Thursday, June 7, 2012

Blogging to Face Fears, Make Plans, and Warm Up



Matt asked me to write a post for Constructing the Academy one day when he came into the TA office and caught me during the first part of my writing day ritual. I keep a private blog where I go to write for about five or ten minutes each morning before I start working on whatever project I have at hand. It has become as ingrained a practice as opening my writing log and recording my word count for the day.

I only started this practice about six months ago. It emerged out of what I have discovered is my constant need for structure and guidance. As you'll see when you look at a sample from my blog, I crave a sense of structure and stability. Six months ago, my writing practices were not stable at all. I've been a writing teacher for nearly ten years now, but I'm still great at ignoring the kinds of advice I give to my students on a nearly daily basis. You should write every day, even if you feel like you don't have anything to say. You should try freewriting to see if you can find a way into your argument. You should set up a time and make it your writing time: Just sit there and write, even if it's only for ten or fifteen minutes each day.

I wasn't doing any of those things. I had submitted my prospectus four months before, and I had written not one single word of my dissertation. Sure, I had spent much of that time finding and reading sources that would be important to my project. And that is by no means a waste of time. But what I found was that reading had become an excellent excuse for avoiding writing.

So one day, shortly after my dissertation advisor and I had agreed to a deadline for my first chapter--and thus my desire for structure was given a little sustenance--I was sitting in the basement of the library, surrounded by books that I felt fairly confident I would want to refer to in my first chapter, and on my screen was that awful enemy of writing: the blank, white screen of Microsoft Word, reflecting back at me my own sense of blankness and inadequacy. I wanted to get away from that white screen. Since snapping my laptop in two was not the most cost-efficient method of escape, I just put my fingers to the keys and began typing.

I wrote for about twenty minutes, exploring my own inner writing demons, dragging them kicking into the light of that awful white screen, making them take up space in that abhorrent brightness. And when I was finished, I felt better. The demons that were there remained very real fears for me, but I had taken those fears and used them to generate text. It wasn't dissertation text, but I had written words. I opened another Word document and wrote what would become the seventh page of my first chapter. It was a rough start--see below for more on that--but it was a page. It existed. I had hailed it into existence.

I took some of that twenty minute exploration, reshaped it a little, and posted it as the inaugural entry for my blog. A couple of months later, after posting sporadically to it, sometimes to celebrate good writing days and sometimes to feel real sorry for myself and how hard it is to have a job that requires me to think and read a lot, I made the blog private. In my first entry, I ruminated briefly about writing in a public setting for no audience. It was odd to me. I attempted to imagine this non-audience, for some reason acting as though I wasn't that audience. But finally, I decided I was the only audience who mattered. Present Jacob was writing for Future Jacob, to remind Future Jacob of problems Past Jacob faced and things that Present Jacob wanted to make sure Future Jacob remembered. Remember the bad writing days and what made them bad. Remember the good writing days and what circumstances led to a productive day. I think archivally. I want Future Jacob to see these things. I don't want them to fade into nothingness.

But as I continued to blog, I also decided I didn't want to write every day about what bothered me about writing or my research. I also needed a space, especially when I am in the middle of a project, to chart out what I have done and what I need to do next. So my blog transitioned into something of a daily task list. Sometimes, it can look as simple as this:

Today's goals:

-- Write the WPA travel grant cover letter
-- Read two articles for my
Composition Studies article
-- Time permitting, try to get just a few words on the page for that article, just to have something there tomorrow.


In the early days, when I wasn't waxing poetic about my trivial miseries and frustrations, it could look like this:

810 words. 

That was before I started keeping a separate writing log. But that post still tells me what I was thinking when I posted that: This was a decent writing day, but it was quite literally nothing to write home about. I wasn't impressed with the writing, and I was underwhelmed by the amount accomplished. So I posted the word count and let the subsequent silence speak for me.

The post that lists goals is infinitely more productive for me. As I was finishing my most recent dissertation chapter, I flipped back to my blog to remind me of exactly how I had decided to structure one intricate section, because my blog was where I ended up recording the logic of the section.

