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Conversation #79: Cathy Mazak on Moving Past Fear in Academic Writing (Part 2)

A conversation between Cathy Mazak (UPRM) and Elizabeth Manley (XULA) on academic writing.

Catherine Mazak is originally from New Jersey. She earned her B.A in English from Indiana University, Bloomington; M.A. TESOL from University of Arizona, Tucson; PhD in Critical Studies in the Teaching of English from Michigan State University. Mazak joined the English Department at UPRM in 2005. The courses she teaches are the Basic English courses (INGL 3101, 3102), Linguistics Seminar INGL 4028, Graduate Research Methods INGL 6006, and Current Topics in Linguistic Theory INGL 5025. Her Teaching or Research Areas are Translanguaging in higher education, bilingualism and learning, qualitative research methods, linguistic ethnography. Also her Currents projects are Co-founder and Co-director of CeIBA, Center for research on bilingualism and learning; Affiliated researcher University of Illinois at Chicago Bilingualism Research Center.

Elizabeth Manley is Associate Professor of History at Xavier University of Louisiana. She is the author of The Paradox of Paternalism: Women and Authoritarian Politics in the Dominican Republic (University Press of Florida, 2017) and co-author of Cien Años de Feminismos Dominicanos (AGN, 2016)with Ginetta Candelario and April Mayes. She has published articles in The Americas, The Journal of Women’s History, and Small Axe, is a contributing editor for the Library of Congress’ Handbook of Latin American Studies, and is the co-chair of the Haiti-Dominican Republic section of the Latin American Studies Association.

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BE: Hello, this is Bart Everson, producer of the Teaching, Learning, and Everything Else podcast. Just a brief note, and then I’m going to get out of the way. You’re joining us kind of mid-conversation, now this is part two of our interview between Elizabeth Manley and Cathy Mazak on the topic of academic writing. If you haven’t heard part one, I highly encourage you to go back into the archives and give it a listen, because it’s fascinating stuff. And there’s just so much good content that we had to break this up into two episodes. So, let’s now join this conversation already in progress.

EM:You know thinking back to the centering of the writing, I think we all have a whole boatload of ideas about what writing looks like, and what it should be and how, you know, I think some of these are very romanticized of how we are as academic writers. Are there any  particular misconceptions about the writing process or the writing craft that you wished more faculty would be disabused of, that they would stop thinking?  

CM: Yes, yes, so the biggest one is the idea that you have to have big blocks of time to get writing done. That causes people to wait until they have big blocks of time, and they never have big blocks of time. Like, I wish that we had big blocks of time, but we don’t. Plus, if you do have a big block of time, like if you have, I don’t know, six hours or like a whole day, right? If you start at hour one, you’re not going to make it to hour six and you’re still writing. Like, it’s not, I don’t know, I feel like that it is an unrealistic expectation. It’s not even something I think people should want in a normal semester. I think an exception would be going to a writing retreat, then yes, you have this phase to write, physical then also mental. Because you’re physically away from where you are, there’s lots of benefits for doing a writing retreat for that reason. I think that we can’t realistically do a writing retreat every time we want to write something, like if we could, then great, but no, we can’t. I think instead that what we need to work towards is two things: consistency and focus. So, the consistency part, a lot of people, a lot of writing coaches teach that you have to write everyday, or that you have to open the document everyday. I think that’s fantastic, if you can do that, then fabulous. But I don’t like the idea of writing everyday, I mean I’d like it, I would love to do it, but it’s not realistic to me. I also think it could be a downside to it, which is like if you’re just opening a document and writing for the sake of writing because you promised yourself that you would write five hundred words, you might be creating like a negative feeling for your writing. You might be cerating stuff that you know that you will have to edit out later. So, I don’t see a good reason to just do everyday for the sake of everyday. Instead, what I try to tell people to do, again, set yourself up for a positive feeling between you and your writing, and the way you can do that is if you try to set up writing sessions at times when you know are the best times of day for writing. Where you’re going to have focus like naturally, because it’s like your moment, right? So, for me, those times are as soon as the ideal ideal would be I have a cup of coffee and sit down and write, but I have to the morning running, kids around. The second best [Inaudible]drop everyone off where they’re supposed to go, then the writing, then I write. I block two hours at that time, three times a week like that’s it. I go for consistency in terms of like three times a week. I tell people to start with one hour a week, but make it the hour where you have the best focus, and you’re not easily distracted. So, you can keep a little journal for yourself a few days to figure out who you are, sometimes people are night people, sometimes late afternoon. It’s different for different people. You have to kind of think about how you normally work the best. What you’re looking for is an hour or two where you aren’t pull to check facebook or email, or stand up and drink water and come back five times. You know, like those times you feel like you can sit in a chair for an hour. Whether you break that up somehow or not, but those times you feel you have focus and experiment. I always tell people, three hours a week during that time is going to pay off for you way more than just forcing yourself to write five hundred words a day even when you don’t feel like it or even when you’re completely exhausted, but you don’t want to break the chain, so know what I mean? I think that motivates some people, and that works for some people,because that’s never worked for me, I tried to present people with some kind of alternative. There’s other ways to get focused, one of them is writing with people, with other people, you know, co-writing, virtually, or in person. That’s a way to make sure you sit down and really spend an hour working on the writing, and not being pulled and distracted. And if you can’t co-write with somebody, if you don’t know when your energy time is, then the third thing I tell people to do is just write first thing on Monday morning, just make it the first thing you do before the week, you know, falls on top of you, and things get cloudy, whatever, do it the first thing. Go for shorter times, like, don’t think you need six hours, you don’t. You need one hour, two hours, you know, and you know some kind of consistency. And build up, don’t start with “I have not been writing at all, and now I will write for eight hours a week,” no you won’t, you know, start small.

