Monday, September 7, 2009

Writing from a Place of Ignorance

So, the book is in, but no time to rest on my laurels, because I've got an ambitious writing program for this semester that includes a workable (thought not review-ready) draft of an 8,000-word essay by December, and a 2,000-word conference paper by November. I've picked up a writing guide that suggests beginning by assessing your feelings about writing, and confronting the things that have blocked you in the past. And what came out of this little exercise last night was that my biggest block was not feeling like I could write until I had read everything there was to know about the subject. So this morning, I tried something totally new for me: writing from a place of ignorance.

The longer piece is commissioned: I've been asked to write something that plays off my argument in the book, but that extends that argument both chronologically and geographically. It's going to be broader, and necessarily more general, but it needs to make an actual argument, rather than being merely expository.

So this morning, I threw myself out of bed early, rather than sleeping in as I could have on a holiday, got myself to my writing spot, and started to write. At this stage, all I could muster were musings: What would my essay need to cover? Where would it build off of what I already knew? What new territory would I need to cover? From there, I mused about new resources I would need to gather, both secondary and primary. I also wrote about people and resources I could consult to get me there.

Within an hour and a half, I had written over 900 words. Now, these are not words that will make it into the final project (note that the word counter in the sidebar is reset to zero). But they're words.

It seems that the only way to be one of those "write every day" people (and all the truly productive academics I know are of this type) is to actually do it. Writing every day might mean just writing up whatever I will have read the previous evening. Or it could be that famed "shitty first draft" that Anne Lamott speaks of. But most of all, in these early stages, it means writing without worrying about my ignorance. Ignorance is not stupidity, it's just lack of information, and that information will come in time.

More on this as it develops.

UPDATE: Only 10 minutes after finishing this post, I cruised over to Clio Bluestocking's place, where I saw that she had posted on much the same thing (though with more detail on her project-in-progress), including a link to the "shitty first draft." Gotta love the synchronicity of it all.


Good Enough Woman said...

I am currently at a coffee shop writing out of ignorance. You summed up how I feel about my whole dissertation. Since I'm doing it at a UK university, I don't have orals, which means no one really made sure I knew my subject before I started my work. Also, the author I'm writing about is an c18 author, and the c18 was not previously a strong area, so I'm writing myself out of a hole. But my supervisor recommended that I start writing right away rather than waiting until I know what I'm talking about. This is a very difficult thing for me to do, but as I keep going, I'm rather grateful for this approach since I'm not sure I'll ever really know what I'm talking about.

Hope the process works for you! Thanks for the post.

Rachel said...

This post was exactly what I needed to hear today.

Out of curiosity, what is the writing book? Or would you rather not say?

Clio Bluestocking said...

Great, if blocked, minds think alike!

Anonymous said...

I started having to do this for conference deadlines that were just too close. 'There isn't time to read round it, I only have time to check things', went my logic, 'so what do I need to check? Well, for that I have to write something'. These papers don't seem to do any worse or better than my fully-studied papers but they're much nicer to read because I wrote them of a piece rather than in bits over months. So I think it's a good way to work, if not the only way to work. Good luck! (And I hope the road wounds are healed.)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thanks, all! I wrote a shitty 690 words this morning, but it only took me a little over an hour. Plus, I've got my next day's work all mapped out for me.

@ Rachel: I'll post on the book itself in a couple of weeks, once I've had a chance to review its efficacy.

undine said...

Thanks--this helps, as Rachel said. Also, what is the writing book?

Bavardess said...

I have the same writing block - for me, a particularly nefarious form of procrastination, because I can convince myself I am actually doing something productive by putting off writing until I've done all the reading. It must be working for you, as I notice your word count is steadily climbing.