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Wednesday, June 01, 2005

On writing well, badly, and/or with great resentment

I was going to write a bit about writing last night, after I'd successfully turned out that day's three pages, but then I made myself a cocktail and then I called George Washington Boyfriend--and then the drink was drunk and I was tired and I went to bed. So I'll start this now, maybe interrupting it to work on my diss, and post it when I'm done.

If you're a literature scholar--and probably if you're a scholar in just about any field other than the sciences--you get a lot of comments like, "Huh. A Ph.D. in English? You must really like to read." Not always spoken but usually assumed is the second part, ". . . and you must really like to write." And it's true that I like to read, and that I still consider it a leisure activity even thought it's also my primary professional activity; I have friends in corporate jobs (some of them former English majors) who bemoan the fact that they never read now, because "after 11 hours at the office, the last thing I want to do is read." And I understand this in theory, but not really in practice: even when I was studying for my orals, and spending a strict eight hours a day, seven days a week, reading and taking notes, the first thing I wanted to do, the thing I looked forward to most, was the hour or two I allowed myself at the end of the day to read The New Yorker.

But my relationship to writing is more complicated. I think there was a time when I would have said that I loved it--that period in junior high, high school and early college when I was convinced that I was going to become a novelist--but it's hard for me to recapture that feeling now, and I wonder whether that isn't because I learned, somewhere along the line, that writing is actually really hard. When you're 14, you just want to tell a story, and everything you do is new and interesting and you learn a lot about both writing and yourself along the way. But in college I discovered that I was really crappy at plotting, and that I didn't enjoy it much--I was a better writer, stylistically, than most of the people in my writing seminars, but I kinda resented having to create a plot around whatever issue or idea I wanted to explore. (At best, this led to Early Woody Allenish stories in which characters sat around talking amusingly and semi-profoundly about interesting stuff. At worst . . . well, see Late Woody Allen.) I also discovered that I couldn't write without the structured environment of a class or a deadline; writing just wasn't . . . fun, really, in the way it had been when I was younger.

Eventually I went to graduate school and transformed myself into an academic writer, and the medium is definitely a better one for me: I like order and I enjoy putting all the pieces of an argument in place and structuring a work so that it is maximally clear and persuasive. The problem is that it still isn't really fun, not in the beginning stages. Part of this is because I think as I write, and only slowly figure out what I want to say as I try to say it. (Example: I write a sentence about something--maybe it's a summary of some historical event, or maybe it's an argument about how a piece of literature works. Then I sit there and look at that sentence, thinking, "is this what I mean? Is this true? What if I try it this way . . ." And I'll rewrite it and rewrite it, for rhythm, for meaning, whatever.

Now, this is an okay strategy for a short project, and I'll write a five-page piece really slowly, sentence by sentence, and then revise the whole thing a couple of times. But when it comes to a 50-page chapter? When I have no initial idea of what I want to say? There's no hope. So all I can do is set myself a strict daily page limit, and make myself meet it. What comes out is complete trash, but it's a way of keeping myself thinking and working through material. At a minimum, it ensures that there are placeholders for interesting passages and issues; paragraphs that, when I see them, will jog my memory and allow me to make connections across a large body of matter.

After I get up to 40 or 50 pages and have run through all the stuff I think I want to cover, I spend a week or two shaping that material on the computer, so it's not completely awful and repetitive and so there's the begining of some kind of shape. THEN the (relatively) fun stuff begins: I print it out and revise on a hard copy for several days. Input changes, print out new version, revise--lather, rinse, repeat. Once I start to have a sense of where things are going, and I can really start to work on the architecture and style of the piece, I start to enjoy myself, often quite a lot--but honestly? Never as much as when it's all done, and gleaming and beautiful, and I can sit back and congratulate myself.

I'm told that I'm a good writer, and I certainly take pride in the finished product, but I wonder whether it wouldn't be more accurate to say that I'm a good reviser; to work, I need something to work with. (Incidentally--I remember being a freshman in college, reading Ulysses, and learning that according to the Catholic Church the notion of a creation ex nihilo is a heresy: nothing comes from nothing. And I remember thinking, damn! That's me and my writing all over. And yes, with the election of Benedict XVI, it's a relief to have the RCC behind me on something.)

I've got more to say about writing and resentment, but speaking of both, I've got to return to my chapter--only one page so far today, and I'm going out for drinks tonight with the former Miss D. And after THAT, dear reader, I won't be good for very much in the writing department.

link | posted by La Lecturess at 5:18 PM |


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