Tag Archives: Invention

Being a “Real” Writer

comic frame from Hyperbole and a Half depicts a girl typing happily on her computer at 3:17 am
Eerily accurate portrait of myself at this moment.

Ok, so sometimes I’m late to the party.  I just came across this two month old post at Hyperbole and a Half, which hilariously depicts what happens when we try to get our lives together and act like “real adults” (cleaning the house, buying real groceries, going to the bank, etc.), take on way too many responsibilities, start to slip a bit, plummet into a guilt spiral, and wind up indulging in shameful, non-adult habits like surfing the internet at all hours of the night (ahem).

This is a cycle I also tend to go through with my writing.  I’ll have a backlog of projects (blog posts, prospective articles, dissertation chapters, etc.) that I haven’t been able to finish, so I start setting schedules.  Actually, what usually happens first is that I read something like this and feel terrible that I’m not churning out a certain number of pages or staring at a Word document a certain number of hours of the day.  Writing advice columns are toxic for me.  No matter how benign and common sensical that advice might be, my brain interprets it like this:  “There are people out there writing so much more than I am.  I WILL NEVER BE A SERIOUS WRITER OR ACADEMIC OR EVER HAVE A REAL JOB OR BE ABLE TO FEED MYSELF UNTIL I GET MY SHIT TOGETHER!!!1!1!1!!1111 My therapist and I are trying to sort out why this is.

So I then start making promises to myself about how I am going to rise much earlier than my body would like and begin WORKING in all capital letters just like that.  I will get wildly optimistic about what I can accomplish and even–because why?  I’m not sure–start bragging about my ambitious schedule to my advisors:  “Oh yeah, I’m going to have a draft of that chapter I still have to read 20 books for by the end of the month!”  God bless these people.  They seem to know that it’s delusion but indulge me anyway.  So yeah, I’ll plug away at my writing for several hours a day for a few days.  I’ll read and take notes on stuff.  I’ll organize my bibliography and format the margins.  Then eventually I’ll realize that the actual text isn’t really going anywhere and I’ll start to panic.  I realize that my self-imposed deadlines, which were ridiculous to begin with, are going to be blown.   Then I start falling asleep at my computer because my circadian rhythms are all screwed up.  So I sort of say “eff it” and start distracting myself with West Wing reruns.

Eventually, the chapters do get done, but it never EVER looks like the advice dispensed in those writing advice columns.  I always spin my wheels like for weeks on end working in fits and spurts with the best of intentions until I discover the Alpha and Omega of ideas, the idea that unlocks the whole goddamn problem.  Then I’ll spend two to three weeks in a kind of writing fugue state, churning out massive chunks of prose in record time, working 7-8 hours a day and forgetting to eat, waking up in the middle of the night to write some more.  During these periods, I don’t need “motivation.”  I need chemical sedatives.  Last April, an epiphany struck while I was casually reading on my way home from a conference and nearly had a panic attack when I was asked to please turn off my electronic device.  Then I’ll emerge from this process exhausted and worn out.  I’ll send that project off to someone for feedback and then indulge in some World of Warcraft or Spider Solitaire or whatever, since my brain is by that point a wrung out piece of mush.  Then I’ll start that process all over again (it’s conveniently timed for maximum productivity in the months of November/December and April/May, so at least it’s attuned to the academic calendar).

Part of me sort of hates this.  I wish I wrote more like writing advice columns told me to.  I wish I were able to keep a meticulous writing log or commit to writing between the hours of 8 and 12 for more than a few days at a time.  I like to think that I would be even more productive if I did, but it’s not working out, at least not yet.

Part of me also wonders if those bits of advice so ceremoniously handed down are, in fact, little fictions in and of themselves.  Perhaps, instead of the sort of “here’s how I write and how you should too because I get columns published in The Chronicle of Higher Education,” Moses atop the mountain, handing you the keys to the kingdom wisdom nuggets I imagine them to be, they are in fact stories about how the author would like to write.  Perhaps they document how they think other people write, the inflated expectations they impose upon themselves after selectively watching their successful colleagues only during their best, most productive moments.  Or, you know, maybe I just need therapy.