EM: Right, it’s like those people who make a new years resolution to you know, go from no exercise to running a marathon. You know, you have to build that up. I like a lot this idea of consistency and focus, because there’s this many different styles to people’s writing as there are people. We all have different ways of doing this, although it is for me an important intervention tip to say you don’t have to, people will swear that you can only write when you have large blocks. You don’t have to write for fifteen minutes a day, cause that’s one of the protests. You don’t have to have large blocks, it’s great if you can create those spaces, but most of us can’t. Those of us here at Xavier, we teach four classes a semester. And so, that finding a smaller spaces in which we can write… We run a semester long writing group where we meet for one hour a week, and we write together. There’s you know a varied per semester, but we all come together and write together. That  solidarity is huge, it doesn’t seem like it would be, but you would be really--amazing how incredible that feedback, silent feedback is. And, so it seems really important to create positive feedback loops in terms of positivity around this writing. Where you’ve been able to do that for people, do you have any most satisfactory moments of having a breakthrough or getting them to see the joy in their own work?


CM:Yes, I was just thinking about a woman who I worked with in one on one coaching sessions. And she’s a full profess--no, she’s not a full professor, she’s an associate professor who wants to be full. She’s post-tenured, and the first function we had, she was like so deflated. She didn’t believe anymore that she had anything to say, or that she had the energy to say it. Or that you know, she was so defeated, I feel like, about her writing that it was really hard to even get through the session, cause you can see how much she wanted to do better, but hadn’t been able to. And then when we started talking about some of these things, and I just keep saying, you have something important to say, you have a voice that needs to be out there. And now, you know like only maybe third or fourth session where she’s implimated some of these things like the positive feedback and all of that stuff. Now she's about to have a sabbatical, and she had all of these amazing things kind of aligned at the same time that she can see her path to what the sabbatical is going to be about, and how she’s going to ramp up a new research project that is going to be truly hers, and not hers and her advisors or hers and other people she’s been working with other senior scholars. Because sometimes we get connected, we’re connected with our advisors, and we keep that---we never leave the nest. Or we connect to a senior scholar early in our careers, and we think this is great because we get to publish with that person, but we need to do--become our own selves. And to see the difference in her, just in the way she approaches writing. Even if you don’t always do it exactly right, even if you don’t like always set yourself up for perfect success in every session, the idea is that you get the tools that you know what you need to do, you know? I don’t think that, I don’t know about you, but nobody has ever said, you need to feel happy about your writing to me in graduate school, and I had great advisors. I would not complain about any advisor, but nobody said you know these things, we didn’t talk about craft in that way. 

EM: No, in fact the unwritten, unspoken message is this is actually miserable. Writing is--I think about the quote from Truman Capote where he says, if I don’t write, I’m crazy and I’m crazy when I’m writing. I’m misquoting that, but this idea that it is kind of torturous, no matter what. 

It doesn’t have to be like that. Would you encourage the idea that everyone having a kind of writing life partner is positive feedback for them. Is there something to be said for the person that you go to that who like reminds you of the good work that you do, and that you are a good writer.

