Sunday, March 11, 2018

Writing inspiration: Wordsworth, academic writing, and learning lessons over time.

The things that you learn about writing and about yourself accrue over time, don't they?

Figure 1. The Abbey he's actually not at but a few miles above.
Remember Wordsworth's "Lines, Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey"?

The narrator thinks back to his youth:
when first I came among these hills; when like a roe / I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides / Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,  /Wherever nature led
Did anyone else used to stay up all night and write a paper due the next day as an undergrad? It was sometimes good, sometimes bad (no revision!), but hey, it was done.

And now we're more like this:

hearing oftentimes 
The still sad music of humanity, 
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power 
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt 
A presence that disturbs me with the joy 
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime 
Of something far more deeply interfused,

On one hand, that's a bit too elevated a sentiment for academic writing, but what we're doing is "interfusing" all that we've done into a meaningful piece of writing, even if it isn't "sublime."
I'm not doing justice to this poem at all, but it made me think of some recent things I've (re)learned:
  • It is what it is, or it takes what it takes. If it takes you 25 hours over several days to write a five-page paper about something that you already know well, with a ratio of about 4 hours of thinking and reading to 1 hour of writing, well, that's what it takes. Don't beat yourself up about it (says the person who has been doing just that). Try to make deadlines, but do your best even if you can't.  It's a process.
  • Speaking of process, when you're recollecting in tranquillity, like Wordsworth, you come to know your own processes well. That anxious bout of administrative editing when you should be writing? It's displacement writing, dealing with a lesser anxiety to avoid confronting the greater anxiety of the academic writing you have to do. The writing is working in the background, and it will emerge in good time when you do write. Bonus: the administrative task is that much closer to being done.
  • Don't follow literally the advice all over Twitter to "write drunk, edit sober." How do people do this if they're literally drinking? Maybe it works for them. What I took away from it, though, is to loosen up and spill everything out in paragraph form, if possible, and in list form, if not, even if it's too colloquial or too pompous or otherwise not a thing that I want in the paper. (I know that this is perennial advice, via Annie Lamott's "sh*tty first draft," but it's still important.)
  • Edit and revise and edit some more.  That bounding roe of an undergrad Undine would never have believed it, but--surprise!--it's as much the editing that tells you what you think as it is the writing. Again, know your processes: I have to see it on paper at certain stages, the header should have some kind of an autotext time stamp so that I know which version it is, and it helps if I have a red pencil to mark a big slash across pages after I've made the edits.
  • The more work you do, the more you know. The reading I've done to develop the three pieces of writing over the past six months (you know, the ones you've heard me complaining about) is actually paying off now in ways I couldn't have anticipated. 
  • Recognize what's not working.  Sometimes, if you're stuck on a piece of writing, there's a piece in there that doesn't belong, no matter how insightful it is or how fond you are of it. You can spend a lot of time trying to shoehorn it in, but sometimes you have to cut your losses and all those hard-won words. Mark Twain said that you should "kill your darlings" (also adverbs), but good news: with writing, you can put them in another file and save them for another day. If they're good, they'll survive.
  •  Delete those annoying emails. Tired of sanctimony and virtue-signalling and lengthy email lectures on Correct Principles when you already hold those principles? If there's no action required, delete them. Or put them in a folder called "Colleague Bloviations." It'll make you feel better and help your sense of focus. 
  • Let your writing helpers help you. Writing or accountability groups. 750words, Strict Pomodoro, Excel spreadsheets, etc. And for a bonus: get a new black notebook, since the old one is almost full.


gwinne said...

You are brilliant.

I seriously need that folder in my email. Mostly I just hit delete and move on. Starting tomorrow I'm going to experiment with responding to email only once a day, at 4:30 pm.

nicoleandmaggie said...

I would pull the all-nighter two (or more) nights before it was due so I could edit (or get #2 or my mom to read through) and sill be coherent in class. I would tell myself, "an hour a page". I no longer do anything like that!

Undine said...

Thank you, gwinne! Let us know how the once-a-day email works out. It sort of works for me until the admin or collaborator stuff kicks in. That goes like this:

8:08 a.m. email: "Hey, did you respond to [important but could wait] point?"
8:10 a.m. email: "How does this look for a response?"
8:15 a.m. email: "I sent this [wrong response] and said that you would confirm it in an hour."

nicoleandmaggie--Two nights is thinking ahead! I never shared stuff with my mom or anyone before submitting it--still don't--but at least I do edit.