Writing for PhD students 1: taming the inner critic

Writing is hard.

Writing is hard. It just is. I know one person who finds writing easy, and they are very much the exception to the rule. Most people find it really difficult, and for most people, that never changes.

What gets easier is that, as you get more experience, you learn to trust your own processes more, and that makes everything less stressful. You think ‘oh yes, this is the bit where I feel like it’s never going to make sense’ rather than ‘it’snevergoingtomakesenseohmygodwhatamIevendoingwhodoIthinkIamI’msostupid’ . It all gets a bit less visceral and existential after a few iterations.

Meeting the inner critic.

Part of the reason that writing is hard is that it inevitably brings us into dialogue with our inner critic. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing- internal critics are useful, and I don’t think we’d get a lot done without them (I, for one, would still be in bed right now if my inner critic hadn’t shouted at me continually until I got up).

However, inner critics are also a bit like dogs, and they need a lot of boundary reinforcement. Someone once told me that, if you have a dog, you have to let it see you standing in its bed every so often, so that it knows that, while you don’t let the dog go everywhere in the house, you can go anywhere in the house, because you’re the pack leader. Otherwise it’ll get too big for its boots and start trying to be the boss of you (1). It’s kind of the same with inner critics- ok, I’d never get out of the house in the morning if mine didn’t kick my butt every step of the way, but I need to go and stand in her bed every so often, just so she doesn’t get above herself.

At the same time, though, you don’t want to over-discipline a dog and make it fearful and insecure, so that it goes and hides under a table whenever it sees you. Similarly, you don’t want to completely repress your inner critic, because they’ll just end up sneaking off into your subconscious where they can wreak even more havoc. You want your inner critic well-trained and friendly, and sitting nicely on the rug where you can see what it’s getting up to.

In case you haven’t noticed by now, I think it can be quite useful to personify your inner critic. It’s a way of externalising it, so that you can start to recognise its voice for what it is.

So, here’s an exercise to try. It’s a bit playful and silly, but surprisingly powerful. Give it a go- try and take at least ten minutes over it.

  • Draw a picture of your inner critic. What do they look like? What do they sound like?
  • Add some speech bubbles. What sorts of things does your inner critic say to you?
  • Now give your inner critic a name.

 

Making friends with your inner critic (2) (3)

OK, so, here’s my inner critic, in her current incarnation. She’s called Marge.

A very bad felt-tip pen drawing of a white woman with pale orange messy hair, a pastel green shirt and an unflattering calf-length pastel blue skirt. She is wringing her hands nervously. To the left, a caption reads ‘MARGE SAYS- You’re lazy! You’re patronising! You should STFU! You’re a quitter! You’re wasting everyone’s time! You’re unproductive! You’re an underachiever! It’s ALL YOUR FAULT!’

Marge is basically the middle-aged woman I don’t want to be. She’s scared of sticking out and so she wears beige and pastels. She doesn’t speak up in meetings. She’s hopelessly passive-aggressive and rather bitter. She thinks I’ve got rather above myself and should know my place and not be too ambitious. She also has strong views on how tidy my house should be, how much exercise I should do, and how I should raise my kid. She is, to be frank, A Pain In The Arse.

Marge is actually Version 2.0 of my inner critic. Version 1 looked like this:

An image titled ‘DARTH MARGE’. Against a grey background stands a black robed figure wearing some kind of rectangular helmet with a single, huge, flaming eye where the face should be. The figure holds a flaming staff and orange flames shoot out of its head.

As you can see, Darth Marge was a LOT scarier. Where Marge will stand at my elbow flapping around and pointing out housework that needs doing, interrupting me every time I get going on something, Darth Marge was more of a STANDING IN FRONT OF YOUR DESK WITH A FLAMING SWORD kind of person. Darth was much more powerful, and I’d cower under the duvet, completely unable to face her.

I got (slowly!) from Darth Marge to Marge by taking a deep breath, giving Darth an ‘I can see through your bullshit’ look, and offering her a cup of tea and a chat. Over a number of imaginary chats, I asked Darth why she was so invested in keeping me from writing, and what she was afraid would happen if I did.

