was in college about gender-bending royalty, my twist on ye fairy tales of olde about how gender roles are bogus. After I graduated college and spent a year splitting my time between retail and tutoring, I turned to television and movie scripts. But still, I wrote a lot .

Until I entered grad school in 2009. Then I was still writing a lot, but it was all academic stuff. I don’t think I wrote any fiction from that fall 2009 until the first full summer of my postdoc, right before I was set to enter the job market for a second time. Then I wrote, like a few chapters of a mystery novel and then stopped again until, basically, this year (2019).

For reference, that’s roughly a decade with hardly any fiction writing. Sheesh.

Sometimes I get really mad at myself for not trying to keep writing fiction while in grad school, because think of how much I could have written. I’d probably be published by now, right? Except then I get mad at academia for being so utterly exhausting that I didn’t have the time or energy to write fiction. It’s not that I didn’t have any hobbies while in grad school, just that it took up so much B R A I N that writing fiction barely ever crossed my mind.

But now I’m back at it! In the less-than-a-year since we moved to Luxembourg, I’ve written almost 40,000 words of a mystery novel, roughly sketched out a setting for another, written and started a handful of original short fiction pieces, two of which are currently in review at lit magazines (one for the third time–fingers crossed), and written almost 20,000 words of fanfic that I’m slowly letting out into the world bit by bit.

What if I could do that thing I’ve wanted to do for, like most of my life, could actually happen? What if I could be a writer?

I mean, I am. Like I said, I’ve written close to 100,000 words of fiction in the past nine months, and that’s nothing to say of the freelance writing, editing, and consulting I’ve done for actual money or the homebrew D&D adventures I’ve written. I am a writer–I am one who writes.

But the real question, of course, the one I’ve dismissed basically since failing to get into an MFA program the first time I applied to grad schools (and graduating college into a recession), is whether I could use writing to pay the bills.

Right now, the answer is decidedly, no. But I also happen to be in a different place financially than I was back when I first pivoted away from professional fiction writing. My husband makes enough to pay most of our bills, and my online tutoring gig makes me enough to pay the rest–and only takes up about 20 hours a week.

So here I go, trying to figure out how to make writing pay the bills. Fingers crossed!

 

 

It always takes longer than it takes.

My spring break began today.

Well, technically, my institutions’ spring break starts on Monday, but my spring break began today. I’m taking a few extra days to visit my long distance partner, who will also be on spring break next week.

We’re both academics, which means we’ll spend a bit of time goofing off, but we’ll also still work several days of the “break.” Before I left, I spent some time thinking about what I could reasonably expect myself to accomplish while traveling. I took a look at the research & writing calendar I’d made up for myself mid-February… and laughed.

I’m nowhere near where I wanted to be, and I probably won’t accomplish much in the way of research over spring break. I have access to some of my data, but I work best with printed materials, and I wasn’t about to load a bunch of transcripts or journal articles into my already over-packed personal item (my trusty LL Bean backpack). So I’ll probably spend some time working on research while I’m here, but more than likely I’ll work on teaching–grading, giving feedback, planning upcoming classes and revamping courses for next fall. The research and writing will likely wait until the following week.

I’m disappointed, but I built in some extra time into the calendar because of something my dissertation director always told me–something her late husband always told her. “Writing always takes longer than it takes.” And if that isn’t the truest depiction of writing processes, I’ll eat my hat.

Writing Goals

Writing goals is hard. Also, writing goals are hard.

Put another way: The act of writing goals is hard. Also, writing goals–goals related to writing–are hard to write.

I don’t like count-based goals, in writing or in other pursuits. Write 1,000 words per day. Run a half marathon in a year. Lose ten pounds by June. Goals like these, for me, are recipes for disaster. I usually start with a small success streak, but if I break that streak, then the break itself turns into a streak, and suddenly a month goes by, and I’m no closer to achieving my goals.

