On Writing: Experience

I’m working through Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks and have decided to blog some of my responses to talk through my process. I don’t spend a lot of time talking about my writing, or how it works, and I think there are some reasons for that I should spend some time unpacking. Belcher says early on that many academics will not discuss their writing or how they work, and my first reaction was pffft, no big deal, I have no issue with that—but upon reflection, I think I do. And and I think I know why.

I came to academia as someone who was not an academic. I don’t mean in the sense of someone young/inexperienced coming into a field to be trained. I mean I never meant to be an academic at first. I began grad school as a creative writer, pursing an MFA, and I didn’t feel particularly prepared to write the long papers required in my literature seminars. Later, once I transitioned to my PhD work in rhetoric, I was better able to understand why and how I felt unprepared, but it still requires a lot of consideration as I attempt to solve it.

I’m a strong writer and I’ve been writing for a long time. I worked as a professional writer and editor, after all, before I returned to school, and when I was still writing fiction regularly, I published a fair amount. The act of writing, of just sitting down and putting words on the page, comes easy for me. Here I am, doing it right now! But writing well, for a purpose… that’s different.

I was a nontraditional student when I completed my undergraduate work. I’d dropped out at… 19? I think so, and I didn’t go back to school until later in my twenties, when I was already a working writer. Not long after, I had a child, which complicated my schoolwork. But the real complication was that I felt I knew how to write, and I was somewhat smug about it – after all, writing paid my bills. I thought I was just there to get an official document that proved what I already knew: I was a writer! Which is why my first paper in a higher level lit class came as such a shock when I got it back from my professor. I’d gotten a C. Never in my life had I gotten less than praise for something I’d written (y’know, outside of comment sections on blogs, where everything is terrible).

I raged. I was so angry. The professor was wrong. He was out to get me. He hated me. The class was garbage. Etc. But looking back, I know now that C was probably generous and it was much deserved. I didn’t know how to write a long paper. Sometimes I think I still don’t, or rather, I feel continually uncertain. Once I started my PhD, and seminar papers were a fact of life and not just a thing I had to do between writing stories, I had to start being a lot more intentional about my writing. I started tearing down journal articles and examining structure. I started to study how people built arguments.

I learned a few things about myself:

  1. I didn’t know how to write. I knew how to imitate and had been imitating all my life. (This has been very eye-opening for my pedagogy!)
  2. I have such a terrible, crushing fear of being wrong or missing something and it often means I spend more time double- and triple-checking when I should be writing.

Now I don’t mean to say that imitation is wrong (it’s a great way to learn), or that I shouldn’t worry about being wrong or missing something – I should! of course I should! But I can’t let that become an excuse. I think this example illustrates the difference:

Example 1: When I used to write frequently for NYMG, I would fact-check and research all my posts pretty extensively. It often took me much longer to gather notes and links and evidence than to actually write, but that made me feel good – I had solid explanations for things and I anticipated reader questions. When I read something and there’s an obvious hole, it bothers me as a reader, so I try to combat that. This isn’t a bad thing. It meant even my most casual blog posts were researched and I wasn’t just relying on my perspective, which can be problematic.

So that was great! Example 2 is… less great.

Example 2: I’ve been working for years now on my dissertation research, which is an interdisciplinary study of publication practices in game studies. I love this research. I find it fulfilling, endlessly fascinating, and necessary. I’m also terrified constantly that I have done everything wrong, that my conclusions are incorrect, that my data is poor, that I’m just wrong and stupid and everyone will hate me when they see how wrong and stupid I am.

Obviously, none of this is true. The work has been read by enough people that I know this isn’t true, even when my terrible inner voice whispers to me, and I have read enough work in a similar vein that I know I’m on the right track. But because I’m working in an area in which I’m not formally trained (because I am adapting and adjusting methods that I have created), and straddling a number of disciplinary lines, there’s a lot of room for doubt. But because this work is so important to me, and because I didn’t have some specific training (that doesn’t exist), it’s easy for me to question myself.

So I go back to reading instead of writing. I keep incorporating new things, or making notes to incorporate new things, at least. I check with others, I revise old things instead of adding new, and I don’t send any of it out. I find endless excuses to just sit on it, like a dragon guarding a nest of treasure.

Sometimes that terrible drive to be “right” is really just fear. And that’s what I’m combatting. I don’t know how to convince myself that I actually do know how to write. Obviously, all that time spent tearing down journal articles and studying structure helped; my work has thus far been well received. But it hasn’t yet been enough to convince me that I’m okay. That I’m doing just fine. I’m hoping that maybe doing this, writing about my feelings and process, will be a healthy step on a new path.