Unthinking and Composing
Today, as it seems I always do, I was brought to think about writing as I was trying to DO writing. While this detour tends to produce writing, as in the writing I'm currently doing right here in this reflection space, it tends to not produce the writing I'm am actually trying to do.
In short, my writing anxiety is high right now. I'm trying to write--like really, for real, write--the first chapter of my dissertation. I have been engaging in extreme avoidance behaviors: you know, just like staring at Facebook while wrapped uncomfortably in the corner section of the couch, scrolling through the "recent activity" bar, reading posts and comments of people I don't know, simply dying for someone to post something for me to read. This signals desperation. I know I must do this writing task, I must sit down and simply open the document and just type some stuff. I must. It's not like I don't know what I'm trying to do...there sits in this document a perfectly cogent outline, a do-able plan, one replete even with manageable sections and familiar material. It won't be done. It's not going to happen, no matter how little else I have to do or things I have to make up to avoid it.
(25 minutes in the deodorant aisle at Walgreens. Yep! [you know I have been needing to seriously reconsider my deodorant usage--so: time well spent!]. 48 minutes on the Old Navy website ordering clothes I don't need with money I don't have? Check! One simply can't turn down the offer of 30% off. Did someone write something on Facebook? Well, I just checked and it turns out that most people have real jobs.)
So what. What's the point of turning here to this writing space? Avoidance and irrationality are part of the process. No one, except those reviled by God (to borrow a sentiment from Anne Lamott), writes effortlessly and willingly all the time. So no, nothing surprising here. Normally I can "trick myself" into doing some writing, by opening a new document, or emailing myself, or, as I tried over the weekend, writing on the notepad of my cellphone (the sentences sucked, but hey! I wrote!). I've already given in to this feeling, this feeling that writing is LITERALLY IMPOSSIBLE right now. I really feel that way.
I find that feeling peculiar and interesting as a writing researcher. I know this way of feeling is not unique. Writers get this way and find ways of getting out of it. Moreover, it can't be emphasized enough that I am, of course, at this moment, writing. Words are flowing, and I'm not retching or crying or yelping with terror. I'm rather just doing it, just doing writing. This though, this very thing, this very doing, has yet to persuade me that writing is possible. That thinky-kind of writing, which matters and represents the culmination of a couple of years of study...that writing, that writing that will be judged, evaluated, reviewed, that writing that is supposed to represent me...well, nope. That simply can't be done.
Which brings me to what brought me here to write this, this writing here. When the writing gets tough, I typically go back to that which I've already written. I started my "writing day" today by rereading documents that are already "done." This ritual is fully necessary for me to remind myself that I can in fact write. "See!," I say on the inside, "this writing isn't terrible! And look! It's DONE." So in today's desperation, I turned to the most writing I ever done-did. My comprehensive exams.
I did my exams in September and secretly found them exhilarating (finding any kind of pleasure in this arduous process is not really accepted in my grad culture). I wrote a ton. Aside from prep for oral exams, I had not read these answers at all. But more that just reading them, today I was looking to MINE THEM--I worked hard a few months ago on this writing, this writing is MINE to use as I wish! I was looking for sentences or ideas, angles, insights, which might propel my diss chapter forward. Bits to make writing possible again.
And those gems I did find, I guess. But what's more important to me was to realize how absolutely mind-bending it was to think HOW MUCH WRITING I did in those 9 hours. Day one was around 30 pages, then 22, then 27...and the writing, well...it was kinda GOOD. Sentences soared without self-consciousness, lacking my characteristic twist in construction. I was clear, engaging, and interesting in writing, descriptors I don't often use. This brought on a huge "what-the-hell" moment: the stakes of writing were simply HUGE in those several hours. A year's worth of reading and study and thinking to be represented in a total of 27 hours in one week. GO!
I'm thinking now of the extremely unusual circumstances of writing a comprehensive exam and how extremely productive those circumstances were for me. Can I ever simulate those terms again? Can I will or create a situation that was like that? Maybe not. This is in itself interesting to me. In fact in my dissertation, I'm thinking about all those external forces, materials, spaces that delimit or provoke writing acts. And I'm thinking, you know, even if I set myself the goal of a unconscious, maniac, unthinking session like the one I experienced in exams, I couldn't probably do it. I may never find myself in a position where I had to write, like A LOT, or I would just die. Like seriously. Die. So just writewritewritewrite, and don't really think about it. Just DO IT.
And now I'm thinking of the JUST DO IT-ive-ness of THIS reflection space. No pauses here. Just writing. Moving, from one thing to the next. Put in a title, and write. OK, review your language a LITTLE bit, in case any one else ever reads this. And now this too becomes a shaper, a force, that presses my words out of me and on to this "page." If not this space, then where, would the words come like this...
Aw girlfriend, you have no idea how much I can relate to this feeling of unending not-doing (although in my case I haven't yet had something so high stakes looming)! Your words are lovely. And don't be ashamed of finding exams exhilerating!! We need more positive discourse around these sorts of things in our grad culture.
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Dr. Hannah J. Rule