Tuesday, December 6, 2011

How I lost the joy of writing.


Writing has been difficult for me lately.  My inability to create blog posts is symptomatic of a larger condition.  Basically, I can't get out of my own way.  Lots of people say that writing is therapeutic, and I guess it is.  But writing is more than that for me.  It is integral to my understanding of myself as a human being.  When I was little, I could feel the words traveling down my arms and dripping out my fingertips into the pen and then onto the paper.  Words and ideas thrilled me, and I reveled in the ability to take the raw clay of thought and emotion and translate them into something that could be shared between people.  It made me feel so much less alone.

Somewhere along the way, in the course of my perfectionism, I mixed up the need to write with others' assessment of my writing skill.  Finishing a doctorate was difficult for me, not so much intellectually as emotionally.  The work itself was fascinating and enjoyable, but the process of editing and revising was disheartening.  In contrast to many of my fellow students, my dissertation process was a cake walk.  I had a doctoral committee made of up nurturing and patient people.  They were gentle in their criticisms, and because they were generous educators, I began the dissertation process with a strong foundation of support which meant that my work was less in need of correction by the time I reached the final stages.  This facilitated the process significantly.  Even so, the process required that I submit my dissertation chapters first to my interdisciplinary committee of three professors (one with a PhD in history, one with a PhD in Religion Studies, and one with a PhD in English).  They each made their recommendations and I revised the work until the manuscript was complete.  At that point, I could submit the work to them in its complete although still imperfected form.  They made more (mostly minor) recommendations.  I revised again and, after receiving their go-ahead, submitted the manuscript to my second reader.  She accepted it with only minor recommendations.  After receiving her seal of approval, I then had to send the manuscript to the dean's office which then sent it ahead to an outside reader.  They don't tell you who the person is, but I believe in my case they chose a scholar working in Hawaii.  Following that person's comments to which I had to formally respond, my dissertation was then submitted for reading and criticism to the dean's office.  Working with my doctoral committee, I was then responsible for creating a response to the dean's comments.  When that process was over, I had a final meeting with my doctoral committee.  At this point they could bring up any final recommendations that had with the writing and/or with outside readers' recommendations.  Additionally, I was working with a professional editor who, though a sweet and wise woman, was not going to pull any punches in her editorial approach. 

  The entire process had its merits.  I was glad to know that the process promoted a high level of quality in my work.  I appreciated the attention and care I received from my readers who were consistently enthusiastic and caring in their approach.  My university encouraged a "nurturing" rather than a confrontational approach to scholarship.  I've adopted this style in my own classroom with good results.    On the other hand, I found myself exhausted by this process at the end of which I was thoroughly sick of all intellectual activities.  While my process was shorter than those endured by others at my university, it still took longer to receive approval of the dissertation than it did for me to write the darn thing. Added to that were bureaucratic snafus. At one point one when I sent my dissertation for review, a college office worker deleted the document and did not tell anyone until months later when I inquired about its status in the review process.  It was also an expensive process.  I could either have purchased three large furnished Victorian homes or this doctorate that has provided me with a job that barely covers the cost of my so-called "income adjusted" student loan payments.  Because I'm not able to make larger payments, my interest (and my related self-loathing and discouragement) keeps compounding and my debt, which will likely never be paid even if I lived to be 300 years old, is astronomical.

There are times when I feel pride in my accomplishment and take great pleasure in the knowledge and skills I gained in the process.  But most of the time I really wish I hadn't done it.  In fact, I'm ashamed of my motivation to be recognized as a thinker and almost feel that I deserve the low income, high debt, and diminished sense of self-worth that accompanies my doctorate.  I earned that humility as payment for my hubris.  What made me think that I needed or deserved recognition?  If I had learned how to be content as a homemaker and mother, I would not be in the fix I'm in now and my children would not be paying for my desire to "be someone."  I might even still enjoy writing.

I miss that feeling of exhilation and the rush of creativity I used to associate with writing.  One of the most uncomfortable results of my ten years of working on my M.A. and PhD are that my joy of writing was severed from the act of writing.  Ten years of criticism of one's thoughts and of one's expressions of those thoughts can be a bit discouraging.  Because I am a perfectionist, a page of glowing remarks about my work was always completely undone by any mention of even the smallest error.  After fourteen years of undergraduate and graduate discipline, writing stopped being fun.

But I'm trying to remedy that.  I'm trying to relearn how to write for the joy of writing.  This blog is often helpful to me in that capacity.  There is a reason why I don't spend much time editing this.  I submit these posts as raw offerings.  I don't want to concern myself with the fussy details of editing. That sucks for my readers, but is a gift to myself.  Sure, it embarrasses me when I find obvious errors in spelling or grammar.  I'm irritated with awkward phrasing or repetitious word use.  But learning how to write again without hearing the relentless voice of the critic in my mind is an important step for me in my recovery from university.

