losing the battle

07Jul09

I’ve taken a few weeks off from the archives to write up a very rough draft of one of my chapters. It’s the second week of this break and I still haven’t begun actual writing. Once again, the challenge of reading through these sources is so mammoth that I have determined my general argument and a rough structure of the chapter itself way before I’ve finished reading sources pertinent to that argument and structure. In some ways that’s good; I’ve found that my arguments are more sophisticated when they gradually come into view in light of the material I’m reading than when time’s run out and I have to put something down, contradictory evidence be damned. But it’s frustrating as well; the last thing I want to do right now is read more sources. I just want to dive into the part I like most about doing history: writing it. I’ve attempted to skip as much as I can, stuff where information is repeated or where the information is no longer pertinent to the argument. But there are some things that just can’t be skipped: reports that get to the very heart of my question.

I really need this to be the last week of reading sources; ideally I’d actually start writing by Thursday, but that’s not looking very likely. I’m pretty sure I can bang out a (very) rough draft in about a week’s time. But I just can’t justify spending much more than three weeks on this chapter. The end of my research time is fast approaching and while I do have almost two months left here, I also have a ton of research still to do. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before but one of the difficult things to do in a long-term research trip is manage one’s time. I find it especially difficult because I’m not a morning person, I’m not particularly disciplined, and I’m prone to weeks-long spells of research inactivity. All those issues are tied to the chaos in my personal life and the solutions for any of those problems aren’t clear. For the moment, they’re just features of my life that I have to accept and work around.

The point is that now that I see an actual argument shaping up and now that the end point of my research trip is closer, I feel a strong urgency to get this damn thing written.

Today I started to tackle the biggest remaining file that I have to read. The file is so large that I broke the photographs of it into five separate pdfs; in total, there are about 500 photographs. Quite a few of the photographs aren’t particularly clear, despite my best efforts. (I took the pictures on the highest resolution my camera has and also took two pictures per page, top and bottom. Quite time consuming in the archives, I might add.) This file has a big report in it that I really shouldn’t skip; it’s one of the most detailed essays on  the events in question. But as I started, it just became clear that this was a mammoth task. Some of the handwriting’s difficult to decipher, the ink is faint, the two pictures per page make it very difficult to read. Add to that the typical floridness of the period, where a lot is written and little substance is conveyed but it’s not clear just how little is being said until you’ve read it all. The longer I’ve been working on it, the more I’ve skipped, always writing notes to myself that I’ll come back to this or that section when it comes time to revise. And finally I wrote, “I just cannot do this right now.”

The source has defeated me.

In the long run, I’m not worried about it. I’ll return to this document along with other stuff I’ve set aside when I’m in full-time writing mode. In a way I had not expected, it’s become clear to me why it’s so difficult to write and do research at the same time. I’d been adamant that I wasn’t going to be one of those graduate students who returned from the field with thousands upon thousands of unread photographs, photocopies, or pages of notes. Those students generally took a few (or several) years after archival research to finish their dissertations and, for many reasons, I knew I needed to be done with graduate school as quickly as I could write a good dissertation. And I’m very glad I didn’t wait until I returned to start writing. I’m pretty sure I’m doing better research because I started writing plus I’ve got a sense of where I’m going that I wouldn’t have if I just sat down to my unread sources without a clue in the fall. That being said, though, I was a bit glib about how difficult it would be to balance the two. My time writing is overshadowed by a need to not let the writing take away too much time from research. My time researching is overshadowed by the question about when I’m going to start writing. My time here is not unlimited and each of those tasks is time-consuming and emotionally draining in its own right.

It’s also worth asking whether I must write this chapter right this second. Technically, no. But my advisor is waiting for a chapter and the longer it takes me, the more worried I get about how the advisor sees me. But even more important than that, I’ve gotten to the point where I have to write this chapter now. I’ve read so much of the sources, I’ve thought about it for well over a month. It’s like that feeling when something’s on the tip of your tongue, only that something is an entire chapter. It will drive me bonkers if I don’t get it written.

So write it I will, without this really important source. I’ll have lots of footnotes saying how I have yet to read this, which I’m sure will go down a treat with the advisor. But then again, the advisor has made it clear that structure and argument are more important at this point that complete mastery of the evidence, so I’m not fully in the wrong here. Plus if I mention that it would have taken me several weeks to go through this file properly, I’m pretty sure the advisor will prefer to get written work sooner rather than later.

Sorry for the length.

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3 Responses to “losing the battle”

  1. “I find it especially difficult because I’m not a morning person, I’m not particularly disciplined, and I’m prone to weeks-long spells of research inactivity.”

    These are my exact problems! We differ, though, when it comes to writing. I could research all day and never write, since I absolutely hate writing.

    I too have found that arguments start to coalesce as you write, though, so I guess writing early does have its advantages.

  2. I forgot to say, GOOD LUCK!

  3. Your description of that source makes my head hurt just thinking about it – what a nightmare. I used to have the bad habit of reading absolutely *everything* before I started writing, but I am learning that writing little and often is more efficient and usually results in a tighter argument. It’s definitely not easy to balance the two, though.


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