Category Archives: Writing

delete after writing

Greetings from the midst of what seems to be an enduring motivational slump, and/or a mismanaged case of burn-out which is still smouldering, and/or a resurgence of a well-entrenched fear of uncertainty regarding (un)employment which, while understandable in terms of its formation, is profoundly maladaptive nonetheless.

I can’t write right now.

I mean, OK, sure, I can fill a page (or screen) with words and sentences—the practice has elevated such spooling-out to the status of a reflex—but I can’t express anything with those words and sentences, beyond my distress at my inability to express anything with those words and sentences. Which is to say: the blockage is not at the level of linguistic flow, but at the level of articulation of ideas. All writing is, at present, the writing-out (or writing-through) of thought.

I know some writery types who would argue that all writing is inherently and necessarily writing-out, and that anything beyond that—anything coherent, anything worth showing to anyone else—is revision and editing. Maybe that’s a universal truth, I don’t know. I do know that in recent times I have felt able to compose and draft with relative ease, across a variety of forms: essays, talks, papers. Perhaps I was always kidding myself on that front… though my ability to get the resulting stuff published (after some revision, of course) suggests that if I was fooling myself, then I was also fooling a lot of other people as well. Chalk another one up to “fake it ’til you make it”, maybe?

Nonetheless, here I am with a bunch of already-bumped deadlines on commissioned work, with fairly open briefs based around topics I’ve been working on for a decade or more, which were offered to me precisely because the commissioning persons believe I have something interesting and/or valuable to say… and I can barely structure an argument, let alone get past the extravagant throat-clearing that is part of my drafting process.

It’s not like I don’t know what the problem is. Hell, it’s right there in my first line: I am demotivated. To put it in some of my favoured theoretical terms, we might say that, after five to ten years of driving hard for a particular utopian destination, my encountering an impassable feature of the landscape has forced me to abandon that particular goal. The utopian direction of travel—utopian on both a personal and more general level—is still valid, I think. But I have run out of road. It’s not that the bridge is down, exactly… but at the risk of overextending the metaphor—a consistent happy-place tactic, if ever I’ve had one—it has become clear that my odds of making it over the bridge are incredibly slim, and dwindling by the day. Being confronted with this reality has also seen me give greater credence to dark rumours of what’s going down on the other side… though perhaps that’s just a mechanism for coming to terms with things.

But look at me, here, shrouding this stuff in overwrought metaphor; it’s telling that I can’t just say what I mean, isn’t it? Well, how about this, then: I’m not going to make it past the postdoctoral bottleneck of academia. There are a whole bunch of reasons for this, most of them systemic. It’s not a failure on my part so much as it’s a mismatch. It’s not that what I do isn’t useful, and it’s not that I don’t do it well enough. It’s just that there’s no free hole for this very square peg.

Well, selah. At least I can write, right?

Haha, yeah, OK. There are always droughts. I’ve been through droughts before. Just gotta keep tilling the soil, waiting for the rains to return.

But for now, I thirst.

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On the matter of that mismatch: in some respects perhaps it’s stylistic (which is a topic for another day), but in others it’s perhaps due to the particular way in which I learned to write, and therefore to think. This aside from Dave Beer struck a chord this morning, while I was waiting at my vårdcentral for a bloodtest*:

Criticism and reviewing are often sidelined aspects of academic work […] Imagine being the social science eqivelent of a literary critic. You could write about and respond to books in the field, reviewing and thinking about debates and ideas. The focus would be on the dialogue around those ideas. Imagine writing review essays as a main outlet rather than more conventional journal articles. Book reviews and studies of thinkers and so on would be the preoccupation of that type of approach.

Oh, I have imagined being that—many times over. I have imagined it a lot in the last few months, in fact, as I try to conceive of a business model which would enable me to keep doing what I’m good at (and what I love). With apologies for seeming to compare myself to a philosophical titan, I came to writing (and the thinking that is writing) in much the same way as Benjamin, who is Beer’s point of departure in the piece linked above: I started out as a hand-to-mouth reviewer of books and music, and went from there to the rough and ready run-with-an-idea modality of blogging. One might uncharitably characterise this as a fundamentally reactive sort of writing/thinking—reactive, though I hope not reactionary—but it might be more generously described as synthetic, or maybe bricolage. (And what was Benjamin’s incomplete and perhaps uncomplete-able magnum opus, The Arcades Project, if not a sort of intensely literary and theoretical sort of bricolage?)

The cliche says that constraint is a gift to creativity, but I wonder if that isn’t also phrased in an unflattering way that conceals the really useful idea at its core. I have certainly known well the terror of the blank page, an arctic waste of risk, devoid of landmarks. And there are writerly Scotts, of course, bold adventurers for whom that howling and desperate terrain is as seductive as the sirens. But in writing, in thought, I suppose I am just as much a coward as I am in the physical realm.

