Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On Chapter 2 and the "Process" of Writing

Ha-HA! This blog is not dead, despite the winter's best attempts to kill it. We're all cranky as hell around here, though, so the break was probably for the best.

I'm closing up shop on the first draft of my second chapter, which is due to my advisor by Friday but might get there a few days early because I am so. Damn. SICK. of looking at it. Pardon my French.

But before it gets shipped off to be torn to shreds like a baby goat staked out for hungry advisor-lions, I thought I would take a moment to reflect on writing it, because it was an experience unlike any writing experience I've ever had, and I think we all know that by the fifth year of English graduate school, you've had a FEW.

In general, I'm a very disciplined and organized writer. I'm not saying that to brag; I wasn't born that way. I had a professor in college who made me that way by requiring loads of pre-writing, including several days of "thinking about it." He suggested that every page of a paper should take an hour to write, and twice as long to plan—horrifying when you're 20 and taking five other classes and at least trying to feign having a social life (thank God I've given that up). He also demanded outlines. I fell in love with outlines when I had him for Postmodern Fiction my sophomore year (Hi, Dr. Doody! Sorry I never finished Ulysses!), and every paper I wrote between then and this chapter was written from at least a rudimentary outline. I believed then and I still believe that outlines are the only genuinely effective way to write an argument that progresses logically and hangs together cogently.

This chapter, however, refused to be outlined. It refused to be pre-written in any sort of useful way except for that four-page screed I gave you a few months ago about Euphrosyne and her horrible father. Eventually that became a shaky nine-page conference paper, presented in December to merciful colleagues who merely suggested that my reading was "somewhat grim." As it stands today it's a 54-page Frankenstein of a chapter. I literally added pieces to it as they occurred to me, wrote it piecemeal and at random and in despair. I'll be surprised if, when I print it out, it doesn't turn yellow and march around the countryside looking for revenge and a suitable mate.

I'm not entirely sure why this chapter was so hard for me. I think in part because it represents genuine growth for me as a thinker: the writing is not great, but the theoretical underpinnings are strong. I am grappling with actual ideas about sex and how sex affects our identities as human beings, particularly as women, and even more particularly as daughters. Maybe I feel sort of like a (very) poor man's Judith Butler? Good ideas, insane sentence structure, wild leaps of intuition. I'm also working more or less without a net, in that these texts are very little regarded as literary phenomena among medievalists, and certainly have never been viewed through the lens of contemporary psychological and feminist theory, let alone at the same time, let alone in tandem with one another. You can see how we're getting into kind of niche territory here.

You might ask, woman, what is your point? And indeed, this is the very question I expect from my advisor upon reading my draft. But my point here is just to say, writing is hard. I didn't really know that before. I knew it was onerous, laborious, time-consuming, and a continual struggle for improvement. But I didn't know, personally and in my very bones, that it could be fundamentally difficult for days and days and months on end. That I could want to burn not only my papers but the papers of everybody who's ever talked about these texts, as well as the unique manuscripts in which these texts appear. Also, my point is that I have learned that dissertation chapters are like pregnancies: they're uncomfortable, expensive, and open you up to all kinds of unpleasant and invasive feedback. Also, there's an unpleasant amount of work at the very end. Okay, we've stretched this metaphor juuuuust about far enough.

So when I turn this chapter in, it's going to be rough. Rough rough rough capital-oh-god-my-skin-is-exfoliated-to-the-bone rough. It's going to be rough, but I think there's a diamond in there. Somewhere. A beautiful yellow Frankendiamond.