Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Self Downing: My Story

Sometimes, our self downing lives in the shadows of our distant past. I will share part of my story with you.

I love writing. I love nearly everything about this most human, inspiriting, creative method of exploring our lives and the universe.I have loved writing for so long that sometimes I forget that I once hated it. Once, writing was the source of a great deal of humiliation, pain, and profound shame.

In elementary school I was referred to a tutor for “extra help” for terrible handwriting. In the days before computers, having poor handwriting meant you were viewed as a bad writer, and often, as not very bright. For many years I associated writing with failure. It was the most basic task of one’s education, and I was terrible at it. I was, by age 10, I believed, a failure. I know what it is like to believe you cannot write, and to be utterly humiliated by this realization. I know what it is like to feel like your future is not very bright due to the inability to write. For many of us, it is very old, this dread of writing. For some of us, it is newer, more current, yet equally painful, terrifying. For those without tenure, it can be an all encompassing dread, a fear of being “found out”, a fear of not making it

But, that can change.

As a teenager, I fell in love with poetry and writing. I had started to accept my poor handwriting and learned to type. I learned that I had things to say through writing, and that I could learn new forms and structures that were thrilling, challenging, and full of possibilities. I learned, slowly, to love to write. Coming to love writing, in spite of its pains and frustrations, was one of the most healing processes in my life.

Fast forward a decade; it was time for graduate school. My love of writing and my desire to “help” were in conflict. I was torn between graduate work in creative writing or social work. So torn, in fact, that a coin flip, and a relationship, decided my fate. I went into social work.

For the several years after my MSW I worked as a social worker and therapist. I developed a strength based approach to helping others that was informed by various theoretical lenses and tools. I studied cognitive behavioral methods and fused these with more humanistic, person centered approaches to treatment. This work actually foreshadowed the approach I adopted for one of my books, Social Work Practice with Men at Risk (Columbia University Press, 2010), and forms a large part of my skill set as a coach.

And all the while-there was writing. My final master's paper explored the congruence between poetry therapy and social work practice. I read every article up until that point in the Journal of Poetry Therapy, wondering if I would ever be able to publish in that journal.

While I practiced social work, I continued to write; I wrote poetry, I journaled-yet it wasn't enough. I wanted to make writing a central part of my work's life. I wanted to write about social work. I wanted to write about writing. I wanted to write about writing as tool of social work practice and research!  While directing a large and growing children’s mental health program and managing a small private practice with firemen and police in Philadelphia, I started my doctorate. I took a job at a community college while still in school in 1998.

In 2000, I started on the tenure track at Colorado State University and found that my love of writing served me well. I began to systematically deconstruct the “rules” of writing academic articles. I not only wrote them, but I wanted to “get” them, to “grok” them. I already had a daily writing practice, so used the methods of writing productivity that I had learned and developed and applied them to my academic writing.  By the end of the first year, I had almost enough articles needed for tenure and promotion.

Yet, in spite of how well I was doing, I felt the pain of failing to write and publish all around me. A couple of my new friends, mostly senior assistant professors, were not doing as well. If they did not increase their writing productivity, they were not going to get tenure. While junior in age and in time in higher education, I began to take on a quasi-mentorship role with two faculty. Afraid of inadvertently harming their chances, I began to systematically study what had been written on scholarly writing and publishing. I read everything I could. I began to view helping other faculty write and publish as a synthesis of my clinical social work skills and my love and knowledge of writing. It felt right (write :)). It felt like I was finding my calling. Both got tenure- I was hooked.

120 plus articles and over 15 books later; that little kid who shed many a tear over writing is now a slightly bigger kid who loves helping others to write, publish and thrive. The Journal of Poetry Therapy? I am pretty sure I have published in that journal more than anyone else. As write that, and I feel tears coming on; honest.

I have worked with many dozens of faculty and doctoral students as a mentor and coach, helping them increase their scholarly productivity through the methods I have learned, adopted and created. In 2007, I published the book, Practical Tips for Publishing Scholarly Articles, which has been used by thousands of doctoral student and scholars. I continue to write about writing, develop new methods, and coach doctoral students and faculty. I love this part of my work. I love being able to be a small part of empowering others to become the scholars they wish to be. I love helping people to write and publish work that gives them meaning and joy, and to sometimes be a small, small part of their doing powerful, important, or just fun and cool work! Mostly, I love helping people grow and change, to heal those wounds of the distant and not so distant past.

If you have similar pains, I urge you to share them. Even more, I urge you to transcend them.  This is my invitation, my challenge, to you. Find support on your journey. Find someone you trust. Do it. Now. Today. I don’t care if it is with me or not (although we would have fun!!). I just want you to fly.


  1. Thank you for sharing your journey!

    1. It is the least I can do; you have shared so much of yours :)

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks Connie..I hope your writing is going well.

  3. this is beautiful! thanks for inspiring

  4. Thank you Vina. If anyone know YOUR story and how much you do at your university, they would be inspired by you. We need to get back to our co-constructed autoethnography soon!!

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  6. How Inspiring! Thank you for sharing.