On trying and failing: blogging without a net

Of the all the pride-inspiring things about this project, I’m most proud that I have gotten as far as the second post of the blog without mentioning the fear of failure. However, since the fear of failure undermines almost every stage of the writing process of all writers, now is as good a time as any to talk about it, especially as it not only gives insight into the reasons students don’t write effectively, but also explains the cookie cutter look and feel of this blog.

The idea of putting my ideas on writing online in blog form has been percolating for a long time. Out of that brew comes grand aspirations: in a perfect world, this blog will become a place where many different writers will share their ideas. And the possibility of hearing positive feedback (or at least constructive criticism/healthy debate) on ideas that I thought up is flattering. But starting a blog is fraught with complications, not least of which being that I could try and fail, leaving my handful of posts relegated to float in the ether of millions of other ghost blogs out there.

Failure and I don’t get along so well. He tends to stick with me for longer than he should whenever he brings his ugly mug around. To try and keep him away from this project, I did a lot of thinking about the possibility of maybe starting a blog before actually purchasing a domain name. I added a bunch of blogs on blogging to my Google Reader, hoping their sage wisdom might show me the way to easy street and blogging gold. Each day I scanned through their posts, overwhelmed by the minutia of tagging strategies. And the more I read, the higher the pile of “skills required to be a successful blogger” grew.

Then I read Carol Dweck’s Mindsets: The New Psychology of Success and learned I should stop caring about the pile of required skills and just start trying. (Side note: One of my colleagues introduced me to Dweck’s work as it lined up with some ideas I had put in a research proposal. Ever since then, I’ve been preaching her gospel to anyone who would listen, which means that I’ll write more about Dweck’s work in the future. Probably very soon. Don’t touch that dial.)

To illustrate the illogical behavior associated with the fear of failure, Dweck tells a story about the musical prodigy Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.  After early success led her to Julliard, the young prodigy developed a curious strategy for avoiding failure: she began showing up to her lessons without her instrument. The prospect of putting in an honest effort and failing became so scary for Salerno-Sonnenberg that she stopped trying.

Dweck gives two reasons why honest effort is so scary.  The first originates in the incorrect belief that geniuses somehow exist who don’t need effort.  If you believe in these types of geniuses, you will be less inclined to try hard as any effort “casts a shadow on your ability.” The second notes that honest effort “robs you of all your excuses. Without effort, you can always say, ‘I could have been [fill in the blank].’ But once you try, you can’t say that anymore.”

I love the “could have been” attitude that Dweck brings into the discussion because it resonates with an attitude I encounter in student conferences. Frequently, I have students that make appointments to talk with me the day before a paper is due. When they show up without a draft and I ask them what is holding them back, they say, “I have my idea all figured out in my head, but I just can’t put it down on paper.”

It doesn’t surprise me why these students’ papers don’t get written until the last minute. Doing so would put the idea they have “all figured out” into the crappy form that all first drafts take. The incongruity of that crappy draft and the perfect, polished idea they had in their head is sure to be seen as a failure by many students who don’t have much experience. In their mind, the thoughts and insights are at the professional level. When their words come out looking amateurish, they start thinking they’re a bad writer. These students, like Dweck’s prodigy, are failing to bring their instruments to their lessons out of fear that they’ll fail.

Right now, the language and look of the blog feels amateurish to me. But I’m here blogging without a net anyways because at the very least, now is the time when “could be” meets “what is.” Like my students, I’m anxious about the final results, but my anxiety is calmed some by what I tell them, “There is no such thing as a non-crappy first draft.”

If you happen to see a drowning blogger, please throw him a rope.


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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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