But sometimes, I find myself going back to the darker stuff. And what is a private blog if not a good place to confess one's fears and concerns? The difference now is that, because I have two discrete records of my writing practices--my blog and my writing log--I have evidence to help me understand myself better as a writer. Sometimes, I just need to whine a little bit. But now I can look at these records and see trends that make it easier for me to bear the days when it is harder to write.

Today has been one of those days. I've just started writing an article, the same one alluded to above in the goals. And I know now that the first day I sit down to draft something, I am going to be unhappy with anything I write. It's my Rough Start. Here is today's post:

------------------------------------------------------------------------ 


With two diss chapters down now, one of the key things I have learned about my writing is that I always have a rough start. The first day I'm writing a new chapter or article draft is almost always my worst day of writing for that entire project. The monolithic aspect of the project hovers over me, threatening me, hissing at me. I hate things that hiss. Cats, snakes, tea kettles, dissertations. You know what I'm talking about.

Two things I carry with me when I deal with the first day rough start:


1) If I know that the first day of the project is rough going, then I can tell myself later that day not to beat myself up about it. I can look back at my writing log and see that the most I've ever been able to write on the first day of any writing project--chapter, conference paper, whatever--is 600 words. And those words usually die a painful, painful death later on. But that's okay. Because the second day almost always brings me up to my normal speed of 1200 words a day. This knowledge never makes the actual experience of the first day any better, but it helps later.


2) Nothing good gets written in a single day. My general pace now is to write a passable chapter draft in two to three weeks. Conference papers take two to three days. And since I'm just about to start drafting an article, I will assume that it will fall in between. The journal I'm targeting for this article sets the max word count at 7500. The submission guidelines state in no uncertain terms that the editors will not consider manuscripts that exceed that number. My last chapter was a little over 15,000 words. It took me thirteen writing days to generate that text. So rather than worrying about the rough start, I should trust in my own plow-horse process ("I will work harder," says Boxer before being turned into glue) to get me to a completed draft.


I'm primed to write now. Time to face the rough start.


------------------------------------------------------------------------ 

I articulate things about writing that frighten me. But I try to move on from there to see the patterns in my work life. I set a goal for the day: 600 words. (I exceeded that goal about an hour ago, by 100 words. Not bad for the rough start. And yes, those 700 words are going to die a painful, painful death.) I make myself think about journal submission guidelines.

The goal of my daily blogging is to feel like I can do the work that I set for myself. And sometimes that work is slow. Sometimes writing involves a series of false starts...No, actually, it always involves that, at least for me. My article draft has three different starting sentences right now. And none of them are good. But the third sentence helped me find a way into the remainder of the day's writing.

As academics, we tend to want to hide our fears and insecurities. I still want to. That blog is remaining private, folks. You'll never see another word of it. But it's important to find ways to confront those fears and insecurities. There are so many ways to do this:

-- Find a trusted friend or two and form a writing group.
-- Keep a writing log so you can prove to yourself that you are (or aren't--that can be a good motivator too) producing text.
-- Talk to your dissertation advisor and your committee members about the difficulties you face.

I do all of these things. But I also blog. Because the best way to become a better writer is to write.

___________________
Jacob Babb is a doctoral candidate in rhetoric and composition at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he specializes in historiography and curricular development. He also serves as assistant editor of College English.

8 comments:

  1. I never thought of using a blog to kick-start the day's writing. I might have to try that Jacob. This was also a good reminder that many of our words just have to die that slow, painful death you speak of. This always sounds so inefficient to me and I use it as an excuse not to write until I think my ideas are perfectly formed in my head first. Silly, I know, but there it is.

    Oh, and everyone reading Jacob's post should know that I could not have finished my dissertation without his help as a reader and editor :-)

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    Replies
    1. You're really kind, Kristen. All I did was read a couple of chapters with you. And give you references that would lead you in the wrong direction. And marvel that you were writing a dissertation. I remember just not being able to believe that writing a dissertation was possible. Hmm...I still feel that way sometimes.

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