October 11, 2010

Cat Got Your Pen

I have a problem.

I’m a chronic over-achiever.

At first glance, this may not seem like such a bad deal.  It means work gets done, it means good grades, it means new and interesting projects, it means that people I deal with in professional capacities like me, I could go on.  But if one pauses to examine the true implications of my condition, one will realize that it is bittersweet.  It also means that I over-commit, that I obsess, and the grand culmination of this is that I stress out and have no time off to deal with this stress.

October’s a rough month for me due to the sheer amount of over-achieving I have done and need to do now that I’m locked in to everybody else’s schedules. 

High in my mind is a paper I am writing for my Austen class.  It’s my midterm paper: standard ten-page length; standard graduate school expectations of style, revision and forethought; and overall standard mid-semester demands.

Last year I had set a rule for myself.  The way I research is I comb through articles and books and copy relevant information/citations into a word document.  Once I have enough research in a single-spaced word document to be the page equivalent of a double-spaced paper, I stop and start the writing process.  So for this paper (by all rights) once I have ten single-spaced pages of research, it’s time to get writing.

I’m up to fourteen.  I just put in a bunch of ILL requests for articles and books and picked up two new books I have yet to crack.  I also haven’t gone back to the text for some much-needed primary source material… on top of that, I’m looking at this stack of research and still asking myself what my argument is. 

This could mean one of three things: 1) I started researching at idea A and through a steady stream of evolution am now hovering above idea J.  2) This topic is WAY too broad for a ten-page paper and I need to narrow things down a bit.  3) I’m really interested in the topic and thereby want to write a much more thorough exchange of scholarship than the assignment calls for.

Either way, I’m clearly not ready to start writing yet.

The professor has been amazingly understanding about things.  He’s offered me an extension, and an option to turn the ten-page paper to a twenty-page paper and call it my final so that at the end of the semester I just have to write a ten-page midterm.  While that thought may seem like added stress, somehow it’s comforting to know that I don’t have to shove the ideas milling about in my mind into a length that doesn’t suit them.

Part of my problem now is that I’m stuck on an idea.  When I’m stuck on an idea, I like to take hold of it with my teeth and shake it until it’s dead.  I research the royal hell out of it.  In an ideal world, I would leave no avenue of scholarship left unturned before I started writing.

This is problematic for many reasons; not the least of which being that I’m writing a midterm, not a dissertation.  This is ten pages, not a book.  Often, I find myself writing on obscure topics (Shakespeare and Vampires anyone?).  What this means is that I can treat the scholarship in such a fashion.  Since my ideas are a little off the beaten path, I am able to shake loose most of the previous thought on or surrounding them.  Now, however, I’m facing a different beast.

I don’t know it’s weaknesses, I don’t know what it’s afraid of, hell I’m having trouble ascertaining its native habitat. 

Here’s the good news: I’m not the only one.  This problem of research, revision and re-working has plagued writers and scholars since the dawn of cuneiform.  As I left my professor’s office today, he had some parting words of wisdom.  “At some point,” He said, “You just have to start writing.  You’re never going to be able to know everything about anything.  Give up the thought that you can.  Just cut your losses, have faith in what you’ve done, and write.”

I couldn’t help but flash to Sonnet 1 of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella

…I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Of turning others leaves, to see if thence would flow,
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burned brain,
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.” (6-14)

Sometimes, the ideas from research are too much pressure.  In his book The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom spawned the notion entitled same.  This idea states that when the (specifically male) author sits down to write, he feels the pressuring presence of all other authors which came before him hovering behind his chair.  How can he possibly write anything new or inspiring with these dead guys breathing down his neck?  Anything he could put to paper has been done before.  And it’s been done better.

Sidney’s poem and Bloom’s insistence perhaps partially explain my pen-tied-ness, but I’m unsure whether that’s the entire problem.  None of the research indicates that anyone has previously written a paper like mine before, they’ve simply commented on similar ideas and notions.  I’m also not facing a lack of invention, but rather an over-abundance of it.  I want more, more background, more validation, more citations to say that yes I do know what I’m talking about.

But maybe it’s time to give up the goat.  Aunt Bessie ain’t gonna lose the farm if the professor doesn’t quite buy my argument.  If I argue it well enough, he probably won’t even dock my grade since I tried so hard. 

So really, what is it, what am I waiting for besides all those ILL requests to come through….

Fool.  Look in thy heart and write.  

1 comment:

Rob Archer said...

Been here pretty often, though with programming, not writing. "Surely there is a better solution to this, something tighter and more elegant, if I just keep looking"