Day Four, Page Four

I have a rant. Why is it when you tell people that you are managing to write a page a day of good academic prose (about 400 words, not including notes) they immediately seem to assume that you're having trouble because you're not writing fast enough? What is "fast enough," people? Okay, maybe not you, my blog readers, but some of my friends, who will go unnamed because this really isn't about them. It's about what we expect of our lives and our creativity, and the idiotic pressure to do everything FAST. Isn't it better to write books that we take our time over rather than just churning out prose as fast as we can so as to fill up our c.v.s? There's already more out there than any of us can manage to read, even in our own narrowly-defined (and, therefore, mind you, academically effective) fields. I really don't want to waste my time reading articles and books that colleagues have not taken the time to research and write well. There's a flip side to this, of course: there's no point in trying to be perfect or to say everything. If you wait to publish until you "know enough", you'll never write a word. But a page a day, meaning a page of carefully-thought, properly-referenced and double-checked argument: that's harder than it sounds when all you've been writing are blog posts and emails.

Sure, I can write a single-spaced, three-page, 2,000 word blog post (with references!) in a few hours, and even a 2,500 word book review (not counting reading the book) in a couple of days. But for something that I intend to publish as an article or a book on an aspect of medieval history that nobody else has written about from the perspective that I have, that takes time, hours and hours, day after day. And, no, it's not because I don't know what my argument is going to be. I've told you I have notes and outlines, bibliographies and Excel files. It's because you only discover the real argument you need to make once you're actually writing it down. Which is another reason not to wait to start writing until you have finished your research; half of the time, you don't even know what you need to know until you get to that next sentence and suddenly realize that, while you've read in more than one place that Pope Pius V standardized the observance of the Little Office of the Virgin, you don't really know HOW anybody knows that and you have to track down the primary source--and when you do, you find that what "everybody knows" is actually wrong or, at least, misleadingly put.

History is not what I think off the top of my head (like this is!). It's trying to see through the sources into a past that may not actually exist, but be simply a figment of our own obsessions, but how can I be sure? Check the sources, check the sources, check the sources: how do I know this? And then, when you have checked all your sources, guess what, you still have to...MAKE IT UP. By which I mean, decide what it all means and why you think this piece of evidence is actually important enough to cite here. It's like looking at the back of your head, trying to decide why it just seems right to introduce this part of the question now. Over and over again, you have to ask yourself, "So what?" "So what if Pius V standardized the observance? So what if there are only ten--or twelve--or fourteen--are you sure?--manuscripts from the 11th and 12th centuries that contain Little Offices of the Virgin? So what if the laity seem to have wanted the clergy to teach them how to pray the Hours?" So what? So what? So what?

Writing is a process of discovery as much if not more than it is a process of saying something we know. Write what you know: yes, of course. Be boring--say what seems boring to you but is most likely news to everybody else. Don't try to think it up, just get it down. All very good advice. But the truth of the matter is, the writing doesn't exist until you do it. Dorothy Sayers has a really good discussion of this in her The Mind of the Maker (which, if I had at home now I would stop to look at and thus slow down the pace of this rant, so it's a good thing it's buried amidst the books and photocopies at work currently covering my desk, the floor around my desk, my reading chair and my floor-to-ceiling bookshelves): we want to be like God the Father and just have Ideas that somehow magically take form. But nothing takes form without Energy and Passion: the suffering that Christ endured in taking on flesh, the agony of struggling with matter at creation. It is only through suffering--i.e. work--that Ideas come to have the Power of the Spirit to affect other people's souls.

Okay, yes, I'm jealous of colleagues who seem to be able to write without going through this, but I don't necessarily think that they write better than I do, nor, typically, do they say the kinds of things that I want to say. So I write the way I write: one page a day (give or take, I tend to speed up towards the end of articles and chapters, but that's because I have the evidence in place and have spent so much time thinking about what I'm going to say). And I'm not going to apologize for this. Or feel anxious about it. So there. (And if you believe that last claim, I have some properties to show you that you can get cheap.) End of rant.

If you're wondering, it took me 39 minutes to write this. Word count: 994.

Comments

  1. Very interesting, helpful rant. Just out of curiosity, did you always write this way (say for term papers or theses), or did you begin to pace yourself differently over time?

    Most undergraduates I know typically spend only a few days writing a term paper. Most graduate students I know still feel pressured to write several pages a day to finish their thesis on time.

    I can't imagine that pace is solely dependent on deadlines; I'm sure you have your own deadlines. Also, Chicago is so tolerant of incompletes, yet students usually just end up writing in an equal frenzy several months later.

    I've been writing about five-pages a week (usually all in one or two sittings), which seems agonizingly slow to me, but far too fast at the same time.

    In any case, it seems silly to criticize someone else's pace as long as they meet their deadlines. Especially if their work is well regarded. If they do, you can go on a rant about how shoddy their work often turns out.

    JSR

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  2. This is the pace I've been working at ever since graduate school. I could write a 10-page undergraduate essay in about three days, so about three pages a day, but I wouldn't publish those. Keeping a deadline is very important, which is why I don't really like giving incompletes: sometimes the deadline is the only thing that works to get you over the terror of putting words on the page. Thus the page-a-day rule. It's a mini-deadline.

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  3. This was one of my favorite fencing bear posts that helped me make sense of why academia requires so much more than journalism.

    Said Augustine, "For I am the sort of man who writes because he has made progress, and who makes progress -- by writing."

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  4. OK, so my comment didn't make it for some reason yesterday. I will try to repeat (why is it that when you loose writing you always think you can't say it with the same kind of oomph as you did the first time? Even for something as silly as a post-comment! I remember when I lost a graduate paper once, oh my! anyway...) What I wrote was this:
    Remember that James Joyce took 17 years to write Finnegans Wake (I know, no comparison to academic history writing but still...) To each his (or in our case, her) own way of writing and producing pages. So what if Stephen King can write an entire (and best-selling, though I don't get it...) book in just a few days (and yes, again NO comparison at all, I know). I am sure there are some academic "Kings" about too. Anyway, I'd say to the person who questions the page a day: well a damn well-written content-filled page it is! So there. Onward with the page a day! I would be delighted to have that time and production-capability at the moment.

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F.B.

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