On writing when the words want to be somewhere else

I am writing this from a writing retreat in the beautiful Devon Valley near Stellenbosch. I am hugely lucky to be starting my writing year here, away from the pressures and activities of everyday mum-and-wife life, where all I have to actually do all day is put words onto a page and make them make some kind of sense. However, I am finding the actual doing of the writing hard work this week.

doldebretonkne

Dol-de-Breton

I am writing a book. A whole one, on my own. I have been thinking and scribbling about this book for a long time. It has been like circling a huge obelisk, going round and round looking for a door or a way in, and finding none. Or circling a block of marble, trying to see the statue inside it so that you know where and how to start chipping away at it. But there is no door, and the statue is a fuzzy blur, so round and round I have been going, not quite writing, but not quite doing nothing either. It is just too big. How do I start? What do I write first? How do I get this right?

The first thing I have told myself, firmly but in a kind tone of voice, is that I must actually stop being such a faff and write something, anything. Just start, and try not to edit, and some words will come. They probably will not be right, but they don’t have to be right now. They just have to be written, and once I start, like a tap being turned on, the ideas will start to come from the swirly depths of my mind where they have been percolating and find their way out, and slowly be formed into a logical story. So, this is what I have done, yesterday and today so far. I have just made myself write, for 20 minute slots at a time. Freewriting, as it were. It’s slow, and difficult and frustrating, but I am slowly starting to see the statue. It’s just a finger, or an eyeball, at this point. But it’s there.

woman-reading-by-lamplight

Interior with reading woman by Carl Vilhelm Holsøe

This brings me to the second thing I am counselling myself about, in a slightly more exasperated tone of voice. When I started conceptualising this book, and talking to one of my advisors about it, I had these romantic visions of me and my book, up late at night, lamplight burning in my office, typing away while the words and ideas flowed. We were going to be so productive, and clever, and it was all going to be so enjoyable, and intellectually stimulating. The reality is … less romantic. My office is such a mess I can’t even see my desk. I am so tired by 8pm there is no chance of coherent thoughts beyond that hour. And the words, they are not flowing. They are trickling, at best. So my romantic vision is pretty much shot to pieces, and this disappoints me. Which then leads to more circling of the obelisk, and less actual chipping away at the door or statue. Don’t get me wrong here: I expected much drafting and revisions and rewriting, but I just didn’t expect to not enjoy it. I hope I will enjoy it eventually, but right now I am not having much fun.

The final thing I am advising myself on comes from a friend and mentor: I have to be prepared to write rubbish that I will eventually delete or chop out in order to get going. This is a tough one. I know, of course, that with every paper and chapter and so on that I write, there are parts that are written and then later binned because they no longer fit, or strike the wrong tone, or just are wrong. I write rubbish, for sure. But writing a page or two of rubbish for a journal article feels like a lot less potential time wasting than writing pages and pages of rubbish for an 80,000 word book. I think this is what I am struggling with: I have a deadline, and other things to do as well as writing this book, so I kind of want to start writing and have it be the actual book, and not all the drafting and writing around that will eventually start becoming the book through cutting, deleting, selecting and more writing.

I remember feeling this way at the beginning of my PhD – staring up at this obelisk and wondering how on earth I would actually make it into something other than a lump of rock. Then, I had a supervisor to chivvy me on, and wonder where my drafts were and give me feedback. Now, I feel I just have me to hold myself accountable, and I am not always very good at that.

stone-dressing-tools-1-1-800x800So, I am trying to stop being romantic about this, I am trying to stop expecting all the words to be good, and perfect and erudite. I am trying to just write what I can now, and trust that the rest will come if I put in the time, slog through the difficulty and slow writing days, and do the work that I know needs to be done. That’s not a sexy, super-slick and easy plan. (Sorry about that.) But it’s a plan I can work with, that will break me out of the circling, put the chisel in my hand and start the chipping process. And that’s enough, for now.

Revisions part two: ‘panel-beating’ and polishing

I am working on revisions, again, and I have stumbled upon a useful metaphor for thinking about what I am doing and what is needed in this final round of revisions prior to submitting my thesis. I am an amateur potter, and I go to lessons every week to learn how to throw and build and decorate beautiful pots, jugs and other kinds of ceramics. I find this physical, tactile kind of labour very therapeutic and also challenging and it has occurred to me that making a pot is not unlike creating something like my thesis. Allow me to elaborate.