Eventually, gradually, Darth took off the silly mask and robes and stopped waving the sword around, and it became apparent, underneath all that bluster, there was a just a scared, flappy middle-aged woman called Marge. She was scared I’d make a fool of myself/her, scared I’d realise I was a big fake, scared I’d forget how lucky I was, scared I wouldn’t be able to pay the bills, scared people wouldn’t like me…scared of loads of things. Ultimately she just has a lot invested in me being A Proper Woman, and she has some funny ideas about what that means.

At first I tried telling Marge to calm down and read some feminism. She started shrieking. I told her that she was being irrational, and that there was nothing to be afraid of. She shrieked even louder, and I retreated under the duvet. She stood outside the bedroom door telling me all the cautionary tales she could muster. She was easier to handle than Darth had been, but she was still pretty unpleasant.

Things got better when I stopped telling Marge what not to feel, and started listening to how she did feel. I learned that saying ‘Yes, this is scary, but I think it’s worth trying’ and ‘Ok, let’s give it half an hour and see how we feel then’, and ‘It’s ok to be nervous about this’ got me a lot further than just telling her to get a grip and leave me alone. She got less scared, and a bit less flappy.

And it helped when I finished my thesis, because now, when she has a bad day, I point at it on the shelf to remind her that we can do this.

I wouldn’t say that Marge and I are friends, but we do okay. And something I’ve noticed lately is that I see rather less of Marge these days, and rather more of a happy retired greyhound called Midge, who rests her muzzle on my knee while I’m writing- keeping an eye on me and constantly soliciting petting, but (mostly) not whining too much. Writing’s still hard, and even Midge has a bad day and gets sent to her basket with a stern word occasionally. But as long as I remember to stand in that bed of hers every so often, I think we’ll rub along together just fine.

 

 

(1) No idea if that’s actually true, as I’ve never owned a (non-imaginary) dog. But you see what I mean.

(2) Or at least, frenemies..

(3) The concept of the ‘inner critic’ is well-established in psychology, and the internet is full of ‘guides to taming your inner critic’, which you should check out. I make no claims to originality here, but I don’t think I owe too much to any one source, either. Marge and Darth and Midge are certainly my own 🙂 But do let me know if you feel I should credit you/others for anything I’ve written here, and I’ll amend promptly.

FAQ: ‘Why are there so many stereotypes about bisexuals?’

Image credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/93/Cover_of_This_Bed_We_Made_by_Artemis_Smith_-_1961.jpg
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/93/Cover_of_This_Bed_We_Made_by_Artemis_Smith_-_1961.jpg
INTERIOR: DAY. The Bisexual Questions Office, a small, untidy office that looks as if it used 
to be a cupboard. The Duty Bisexual, a forty-ish white woman, sits at a desk cluttered with 
used coffee cups, copies of Bi Community News and cuddly purple unicorns. 
She is leafing through a copy of Biscuit magazine and humming to herself.

A purple phone on the desk rings, and the Duty Bisexual answers.

DB: Hello, Bisexual Questions Office, Helen speaking, how may I be of service?

CALLER: 'I've been wondering why there are so many stereotypes about bisexuals?'

DB: That's an interesting question, Caller. Would you like a detailed explanation, 
or just the headlines for now?

C: Um, just the headlines, I guess?

DB: Right you are. [clears throat]

The headlines:

  • Western cultures are invested in the idea that ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ are opposite ‘sides’- you’re either on one or the other.
  • Bisexuality undermines this idea and makes people on both sides uncomfortable.
  • To resolve this discomfort, both ‘sides’ try to discredit bisexuality by claiming that bisexuals don’t exist, are attention-seeking, are immature and untrustworthy, etc etc.
  • And that’s why there are stereotypes about bisexuals.
DB: Thank you for calling the Bisexual Questions Office, is there anything else I can help you 
with today?

C: Yes, hang on a minute! Why is bisexuality so uncomfortable that it needs to be discredited?

