Monday, October 4, 2010

Writing it Out

At the risk of drifting into the Dull Squalid Waters of Graduate Student Angst, today I'm going to talk about writer's block--possibly as a means of getting around it. Now that's creative! ;-)

In my case, getting stuck on process is something that often comes from insecurity, a fear of "acting" and "just getting things done"; so I've tried to work at my own writing strategies over the years. But this kind of detailed thinking-through and development of self-knowledge isn't necessarily something we see being explored in graduate school (for various reasons--see my previous posts about related issues), possibly because writing help and development are often assumed to happen during the student's coursework (unless there are no courses) or at the university writing centre. It may even be assumed that students should have learned how to write during their undergraduate studies, or that they "had to know how to write" to get in to grad school. Yet I've had numerous professors tell me that writing skills are a major problem even at the graduate level (where a whole new level of writing is required).

I was recently helping a friend, who is an M.Ed student and a good writer, to prepare a grant application--and I noticed that his draft had been re-written by one of his profs (rather than merely edited). I could tell from the language she'd used, compared to previous drafts he'd written; and because the language had changed, so had the project--into something he hadn't really "framed" himself.

As we went over this new, re-written draft, I helped him to replace language that seemed inappropriate by asking about the ideas behind, and impressions conveyed by, the words; we also "broke up" the seemingly polished structure of the writing by cutting, pasting, rearranging, and adding in points with no concern for cosmetic editing. We pulled out the issues that seemed to be central and made a list, starting over with a new structure and concentrating on telling a coherent "story" about the project.

It felt as if the real focus kept getting lost in all the ideas that were floating around--that was half the problem. But the real trouble for my friend was even more basic--he had been told to write something in a completely new genre, and offered almost no guidance. With many thousands of dollars' worth of grant money at stake (the Ontario Graduate Scholarship is worth $15,000 for a year, and Tri-Council grants offer more), writing had suddenly taken on a new and immediate importance, and there was little appropriate help to be found from professors swamped by similarly panicked grad students (a good number of whom have never heard of a "research grant" before their first year of PhD).

In the end it wasn't due to my teaching skills that we ended up making progress (if we did)--far from it, I'd never done this kind of work in my life and I had to think: how does one write? How do I write? After all, I was pretty much the only model I had to go on. I had never really thought about that uncomfortable process outside of trying to enact it somehow, as contradictory as it sounds. My friends don't usually discuss how they write, though they frequently bemoan the difficulty of it. I'd helped students with writing before, but there had never been time or space for such in-depth consideration. So the struggle for me was one of translation and negotiation, and fortunately what I did have was some experience with producing grant proposals.

This only made me think more about my own, current editing tasks--my dissertation writing and the papers I'd like to see published, in particular. I recently was forced to consider how much my process must have changed over time, when I was revising a paper written during one of my MA courses. The paper lacked the structure I would have given it if I had written it more recently--indeed, I'm currently re-ordering the entire thing such that the reader isn't expected to plough through the textual equivalent of an army obstacle course. My more recent writing is evidently more well-planned, as the other papers showed, but work from just 18 months ago still seems littered with tentative statements and unnecessary words, begging for a linguistic pruning.

And yet I can't remember ever having been told anything about these things--ever really learning them--other than perhaps by osmosis. This gives me some faith in the concept of a kind of gradual improvement with time and practice; but I still think it's the self-reflexive process of working with other people that brings real perspective and the motivation to actually consider one's habits and tendencies in more depth, with an eye to doing better (writing) work, and to working better overall.

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