CM: Yes, yes, yes. If you can find that person, and even better if you can find a couple of people, so that it’s not just one person, but you have a small group. I think that that is so encouraging, and if you can’t..there’s you know...With the internet, there’s so many ways to connect with people in so many different places. So, maybe you feel completely isolated in your department, but you remember somebody from your PhD cohort, you know, you could be cowriting with that person through Zoom or on Google Hangouts, or even just on the phone. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and you know have somebody else out there. I think that is an important thing. That’s also you know, this idea of doing things in the community, although it should be a huge part of academia, it’s not. There’s this myth about how you’re always supposed to do it alone, and yourself, and the scholar, you know with burning the midnight oil and all these things. Slaving away in the lab, you know, come on. Instead if we could reach out to other people, and find those other people, especially with people in toxic departments. People who feel like they aren't supported in their university, and then if you can find other people...That’s one of the things that has been the best about the membership community that I have started in August has been just like , people from all over, women from all over the world coming together. You know, they’re not finding people near them, but they have found this community where we’re all saying you should be positive, and you can do it. When somebody publishes something,...accepted, everybody is genuinely is happy for that person, not like sometimes when you get those looks from the department that are like i’m happy for you, but they’re really jealous. Like, no, we won’t do that, so you need to find people like that. However you do it, you need to find that.

EM: So, for our listeners, that is your writing collective that you can join. We’re going to have the link to Cathy’s website on the podcast page, but it’s And Cathy with a ‘c’. She has a writing collective that you can join, and it’s a group that thrives on positive feedback. But, you also have a free facebook group, correct?

CM: Yes, so I have a free Facebook group called I Should Be Writing, and you can find it by putting in the Facebook search bar I Should Be Writing and we have so many of us that’s what we think all of the time. When I created that group, it’s a little tongue-in-cheek, because I don’t think you should be writing all the time. I think you should be writing in your focus time. I guess I should say, the origin of that name is that another misconception is that we should be writing all the time. And that, just because we can do it on the laptop from anywhere means that we should be doing it. You know so like I’m showering, I should be writing. I’m cooking, I should be writing, I’m doing exercises, should be writing. No, actually not. And going back to that same idea, you don’t need to be writing all the time. You need to be writing during your most focused times, you need to put writing at the center of what you’re doing if you want to get it done. You don’t need to do it twenty-four hours a day, and if you did, it would just backfire, because you would start to resent it. So, I think that everybody can relate to that, I should be writing feeling. That’s our group, our free group online. In that group, we do three days a week. There’s posts about you know like, what are your wins for the week, so we can kind of celebrate together and those kinds of things. And then all of my blog posts go in there as well, which is kind of a wealth of free information. The collective is you know, a paid group, but I have courses, and I do the retreats, and there are things that are paid, but there’s so much free stuff to the group than on my blog on that I hope will be helpful to people

EM: Yeah, and I have found in the past couple of years reading about the craft of writing, and making sure that it doesn’t overwhelm my centering of my writing, and using it as a supplement, because you can get lost in the literature of what writing is about. But, do you have any favorite books about productivity or the craft of writing that you would recommend for others?

CM: Yes, so I have a booklist that is like a mile long, but actually I haven’t..I’m starting now as I am preparing to write my own book--which I don't know what it’ll be yet, but I’m preparing it you know, I’ve been reading a lot of stuff about writing and productivity. But, the two books I’m going to mention are not particularly writing books, but for me, I have found them to be the most helpful in changing my writing practice and those are Deep Work by Cal Newport and Finish by John Acuff. And, deep--ironically both men, but whatever. So, Deep Work is really about kind of  structuring your days, so that there is space for the real thinking, creative writing work that we do as academics. He’s an academic, but the book is really for anybody who does any kind of work that involves thinking more than paper pushing. If you’re looking for how to structure a day that puts writing in a place where you can really get it done, and it has that value, Deep Work is a great one about how to get that deep work done. Finish is one that I listened to on Audible, and it was a great listen. I listened to that in the car, and it was great. It was just about finishing projects, I think everybody has half-finished projects around, right? And also, that last stretch of a writing project that goes from when you’re eighty percent done to a hundred percent done and submitting. I found that the stuff in Finish was really helpful in terms of helping set expectations for yourself, and actually accomplish goals, and how important it is to set goals that you can actually accomplish, and you will accomplish. Because, again that positive-feedback loop, like you got to set yourself up for success and feeling good. It’s all about how you feel like the reality of whatever is going on, and the number of publications, and whatever, what you have to do is feel good about that. That’s what you have to set yourself up for, and that’s what Finish helps you do.

EM: Do you ever have to remind the people that you work with to celebrate their accomplishments? That sort of jumped into my mind, well you know, we don’t necessarily do that like hitting submit, sending that email, getting a thing in. It’s like okay, my celebration is I’m going to cross that off my list. Right? That’s not enough, I don’t think.

