Meditations on Writing

Monday, May 28, 2007

Writing and Self-Loathing

It was a week ago that I sat down to my computer and scoffed at the blinking cursor. With admirable courage and terrific posture, I let my head fall slack on each side to get the kinks out and then I began cheerfully clicking the keys of my laptop. The ticking of the keyboard continued until the afternoon. Sentences turned into pages. I felt like a genuine writer. Yes! I have things to say! Yes! My prose is lucid! Yes! I am a bona fide writer!

Today, I am crumpled on my futon, unable to write or read. As my cat, Newton, kneads my stomach, I feel tight nodes of stress under his furry mittens. How could my soaring feelings of "writerly-ness" become this dark shadow of tension and anxiety?

It is times like these that I burrow into my futon, under an old quilt, to read real or fictitious tales of lives worse than mine. As I am reading the first fifty pages or so of Anne Lamott's _Traveling Mercies_, her suffering is combined with my own suffering and feelings of overwhelm. Why, I ask myself, am I not reading an uplifting tale of perseverance? No! Writing is misery! A real artist suffers for his or her art! The myth seems to be true.

I like to take walks when it gets like this. I like to remind myself that there is a world outside of my writing. Today, I enjoyed the jacarandas bursting with purple blooms, I walked beneath a bougainvillea overhang, and I chuckled at the goofy French bulldog who would not let me pass. But, as I walked home from the corner store, clutching my wallet and a bottle of olive oil, I figured it would be a good moment to do my version of the Zen "slow walk." I admire people who can really walk so slowly that every movement is acknowledged. I, myself, walk at a slow-ish pace noticing the places where I hold tension. Well, today it was everywhere. I had tension in my ankles, for goodness sake!

As I prepare to teach a writing course this summer, I have really started to notice these habits. I'm sure there are more to come.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Getting back to writing

After a period in which my writing space was a site of unwieldy anxiety, I am back to writing. What helped you ask? I must give credit to my source: Robert Boice's Advice to New Faculty Members.

Boice's book deals with both teaching and writing in order to solve the problem of one's first few years of academic employment...that is, how to find time to prepare lectures and, concurrently, how to carve out time for writing in the precious few moments left. It turns out that it is also an excellent resource for graduate students.

I have never been one to suffer from procrastination. But in the wake of a vexed relationship with a faculty member (what a recent PhD friend calls an "obstructionist"), I became infected with acute writer's block. After experiencing many stages of grief, I was ready to do something about it. Robert Boice seemed to pinpoint the exact place to begin my writing therapy. He encourages his readers simply to sit at one's writing desk for ten minutes a day; no work needs to be done, but, instead, one meditates on making peace with one's writing space. (Yes, I needed to begin with this stage.) It works, though.

In reading books about writing or creativity blocks, I have noticed a consistent tone of religiosity. In other words, many of these kinds of resources ask the reader to appeal to the "Source," or God, and so on. Boice doesn't speak in this language, per se, but he urges a sense of meditation, especially in the early stages. For me, as a Buddhist, this was a great opportunity! (I am also quite fond of Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones which weaves together Zen Buddhism and writing.)

Thus, for about a week, with a word document up on the screen, I sat cross-legged in front of my computer and attempted to clear my mind. As one does in meditation, I tried to release thoughts, especially the tormenting, anxious thoughts. Within a few days, I looked forward to my writing space; it was a place of calm. Boice then suggested writing -- writing without censorship. This is what Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way, calls "Morning Pages," and what others call "free-writing." I am still in this stage, struggling to make it a daily habit.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Identifying the Problem

This week, instead of concentrating on writing, I will install myself in the archives to delve into more eighteenth-century French sources. Right now, I have about two months of translation in front of me. Though I love the operas I am translating, the process itself is tedious. Yesterday, as I began translating piles of libretti, I witnessed and succumbed to a fascinating array of procrastination tactics. Here is just a sample:

* "urgent" call sister to make sure she is surviving her last year of vet school
* had to organize a pile of papers
* needed to spend quality time with the kitten
* took a walk to "clear my head"
* went out for coffee (does this count?)
* read a fashion magazine to "take a break" (from what?)
* snack break..brain food!
* meditation to relieve stress
* spent time staring down the pile of translation designated for the day's work

Translation accomplished: Not enough.

This post is a kind of confessional. Most people, perhaps especially academics, don't want to admit they have a problem. While there are supportive communities for drinking, gambling, and overeating, scholars are often quiet about writing blocks and writing anxieties. The Chronicle for Higher Education has revealed frightening evidence that scholars have been paralyzed by a problem. In 1999, this periodical indicated that 25% of faculty members regularly spend _no_ time during the week on writing. What's going on?

Writer and teacher at UCLA, Wendy Belcher, suggests finding a person or group where scholars can discuss writing (instead of just criticizing it) - a place where we may admit to negative feelings and experiences connected to writing. For me, at least at the moment, I feel overwhelmed at the prospect of finishing my dissertation in the next year and a half. Can I do it? Will it be good? Will I get a job because of it? There is a lot of presssure riding on it, for sure. But, at least, I am not in denial about my problem.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

How Not to Write a Conference Paper

With my game face on, I entered the swarming mass of musicologists at our annual conference over the weekend. I chatted with colleagues while simultaneously scanning the crowd, searching for important scholars that I wanted to meet. I diligently rehearsed my one line answer to the inevitable question, "What are you working on?" Proceeding smoothly through such inquiries, I, unfortunately, bungled my way through the follow-up questions. Luckily, I printed off some dissertation abstracts, which I optimistically imagine may have redeemed one particularly embarassing debacle. Yet, in an amazing reverse of personality,I transformed from a reticent corner-hugger into a skilled self-promoter. It seems as though I finally harnessed my father's political gene.

