by Catriona Mills

I'm All Written Out

Posted 7 July 2008 in by Catriona

Finally, for no reason that I can determine, my putative journal article has decided to stop resisting me and has fallen, more or less, into easy lines.

Is that a mixed metaphor? I don’t suppose it matters much here. At any rate, I’ve added today around three thousand words to what’s feeling as though it might be a passable draft.

I’ve come to terms, more or less, with the fluctuations of my writing process.

I know enough now to never resist those moments when everything suddenly falls into place and it’s simply a matter of whether you can get the words on the page before the inspiration passes—but those moments never do come regularly enough.

I know that there’s always a sticky place for me at the beginning of any project: a point where the words simply won’t come and the writing has no cohesion, where I can’t even see the shape of the argument in front of me.

I know, too, that that moment inevitably passes, but that I can never force it to pass. It’s not a sign that I haven’t done enough research; I can feel now when that’s the problem. It’s a different stumbling block—perhaps a form of writer’s block?—and I know neither what causes it nor anyway to get around it other than perseverance. But the perseverance is never a pleasure; it’s pushing against an immovable object or, if I can draw from mythology (or Albert Camus, perhaps) for a moment, endlessly trying to roll a boulder up a cliff face.

But then, the process has shifted so frequently in recent years that I can only assume that this, too, will pass.

I did two good things for my writing, neither of which was initially easy: first my Masters degree, then teaching academic and professional writing.

I don’t think, to be honest, that I was a poor writer before I began teaching those courses. I have a better opinion of my boss than to believe she would continue to hire me if that were the case.

But I’m a significantly better writer now than then.

(Don’t necessarily judge me on the quality of the blog. Unless you think it’s fabulous. In which case, judge away!)

But this is a new challenge. I’m not writing a journal article that feels from the start like a short, self-contained work. I’m boiling down a 17,000-word chapter into a shorter, tighter argument—and it was a pretty tight argument to begin with. (At least, I certainly could have blown it out in several areas, but restrained myself.)

No: it’s not even as simple as that. Because anyone reading that chapter would already have the background material from three preceding chapters and my literature review. (Oh, literature review. How I hated writing you! But we found a way to make you interesting, didn’t we? Thanks to a Jonathan Rose article.) So I’m selecting material from those, as well, where it’s necessary to the argument.

And the thesis itself was big enough; I did keep it as tight as I could, but with over one hundred works by my author, I had to exercise restraint in selection and take the fullest advantage of the word limit.

And, of course, I’m fretting constantly that I’m not providing enough context. That’s the downside to working on an unknown author: it would be much easier to work on an unusual aspect of Dickens’s career, though perhaps not as satisfying. (When was the last time an unknown Dickens work was added to the canon?)

So this has been a new challenge. Not a new challenge in the same sense as live-blogging, but hopefully one that will be more productive in the long run.

Unless there’s some way that I could make a living live-blogging Doctor Who.

I love my current job, but that would be, dare I say it, fantastic.

Share your thoughts [2]

1

Matthew Smith wrote at Jul 8, 03:22 AM

My theory on the above mentioned writers block problem is that your mind needs to process the research and form the necessary links to the information internally. I don’t think this is a necessarily conscious process but I also think it requires a certain amount of effort turning things over as you think about them so that your subconscious brain gets the idea that maybe it should hurry up and do something. I often just have to sit down and write a few pages of gibberish before I start to get some ideas and then I write them down too and then I usually get interrupted and don’t get back to until the next day by which time the ideas seem to have solidified. Having said that, I’m not studying at an acclaimed higher education institution so I often worry that my good results are due to a lack of brightness in my peers rather than my own efforts.

2

Catriona wrote at Jul 8, 03:49 AM

It’s a good theory, but it’s not that. One thing the Ph.D. has taught me is when to sense that I’m ready to write. That sounds a little airy-fairy, but it’s true: I can tell these days when the research has sparked enough ideas to start putting them down on paper. That’s when the problems start.

But then, I write early and write often. (I’m a Beethoven or a Mozart, but I can’t remember which is which, which is why I no longer use that example in lectures: oddly, “There’re two kinds of writers, but I can’t remember which is which, so you’ll just have to take my word for it” doesn’t fill the students with confidence.)

So I don’t think it’s my subconscious telling me to hurry up—my subconscious knows what’s what, now—but it could well be that this is part of the process: that my brain needs to stare at a blank page for a couple of days, even after it’s ready to write.

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