The thesis, like the pot, starts off like this:

From astonegatherer.blogspot.com

This is your basic lump of clay – therein lies the idea, the development of that idea and its final product, but at this stage it is just potential. This is both a lovely and frustrating stage – you can quite enjoy just letting the ideas and potential swirl around inside of your head, because it’s much more pleasant than actually doing the work of shaping and building them into something. But when you have decided what it is going to look like and be, you want the pot to just emerge, fully formed, without all the hard work required to make thus actually happen. But you have to do the work, so you wedge and knead the clay – you start your reading and thinking and scribbling – and you start rolling out your coils or the strands of your argument and begin joining them together.

The thesis starts to take shape:

From pottery.about.com

From pottery.about.com

It starts to look like something recognisable as a thesis, or parts of one. If you hand-build pots, like I tend to do, you will know that this process can take a fair amount of time. The smaller the pot the less time, but a thesis, in this metaphor, is a very large and detailed pot, and this takes a long time to build and decorate and polish and perfect before it is strong enough to withstand the heat of the kiln (or examination). You can’t add too many coils in one session or the pot will start to collapse. You need to go carefully, you need to make sure there are no air bubbles in the clay, and ensure your joins between the coils and strong and well-made. In the thesis, you write and read in stages, with thinking and supervisor meetings and feedback in between. This can, therefore, be a long and sometimes frustrating process. It takes a while for your pot to take its shape, and for a long time it can just look like an arbitrary moulding of clay – not unique, not special, not noteworthy. In terms of the thesis, this is the long middle stage after the proposal and before the first full draft where you just have drafts of chapters and these can be well-written, but they’re not really taking the shape of a whole yet – they are just coils in the pot, some more carefully and robustly joined together than others.

But you move on, as you must, to the next stage:

commons.wikimedia.org

From commons.wikimedia.org

This is the stage where you can start putting the parts together more seamlessly to make a whole – the joins are smoothed over. You use tools, like a wooden paddle and a grater and an old credit card, to beat the pot into the shape you want it to take, grate off the extra clay where the pot is thick and the clay uneven – too much here, perhaps not enough there. You add and smooth in pieces of clay where the walls are not thick enough. You smooth the sides with a credit card, making sure there are no obvious lumps and bumps. It’s almost there. In the thesis, you are joining the chapters into the whole, writing the introduction and conclusion. You are deleting repetitive parts you no longer need – these made sense when the chapters were all separate but not now that they are together. You see gaps now that you didn’t see before and add into these the required information and explanation. It’s not quite there yet, but it’s definitely looking like a pot, and not just any pot, but your pot. This is, in my case, your first full draft.

Then your pot gets checked over by your teacher – your thesis goes to your supervisor – and although they have been helping you along the way, this is the first time they (and you) can see the pot or thesis as a whole and also see what it is that you are trying to actually make it into. They can offer a different kind of help – help aimed at perfecting the pot or thesis. Further panelbeating and grating may be needed. Further additions may be necessary too. You may be advised to add decoration or detail you had not thought to add yet. You are being assisted with polishing the pot or thesis – making it strong enough for the fires of the kiln or judgement of the examiners.

From ceramicsartdaily.org

From ceramicsartdaily.org

This is the stage I feel I am working through now. I am polishing my thesis. I am taking out extraneous words and sentences, clarifying points that are vague, adding small qualifying explanations or additional points I feel are necessary. I am editing my references and making sure my tables and figures all find themselves on the right pages and not separated from their captions, and so on. I am getting, slowly but surely, to the point where I will feel confident enough to put this pot into the kiln, to brave the process of examination and find out what further corrections or changes I must make. In pottery, there are two firings, just as in PhD examination there are two stages. The first is a bisque firing, at a high temperature. This sets the pot, but it is not often finished at this stage (although if you and your teacher are happy with it, and it survives the firing intact, you can take it home just like that – the mythical ‘award with no corrections’). Often a potter has to opt to glaze or paint their pot – one final round of revision to make it absolutely perfect. It is fired again, often at a lower temperature, and when it emerges, one hopes it looks like this, whole, perfect and beautiful to behold:

From ceramicsartdaily.org

From ceramicsartdaily.org

I quite like this metaphor. It resonates with me, and with the process I have worked through, and am still working through, in writing my doctoral thesis. This pot, by Ian Garrett, is something I am trying to reproduce in clay at the moment, and I am hoping I will be able to fire it around the same time as I finish the thesis revisions, which seems a fitting way to bring this process to it’s close (well, until the glazing/corrections, of course!).