Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What I Meant by "Don't Write What Bores You"

I'm rounding the corner on a conference paper culled from the chapter that had been fighting me for the past few months, and that I recently put to bed, even though it was by no means ready to go. It had a beginning, middle, and end, so I could walk away. But I wasn't satisfied.

And about a week ago, I realized that the problem was that the chapter as I had constructed it just didn't interest me. The facts were right, but the argument was forced, in general because I couldn't make myself care one little bit about the stuff I was writing about.

I was, in short, writing the chapter for the same reason that I put on pants in the morning: because I thought people would expect it. "Where's your chapter on X?", I imagined them saying. "How could you possibly write a book about Blerg City in this time and place without going in depth into this Very Important Issue?"

Well, yeah. I don't disagree. It's an important part of the larger story I want to tell. But I couldn't make myself care. And as a result, I had 20,000 flat, boring words that had taken me months to put together, and that no one could conceivably enjoy reading.

Once this realization dawned on me, I left my office took a walk around the Hogwarts grounds, which are lovely grounds for strolling. I muttered to myself[1] as I strolled -- "I don't care about that. What I'm really interested in is..." -- until I could finish that sentence.

Now, as heu mihi pointed out in the comments to my previous post, sometimes we do have to write boring-to-us stuff in order to get to the thing that interests us. True enough. But what I'm talking about is entire long stretches of writing -- a chapter, an article, god help us a book -- that we just don't give a damn about. The way I see it, if you don't decide to just trash it and walk away, and you don't want to publish something that just lies there like a dead fish, you have one choice: find the thing within the boring thing that actually interests you, and make that your center.

This is just what I did. I did it on a smaller scale: I have a conference paper in two weeks, so I need about 3500 words (it's a longer paper) on a nice, tight idea. So I'm writing this paper around that interesting idea. And I think -- I hope -- that this may save my chapter. But more on that later.

[1] As I did so, I tried not to worry that passers-by would think I was nuts. Hogwarts, I reasoned, is the kind of place where the first assumption might be to assume I was a mad genius. And anyway, I'll be leaving in a few months, so who cares what they think?


Flavia said...

Agreed with this (& your previous) 100%. And I do something similar when I'm stuck, or when my argument seems to be just a dull, plodding thing: "what I think is REALLY going on in this text is ..." usually it's something insane and unprovable and that I could never phrase that way in a work of scholarship, but allowing myself to just blurt out my hunches keeps me in touch with them and helps me move to something more productive.

Susan said...

I often think the process from rough draft to next draft is a matter of "What is it that's really interesting here" and then reshaping the mass of information I've got into something that tells a story.

And the Hogwarts grounds are perfect for wandering and talking to yourself.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Are you gonna come to the City? We'll cook you dinner!