I’m considering the notion of embracing my own process and making it work rather than trying to adopt someone else’s.  That’s a little bit scary, because I have issues with self-trust.  I would start with acknowledging that there is something sort of valid about the way I do things, that I do, in fact, get writing done and that the end product (once that first draft produced during the fugue state rests for a little while and gets a thorough revision or six over the course of the next few months) tends to be good.  All I would like to do is speed it up a little bit.  So instead of shaming myself for being one of those people who requires a moment of divine revelation in order to really get a project going, I can study the conditions under which those epiphanies occur.  They happen when I’m reading, actually.  So I need to read and read widely, even stuff that doesn’t seem to be 100% relevant.  They also happen when I’m not feeling harried and exhausted, so I need to create the conditions for calm to the best of my ability.  And yeah, sometimes that will mean a West Wing episode or two.

But accepting my own process also means setting aside my fantasies about how other, more successful writers do things.  The truth is, it probably isn’t as neat as it looks on the surface.  And it’s worth noting  that I’ve never actually looked at the name of the author of one of these columns and said, “Oh yeah, he wrote that groundbreaking article on the theory of blahdy blah blah blah.”  The world isn’t made up of just good writers and bad writers, successful writers and unsuccessful ones.  Most of us are just writers, puttering along, trying to figure shit out on our own terms, sometimes doing well at it and sometimes doing less well.

It’s the same with being a “real adult.”  Most other people over the age of 22 aren’t doing it nearly as well as you imagine they are.  I’ve long been insecure about not having a “real job” yet, a real job being defined by me as an arrangement in which you show up at a workplace at predefined hours and perform Work (whatever that may be).  Then my sister told me about her “real job” at a major accounting firm, where she sometimes did client work (sometimes late into the night) but also spent an awful lot of time reading ESPN.com.  She now has her own accounting business and recently told me that she does her most boring work on a dual monitor setup so that she can watch Glee on another screen.  She makes a  lot more money than me, too.  My other sister, who works the night shift on the reservations line for a major luxury hotel chain also surfs the internet between calls and is encouraged to bring a book to read to help stay awake.  In other words, I have learned that a big part of having a “real job” is showing up, performing the work that needs to be done but also just being there in case work needs to be done even if what you’re doing at any given moment looks decidedly not like work.

So yeah, I’ll own it.  I’m on fellowship, and my job looks an awful lot like vacation, especially to my father in law (therapy!).  But I can “show up.”  I can create the conditions that are likely to produce good writing.  I can learn more about how I write and potentially turn that knowledge into higher productivity.  And the thing is:  no one’s watching, not my parents, not the people who dispense trophies for being a “real writer/adult,” not the people who write the advice columns, and not even my advisors.  As long as the diss eventually gets done, who really gives a crap how it happened?

Image credit:  Allie Brosh

Revising Tip: Don’t Fall in Love With Every Idea

All good writing is the same.  All bad writing is bad in it’s own…ok, this doesn’t really work.  Writing can be good or bad in any number of ways, but part of the embracing the revision process in all of it’s glories and miseries is figuring out the unique ways in which your first drafts tend to fail.  I continue to be astounded by how much I do actually have to learn about my own writing process.  It seems like it ought to be pretty transparent.  I’m the one doing it after all, but I’m starting to realize that some of the things I *thought* I knew about how I right are actually about how I wish my process worked.

One of the fantasies I have long held about my writing is that I walk into a first draft with a clear idea about what my argument is, when as it turns out, writing the first draft is the invention process that gets me to the argument.  This is why I wind up with introductions that are six pages long and contain 4-6 major ideas.  It reminds me of what someone (I can’t remember who) once wrote about Michael Bay.  One of the myriad reasons why Bay movies tend to suck is that he falls in love with every idea he has, every shot he directs and doesn’t seem to know when to cut stuff out.  So you wind up with bloated robot fights where the audience can’t tell what the hell is going on.

I think I place too much faith in the late-night epiphany, and get too attached to material that might contain a great idea, just not in the context of that particular writing project.  Disciplining myself to cut those intros down to 2 or so pages with one really clear central argument is a little excruciating, but my current projects are all the better for it.

And thinking about writing as a relatively open-ended process helps.  That way I know that those ideas can be turned into projects of their own.