I prefer habit-based goals–goals designed to help me develop a habit. I’m not great at habits, but I’m always starting and then restarting them, so it’s not a total loss. I’ve learned this about myself the hard way, and I’ve learned (also the hard way) that beating myself up over dropping a habit is not helpful. It’s not that there are no negative feelings associated with dropping a habit (there are); it’s just that I’m learning to experience the negative feelings for what they are (feelings) rather than what they’re not (a definitive confirmation of my total failure).

In writing my new year’s resolutions, I decided to focus on two words: consistency and resiliency. These two concepts may seem mutually exclusive, but I think they’re synergistic. I want to develop consistency in working toward particular goals, but I also want to develop resiliency when I inevitably become inconsistent. Knowing that I can just pick back up where I left off means that I’m more likely to become consistent on a macro level (e.g., over the course of a year), even if I’m not that great on a micro level (e.g., over the course of a week). Resiliency leads to longevity, or so I hope.

To that end, I’d like to set some writing-habit goals. I’d like to write for about an hour a day most days of the week. Maybe two hours on weekends.

“Writing” may include one or more of the following:

  • Invention work, including, but not limited to:
    • Musing/daydreaming
    • Notetaking
    • Doodling/diagramming
    • Researching
  • Drafting
  • Revising
  • Editing

Projects may include:

  • Fiction writing
  • Freelance professional/technical writing & editing
  • Blogging
  • Literally anything except my academic writing. That’s what my day job is for.

So there you have it. Writing goals is hard, and writing goals are hard. Now it’s time to go forth and meet them.

Resurrecting a Blog

This is my first post on this blog in almost nine years.

The last thing I posted on this blog was a 1700-word thinkpiece on True Blood on August 25, 2009. No, you cannot read it. I took it down. It was… not insufferable, but it certainly thought it was a lot smarter than it was. I literally prefaced the piece by noting that I had “been searching for an educated forum on True Blood to post to that might actually stimulate intellectual comment on the show rather than just verbal cyber-throwdowns between the Bill and Eric camps.” I have no memory of scouring True Blood fan forums, hoping to find like-minded grad-school aspirants with whom to wax poetic about the portrayal of Southern culture on the silver screen. Perhaps I blocked it out.

At any rate, it’s been nine years, and here I am making an earnest attempt to return to blogging. We’ll see how it goes.

I was going to say that I have a discipline problem when it comes to writing, kind of like my discipline problem when it comes to running, but I don’t really like the word “discipline” because it carries with it an implicit moral judgement, and I also realized that it’s not really true. Or, at least, it’s not the problem.

I don’t have much of a writing routine, which many writers swear by. Writers with prolific outputs and published works, including self-help books for other writers, swear that if you can only set your alarm clock an hour earlier and just sit down and write, you, too, can finally finish and publish that novel. It worked for them, so clearly, it’s The Correct Way to Do Things.

I don’t have a regular writing schedule, but I did manage to write a 45,000-word dissertation. And then I managed to turn that dissertation into two (forthcoming) articles, one 6,000 words and one 10,000, so clearly, I do have the ability for output, even without a regular writing schedule.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make time to write, or that you should only write when the desire strikes you, just that, with those pieces, I managed to write them without waking up an hour early and without writing at the same time every day.

But what did I do? And how can I apply those strategies to my blogging fiction writing, which I’m trying to pick back up again. Those are the big questions.

For one, I had a fellowship the Fall semester before I defended my dissertation, so I had a lot of time to write. I didn’t have no other obligations, but I didn’t have to teach that semester, which gave me a lot of time to devote to writing. Writing that dissertation was my primary job every day that semester.

But when I wrote my articles, I did have to teach. Those semesters, I made sure to carve out a few chunks of writing time each week. I generally prefer large-ish blocks of time to an hour here and an hour there. I write at the same time every day, or even for the same amount of time every day, or even every day at that. But I did schedule two to three (sometimes four, if I was lucky) big chunks of time for writing every week. I set goals for those chunks, but I cut myself some slack if I didn’t meet those goals. I reassessed them and moved the target.

I don’t currently have a ton of extra time to devote to blogging or fiction writing, but I think if I can just get a few small writing sessions on the calendar every week, I can make some progress. And progress is what matters.