writing woes; on academic endurance training

July 12, 2011 at 10:07 pm (Uncategorized)

I had every intention of turning this draft in with all the necessary forms today.  Yet here it is, nearly 6 pm, and I am still working at the speed of molasses.  Normally, at this stage in a writing project, I’m hassled, short-tempered, but on fire, and I can plow through editing like nobody’s business, and make quick judgments about what bits can be cut, which relegated to footnotes, which expanded briefly until I decide “that’ll do” and move on.  But just as there are some days when runners can’t quite get their stride, I guess, there seem to be some days when my brain insists on being mush and I agonize over phrases and translations when I know full well that in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter.  I can’t seem to keep my perspective or my energy.  Normally I would just give the day up and move on to doing something easier like taking notes on something I’ve already read.  Or folding the laundry that has been piling up. But since I’ve gotten myself into a position where I need to go from candidacy to completion in eight months (no, I’m not kidding – I run out of funding in eight months),[*] I can’t take the bait. I just have to keep plowing through this draft, painfully and slowly, fully cognizant that everything I write is adequate at best but not good, and that I am moving too slowly at a time I cannot afford to be moving slowly.

If every day could be an “on” day, I have no doubt I could write another chapter in a month.  But not every day can be an “on” day, I don’t think, not for anybody.  The trick of any kind of long-term professional training, I am beginning to suspect, is not so much for you to produce the best thing you’re capable of.  God knows I felt pressured for writing time in my MA program, but only now do I realize how much time I actually had, compared to now.  And only now is it beginning to dawn on me that sustained stretches of time for writing get more elusive, not more plentiful, as you “succeed” in academia.  It’s not a sprint – it’s a marathon.  And you have to learn to pace yourself, learn to work on “off days,” and discipline yourself to keep writing even when every word is excruciating.  So the goal isn’t exactly “here’s my best work.”  Rather, it’s for you to perform as best you’re able under less than ideal deadlines, given less than fully adequate resources; ideally, your “best you can do under the circumstances” will be pretty alright given the insane amount of specialized training and extensive practice you’ve had.  But it won’t be perfect, and realizing that is one of the points of all this drawn out grad school stuff.

Of course, I could be wrong.  And maybe it varies from project to project.  It’s even possible that my system is still a little out of whack from the four-year-odyssey that was the Milton article I finally sent off earlier this year; certainly most articles don’t progress like that.  (If they do, I’m freakin’ doomed, I tell you.  But the second article I sent out this year was much easier to write and involved a lot less anxiety and self-doubt.  It also did not require a thirteen-page bibliography.  But that’s what you get when you write about a poem as long as Paradise Lost, with such a vast sea of existing scholarship, I guess.)

Well, I have to turn it in today, even if I end up unlocking the department at 11 pm and slipping it into my advisor’s box before I walk back across campus to my car, doubtless feeling strangely let down rather than accomplished.  So I guess I’d best get back to it.

[*] I had about two chapters’ worth done before my prospectus was formally approved, essentially, or this would be simply impossible.


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