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Sunday, January 29, 2006

(Re)writing, and it feels so good

Okay, first of all, my schedule this semester officially rocks. I've actually gotten a full night's sleep for the last three nights (and I'm looking forward to a fourth tonight), and I've been getting my reading and course-prep done in a leisurely fashion in the midst of a variety of other things.

Chief among those "other things" is working on that overdue article I think I've mentioned. It's been hanging over my head for a couple of weeks, and I'm still anxious about my ability to get it done in the next few days, but I've finally gotten to the point where working on it isn't actively painful.

I may have said this before, but I'm a terrible writer-from-scratch. I hate the early stages of writing with a firey passion, and although I've developed strategies to help me through them and I don't get "blocked," per se, the first several drafts of everything I write are accomplished only by my forcing myself to write (or revise) X number of pages a day. Doesn't matter if they're drivel (and I cheat, all the time, by plunking in r-e-a-l-l-y long block quotations followed by maybe three sentences of "analysis," just so I can meet my page quota)--the point is that I'm getting some rudimentary thoughts on paper.

But sooner or later, after moving those sentences around, expanding my arguments here and there, and forging some links between paragraphs, I reach the point where I mostly know what I'm trying to say, and the rest of the process is a joy. A qualified joy, since it's still work and it usually winds up taking me longer then I think it should, but past a certain point it's less about creating than it is about rearranging and polishing--or as I like to think of it, puzzle-solving.

I like puzzle-solving. I think that's why my personality tests, all my life long, always suggested that I'd be a great scientist (these personality tests didn't consider aptitude, which would have told them that I'm hopeless in quantitative fields). This worried me when I was younger, when what I really wanted to get were results that told me how creative and imaginative I was--since that's what someone who likes to read and write should be good at, right?--but I've come to realize that what makes me a good reader and a good writer are my patience and my attention to detail. I'm good at finding patterns, worrying over the thing that doesn't seem to fit, untangling syntax or imagery, and then constructing an argument that's maximally clear and coherent.

That's what I like about writing. I love figuring out where the paragraphs go, and what background information a certain audience needs. I love rearranging sentences, fiddling with words to achieve the right rhythm and effect, and making sure that my voice is strong and consistent. I get complimented on my academic writing all the time, and although I suppose that's a pretty left-handed form of praise (let's pause for a moment to think about how bad most academic writing is!)--I know it to be true. It's one of the few things I can confidently say I AM good at.

But I'm the first to admit, these days, that I'm not a "creative" person in the intuitive and fertile way that we expect artists to be. Nothing comes to me fully formed, and everything is a hell of a lot of work. In high school and college I wanted to be a writer--by which I meant a novelist or maybe an essayist--but I never had the gift for spontaneously generating storylines and characters that some of the students in my writing classes did. In fact, I didn't really enjoy coming up with stories for their own sake; they had to be about something larger.

So, I'm a craftsman, not an artist. I'm happy with that. But here's where the analogy breaks down: do we ask the master woodworker to go out and create wood? To grow the trees, harvest them, and make lumber before he gets down to making his fancy lintels or whatever? That's what I feel I'm doing when I start writing--growing the fucking trees. And it's usually about as much fun as watching the forest grow.

link | posted by La Lecturess at 9:05 PM |


Blogger Dr. Virago commented at 10:19 PM~  

Wow, Lecturess, I think I could have written this post in many ways. (Although the initial writing isn't *quite* as painful for me.) But I especially identified with the personality test/puzzle solver bit and not being able to generate stories and characters. Yup. Know what you mean. I kind of gave up on the whole fiction writing thing for the same reasons. But isn't puzzling over the details its own kind of creative work? Isn't the craftsman also an artist?

Btw, I also wanted to give you cheese-fest kudos for the post title's nod to that classic of the slow dance, "Reunited."

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 10:45 PM~  

Yes, you're right, I think, that all academic work (the thinking, the developing of arguments, the refining of those arguments) is creative, imaginative, and artistic--I guess this post is really more about acknowledging how my own understanding of "creativity" has changed and probably become more nuanced than it was when I was younger.

But--even though I *know* poets and novelists, and I know that they work their asses off and that everything doesn't come to them in spontaneous flashes, either, I still do feel that there's a major difference between the kind of intuition and insight that I bring to my work and the kind they bring to theirs. (Or maybe I'm falling prey to that whole Romantic genius thing, despite myself??)

Blogger academic coach commented at 7:48 AM~  

Thank you for this eloquent meditation on your writing process. A gorgeous description -- no wonder your academic writing style is so often praised.

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