I had a research morning on Monday. This is what it looked like:
- 8:00-8:30: Read chapter of book, make tic marks, add post-it flags
- [take kid to bus stop, wait for bus, clomp home]
- 9:00-9:30: free write my own ideas that flowed from reading
- [get dressed, make coffee for Write Club, light tidying so they don’t think I’m a slob}
- 10-10:30: answer invitation for short chapter with an abstract: this abstract is a lightly rejiggered 500 words cut and pasted from my grant application
- [5 minute break; refresh coffee; celebrate writing with Write Club members]
- 10:35-11:05: apply to a conference call with an abstract: this abstract is a moderately rejiggered 250 words cut and pasted from an article in progress
- [long break! 15 minutes outside with Write Club and the dog]
- 11:20-11:50: open three documents related to chapter 1 of my book; read them; try to cut and paste them into one document (“Chapter 1”) or into other more appropriate documents
A pretty good morning!
However, what struck me about Monday’s research was how it felt like … cheating. Was I really “working on Chapter 1 of my book” like I’m supposed to be? I don’t see the part where I’m really, actually, writing academically, for real. Look what I did: reading (active reading, but still), and then aimless free writing that was part notes on the book I read but mostly my reactions to it, and later, cutting and pasting from stuff I’d already written in a half-ass sort of way in a bunch of document stubs. I don’t have any formal notes on the thing that I read, and I don’t have any new good sentences for my chapter. I’m at this stage in Chapter 1 where it’s just all garbage: I’m right at the beginning, I hardly know what I’m talking about, I’m sure I’ll never produce intelligent, researched prose ever again. I feel like I’m rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the proverbial doomed ocean liner. It feels, when I consider it, like I didn’t move anything at all forward in any way. Wwwwwwhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyyy.
And the conference “proposal” and the book chapter “proposal”! Those felt like cheating, too, because I wasn’t writing them from scratch, it was just more cutting and pasting, with some rejiggering. I don’t really feel like I’m allowed to say “I wrote 750 words today for a conference proposal and a book chapter pitch” because I don’t feel like I wrote them!
But this is how it gets done, I have to keep reminding myself. I’m never going to get to the “real” writing first if I don’t struggle with the secondary literature and chew it over pretty extensively. I’m never going to get the structure and content of the chapter if I don’t try to find some patterns and sense in my freewriting. I don’t have to make up brand new prose out of thin air for a conference or chapter proposal if I’ve already been doing some real writing on the topics in question. Rejiggering the prose is work, re-placing the emphasis or reframing the audience. That’s writing, in its way. I guess, though it doesn’t look like much, that this is the work. Indeed, it’s Wednesday morning, and I’m staring down more of the same: freewriting, active reading, trying to get a sense of what’s actually in all the notes and freewrites I’ve already produced over the last several months, taking formal notes on that book that is going to be so central for me. The slog. This is what it is sometimes. No brilliant insights, no pages of flowing text, no “thesis statement,” just building a beach, one grain of sand at a time.
If you’re in the slog too, bon courage. Let’s try today to remember that it ain’t pretty, but we’re getting it done. What does the slog look like for you, and how to convince yourself to keep going?