Thursday, June 12, 2014

Clumsy incompetence is just part of my process

I remember how hard it was to write my first dissertation chapter--and, worse, how incomprehensible it seemed that it should be so hard: I'd read hundreds of academic book chapters! I'd written a dozen 20-page seminar papers! I knew what a chapter-length scholarly argument looked like, and I could confidently tell you which ones were stronger and which ones were weaker, and why. I knew all the kinds of moves a book chapter might make. But I couldn't apply that knowledge to my own writing.

To say that my advisor wasn't helpful in navigating that particular psychodrama would be an understatement; our relationship came close to collapsing over that chapter. But after I'd produced a draft that was firing on a few of its cylinders, she gave me some of the most useful writing advice I've ever received: It's time to move on, she said. Start your second chapter. You can return to this one later.

I didn't like that advice. I'd been living inside that chapter for a long time, and I couldn't bear the idea of leaving it messy and half-formed, especially when it finally seemed to be getting somewhere. But I did as she said. And for whatever reason, my second chapter just came: it wound up being the longest and maybe the meatiest of my dissertation chapters, but the easiest of the four to write. My remaining chapters were still a frustrating, difficult slog, but neither was as hard as the first. The difference, I think, was that while I was still struggling with ideas, argument, and organization, once I'd written one good chapter, the form itself no longer felt like an obstacle. I'd made it my own.

The experience taught me that the point of writing a dissertation chapter is, on some level, to learn how to write a dissertation chapter. And you don't learn by tinkering endlessly with the same chapter--you learn by writing other chapters. The same is true for every literary form I can think of, from the tweet to the novel. (Most "first novels," after all, aren't the first novel the author wrote, but the first one she got published.) Reading a lot of works in a given genre is crucial, but you only learn how to inhabit a form by inhabiting it. Repeatedly.

But though I tell my students the kind of things I've just said here--that the point of writing a research paper is to learn how to write a research paper; that you can't master a form without first doing it badly--that doesn't mean I've fully learned my own lessons.

Recently, I was invited to write something on spec for a general-interest publication. It was a topic comfortably within my wheelhouse, for a publication I've subscribed to for years. I was excited by the opportunity and thought I could probably do a pretty good job. But I'm telling you: it was the hardest thing I've written in ages--maybe the hardest thing I've written since that first dissertation chapter. As with my dissertation, the problem was mostly one of form (or, more accurately, with negotiating the relationship between self and form). I didn't know who I was writing as, or to whom, or why. The editors were kind enough to read two significantly different versions of my essay over a couple of months, but in the end decided it wasn't the right fit for them.

That was disappointing, but still useful. Useful as a reminder that when I assign my M.A. students to write a 750-word book review, no matter how many they've read, most are not quite going to get it on the first go-round. Useful because though I frequently tell others that writing isn't magic, I'm prey to the same belief that, if I can't do something the first time, I probably don't have the ability to do it at all. And useful because now I guess I have something new to work on.


Withywindle said...

"Quick, Hermione, the paper-writing spell!"


The quill lifted itself from the table, hesitated a moment, and then began to scribble across the blank page.

"Hermione, you're daft! That's your handwriting."

"Sorry. Bloviator!"

"Much better now. Think Snape will catch on?"

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

While reading a lot is necessary for becoming a good writer, it is delusional to expect that it would be sufficient. Shit, I can listen to Mozart and get that the music is fucken awesome, but I couldn't construct the simplest possible new melody myself. The only way to get good at writing is to write a lot, and get feedback on your writing from an effective editor (doesn't need to be a professional editor; could be a mentor, colleague, or whoever).