DB:  Well... [sips coffee, realises it's gone cold, grimaces]

Cultures that have stereotypes about bisexuals have a dominant way of thinking that philosophers call dualism– they like to think in terms of pairs of ‘opposites’ like good/bad, heaven/hell, body/soul, white/black, man/woman and gay/straight (1). These opposites (‘binaries’, or ‘dichotomies’) are defined against one another- so, to be female is to be Not Male, and to be straight is to be Not Gay (2). There’s also usually a hierarchy between the two sides of a binary- one term is seen as ‘better’, one ‘worse’.

Ideas that disrupt these binary categories (suggesting that there are ‘shades of grey’ between black and white), can be quite threatening to these cultures. Bisexuality is one of those ideas.

So, stereotypes about bisexuality are a kind of cultural attempt to resolve this discomfort by discrediting or getting rid of bisexuality, and sorting everyone back into those tidy gay/straight boxes. This is what’s happening when it’s suggested that bisexuals are ‘really’ gay (but closeted) or ‘really’ straight (but attention-seeking). Bisexuals are being denied their identities, on the grounds that everyone is ‘really’ either gay or straight.

C: But I

DB: Anyway, [self-deprecatingly, but also reaching for coffee cup and preparing to rise from 
desk] I can talk about this for hours, b-

C:  No, wait! Don't go yet! [pause] I mean, if that's okay?

DB: [sits back down again, replaces cup, sighs] Um, sure!

C: Because I was wondering, if society tries to erase bisexuality because it's so  threatening, 
why are we always talking about it? It's always popping up in the media.

DB: Ah, that's because we actually need bisexuality to exist, just as much as we need it 
not to exist.

C: I'm sorry, what?

DB: I know, right? Bear with me.

OK, so our cultural ideas about bisexuality work a bit like our cultural ideas about coins. For the sake of convenience, we think of coins as having two entirely separate ‘sides’ that have nothing to do with each other. But of course, the ‘sides’ aren’t separate- they are just two faces of the same object. And a coin actually has a third surface- its edge. We tend to keep the edge thin to make the coin compact. But it’s always there, and it’s no less a part of the coin than its two sides are.

Spinning coin

Bisexuality is like the edge of the gay/straight coin. It’s absolutely integral to the  way we think about sexuality in Western cultures. Without it, there’s no distinction between ‘straight’, and ‘gay’. So you can’t get rid of it entirely. All you can do is to give it as little space as possible, just a sliver, just enough to allow it to mark the boundary between the two ‘sides’ of the coin (5). So we keep mentioning it- a celebrity comes out as bi and it makes the news, there’s a bi character in a soap opera- but almost immediately dismissing it. The celebrity has a film to plug and is just after the publicity. The soap character soon realises they were really gay all along… That’s the work that the stereotypes do- they allow us to briefly acknowledge bisexuality, and then dismiss it as inauthentic.

DB: There's more, but that's the main takeaway, I think. Does that make sense?

C: I... I think so, but to be honest my head hurts a bit now.

DB: Fair enough! It's complicated.

C: Like, I've got more questions, but... maybe later?

DB: [grabbing coffee mug, pushing chair away from desk, smiling broadly] Sure! Thank you 
for calling the Bisexual Questions Office, have a nice day and don't let the binary get you down!

C: Don't let the binary... right. OK, thanks again.

DB: [cheerily] Byeeee!

 

Sources/further reading:

Chewy academic stuff, if you’re into the theoretical aspects of this discussion:

Things that are easier to digest: 

  • You should definitely read everything The Bisexual Index has to say about bisexuality, for it is wise.
  • Purple Prose, edited by Katy Harrad, is a brilliant collection of essays on bisexuality in the UK.
  • If you’re an OU student, I wrote a general introduction to the history of sexuality for the Open University module ‘Living Psychology’ (DD210). It has a sexy orange mouse called Bob in it.

 

Footnotes:

(1) This way of thinking goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, and is dominant in societies informed by Judeo-Christian thought.

(2) Not convinced? Try defining the word ‘gay’ without referring (even implicitly) to the idea of ‘straight’, or the idea of female’ without referring to ‘male’).

