writing struggles


I’m working on another chapter of the dissertation at the moment. This is my second(-ish) pass at the material, and it’s just not coming together. Writing it is like pulling teeth, which is unusual for me. Although I’ve had many lulls in my dissertation writing, my lapses are usually depression-related, meaning that I struggle to work at all. The problem I’m having now is of a different order (although, as with everything in my life, depression is still the emotional backdrop).

I want to be working. I want to be working on this chapter. I even have a deadline. I’m supposed to present this work at a workshop. The workshop critiques pre-circulated papers, so this cannot be a collection of ideas pasted together for a 20 minute talk. (I’ll get to the scheduling of this workshop in a minute.) In other words, I have incentives to finish this piece. Also, this is a crucial chapter, one that does the most significant work of proving the argument of the dissertation. I want to be writing this thing.

But every time I sit down, very little gets done. I took all of Christmas off and only got back to work yesterday. But I was determined to work. What happened? I wrote maybe all of ten sentences. Today? Much the same.

This is unusual. Normally, when I’m writing a chapter, I get words down pretty quickly. I don’t struggle to string words together. I’m more than happy to just get the ideas down on paper and then shape them later. But not this time.

The key issue here is “getting ideas down on paper,” and here is where I’m stuck. I don’t have the ideas in the form they need to be for me to work quickly. I started writing too early.

To be clear, I generally don’t distinguish between (1) reading sources and taking notes; and (2) writing a chapter. It’s all “writing” to me. But for this post, “writing” is the latter, actually getting a chapter down on paper.

I’ve written before about how I’m not ready to write until I’m ready, by which I mean until I’ve read enough sources carefully enough that I have a clear sense of the argument and the stages required to set up and then prove the argument. Once that’s clear in my mind, then I can start writing, even if I haven’t read all the sources. (That last point is crucial: I’m not aiming for reading every scrap of document I have, just enough so that I have a clear and detailed grasp of the events, the players, the crucial moments, as well as a detailed sense of how to build the argument.) Once I know what’s going on, I can generally bang out a draft in a week or two.

I’ve also written before about how this has caused problems with my advisor who, without bothering to ask me how I work, where I am with my sources, or even discussing work/writing methods, decided that I should be writing in large chunks of prose daily. (Again, even without asking me whether I’d read the sources required for any given chapter, which I still haven’t done for some of the chapters.)

I haven’t backed down from my position on this. I know when it is that I should start writing a couple thousand words a day, and that’s when I know what the fuck is going on. But this workshop deadline put a cramp in things. I was in contact with the professor running this seminar over the summer, and it was my understanding that I’d present sometime during the spring. (No date was decided, and I’m not even sure that a month was named.) But then at the beginning of December, this professor decided that my work must be paired with the work of someone else, who has a research trip planned that would force me to present this month, initially in early January.

And so I started trying to write the chapter. It’s been a disaster. It turns out, funny enough, that in fact I cannot just start writing when I don’t know what I’m writing about. It turns out that I started writing way too early and have subsequently sat around spinning my wheels. Too panicked about the deadline to stop writing and go back to the slow and laborious work of reading through hundreds of pages of handwritten government files and newspaper articles, but too ignorant of the events, the story, and the politics to write the damn thing. (I should also note that this chapter is particularly complicated; it looks at three discrete events that happen over the course of forty years, twenty years between each event. My source base for this chapter is also unfortunately thin in ways that weren’t obvious until I was back from the archives, especially for the first two events. I have lots of “material,” but that material isn’t as revealing as I’d hoped. And the secondary literature that helps establish the political background crucial to the argument doesn’t really exist, something else I didn’t realize in the archives. All of which is to say that this chapter was always going to be a challenge, but it’s made much worse by the fact that I started writing too soon.)

I don’t really disagree with the idea that we should start writing before we’re ready or that we should write every day. But what that looks like varies widely. When I’m not laid low with crippling depression, I do work daily. And I call that work “writing” because that’s what it’s in service of. (Here, I’m following some of Paul Silvia’s advice in How to Write a Lot, see pgs. 18-19.) It would have been great if I’d read all of my sources during my time in the archives, rather than grabbing them (via digital camera) and then reading only those relevant to the chapters I wrote during the time. But, in the absence of any guidance and with a project where the chapters don’t really relate to each other, that’s what happened. Until all of the chapters are drafted, each chapter will require a significant outlay of time before I can bang out a chapter. And, given what I’ve learned with this chapter, trying to rush that process only drags things out further.

As for the workshop, I told the professor that early January wasn’t going to work. I suggested February. The professor emailed me today, saying that the person whose work mine absolutely must be paired with has until the end of the month now. Given that this is a precirculated gig, the end of the month really means the 20th, and it’s just not going to happen. I don’t really know how I’m going to handle the situation. I don’t want to be ungrateful or bitchy, but I also won’t turn out shoddy work that’s going to take as much time to fix as it took to fuck up.


One Response to “writing struggles”

  1. I constantly spent my half an hour to read this webpage’s content all the time along with a cup of coffee.

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