A couple of months ago, one of my department colleagues and I formed a little writing group, comprised just of us two, in order to help motivate each other in the writing of our current projects. Once a week, we exchange about four pages of a draft via email, generate feedback for each other, then discuss our progress and feedback via Skype (I am temporarily away from campus). It has been a helpful system, for at the very least it has kept my writing at the forefront of my mind and having these small weekly deadlines with a friend has helped me produce more than I would on my own.
For the past month, though, I felt stymied and a series of minor illnesses and out of state trips kept me from Skyping with him. Last week, we finally were able to resume our schedule.
When he asked how I’ve been doing, I admitted that my progress on my current research project was stalled, but that I had created this website as one way to motivate myself to write something every day, whether “academic” or not. I opened up about my fear that academia has killed my love of writing, which until recently had been a lifelong passion. From a young age, I had received positive attention from my creative writing, and involved myself in writing however I could (in high school, for example, I wrote for the newspaper, yearbook and literary magazine…an admission that calls to mind Matt Groening’s advice in School is Hell to not brag about how cool you were in high school once you get to college). I even wrote a novel while I was in high school, which I shared with my readers/friends in chapter installments, just like Charles Dickens (except, unlike any of Dickens’ work, my novel was inspired by the music of Depeche Mode). I knew it was my destiny to be a fiction writer, especially after I read Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, the first novel I ever had encountered that featured Mexican American characters.
In college, though, I necessarily began to focus more on academic writing, abandoning my fiction and poetry over time. In fact, I never even took a creative writing course, as the professor was very intimidating and I feared I wouldn’t even be able to earn a spot in the class. Later, when I was accepted into my Ph.D. program, all my time and energy went into preparing for and producing the dissertation. And so academic writing has been all I’ve done ever since.
What I struggle with in my academic writing is the loneliness of it and the long stretches of time that it takes to get any feedback. I work for months to produce an essay–largely on my own, as I will admit that I’m not the most aggressive about seeking out writing groups–then send it off to an academic journal. After about three months (at the earliest), I get the journal’s decision. If the work is not rejected outright, then it goes through an extensive revise and resubmit process, which could take another 6-12 months. Once it’s finally considered ready for publication, I have to wait until the printed journal comes out, which could be another year later. So by the time it’s already in print, my essay feels like old news. It sometimes feels like it’s not mine at all: I flip through the pages and think, “Wow, I wrote that?!” or, more often, “Ugh, I wrote that?!”
By contrast, when I’m in the classroom, I get immediate feedback from my students. As my lecture goes along, I can gauge their faces to see whether they’re on board with what I’m saying or just flat-out bored and in need of a break. I can see them get excited and field their questions, clearing up misunderstandings on the spot. Sometimes, students will come up to me after class or contact me via email with follow-up questions or ask for further reading on the topic. The whole scene is so lively and fun and gratifying…the exact opposite of the academic publishing process.
Interestingly, by working on this website, I’ve found that I’m able to put into practice many of the writing “do”s that I know I’m supposed to be doing with my research. For example, I’ve been trying to (a) write every day, which I more or less have for a whopping six days now; (b) plan out something to write the day before, sketching out a topic and points I want to raise; (c) and sending it out into the world, or finally silencing my annoying inner editor that seeks perfection. I find this forum very freeing, and on most days have written the equivalent of 3-4 double-spaced pages. If I could do that in my academic writing every day, my life would be pretty much perfect.
So…getting back to my Skype session with my colleague: I shared all of this with him, and he suggested that I approach my current project as a storytelling opportunity. He encouraged me to start a new document, and without even looking over my previous (and very tortured) drafts, just start telling the story that my work centers on, writing about it as though it were something I were writing on this blog. He think that by starting over from such a freewriting perspective, I may be able to burst through my writing block and finally figure out what it is that I’m arguing in the essay.
I’m excited to consider this approach, because even though I am struggling with writing at the moment, I believe in my area of research and feel very strongly that I do have something new and interesting to say about my topic–something that I don’t see any other scholars saying. I whole-heartedly want to grasp this opportunity to fill in a gap in our knowledge about the particular time period I’m writing about (the 1910s and 20s); I want desperately to contribute to the scholarly dialogue around it. It’s so difficult to continuously feel that I know what I want to say…I just can’t seem to organize it on the page. As I write, I sometimes think, “This is so fascinating and is going to blow everyone’s minds!” and at other times, all I can hear is, “Um, yeah, this idea is totally obvious and laughable.” I wish I didn’t swing between these extremes.
In any case, I know these feelings are not unique to me; most writers, academic and creative alike (and I’m not so sure I should even be making that distinction between the two groups), experience them. So if you, dear reader, can relate, then hang in there and I will update the Daily Chicana tomorrow on how this writing experiment turned out….