Writing is not a luxury | Writing is not the opposite of self-care

This one is going to be a lot of messy thinking aloud about the place of writing and self-care. There will be Latin and Greek! There will be Lorde and Foucault! If you don’t like theory, run very fast in another direction. If you do like theory–this will be a bloggy exemplar of thinking-with, not a tight conclusion, and I’d love to talk to you about it!

Where we got to last time

At the end of my last post, I got to this place:

Reading can seem like a luxury or a chore in academic life. And we need to do our chores, but we can also afford to have our little luxuries, our care of ourselves and of each other.

Research Degree Insiders, Can academic reading be healing?

And then I went on to quote from Audre Lorde’s essay ‘Poetry is not a luxury’, in Sister Outsider (1984), and since then I’ve been thinking more about the idea of ‘luxury’ and writing, and Lorde’s use of the term. The blog is often a place to think out loud, and to think in process. The work of thinking with big complex ideas is rarely done and dusted after just a few thousand words.

Audre Lorde is one of the two lode stars for our modern concepts of ‘self-care’. As she writes in ‘A burst of light: living with cancer’,

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.

Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light (1988), p. 130

For more on how we might use Lorde for ethical self-care, and what I think her call to self-care means, see an earlier post: ‘Self-care for everyone‘.

Adding in Foucault, Plato and Seneca

The other major contributor to the concept of ‘self-care’ is Michel Foucault, particularly in Volume 3 of his History of Sexuality entitled The Care of the Self. For Foucault, the ‘care of the self’ is rather the ‘cultivation of the self’, the attention to developing and governing your own capacity, whether as a precursor to stepping out into your community, or in an individualistic society where such care can only come from the self (Pt 2, ‘The Cultivation of the Self’, pp. 46–47). The purpose of this cultivation of the self (the ‘epimeleia heautou, the cura sui‘) is the purpose of adult education (p. 54). This care activity is not feminized, or soft, or easy.

It is epimeleia that is employed in speaking of the activities of the master of a household, the tasks of the ruler who looks after his subjects, the care that must be given to a sick or wounded patient, or the honors that must be paid to the gods or to the dead. With regard to oneself as well, epimeleia implies a labor.

Michel Foucault, The care of the self, (1986) p. 55

A couple of paragraphs later, Foucault says:

Taking care of oneself is not a rest cure… Around the care of the self, there developed an entire activity of speaking and writing in which the work of oneself on oneself and communication with others were linked together.
Here we touch on one of the most important aspects of this activity devoted to oneself: it constituted, not an exercise in solitude, but a true social practice. (p.55)

Across the History of Sexuality, Foucault returns to a number of Ancient Latin and Greek philosophical texts, to discuss the ‘epimeleia heautou, the cura sui,’ the ‘cultivation of the self’ (p. 48–49): including Alcibiades 1, one of the dialogues between Socrates and another speaker (here a young political hopeful, and previous lover, Alcibiades) attributed to Plato. In this dialogue, Socrates challenges Alcibiades that he does not know enough, and is not enough of an expert in matters of state, to be ready to take on leadership. ‘Self-care’ is used expressly in the context of developing expertise and leadership potential, becoming educated, wise, knowledgeable, intelligent, competent at managing other people (whether in work-teams, in battle, in economics or in politics), health, craftsmanship, effort.

In this dialogue, Socrates uses a number of terms to discuss the ‘care of the self’, including ‘ἐπιμεληθεὶς σαυτοῦ’ (manage/take care of yourself; translated in the Loeb as ‘taking pains over yourself’, in other words: ‘to make an effort to develop yourself’, Foucault calls it ‘cultivation of the self.’) (120d, 127d) or ‘αὐτῶν ἐπιμεληθείημεν’ (managing ourselves) (128d); ‘ὀρθῶς ἐπιμελεῖσθαι’ (correct/right effort or management) (128b). [Similarly ‘Cura sui’: the Latin suggests attention, management, command, medical healing, cultivation or rearing (as in farming).]

The focus turns from the management, effort and expertise of the self to self knowledge in the latter part of the dialogue, playing on the the Delphic motto ‘γνῶθι σαυτόν’ (know thyself) (124b), which Socrates proposes to amend to ”ἰδὲ σαυτόν” (see yourself): ‘ψυχῆς ἐπιμελητέον καὶ εἰς τοῦτο βλεπτέον’ (to take care of the soul and look to that) (132c); through self reflection (looking at one’s self, as in a mirror, in order to see one’s soul/true nature) (132e-133–134e). The dialogue ends with the lovers reunited and Alcibiades planning to continue his education and ‘take pains over justice’ ‘δικαιοσύνης ἐπιμέλεσθαι’ (135e).

And how do Foucault’s ancient sources suggest that we know ourselves, and thus manage ourselves? Foucault addresses this most closely in ‘The Cultivation of the Self 3’ . A daily reflective practice (Seneca De Ira III, 36; Epictetus Discourses III 12,15; Cultivation of the Self, pp.63-69). Seneca reflects in the morning about the day to come, making his plans and to-do lists; and then in the evening when things are quiet, undertakes a review of the day. [NOTE TO SELF, read Seneca and Epictetus]

Such a review, according to the metaphors Seneca and Epictetus invoke, are reminiscent of the surveillance of the self in Foucault’s earlier works like Discipline and Punish: one is judge, witness, security guard, forensic accountant. What is the difference between the early and late works? The difference is in ‘power’.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault depicts, in horrific detail, the ways in which prisons—but also schools, hospitals, factories and families—function as machines of subjugation, because they are created in ways that sustain unequal power dynamics (e.g. pp.200–203). In his later works collected as The History of Sexuality, however, Foucault becomes interested in how we could re-imagine these actions of justice, education, healing, making and being together, in ways that support pleasure, desire, care, healing. What would it mean to live a good life? these later collections ask.

