Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Placebo for Writer's Block

My "dissertation book" is going to look nothing like my dissertation. (And thank God for small favors, too!) It's going to deal with the same group of translators but address and fundamentally different question and treat the parameters of the corpus slightly differently. So the groundwork is pretty well done, but I'm still working out a lot of the new argument. I'm really fortunate in that I'll have an opportunity to workshop a chapter of the book with a really amazing mix of peers and very senior colleagues in just a drop over two months. It does, though, mean that I have to get the chapter into shape. And I've been feeling really badly blocked, getting no work done, and making my writer's block worse by virtue of wasting time and energy on freaking out.

Part of the problem is that I actually do very little revising. I tend to walk around with an awful lot going on in my head, looking like I'm being terribly unproductive, but with all of it stewing around and sorting out. In an ideal version of this process, by the time I sit down to write, I come up with a basically finished product in purple (or at least lavender) prose. What I do write during this period looks like writing but isn't: It's very long-form notes that incorporate observations on what I've read and the beginnings of my own ideas about the material. As a process, I've discovered that this doesn't work especially well when I have proximate deadlines or lots of balls in the air to juggle. But it's been hard to break the hold of the fantasy of sitting down and writing something close-to-done on the first go. I couldn't get less-than-perfect or less-than-complete onto the page. It was a problem for the short schedule for my dissertation, as well. I think I've managed a better work-around this time, though, one that will hopefully be useful in the future since I don't see the workload letting up any time soon.

I added the following note to the top of my document:

Prefatory note for the Tel Aviv workshop: This paper represents the framework for what will become the first chapter of my book, currently in progress, that examines the changing attitudes towards Arabic as a source language amongst the various generations of Tibbonid translators. My own approach to academic writing is one in which I carry much of my material in my head until I am ready to sit down and write a fully elaborated and articulated argument; before that point, what looks like writing is merely a very particular style of note-taking. In a very real sense, then, what follows — coherent, directed and working towards a specific point though it all may be — is an elaborate set of notes that I will use to unpack and elaborate upon the textual problem that is of greatest interest to me, which for the moment is encapsulated in the paragraph on page 8. — SJP

It's definitely not my intention to leave that note atop the draft that I ultimately circulate before the workshop, but for the first couple of days, I at least allowed myself to think that in the worst case scenario, I could actually get away with leaving such a huge caveat in place. And it's silly but it worked. Thinking about it as just one more set of long-form notes rather than as a book chapter completely freed me up to just get some work done, to get something down on paper that I could edit, refine and add to later.

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