Confessions of a Graphophobe

Hi, my name is Fencing Bear, and I have a writing problem.  (Witnessed at this very moment by the fact that I suddenly can't think of what to say next, even though I've been mulling over this post for a good two or three days.)  Simply put, I am afraid of writing.  Scared witless.  Terrified.  No, I can't think of a strong enough word to describe what I am going through.  What I go through every time I sit down to write something other than a purely stream of consciousness blog post, and sometimes even then.  Letters of reference may be the worst, followed closely by book reviews, but in actual fact, there is nothing that I find easy to write, except, very possibly, emails, although now that I think about it, sometimes I balk at those, too.  And academic writing?  Well, let's not even go there.  Because, you know, I haven't, not really, not for a good year and a half.  Sure, I've written a few conference papers in that time, even a plenary address, and edited a handful of articles that are now in press, but to sit down and write something with footnotes that might actually be publishable?  Nope.  Not even close.

It's embarrassing, I know.  After all, it's not like I haven't published before, quite a lot actually, all things considered.  It's not that I am embarrassed about what I've written.  Nor is it that I don't think that I have anything to say, at least, not exactly.  I worry that I don't have anything original or interesting to say, but that shouldn't necessarily make any difference.  Loads of people publish without saying anything particularly new; plus, people love reading about common experiences (like, say, having problems with writing).  No, I'm lying.  I'm terrified that I have nothing to say.  But thanks to Robert Boice's "Blocking Questionnaire: An Instrument for Assessing Writing Problems," I now understand that my problem goes deeper than simply worrying about whether what I want to say feels important.  No, again, I've bungled it; that's not quite it either.  See, this post was supposed to be about how I took Boice's test and got new insight into why I have had such a hard time balancing writing with my other academic work, but even writing about it is proving more difficult than I had thought that it would once I saw the light, as it were.  Perhaps it is because I'm embarrassed about what I've learned, and yet it seems important to say, if only because I may, just may, be starting to be able to deal with it (not that I'm making any promises here, no, no, no!).  But just maybe.

Here's what I learned from the questionnaire:

1.  I'm impatient.  (My mom is going to love this one.)  Meaning, others will constantly hear me complaining that my writing is going too slowly, that I am behind, that I am never going to catch up, that it takes me too long to write what I want to, that there is never going to be enough time to finish.  As, for example, "I should have published a second book already.  I am so far behind others in my field.  This project is taking too long."  They will also hear me saying things like, "If only I could write more efficiently, I could finish sooner."  And they will notice that I tend to prefer (or think I prefer) to work in long bursts, six or eight hours a day, every day, for months at a time.  I am constantly afraid that if I don't work in such long stretches, I'll never get anywhere; that it will take me too long each time I come back to the project to get into again (e.g. if I don't work on it absolutely every day).  And they will notice that I very rarely send my work out for comments because I don't want to be slowed down, there simply is so much to get done.  And yet, ironically,

2.  I procrastinate.  This one was a bit of a stunner, but I realize now that it's true.  Sure, I'm always convinced that I don't have enough time (see #1), but neither will I start working on something before I absolutely have to.  Luckily for me, I am so convinced that I work too slowly that I have tended in the past to give myself (apparently) sufficient time, but now I realize that this was only because I was using the deadlines to overcome my fear of writing as such.  Without the deadlines, I have no motivation; with the deadlines, I put off starting until I absolutely must--or fail.  Hitherto in my life, there have always been deadlines, but now that I have tenure, the only real deadline is, well, death.  Which isn't that useful if what you want to do is chart out a career.  Another sign of my tendency to procrastinate: I complain about being given writing assignments by others (asked to write letters or book reviews or present at conferences) because it puts me under deadline.  Likewise, I delay having to write by working on more "pressing" tasks first, like housecleaning or, less obviously but no less detrimentally, overpreparing for class.  Because, you see,

3.  I'm a perfectionist.  (No, really.  Stop laughing, you there who has known me since childhood!)  I have resisted this label for nearly as long as I have the one about being impatient (see, there was this Snoopy dog, but I've told you about that already), particularly since I have long realized that my impatience tends to be at odds with my perfectionism--or, at least, it seemed to be since I know that I hate revising; once it's written, it's written, and it's going to stay like that.  But that is because once it's written, I probably have labored obsessively over it, sentence by sentence, worrying with every keystroke whether I had misspelled something or forgotten to triple-check my references.  I am constantly worried about whether I have missed something or said something that is not exhaustively referenced; likewise, my manuscripts (once I decide that I am writing for publication and not just a timed talk) are inevitably long, trying to say everything I can think of about a topic.  (Case in point: as colleagues have frequently remarked, you can use my first book as a doorstop, if, that is, you haven't brained yourself first trying to get it down from the shelf.)  All of which added together means