Thus the ‘care of the self’ is the ‘cultivation of the self’, the making better of the self, for the purposes of living well and being well.

Quick recap: self-care is not a bubble bath

Okay, so self-care is looking after yourself when you have cancer. It’s warfare. It’s management, command, medical healing, cultivation. It’s education, expertise and reflexive practice.

As Lorde writes:

I work, I love, I rest, I see and learn. And I report. (p.133)

And this is why Lorde argues that ‘Poetry is not a Luxury’:

As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.

Sister Outsider, p. 25

Much self-care as recommended to us more broadly is about luxury–about buying luxury items and engaging luxury services. And the definition of luxury is something to excess, that is beyond the requirements, it is delightful because it is uneeded. If poetry were a luxury, it would not be ‘a vital necessity of our existence’ (p. 26), alongside ‘action in the now’ (p.27) to enable survival, pleasure, healing, strength. ‘If what we need to dream… is discounted as a luxury,’ Lorde argue, then ‘we give up the future of our worlds’ (p. 28). To consider poetry as a luxury is to discount it. The excess cheapens it, makes it worth less, makes it mean less.

Self-care, Lorde wrote, is ‘necessary’ (Burst of Light, p. 130). She writes of things that are necessary for her to thrive as ‘my givens. Not sureties’. They are not certain but she holds them as established facts, not negotiable or excessive or something we can discount.

Okay, now back to writing

What does all of this have to do with writing?

Well, let’s go back to that quote from A Burst of Light again

I work, I love, I rest, I see and learn. And I report. (p.133)

By her ‘work’ and her ‘report’, Lorde refers to her writing: her lectures, her poetry, essays, and memoir. She also includes her reflective and developmental practice (‘I see and learn’, ”ἰδὲ σαυτόν”), and her physical care for herself as a woman experiencing physical and political pain (‘I rest’, ‘cura sui’ though also ‘cura te ipsum’ (heal thyself, from Luke 4.23 Vulgate translation)), and her situation in relation to community and pleasure (‘I love’, linking here to Socrates and Alcibiades, to Foucault’s discussion in ‘The Cultivation of the Self’ pp. 71ff, or in part 6.3 ‘A new erotics’, and Lorde’s ‘Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power’ in Sister Outsider). So the care or cultivation of body, mind and spirit is integrated, and it is all necessary. In the practice of reflection and action, writing is an integral part.

But what about academic writing? Isn’t that a different thing?

Absolutely not. Particularly if you are doing a PhD, you are literally writing yourself into existence as a scholar. The thesis proves you are an expert, it shows your awareness of your position within the field, it demonstrates that you have grown and developed as a researcher to the level required. Kamler and Thomson have long argued that ‘doctoral writing’ is ‘text work and identity work’ (2007).

We already know that writing time should not be a luxury–it is a necessity. Writing up a thesis isn’t the cherry on the cake, it’s the whole meal.

What we should also recognise is that writing is not the opposite of self-care. In our drafts, reports, reflective journalling, edits and revisions, we are ‘ἐπιμεληθεὶς σαυτοῦ’, making an effort to develop ourselves. We develop expertise and leadership potential, becoming educated, wise, knowledgeable, intelligent, competent at managing projects and teams. This is what we show in a thesis.

And yet also, we might do all of this cultivation work without care for ourselves as humans, as members of a community, as bodies. And so in our writing we must also make space and time to rest, to love. Rest is not the opposite of writing–rest can be a critical distance break, a chance to sleep on it, a recharge. Love is not the opposite of writing, we write for our communities (whether scholarly or social), we write for readers. Writing might even be healing (if we take a reparative strategy of reading and revising our own work, to loop back to where we started from in Can academic reading be healing?)

In other words, for a doctoral scholar, writing is not a luxury, writing is a necessity. Writing is how we get things done in the world, how we make new knowledge, but also how we make space for our new knowledge and share it with out community of scholars.

Our discipline can constrain us or care for us. We can develop practices for writing as exhaustion, or as exertion towards our own cultivation. Our writing can be how we experience and re-create the unequal functioning of power, or it can be how we ‘taste new possibilities and strengths’ (Poetry is not a Luxury, p. 28).

Writing is not a luxury | Writing is not the opposite of self-care

Thank you for reading and thinking alongside me. I really would love to talk to you about these ideas, so join the conversation over on Twitter.


Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 3: The Care of the Self (1986)

Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson. “Rethinking doctoral writing as text work and identity work.” Knowledge production: Research work in interesting times (2007): 166-179.

Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (1984)

Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light and Other Essays (1988)

Plato (attrib.), Alcibiades 1, (Loeb, 1927) DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.plato_philosopher-alcibiades_i.1927_ 127D-E;
and via Perseus at Tufts

Photo by Carli Jeen on Unsplash I searched for ‘self care’, and scrolled through a lot of baths, face masks, candles and yoga images.


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