Rabbit Trails

Everyone seems to have a system for writing, and most people are willing to share it.  As most dissertation/thesis, aspiring freelance writers, and budding novelists know, there is a sizable industry devoted to telling you how to write:  what time you should write and for how long, what tools you will need, what alignment the planets ought to be in.  A quick Amazon search for “dissertation writing” spits out the following titles:  the ever famous Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, Writing the Winning Thesis or Dissertation:  A Step-by-Step Guide (what is this “winning,” are there prizes I didn’t know about?  Is it cash?  I hope it’s cash.), Demystifying Dissertation Writing:  A Streamlined Process from Choice to Topic to Final Text. I have yet to find the title that actually interests me, which is How to Write Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day While Playing Online Games and Watching West Wing Reruns. But alas.

Higher education websites are full of advice too, notably from overworked assistant professors describing in horrifying detail how one manages to produce enough published material in order to get a full time job and ultimately receive tenure.  Those articles frankly scare the shit out of me, not only because they speak to the appalling state of the academic job market but because they make me fear that the rest of my life is going to more or less feel like my first year of grad school.  I have always been “good at school” in general.  I always handed in assignments early in college and managed to get through final exams without having to pull any all-nighters (yes, the high school lunch room was MISERABLE for me, thank you for asking).  But in grad school I found myself feeling like I had to Say Something Brilliant in every class I was in, that every term paper I turned in needed to be of publishable quality (before I really had a clue what publishable quality was).  It seemed like everyone else had read Derrida back in like the third grade and had interesting and insightful things to say, and here I was just trying to figure out what “poststructuralist” meant.  I felt way, way behind.  I wondered why they had admitted me in the first place.  And my lack of interesting things to say in class or write in my term papers meant I had a hard time producing anything worth reading.

A switch sort of flipped in my second year when, after reading what most everyone else had been reading (you should read your Derrida, kids, it builds character), I started chasing rabbit trails.  I started reading stuff that wasn’t assigned and exploring subjects that people weren’t talking about and thinking of ways to make them interesting.  That’s how I wound up with a disseration that I feel passionate about and that is getting written pretty quickly.  I get so excited by the discoveries that I actually can write for seven hours a day and forget to eat lunch (and ignore West Wing reruns) when things are going well.  But getting there has also meant deviating from the schedule I established back in college, which was of the YOU MUST WRITE THIS MANY PAGES A DAY AND COMPLETE PROJECTS ACCORDING TO THIS SCHEDULE model that most advice columnists recommend.  I’m all for forcing yourself to write sometimes when you feel like procrastinating, making yourself just get it done when a deadline is looming and you know what you’re going to be saying anyway.

But sometimes procrastination isn’t just procrastination, if you know what I mean.  Sometimes it’s actually invention.  Sometimes there’s that book title that sounds really interesting to you but doesn’t seem to be relevant to whatever you are working on right this minute, so you put it on your “free time” list.  Then you get so exhausted with your current research that you pick it up anyway just to get your mind off of things and finding a new piece of information or a new connection that makes the whole thing come alive again.  Sometimes you fall down a Wikipedia hole during a bout of internet insomnia and wind up finding something significant.  This semester, I decided to take a class in Sociology, which I didn’t need to take and was, in fact, discouraged from taking because it would take time away from my dissertation, just because the course description sounded fascinating to me.  I wound up discovering scholars I had never heard of and encountering a wealth of data and theory that helped me complete both a dissertation chapter and an article in just a couple of months (over 100 pages of solid, final draft quality work, haters).  In other words, you never know where the rabbit trails are going to take you.  (That sounded unbelievably cheesy).

I don’t think we allow ourselves to do that enough, chase whatever wayward interest happens to seize you at the moment and follow it where it leads.  More than that, I don’t think we encourage our students to do that enough.  In a future post, I’ll explain why I structure and schedule writing assignments in a sort of idiosyncratic way, but I’ll just say this here.  Sometimes, the way we teach writing tends encourages a mindset focused on meeting a deadline at all costs (or suffer late penalties), or producing X number of pages, instead of producing vibrant, exciting work.  Structures and schedules are important, otherwise, we probably wouldn’t get much done.  But we ought to teach ourselves and our students to manage deadlines in a way that leaves room for discovery, whether that means taking on fewer projects at a time, or, when it seems important to do so, devoting a day or a week to chasing a rabbit.