Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Training Wheels

I should start this post by saying that everyone's writing process is different. We all have our own rituals, our own procedures, our own voices. However, for the audience of this blog, including myself, it's probably safe to say that one thing we share in common as writers is that our first attempts to articulate a complex idea in writing are usually not fit for anyone else to see (with the possible exception of our peers in the context of a writing group or workshop).

Much, much earlier in my graduate school career, I devoted a lot of time to thinking about, reading, and writing poetry. Although my academic work has taken an entirely different direction, I learned some incredibly useful things about thinking and writing from poets and from writing poetry.

Whenever I would write a poem and then workshop it with someone (usually Tom Lisk), I almost inevitably ended up cutting off the first stanza or two. That writing was usually bad, but it was how I wrote my way into the central idea, emotion, or image that would become the poem, and Tom would call these lines "umbilical." I still laugh thinking about umbilical poetry. I should gather all those umbilical lines together into one huge terrible poem!

The point here is that as academic writers we're more often than not engaging with complex ideas and problems and trying to articulate those problems in writing. Our purpose in doing so is twofold: 1) to clarify the problem in our own minds; 2) to share the problem and our solution with others who are interested. It stands to reason that our early attempts to tackle such complex ideas in our writing are usually pretty bad in terms of prose. So, to tweak Tom's metaphor ever so slightly, I suggest that we think of these first articulations as our training wheels.

I need to write a draft of my article, seminar paper, dissertation chapter, book chapter to come to a clear understanding of what I think about the subject at hand, but then once I have that draft, I have to rewrite the ideas themselves into better prose, removing the training wheels of the earlier draft.

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