4.  I binge.  This was the real eye-opener.  You mean writing for eight hours a day every day for months at a stretch isn't good for you?  You're kidding, right?  Isn't this the way that writers are supposed to want to write?  How could I ever possibly be a real writer if I only worked on it for a couple of hours at a time, three days a week?  But, then, of course, as the past year and a half--indeed, the past seventeen years of being a professor--have shown, I'm not a real writer, not in the sense of writing simply to write.  No, that's not quite fair.  I am a real writer, as real as anybody is.  What I have been is a blocked writer who has been able to fight through her blocks at enormous psychological cost but who has never been able simply to enjoy writing except more or less by accident so convinced have I been that to be a writer, I had to do it a) all the time (read, every waking moment that I have unless I am doing something else--see #2, on procrastinating); and b) it had to be hard.  Or, rather, that if it weren't exhausting, I wasn't working hard enough on it.  Thus, in proper circular fashion, my conviction that I never have enough time and/or energy to write (see #1).

So, what to do?

First, realize that I am not alone, particularly among academics, for whom, above all, Boice is writing, thus the title of his book: Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing (1990) (hat tip to Dame Eleanor for this reference, too).  As Boice notes in his opening chapter ("Why Professors Don't Write"): "Of the minority of academicians who write publicly, fewer still account for the bulk of what gets published.  Estimates typically attribute some 85% of publications to some 15% of those who could potentially write them."  Well, that's sobering.  Maybe, as Boice himself notes, some would say it is as it should be: professors publish too much already, much of it repetitive, only a fraction of which even the most diligent in even a single sub-field (e.g. medieval scriptural exegesis) can manage to read.  But that is no reason that the other 85% of us should stay silent.

Second, take Boice's (which is also Silvia's) advice: make a schedule and stick to it.  And, ironically enough, that's it.  Because, you see, I'm already an expert in the other two principal tools that Boice recommends: spontaneous writing, a.k.a. Morning Pages, which I practiced for 45 minutes a day, every morning for a good five or so years, and off and on after that, well beyond the 10 minutes a day for a few weeks that Boice recommends simply to get past one's initial block; and generative writing, or writing about a particular topic for a set amount of time (say 10 minutes or so) without stopping to overthink it so as to help the ideas flow.  Which is pretty much the exercise I gave myself when I started this blog and which, yes, has convinced me that I can generate more pages than I ever imagined possible simply by writing two or three times a week for an hour or two at a time.  Three or four books' worth of text (and comics and poetry) in under three years, in fact.  Not that it's publishable, but it's there, some of it even (if I do say so myself) pretty good.  And on topics that I never imagined that I would write about when I first started "Fencing Bear."  So there.

And then?  Well, and then, I hope, I'll be fine.  Maybe I'll even start to enjoy even my academic writing.  Except that I can still feel myself panic whenever I think about writing for anything longer than a couple of hours a day, which may be a good thing (see #4), I'm just not sure.  What I do know is that at the moment it is time to stop writing and go hang out with some of my friends; and that the next time that I have promised myself to write is on Monday and that I don't have to worry about it until then.

Comments

  1. A couple of further thoughts: try doing the thing you despise or fear, as in, try re-doing an article you have already done (repeating yourself); possibly that will generate a new and useful take on the previous iteration. As in, try to get as many rejections as possible (because then you are getting things to the point of sending them out). I should say that these are things I think about to get myself to the desk, rather than things I really and truly do (if I did, maybe I would actually publish more), but I have managed to finish and send two items since I started trying to think this way. Right now I need to find some new mantra or thing to think about; I've got off-track because of the Scot. Maybe a long comment about writing on your blog could count as making some faint effort for today.

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  2. Thanks, Dame Eleanor, these are good suggestions. I think in a way it is what I am doing with my John of Garland translation: I am worried that my Latin is not good enough to do this work, so I have given myself the exercise of revising my efforts of twenty years ago. Already, however, I see that I actually understand the text better now than I did when I first made the translation--thanks, in part, I suspect, to the exercise of doing the translation in the first place all those years ago. It is definitely an exercise in sitting still and not giving into my three principal demons (Impatience, Procrastination and Perfectionism) because a) it is very long, so I have to be patient; b) I have been putting off doing it pretty much longer than anything else in my scholarly career; and c) I will never be able to do it full justice, in part because John is not a terribly good poet himself, but largely because he intended it to be a challenge, a school-exercise, in fact. Meanwhile, I hope that you have been able to take time to mourn the Scot; pets are very precious, the antithesis of our scholarly drive to look always to the future and to results.

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F.B.

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