(3) This, of course, is a lesson that the lesbian and gay movements learned from the US civil rights movement as well as the women’s suffrage movement.

(4) This assumption that there are two (and only two) ‘opposite’ genders to ‘choose’ between is, obviously, another deeply flawed binary. I’d argue that this ‘male/female’ binary exists for the same reason that the ‘straight/gay’ one does- because in a historically-misogynistic culture, men have a lot invested in not-being-female, and women’s fight for equality rests on the assertion that they are profoundly and innately different from men. But that’s a whole other discussion…

(5) And that, of course is why being bi-  trying to inhabit the line between gay and straight- is often referred to as ‘sitting on the fence’.

FAQ: Is bisexuality becoming more common?

boy wearing white shirt with iridescent hair color infront of flag
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

Last October, bisexuality was in the UK news because of an increase in the proportion of young people identifying as bi. Data from the Office of National Statistics showed that for the first time, the proportion of 16-24 year olds identifying as bi (1.8%), was greater than that identifying as gay or lesbian- 55% of LGB (lesbian, gay or bisexual)-identified young people identified as bi rather than lesbian or gay. Furthermore, the ONS’s Annual Population Survey showed that the number of people identifying as bisexual (across all age groups) had risen by 45% in three years.

So, what’s this all about? Is bisexuality becoming more common? I was invited to discuss this question on Newsnight on 6th October 2016- I can’t find an official BBC clip to link to, but you can watch the segment I’m in below:

 

The main points I make in the clip are below (I’ve expanded on them a bit to make them clearer):

  • Society’s attitude towards sexuality has changed a great deal, and people in general are  more confident to talk about their sexual identities and feelings than they used to be- so we’d expect to hear about more diversity than previously.
  • People are not so invested in identity politics as they once were. In the 1980s and 1990s, activists lobbied for equal rights for lesbian and gay (LG) people on the basis that people were born lesbian or gay. They hadn’t chosen their sexuality, so they couldn’t be blamed for it, and ought to have the same rights as anyone else.
    • In contrast, social conservatives were keen to establish that being lesbian or gay was Not Normal.  If you weren’t straight, you were either developmentally abnormal in some way and needed fixing, or you were downright perverse, and deliberately choosing to behave badly. Straight people, on the other hand, were healthy and normal.
    • So, both ‘sides’- LG and straight people- had a lot invested in establishing that you could either be lesbian/gay, or heterosexual. Homophobes needed to be sure that they weren’t tainted by icky homosexuality, and LG folk needed to make it clear that they couldn’t help being different.
    • The idea that some people were bisexual was unacceptable to both sides, because it suggested that individuals could choose their sexuality. For the conservatives, bisexual people were particularly depraved because they ‘could’ choose to be ‘normal’, and didn’t. For LG people, bisexual people were confusing the issue- their whole argument for equal rights was based on the idea that sexuality wasn’t a choice.
    • Happily, although things are far from rosy for a lot of LGBT people, most of the legal battles for equality have now been won. LG identities are less stigmatised in most communities than they were 20 years ago, so people are not as worried about bisexuality’s potential to confuse the issue.
  • Sexuality is fluid. Bisexuals are often described as ‘going through a phase’ or ‘bi now, gay later’, as Stuart Whoo pithily puts it in the clip. But bi people’s sexualities aren’t any more fluid than anyone else’s – sexuality is just quite a fluid thing, and that fluidity is more obvious to the world if it shows up in the gender of your partners, than if your sexual tastes change in other ways. Furthermore, there are of course a lot of people who initially come out as lesbian, gay, or straight, and then come out as bi later, and plenty who identify as bi for their whole lives.
  • Biphobia isn’t necessarily as overt as it used to be, but research shows that bi people often struggle with a sense of feeling out of place- there are thriving bi communities in the UK but they don’t have permanent commercial spaces in the same way that LG communities do, and bi people are often marginalised in LG spaces.
  • Stereotypes about bisexuality persist, partly because;
    • As a society, we like binary categories. Right and wrong, good and evil, normal and abnormal. We like things to be ‘either/or’, not ‘both/and’.
    • Because of this, you can’t talk about being bisexual without using binary language like ‘male/female’ and ‘gay/straight’, which makes it sounds as if your identity is split between gay and straight ‘sides’.
    • Research shows that bi people experience their identities as unified, not split, but it’s hard to express that verbally, so when bi people are asked about their identities and experiences, they can sound as if they’re ‘confused’ or ‘going through a phase’.
    • We tend to see identities as authentic if they persist over time, and as inauthentic if they aren’t consistent. We’re used to hearing about people who had been ‘living a lie’ until they ‘finally admitted to themselves that they had been L/G all along’. Bi people can look to others as if they are still in the ‘living a lie’ part of this narrative, particularly if they have partners of different genders over their life course.