CM:No, we talked about that in my course, like I make people like manually write down what you’re going to accomp--what you’re going to give  yourself or do for yourself when you achieve a small goal, or then when you achieve a submission goal. And so people would put in the facebook group, you know like okay for my small goal, I’m gonna, you know... I tell people it can be something totally free, it doesn’t have to--you put your favorite youtube video on, and then you dance around your office, I don’t care. Whatever it is that’s going to spark some kind of positiveness in you. And then for your bigger things when you submit something, you should have a reward for yourself already set up. And, I have people who have a favorite artist who makes jewelry,you know not expensive, fancy jewelry. Every time she submits, she’s going to  treat herself to something from that Etsy shop. Or like Lisa on our retreat, right, she uses the sea glass as like her reward system and reminding herself about centering the writing and all that stuff. You know you have to set up rewards for yourself. You have to celebrate these things. Another thing that somebody does, in my community does is the have-done list. So, like we always have a to-do list, and the to-do list never ends, right? That sometimes when you feel that overwhelm of the to-do list, she’s like, I’ve started finishing the week with a have-done list. So, it’s all the things that she’s done that week, and she lists them out. And she’s goes, I did do all this stuff, you know. You have you celebrate all of that, yes.

EM:Yeah, sometimes when I get to the midpart of the semester or trudging to the end, I like to do, what did I get accomplished since this semester, or since January, or since whenever? And it’s a really good reminder, but I have one more question, and I can’t believe that I have gone through this whole interview without---I’m telling people that I’ve recently got back from your academic women’s writing retreat in Rincon, Puerto Rico, and it was amazing. I’ve been telling everyone this, they say, how was Puerto Rico, and I tell them it was amazing, but particularly the last week. Because, the opportunity to devote this week to my writing, to my work, and to tell myself that it was valuable, to really place a value on it and time, and to be with other women who are doing the same thing was really, really incredible. I highly recommend it, I know it’s not always feasible, and it won’t be feasible all the time for me. And it will be a thing that I can only do occasionally. Can you maybe tell people a little about that, and why you think writing retreats are important?

CM: Definitely, there’s people who research writing retreats out there, because academics research everything, right? So, it’s not even the great feelings we’ve had about it, but there’s actually research that shows that these writing retreats are important for a lot of the reasons that  you’ve mentioned. So, one of them is that is gives an importance to your writing, that you might not give it otherwise. So, you pull that importance, that importance kind of flows over after the retreat’s over. It’s about having that space and time…[Inaudible] some ways, it’s kind of fulfilling that, it’s more than that. It’s always being with other women who want that kind of same thing you want, to get the writing done, and to be able to focus on that. I think that whenever you leave a place, and go to another physical place, that movement, or that being someplace else really helps you to focus on your writing in a way that just saying I'm going to not meet my classes for a week, and I’m going to go to my office, and write everyday.  It would feel--it would still be perhaps very productive for you, but it’s going to feel different than that physical movement to someplace else. I think that it really helps you, you need that space, like you need the time, and you need space, and you need to not have to worry about the food getting prepped, or what you’re going to eat next, or the laundry, or you know, any of the committee work, or the things that the students... You put the autoresponder on and you come to the retreat, and you really give the writing the place that it deserves for even just five days, or a week. So, yes, I’m doing the retreats every--now, the retreat, everybody was like, it needs to be longer, so we’re doing a whole week for the next one which is gonna be the end of July into the first week of August. I’ll continue--I plan to do them every, you know, twice a year.

EM: Fantastic, that’s fantastic.  I will admit I was a bit of a skeptic going in, because I couldn’t quite fully see, you know, well I could sit down and write for a week, and I’ve done that. I’m so glad that I’ve become a convert.

CM: Me too!

EM: And that I can see the value in that now. I want to thank you so much for talking with me, and the opportunity to share this with our listeners, and Xavier faculty. And yeah, I look forward to reading your book, and be able to, you know, share it with all of my colleagues.

CM:Yes, that’s my..The next writing retreat has to be reserved for my book proposal, that’s what is going to be about.

EM: That’s fantastic, I think you have some really great and useful things to say, and I’m going to try to keep pushing that message of you know, positive feedback loop for those at Xavier, and around me, and my writing circles.

CM: Yay! That’s wonderful, that’s the best thing you can do. It makes me really happy. Thank you.

EM: Thank you so much. All right.

CM: All right, thank you

Transcribed by Rebecca Kebbeh.

About Bart Everson

Creative Generalist in the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development at Xavier University of Louisiana

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