Saturday, October 24, 2015

How I Want to Write

I’m going to skip the normal “It’s been so long since I was here”/”I promise to be here more frequently” beginnings that my previous two posts started with. I’m not even going to go back and edit that sentence to not end with a preposition (or that one to not contain a split infinitive). Because I’m trying something new, you see. Something where this blog is the place where I can take a break from being super hard on myself about…well, about living up to other people’s expectations. Or maybe that’s not what I mean. What I think I mean is, this is writing for me. Not for my excellent committee, not for fellowship applications, not for submitting an article, just for me to work through my process of writing for all those other circumstances.

As may be apparent from the above paragraph, I’ve been feeling a little stuck and overwhelmed recently. I have a complete draft of Chapter One, which I have to keep reminding myself is an impressive feat and a Big Deal about which I should feel proud, and am about 60% (yes, I did just make that number up – what’re you gonna do about it?) through a draft of Chapter Two. I unfortunately got a bit blocked in my progress on Chapter Two at the beginning of the month, while working furiously on fellowship applications and traveling to Toronto for an amazing time at the BABEL conference, the latter of which left me exhilarated but not specifically about my chapter, and both of which left me exhausted. Earlier this week, I went through the last milestone my program offers before filing and graduation: the First Chapter Meeting. The meeting is designed to be an opportunity for your committee members (primarily the non-chair members, as, at this point, your chair has already offered you a great deal of feedback) to give you their thoughts and feedback on the current version of your first chapter. Mine was, as I expected from my amazing committee members (I really couldn’t ask for a more supportive, thoughtful, insightful committee, and I’m not just saying that because they might read this), incredibly helpful. And yet, my brain’s reaction to all of their good advice (flesh this out more, maybe move that somewhere else, think about incorporating this idea, you should read that author) was to say, loudly, and, I can only imagine, while stomping its foot and pouting, “No!” That’s not to say that my brain didn’t like their advice. My brain was well aware of how sound their advice was. But something in my brain decided that no more dissertation work, whether creation of new work, or, more importantly, revision of extant work, was going to happen this week. And so here I am on the blog, taking a dissertation break, and also trying to figure out why it is that my brain is so resistant to doing dissertation work – especially revision – right now.

Happily, while my brain has been throwing a dissertation tantrum, I’ve had the treat in the past two weeks of reading one of Punctum Books’ newest publications: How We Write, edited by Suzanne Conklin Akbari. This little book that has been keeping me such good company on the bus recently is a collection of short essays, by graduate students, early-career professors, and established academics, about the actual (not ideal) process by which they write. One of the primary gratifying aspects of reading the book has been to see that, of course, I am not the only person who does not write according to some ideal schedule. In fact, the book was re-assuring in reminding me that virtually no-one does. While we all may have those wonderful days in which we sit down exactly when we said we were going to, and sit, distraction-free, until the number of words/pages/sentences/thoughts we’ve promised ourselves are done, the other types of days are far more common. And that’s alright, because the writing still gets done, even if it’s in five-minute bursts in between office hours and section, or in notes scribbled down after a particularly thoughtful shower, or in six-hour jags where you lock yourself in your office long after everyone else has left campus. I’m still not entirely sure how I could accurately describe the way I write. I do have some rituals that help – an apartment to myself, a good jazz or classical playlist on the speakers, a scented candle, and a cup of tea tend to do the trick – but I’m also perfectly able to write productively without those. But the primary thing I know about the way I write right now, and what I want to not be the case, is that I am, and always have been, extremely resistant to the entire revision process.

I do not like going back over my work. Never have. In elementary school, my mom fought hard to remind me just to take five minutes to check my answers on tests before handing them in. She eventually won that battle, but the same process for writing is much worse for me. Several of the authors in How We Write discussed a process of throwing words, not even formed into complete sentences, into a document or onto the page, and then laboriously cutting, trimming, and arranging. That’s not me. Each sentence is carefully thought out before I begin typing, constructed exactly the way I want it. I’ve been told that my authorial voice is strong – people who know me can very clearly identify me as the author of most things I write, from Facebook posts to conference papers – and I’ve always embraced that as a compliment. I like the fact that my writing stands out as mine – it makes me feel like a beloved author, that someone someday could say to their friend, student, or colleague, “Wow, your writing really reminds me of Rachel L-E’s!” Which is all why I hate going back and changing it, especially at someone else’s suggestion. Where has my voice gone, then? I ask myself. For instance, I can basically guarantee you that I will finish “drafting” this blog post, put it down for a bit, then read through it once for typos, grammar errors, or any egregiously awkward sentences, and then post it. That will be it. For me, re-structuring work I have done, excising parts, re-arranging ideas, makes me feel physically uncomfortable, like I’m itching all over. But I know I need to get better at it.

So I think I’ll end this blog post there – with the thought that, at least for today, the main part of my answer to today’s title – How I Want to Write – is that I want to get better at revising. I want to be able to return to my work, and to be able to see it as something I can still change, not something sacred and complete and untouchable, minus a few proofreading changes here and there. Any advice on that would be more than welcome in the comments. I’ll try to get a post up in the next week or so about the panic over “I’ll never have read enough!,” and ‘til then, I’ll be thinking about revising – hopefully, no calamine lotion required.