writing versus writing about writing

February 1, 2012 at 10:19 pm (Uncategorized)

With about five years of experience teaching writing now, on top of another five tutoring, I suppose that I’m (publicly at least) one of those  who spends a great deal of time loudly proclaiming not just the necessity but also the value of revision, revision, revision.

But truth be told, I dread it.  And for some reason, the longer I’ve been hanging around academia, the worse I feel my writing’s gotten. It’s harder to get started, harder to revise, harder to feel like “it’s done enough to let go of.”  That may have to do with how much higher the stakes have gotten, though, or maybe I just have a keener sense for the awfulness of my earlier drafts — where a few years ago I was more likely to be all caught up in the rush of a new idea, now I’m spending more time fine-tuning the nuances, and frankly that is just not as much fun as sitting down all excited to work through a knotty problem in a fresh (though messy) burst of prose.

Part of the problem is likely also that I got away with murder as a undergrad and MA student.  I had ideas, and I was a decent writer, and I didn’t complain a lot, so I wrote “well enough” and got my grade and moved on.  And in fact, most of my PhD coursework was like that too.  I don’t think I realized how much I had been getting away with until I got my first official “blind peer review” comments back and was horrified to see this prose I had worked on for three years called “stylistically infelicitous.”

I’m only now really seeing how so much of my previous work has been “me being in a hurry.”  It was good enough for what it was, but I lacked the stamina, or the attention span, or the guts, or the time, or something, for the sort of deep, wholesale, engaged revision that I am always encouraging in my students. Needless to say, the dissertation process is feeling like an especially ornerous burden since I still have that deadline thing (chapter two is due by x day) *but also* can’t just say “great, that’s got to be done then because I’ve turned it in, so it will just have to do.”  I have to *keep on living with it.*  And it’s not the topic I’m sick of – I’m as fascinated, confused, inspired, and frustrated by medieval soul-and-body works as ever — it’s my own prose I can’t stand to read anymore.

And part of that may be that I just finished up my first foray into the job market (with predictable results – I don’t have a job) and I am sick to death of *talking about* this project. Or maybe just sick to death of having one-sided conversations about it.  Or, to be even more precise, sick to death of trying to write tightly focused, succinct, clear, yet adequately descriptive and interesting paragraphs about it.  Especially since I am not at all sure I’m not going to change my mind about every single claim in chapter one by the time I’m finished with chapter four.

Anyway, I turned in what should be my last application of the funding/job market season this morning (or at least the last one that requires me to try to sound smart about my research project – I will doubtless apply for whatever dregs of funding are left locally for those poor sods in the humanities who decide to spend another year on their dissertations rather than rush to complete a project and graduate in the summer just to go nowhere).  I think I halfway expected that when I got home from office hours this afternoon, I would feel energized –  it’s now time to *stop talking about the damned thing* and actually *get back to work on the damned thing.*

So I was dismayed to sit down, open my “note/thought dump” file on Vercelli Homily IV, and feel completely exhausted and tapped out.  And then I was ashamed that I spent the two quiet hours I had before my offspring got home looking at pictures on facebook instead of working on the damned dissertation.

I don’t have high hopes for this morning’s application being in my favor – it’s terribly competitive and I did not get nearly enough feedback on the various bits of prose that they wanted (I had to write a 100 word dissertation abstract, then a 100 word interdisciplinary statement, and then a 1000 word dissertation description and timeline, and that’s in addition to submitting the approved prospectus and copies of all approved chapters, which in my case amounted to a single chapter). I am afraid I didn’t look especially great on paper this go-round (in my partial defense, I don’t think anyone on my committee ever gave any thought to approving the dissertation in bits and pieces, or to my progressing in some orderly manner by writing a chapter, having it stamped approved, and then moving on to the next. They seem to expect me to write like I’ve been writing, with some chunks having footnotes saying things like “this is complicated by x that I will discuss in chapter three at which point this whole section might just move to chapter three, so I haven’t developed all the possibilities on page 25 as thoroughly as I plan to yet”.  But the people with the money demanded a discussion of which chapters were “approved” so I had to come up with something.)

But I’m hoping that as a result of all this “nutshelling” I’ve been doing since September, I won’t have to work quite as hard on applications next go-round.  And I’m hoping that I will see my way to making some more progress on this thing soon instead of just summarizing it.  And I hope that I never have to write another 100-word summary of my dissertation, ugh.

And what I’m really hoping for is that I can spend more time being bravely uncertain about where it’s going to end up instead of pretending that I know where it’s going to end up. I was starting to scare myself in some of these statements and summaries, because while it was pretty cool to come up with a description of this messy thing spanning 800 years of literature and have that description be something that could fit on a post-it note, it ended up sounding a lot more confident than I really feel about what I’m claiming are the main ideas.  That’s a place I’ve always been a bit wary of – certainty in the research process strikes me as hubristic. I’m afraid I’m tempting fate, and I will discover some marginalia next week that invalidates everything I’ve written so far.

It will be nice to be uncertain again.  (It would be nicer to have a job and/or any clue about how I will feed myself or my offspring next year, but for now uncertainty will do.)

Just for fun (heh), here’s the 100-word version.  It’s not very good, but it’s done, and that’s what I had by the deadline.  Please don’t hold me to it.

English soul-and-body addresses first appear in Anglo-Saxon homilies and gradually metamorphose into the Middle English genre of the debate poem.  My project examines their portrayals of the relationships between soul and body, human and angel, and Christ and humanity, tracing the gradual development in vernacular religious literature of the concept of inwit, or conscience in its modern, morally weighted sense.  This concept finds full literary expression in early modernity with Milton’s Paradise Lost, which marks a crucial cultural shift during which angels lose their status as mediators between divinity and humanity and rational conscience becomes integral to Christian religious experience.



  1. Karma said,

    See, eight hours later I can pick it apart – what in the hell does the shift from address to debate have to do with anything that follows? So what about the portrayals of soul-body relations in Old English or Middle English literature? How is anybody to make sense of this? Who invented this stupid process anyway?

  2. Kristi J. Castleberry said,

    Thanks for posting this! I’ve been struggling with very similar feelings, and I think you express the reasons well. I found myself nodding through the whole post. I guess it’s the growing pains of dissertating. Also, I enjoyed your abstract. I love those debate poems!

  3. Karma said,

    Hey, misery loves company! so I’m glad to hear I’m not alone (I mean, I know we’re not alone, and aware on an intellectual level that this is a common experience, but sometimes I forget when I am convinced that this whole thing is hopeless… so I guess I’m just saying it’s nice to be reminded of that). I love those debate poems too, and I have been hell-bent on getting the Old English works (and critical work) into more productive conversation with the Middle English works (and critical work), but it has proven to be incredibly hard to cover all this ground and trace the operative ontology and models for soul and self, and I despair of ever getting it really sorted out. I am trying to now to figure out how to get it sorted out “well enough” to just finish, but now I feel lame/guilty about “settling.” Haha… it’s a nasty cycle.

    Good luck to you!

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