Thursday, July 15, 2010

Writing: students, listen to the voice of experience

No, I don't mean me. Students never get (or respond to) good advice from their teachers!

But they might listen to a more experienced student (one writing a dissertation, perhaps) who has seen it all and is willing to tell uncomfortable truths about her writing life. Meet Tanya L. Roth:

The truth is that I am a perfectionist with my work. Or, as I like to think of it – I’m a recovering perfectionist, as this is something I’ve been working to overcome for the last five years. Perfectionism, as it turns out, gets in the way of things more than it actually helps. (As Lamott says, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor…and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” Also, “perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force.” (Lamott, 28).)

In my experience, five years of graduate school teaches you a lot about your writing habits, your strengths, and your weaknesses. I’ve learned that revisions are my bread and butter, and that facing the blank page is one of my greatest challenges (see: perfectionist tendencies). My solution? Conquer the Blank Page.

I like to think I’ve gotten very good at drafting. I can eliminate the blank page in fairly short order and transfer something from my brain to the screen. That something tends to be the worst writing you have ever seen, but as it turns out, it helps me get started. In a couple of hours, I can pour out about ten to fifteen double-spaced pages of the very early thoughts on a chapter topic. I do this, of course, by simply writing.

There’s no rhyme or reason to it. It’s not quite freewriting (I pay attention to grammar and spelling and all that). In a sense, it’s stream of consciousness, but some of it will appear more Faulkneresque while other parts sound like I’m actually trying to write a real academic piece. I don’t delete anything. I do tend to write “this is crap” at least once or twice every two pages, and the general tone tends to be “here’s what I’m thinking I need to do in this chapter…” – as if I’m talking to my best friend.

Before I know it, I have something. Something I can create an outline from and begin to make into a real chapter. Once I have a rough outline – which will change, and become more detailed as I continue to write – I divide the chapter into sections. Sections, you see, are far more mentally (and physically) manageable to work with than the prospect of an entire chapter.

Lynn Hunt wrote in a recent issue of AHA’s Perspectives:

Everyone who has written at any substantial length, whether prose or poetry, knows that the process of writing itself leads to previously unthought thoughts. Or to be more precise, writing crystallizes previously half-formulated or unformulated thoughts, gives them form, and extends chains of thoughts in new directions.

This is why the shitty first draft – Lamott’s term, not mine – is so important. If you haven’t written anything yet, how can you know what you’re thinking?

More interesting thoughts here.

Update from Lynn Hunt's article:

The best advice about writing that I ever got was many years ago from the poet and prose writer Donald Hall. His book Writing Well was then in an early, if not a first, edition (it is now in its ninth), but he also generously read the pages of those of us who were junior fellows in the Michigan Society of Fellows. He was a senior fellow, and I knew that my dissertation needed serious work. From him I learned that writing requires an unending effort at something resembling authenticity. Most mistakes come from not being yourself, not saying what you think, or being afraid to figure out what you really think.
Wonderful! (I'll tell you about Sir Percival someday...)

Image: borrowed from these people.

1 comment:

  1. There's a lot of wisdom, and some crafty tactical material, in these writing excerpts! I just met a doctoral student yesterday who has been done with his research, his comps, and his classwork for years, but who has yet to finish writing the last third of his dissertation. He said something compelling: Until he finishes the writing, he hasn't turned in a pile of (stuff). Meanwhile, *while* he's still "writing," everything else in life seems to get higher precedence: teaching, family, office cleaning. So he keeps "waiting for spare time." It seems like fear of imperfection, coupled with ease of substitution of other tasks, is the great enemy for many of us.