Annual conferences, while certainly about schmoozing with the right people, is also a foray into the wilds of conference paper writing. The best papers possess an elegant, conversational style. These authors take care to write in short sentences, provide appropriate visual aides, and play at least a couple samples of the music to which the paper refers. On the other hand, when I find myself imagining of a steaming cup of hazelnut coffee, I know a conference paper has let me down. Over the weekend, I witnessed a particularly sad instance of conference paper writing. First of all, the handout consisted of four pages of a multilayered chart which analyzed the one musical example discussed in the paper. Visually confusing, the handout provided little clarity. The author spent two thirds of his time going through this handout, leaving only ten minutes for the real payoff of the paper. Though this paper was about mysticism, the paper itself, disappointingly, was mystifying while meaning to demystify.

While sometimes boring and anticlimatic, sitting through conference papers can reinforce some basic conference writing concepts. First of all, one must actually read the paper outloud in private before giving it before a crowd of bleary-eyed, hungover conference participants. Secondly, one must at least try to make sure that handouts make sense and will not encourage an audience pumped up on caffeine to feel more antsy and nervous. Lastly, a conversational paper and amiable demeanor is far more effective than a complicated paper, a belligerent tone, and erratic hand gestures.

As I finally begin coming off my own sugar high, caffeine binge, and exhaustion from a late night singfest, I begin thinking of my own conference papers coming up. I feel a renewed sense of confidence after seeing how not to write a conference paper.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

This week I clicked my computer keys frantically as I stared down two impending deadlines. Deadlines always seem to plot against my composure. Physically bedraggled, with untamed hair and puffy eyes, my mood is rendered visibly. To forewarn others, I keep a sign near my computer which, on one side, advises "Approach with caution," while the other side requests, "Do not feed or touch the bear."

I am in two writing seminars this quarter: one for grant-writing and the other for the dissertation. These courses provide two things that I have found essential in the writing process: outside readers and people holding me accountable for a writing goal. In addition to the readers in these courses, I have two peers whom I call upon to unravel my prose. One is an English scholar (who happens to be my boyfriend); he is an innovative thinker and an elegant writer. He and I both work on the eighteenth-century, so he is an excellent resource in this regard. He also returns my work in remarkable time. My second reader is a peer in my discipline. He knows quite a bit of gender and performance theory, and often helps me think through the ways the music and performance might be working. In the last few days, I have even been advocating outside readers to my younger colleagues.

Since I work on the Enlightenment, it is nice to cultivate my own Republic of Letters. While we often discuss each other's writing over steaming cups of tea or coffee and flaky croissants, I would imagine the seminar room doesn't have the same opulent atmosphere of an eighteenth-century salon. Yet it can, at times, have the same constructive criticism and polemicism.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Homage to a Thesaurus

My thesaurus has a wine-colored leather cover with gold lettering. Published in 1977, it has weathered the years remarkably well. The only page which bears the mark of age refers to "similarity" and "dissimilarity." The dread of the middle school "compare and contrast" paper comes flooding back to me. Perhaps this page registers not only use, but also frustration on its delicate, but crumpled and torn, page.

I wish to honor this thesaurus today; it has served me well in writing reports, poetry, seminar papers, and now the dissertation. As a younger, fresher-faced writer, I searched this tome for lively words. My tender seventh grade reports twinkled with glittery words like: perspicacity, auroral, or temerarious.

Now, the thesaurus has become a clever way to repair tired dissertation prose. That is, when I can't bear to edit my current project, I turn to my trusted thesaurus for aid. I go through my work looking for words of little interest. (My thesaurus suggests that these words might be wearying, humdrum, dusty, or stuporific.) With the help of my thesaurus I turn soporific prose into much more vivacious and nuanced writing. Ultimately, this has been fun way to return to my dissertation when I almost can't endure it (perservere, keep the pot boiling, hammer away, brazen it out, hang on like a leech).

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

writer's haze

Wednesday October 25, 2006

When I woke up this morning, I knew it was a morning to leave the house; I felt the writer’s block coming on. I have always imagined writer’s block as a large, stone wall with writers wringing their hands at the base of it, not knowing what is on the other side. This wall is a materialization of a void where no words or ideas exist. My writer’s block, were it a wall, would be built with bricks of frustration, inferiority, and largely of boredom. It would have a chink in it though, through which I could peer into a life beyond the dissertation. But, this is not my experience. For me, writer’s block is a gauzy haze which, since it seems to exist on its own, desires contact with the material world – hence, I often clean instead of working. I feel like I am doing something, and I am rewarded by a clean apartment at the end of it.

I think part of what’s missing at this stage is a ritual. Like most people, I require the comfort of a daily ritual. I don’t have a place that I like working for starters. At home, I feel too isolated. At school, I am too distracted. But perhaps these excuses are only a ruse for the real issue: the overwhelm of producing an original manuscript on something I feel I only know very little about. I think of all the French primary sources that are surely out there and which I have never examined. I think of all the translations I need to do, and the French I need to study. These feelings, in the end, bore me, and I just want to lay in my bed and watch TV instead.

So, today, I went to the coffee shop where I spent most of my Special Fields Exam crafting musical analyses. I made it through most of my proposal, tightening up ideas and syntax. I then tried to read, but the dangerous foreboding set in. I thought a glance at People magazine might free me from this miasma. I felt much better for it, but the fog soon clouded my head again. I decided to return to my apartment where it only got worse. I opted for a nap, and here I am - dressed in jeans and a UCLA hooded jacket – putting these fears on the page next to a steaming cup of green tea.