Pleasing Others or Growing as a Writer?

Last summer I wrote two books. I had not planned on writing two books, but that's what happened. In fact, I was having trouble writing the one book--the one about autonomy supportive teaching. It was all so preachy. Whenever I sat down to write, I felt like I was standing on the milk crate in the campus quad on a sunny afternoon, loudspeaker in hand. Preaching is a chore. It is uninspired. What I wanted to do instead was write funny essays or short stories or work on my novel.

But then something changed. I don't remember what inspired the change, but I decided that I did not have to keep my nonfiction (boring) and fiction (exciting) separated. I could have fun while writing nonfiction. I could accomplish this by excusing myself from the need to be the expert on everything. I could speak from my own experience. Now that I think about it, it was probably influenced by the writing style of Carl Rogers, who never assumed that he could speak for others. He could only ever speak for himself. That's what I started doing. (I'm already realizing that this essay is headed in a different direction than I had planned.)

(Trying out a new office space in home gym area)

Back to the writing block over the summer: I gave myself permission to be myself as a writer. For example, to tell a funny story of realizing how terrible I was at acknowledging and accepting student boredom in my classroom. It wasn't funny, of course, but I was able to stop thinking of myself as a perfect teacher, and could instead accept my flaws and shortcomings. Thinking about those qualities impartially was what was funny.

This shift in voice allowed the writing to flow more naturally. A few weeks later the book was finished, and I went on to write a second book (Forgetting How To Teach). This one was even more fun. I wrote about something I have no business writing about, which was that teaching isn't the best thing to do when the goal is student learning. I finished this second book, too, and I felt like I was on a roll. I was having fun writing nonfiction and felt productive at the same time.

But then I got my feedback from the reviewers of my first book. They liked it, by and large, which was why I got a contract; but they also wanted me to tone back the playful tone. It was clear that I was having fun, and they decided that it was a bit too much fun. The feedback was consistent across reviewers, so I rewrote the first book. It was much, much less fun the second time around. I also felt like I couldn't write freely anymore. 

I haven't worked on another monograph since, actually. I wrote a few articles that had been sitting around. I submitted maybe 4-5 articles? I guess that's quite a bit, but my spirit was gone. Or at least it had changed. That's a shame.

I came here this morning to write about that shame and indignity of rewriting that book. With milk crate and megaphone, I sat down to warn you and others about how important it is to write for an audience of one--yourself, for example, or a person you care about enough to write a book. 

As I was writing, however, a second thesis of this essay revealed itself. I was sitting down to do more preaching. I was right back in the familiar I-know-better-than-you-do position, which, of course, was not the fountain of inspiration I had bathed in over the summer.

All I can do is write from my own experience, with whatever insights I may have had for myself. In order to do this to the best of my ability, I must be willing to adapt to the language and expectations of my audience--other teachers, instructors, and college faculty who care deeply enough about their teaching to read books written by an arrogant college professor who spent 30 minutes this morning saving images of industrially-themed interior design ideas on Pinterest. The pleasure of writing is not in showing off how clever I can be, but in the freedom that comes from exposing my weaknesses.

Graham Harman has explained how important it is, as a writer, to admit that there is always room for growth. 'You cannot be above criticism,' or something like that, is what he said. What I understood was that all writers, however brilliant they might shine, have more to learn. There is no such position as, "They just don't understand me."

With my revision process, I imagined that I would have to abandon my voice and adopt a more general one. In other words, I thought I had to shave away parts of my writing/teaching identity. But that isn't the whole truth. The reviewers were asking me to shave away the same sort of thing that I had shaved away earlier that summer--I had to shave away the opinion that I know what you and I ought to be doing.