(When I tell people that I climb, they often say “oh, you must not be afraid of heights, then”, to which I reply—very sincerely—that no, I am terrified of falling from heights, and that climbing for me is exactly about finding a way to not fall. And now it occurs to me that perhaps my current travails, discussed above, are the writerly equivalent of my recovery, still ongoing, from last year’s climbing injury: the physical break itself is mostly healed, but my psychological strength viz climbing is still not quite back where it was before the fall.)

The prompt—whether provided by a commission, a call-for-papers, or simply plucked from the rapids of the newsfeeds—has never felt to me like a constraint on my writing/thinking. Perhaps because it doesn’t tell me where I have to finish, but only where I might start.

All the thoughts I’ve ever had on infrastructure, whether written here or elsewhere, would likely never have happened if I hadn’t ended up working in an environment where responding to the word ‘infrastructure’ was the order of the day. I didn’t choose to be interested in infrastructure, really; rather, I was invited to think about it, given a point of departure. The same is probably true of futurity, though that was a more nebulous, emergent and zeitgeisty thing… and that came only after I had wandered outward from science fiction.

I have always said that the appeal of academia to me lay in its being the first way I ever found to make a stable and above-basic-survival income through the acts of reading, thinking, and writing about what I have read and thought. (Part of my coming-to-terms with the closing of that bridge is the recognition that, with very few exceptions, full-time academics spend perhaps ten percent of their working time on that aspect of academic endeavour.) With hindsight, the utopian destination of my blogging hey-day was something very much like the Benjamin-via-Beer practice above: writing from starting points that someone might pay for, and finding my way to what I now recognise as the synthesis of theory—a direction of travel (or perhaps a personal mental gravitation) which I suspect would prompt recognition in people who knew me long before I even decided to start writing.

Which is to say—perhaps—that I never really became a writer, so much as discovered that I always already was one? But no, that’s too much like falling back on fate as a causal principle, and fate is bullshit. Synchronicity is not pattern recognition, it’s pattern imposition. Conspiracy, fate and theory: all these are modes of personal narrative.

A shitload of words, here, from the point of departure of “I can’t write”. Perhaps the lesson here is that while a point of departure is necessary, it is not sufficient; some sense, however vague, of that direction of travel is also necessary.

It’ll come. The rains will come. I will find a new road.

But still I thirst.

[ * — Nothing serious, or so I hope; just trying to confirm that the slump isn’t a thyroid issue, or some other more obviously physical problem that might occur in a middle-aged person such as myself. ]

the satisfactions of submission

What did I get up to over the Easter weekend this year?

Yup, crankin’ out a grant application, because academia is a harsh mistress, and I choose to abase myself in the hope of her favour.

Thanks to slightly improved process management protocols on my part (read as: keeping track of when I do what I do, and for how long), I now have an answer to the question “how long does it take to write a grant application, anyway?” That answer is “about 30 hours”—though it bears noting that the requirements of funders vary hugely when it comes to the amount of written material required (FORMAS, for instance, want a lot less from you than the ERC, but then they’re offering smaller amounts), and further that those are hours of actual drafting and writing, and don’t include the (effectively unmeasurable) hours of actually thinking up the project idea in the first place.

It’s because of the latter that you couldn’t just string the former together into one working week of doing nothing else but writing a grant. Or, well, you could do that, and I believe people quite often do—I don’t think it a coincidence that FORMAS puts these deadlines right after the long weekend at the start of spring!—but it would be a pretty unpleasant slog of a week, and you wouldn’t have the bonus time for your subconscious to work out the kinks while you’re doing something else.

(You would also lack the time for things serendipitously encountered in the course of your current research to provide you with the hook or connective concept that turns an interesting but vague idea into an actual project, which was definitely the case here: I only became properly aware of the actual site/case at the heart of this application a couple of weeks back.)

Well, then—now begins the long wait to see if I can convince a panel of reviewers as well as I can convince myself. I’ll know whether I succeeded or not by late November… by which time I may (or may not!) have heard whether I got anywhere with the job applications I did back in January.

Bleurrrgh, why exactly is it that I want to be an academic anyway? Oh, I remember—it’s because, for all the bureaucratic hoopla that comes with it, it’s still the only job I’ve had that I feel like I’m good at, and actually enjoy doing. No tiny violin here; I’ve chosen to play roulette at this particular table, and I’ve chosen to bet everything I have. If I don’t come out on top, it won’t be for lack of my giving the wheel a good spin.

Selah! Now that’s out of the way, I can get on with the book chapter that’s due in *checks calendar* oh, seventeen days…

(EXIT, stage left, pursued by deadlines, but still smiling)

it’s too big and they are a lot harder to play than they look

I wouldn’t describe myself as a Nick Cave fan; I know far too many folk who are deeply into one or more of his various phases of work to claim that I’m anything more than aware of his position in the cultural landscape.

(It probably dates me pretty clearly if I note that, for me, Nick Cave will always be first and foremost the droll yet terrifying cranium-and-curtains that loomed over Kylie in the rinsed-on-MTV video for “Where the Wild Roses Grow”.)