 

P.S. If you’re wondering what being on Newsnight was like, here’s a clip of me being interviewed by a colleague the next morning for the OU Graduate School’s YouTube channel.  (You can tell I’ve had a late night, I look very tired… ). I talk about what it was like to do TV for the first time, and share some of the advice colleagues gave me beforehand:

Podcasts I’ve been listening to lately

close up device headphone headset
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’ve got really into podcasts in the last couple of years, and I keep meaning to post about some of my favourites, so here goes. This post is mostly just an evolving list, to which I might add more commentary later. I’ve starred* my all-time favourites.

Serial Fiction:

  • Alice Isn’t Dead*
  • The Bright Sessions*
  • The Alexandria Archives*

True stories:

  • Serial Season 1. * (and all the podcasts about the podcast..)
  • S-Town* (and its meta-casts)
  • The Moth
  • FOUND

Comedy:

  • The ParaPod* Two Northern blokes, one a sceptic, one a believer, discuss a range of purportedly paranormal phenomena, mysteries and conspiracies. The blokes in question are comedians Ian Boldsworth (the artist formerly known as Ray Peacock), and Barry Dodds. Hilarity ensues as Dodds credulity tests Boldsworth’s patience to the limit, and Boldsworth mercilessly lampoons Dodds. A lot of the fun is in the dynamic between the two presenters. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard, period- regularly had me crying with laughter on my commute.
  • Guilty Feminist
  • Made of Human
  • My dad wrote a porno
  • Global Pillage
  • Friday night comedy from the BBC
  • Comedians Telling Stuff
  • Strong and Stable

NPR (US public radio):

  • This American Life*
  • Found
  • Invisibilia
  • An Inexact Science
  • Here be Monsters
  • Freakonomics Radio
  • Hearing Voices

Topic-driven:

  • Sex

    • Meg-John and Justin
  • Mental health

    • The MentalPod. A single six episode series where Ian Boldsworth (of The ParaPod) and guests discuss living with mental illness. Moving, real, and tremendously validating. Standout episodes for me included the long interview with Boldsworth’s friend Michael Pennington (Johnny Vegas).
  • Game of Thrones

    • Game of Drones
    • Boars, Gore and Swords
    • Game of Thrones (ToB breakdown)
  • Society

    • Heart and Soul

For bedtime:

  • Sleep with me
  • Welcome to Night Vale.

On my to-listen list:

  • Bad Fat Broads
  • Fresh Air
  • Happier with Gretchen Rubin
  • Hi-Phi Nation
  • Hidden Brain
  • How To Do Everything
  • Justin Moorhouse About 30 Minutes
  • Kinsey Confidential
  • Kicking the Kyriarchy
  • Office Hours
  • Politically Re-Active
  • Radiolab
  • Serendipity
  • Standard Issue’s Podcast
  • Stuff Mom Never Told you
  • Stuart Hall in Conversation
  • Soul Music
  • The Big Ideas
  • The Bugle
  • The F Word
  • The Guardian Long Read
  • The Jodcast
  • The Loh Down on Science
  • The Philosophy Podcast
  • Thinky Thinky Make Make
  • To the Best of Our Knowledge
  • Unscrewed
  • Very Bad Wizards
  • Within The Wires
  • Zero Books- Advancing Conversation