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On Not Writing

I’ve intended for the last couple of weeks to begin writing in here about my new project, or about my intent toward that project, in any event. Or, for that matter, about things I’m reading, things I’m watching, and so on. It’s one of my goals over the course of this summer, in preparation for next year, to find ways to take this site seriously, both as a locus of research and as an avenue for new kinds of writing. I haven’t done so yet, obviously. I’m having trouble getting started, and I’m trying to figure out why.

There are a couple of reasons that I came up with during my weekend ponderings. The first is a pair of unspoken, unexamined guidelines I seem to have set for myself (pretty much unawares) when I started this blog:

1. Don’t write about work.

2. Don’t write about your personal life.

There are extremely sensible reasons for these guidelines: writing about work, for instance, as other bloggers have discovered, is a risky proposition. The good news about life in the academy, though, is that there are very few proprietary secrets that one risks giving away; in fact, a substantive enough percentage of my work is sufficiently personal that, in writing about it, I’d be writing about no one but me. The risk, then, resides in sending ideas out into the world before they’re fully formed, in inviting disagreement with whatever half-baked nonsense I produce. But then: isn’t that the point of an academic blog?

Not writing about my personal life, on the other hand, seems pretty sensible to me, if I intend to take this space seriously as a professional venture. So that guideline will likely stand.

The other major reason for my lack of writerly focus is bound up in the pragmatics of scholarly production: I completed my first book manuscript near the end of last summer, and spent the intervening academic year shopping for a publisher. It’s been a deeply demoralizing process, and I have a nice sheaf now of letters that tell me how smart and interesting my project sounds, but (a) our humanities list has been slashed, and so we can’t take your project on, or (b) the all-purpose ‘your project doesn’t quite fit our list.’ I’m happy to report that one brave press did offer to read the manuscript, and has sent it out to outside reviewers — which is the good news. The bad news is that I’ve been playing the waiting game since March, wondering whether the press will ultimately take the book, and if so, what revisions they’ll want from me, and thus as a consequence resisting getting started on a new project before the old one is safely in press.

So here’s the question: how do you get started? How do you start writing about ideas you’re not yet sure about? How do you start allowing pieces of a new project to be seen publicly when you know they’re unfinished? And how do you start that new project when the previous one’s still lingering in the background?

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  1. Phew. Tough questions. I’ve been wondering about them myself all year… that tussle between offline/online seems to get harder the longer you blog, not easier.

    By the way, (belated) happy blog-anniversary!

  2. Thanks, Rory, both for the anniversary wishes and for your commisseration. There’s certainly comfort in having my impression that I am unique in suffering this concern corrected, which mistaken sense comprises a huge percentage of academic anxiety, via reasoning that goes something like this:

    I’m a fraud. I know nowhere near as much as they seem to think I do. Worse, I know nowhere near as much as they do. They’re all off writing their articles and being brilliant, and they have no idea how worried I am about all this, because they don’t experience any such worries. The only reason to be this anxious, in fact, is because I’m right when I think that I’m a fraud. And one day, they’re going to look up from being brilliant and see some stupid thing I’ve written and realize, at last, that I am in fact a fraud.

    (Is it painfully obvious that I come up for tenure this year?)

  3. Good luck on tenure.

    You’re not alone in thinking along the lines of “self=fraud” — but you know that.

    I am *delighted* that I can’t even tell you how it is that I came across your Web log just now; it had to do with friends-of-friends-and-acquaintances matching on blogrolling.com. But it’s really good that I did. Just beginning to write my dissertation, I ask myself often these days just how to start writing anything. Forget thesis; reviews. Articles. Web log posts. Letters to friends. Responding works just fine, it’s writing something new that’s scary.

    Now that I have evidence that you over in the Real World are struggling with the same things, at the same time as you write brilliantly articulate posts, my heart is filled with the hope that it’s okay to be at a loss for words. As long as the cause of this loss is too much to say, not too little.

  4. I’m so glad you found me out here, vika — particularly at this starting-the-diss moment. Getting started is hard, as you point out, but hopefully knowing that this blank-screen anxiety is surmountable (because so often surmounted) helps. Good luck — and keep me posted (pun intended).