So, yeah, I’m aware of the guy’s position in the landscape—and aware that you don’t get to such a position without having some sort of artistic mojo, even if it’s not to everyone’s taste. I’ve heard some of his music, which is enough to know he has a knack for narrative, but I’ve never read any of his fiction.

Having read this recent tall-tale anecdote about him meeting Nicolas Cage, however, I find myself thinking I should give his writing a try: it’s a brilliant little story, well-paced, making best use out of the eccentric reputations of both major characters, and full of the sorts of telling details and self-deprecation which make even an admitted (partial?) fabrication into something that you dearly want to believe. If I were teaching creative writing, I think I’d put it on the syllabus.

changing phases

I seem to have gotten myself published again, in the fiction qua fiction domain*.

Talk about TOC imposter syndrome… I had no idea I’d be appearing alongside that roster of names! (Click through above to see it in full, but it includes Corey J White, Eugen Bacon, Paolo Bacigalupi, Greg Egan, Simon Sellars, Cat Sparks, Grace Dugan… I mean, c’mon now.) Many thanks to Matthew Chrulew for seeing some merit in the thing I cranked out, and for being forgiving on deadlines for a contributor who lost a week to The ‘Rona.

(Yes, this was one of the many things I had to write very quickly in January—and almost certainly the most enjoyable, given the others were job applications.)

Here’s the cover in full, courtesy artist Perdita Phillips on the birdsite:

If you’re wondering where and when you can get a copy, well, so am I; that news is not yet out. I would point you at Twelfth Planet Press’s website, but it doesn’t seem to have been updated for a couple years, so best follow their birdsite account as embedded above, I guess? I’ll point to more concrete things when I know where to point.

[ * I say “fiction qua fiction” because so much of my academic work tends to have fictional, or at least speculative, elements in it these days… but the irony is that my fiction, when I have the time to produce it, increasingly includes non-fictional and/or academic forms and styles, and this piece is no exception in that regard. But if you want to know what I mean by that, well, you’re just gonna have to buy the book, aren’t you? ]

thoughts on (academic) writing

Not mine, to be clear—I still think of myself as woefully underqualified to advise on academic writing, even more so than the other sorts of writing I do—but rather Dave Beer’s thoughts on academic writing.

I like that he’s at pains to frame them as thoughts, rather than as rules, or even tips; writing advice can easily be taken as gospel doctrine, not least because that’s what many newer writers are looking for, and they may thus miss the conditional stuff if it’s not heavily signposted. (That was certainly the case for me, at any rate.)

Some of these cross over with writing more generally, but I’m comforted to see a few of my own stumbled-upon strategies among the more academically oriented ones. F’rex:

3. Try to get a structure in place as early as possible. The structure can adapt but always have a working structure. Only change it if a better structure comes along.

Hell, yes. My corollary to this one would be: the abstract you pitched for this thing, which you will probably write a number of months or even years before you actually start writing the piece itself, should implicitly sketch the structure you have in mind. If you can’t see the basic structure of the thing you’re pitching, don’t send the abstract. (Learned this one the hard way.) Also, do a sketch of the outline somewhere you’ll be able to find it when it comes time to start the writing, as this will remove one of the major anxiety-procrastination obstacles to getting started.

5. When editing, don’t be afraid to delete content. See it as blowing away the loose chippings to reveal the carving underneath.

I know this is good advice, but I’m terrible at doing it. My compromise hack is a combination of versioning (i.e. save the early draft full of stuff I know you should delete but can’t bear to, rename the file, save again, then delete the stuff) and clipping (i.e. slicing those bits out and dumping them at the end of the document, so I can tell myself they’re there to reinstate if I need them; I very rarely need them).

8. If possible, printout and do the final read through on paper and mark-up changes with a red pen. Printed versions create distance and make the spatial aspects of the writing visible.

This is universal advice for all writers of any sort. I mean, seriously.

12. Plan the writing to give you a reason to read the things you most want to read.

An interesting strategy, and an interesting insight into a more mature (and presumably less precarious) academic practice. I assume this goes for a lot of non-fic authors and long-form journos as well.

14. Try to have only one substantial writing project on the go at any one time. Always know what the writing priority is before sitting down to write.

Hahahahah, oh fuck. *looks at writing schedule* Fuck.

19. Writing is difficult. Embrace the difficulty.

Well, yes. But the quality of that difficulty changes with experience, I think. My difficulty used to be getting the words down on the page, but nowadays the difficulty is getting the good words out of the vast pile of not so good words I’ve vomited forth in the drafting process.

Which is why—in contradiction of my own feelings about giving advice mentioned above—I am a cautious advocate of the handwritten draft: writing by hand slows you down a bit (though not so much as you might think, once you get back into the swing of it), and it also forces an early editing stage when it comes to getting the thing into the digital domain for further work. But I’ve also found it weirdly freeing: a blank screen still intimidates me horribly, but a blank notebook page is a place to play around with ideas without risk. I guess this is a result of the practice.