The next step is to be able to write without feeling that I must be solidly expert in the ideas I explore.  I don't mean that I'm just going to spout off about shit I don't know about.  (Look at that!  I ended a sentence with a preposition, and I am not going to edit it.  In your face, Perfectionism!) What it does mean is that I'm going to give myself permission to explore topics that I've not allowed myself to explore. I am going to challenge myself to use prompts in my writing to try to crack the ice that has formed over my thinking.  I'm becoming so conservative and cautious.  I need to nip that in the bud.  To that end, I've found a Pagan blog prompt site that suggests topics on which a Pagan blogger may write.  Sounds like fun to me.

6 comments:

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Hystery,

I am very impressed with all the work you climbed through to get a PhD. 'Everest' so high;-)

And by the way I sometimes like sentences ending in a preposition 'about.' Which literary scholar said that rule was a dumb one? Maybe C.S. Lewis?

But I am mostly glad I never went back to graduate school, (other than take some courses that intrigued me and, of course, graduate courses I had to have for teaching credentials).

Just getting my B.A. in Creative Writing burned me out on the fun of creative writing for a long time.

My profs were great, but the negative criticism took away the joy I had experienced before in writing.

Revising is important, but at some point one beats the words to death or strangles the life out of them. I've revised some portions of my own novel at least 30 times, and I know Hemingway allegedly re-wrote portions of A Farewell to Arms about 33 times, however...

I look forward to seeing some more of your 'organic raw writing:-)'

In the Light,

Daniel

RantWoman said...

Holding you in the Light.

Okay, in Inner Blowtorch mode, the Light under my fingers is struck and not in a positive way by the new layout. The white on dark grey is making me think DEPRESSION. Going to dark places is sometimes necessary and I go all Bad Friends and just want to punch people who glibly say "lighten up." But if you need permission to ask yourself whether there is some specific circumstance behind what feels for a couple reasons like a funk, consider permission granted.

In the Light

RantWoman

Stidmama said...

I empathize, though I stopped at the Master's (so far) -- it was three years "lost" as a Mother that I won't recover; and the student loans start coming due soon, with me still trying to get enough work as a teacher (the master's came with certification) to pay the loans, let alone contribute to our family's declining real income... And the joy of the profession was almost stolen from me in the process of getting the degree, along with my interest in writing. What I used to do almost like breathing, has now become a chore. I hope that we both will recover that joy soon!

Hystery said...

Daniel and Stidmama, thanks for sharing your own experiences of losing some of that zest and passion. I got to thinking it was just because I never really had "what it took". Perhaps in time I'll get some of my joy back.

Stidmama, the motherhood/scholarship/career thing is rough for lots of us. My female students, many of whom are mothers, have my sympathy and extra attention as I see the anquish they feel as they try to achieve an education that will (hopefully)improve their children's lives. Meanwhile, they have childcare issues, guilt, and all too often ucooperative spouses, families, and employers. I was lucky to have lots of support, but the process still tore me up. I nursed my babies while I wrote and researched, but I'd much rather have just nursed them in a sunny room full of duckies and lambs or something. But that's a dreamworld.

RantWoman, I've been dipping into my depressive setting a bit more these days. Sometimes I become more productive following these periods. Let's hope.

Ev said...

As a former student of yours I can say with absolute certainty that, though it was very difficult for you, I am glad you got your PHD. Your classes had a profound effect on me. So much so I changed my freaking major! You made me remember the joy I had for History and delving into "ancient knowledge".

Personally, I think your awesome! Write from your heart. Vomit through your hands once in a while and put it all out there. Your personal blog isn't a Peer-Reviewed Academic Journal. And as far as that goes, I've read quite a few un-awesome journal articles in my time.

Academia has become (or perhaps it always has been) a social club. Instead of secret handshakes and passwords they use ever-changing formatting standards and archaic prerequisites. Instead of membership dues they have required fees and publication quotas.

As Daniel said, trying to ad hear to all the standards and formalities "beats the words to death or strangles the life out of them."

As far as having what it takes, you got it! I've seen the passion in your eyes when you're teaching something that you love. Believe it or not, you are powerful.

I feel privileged to have been your student and I recommend your classes to any student who asks for my opinion when they are registering for a history class.

Just keep being yourself and you'll keep being awesome!

P.S. I would serve under your command on a star ship any day!

Mary Ellen said...

Gosh - your jumping in to some more exploratory writing sounds like fun to me too, as a reader! I have had some of my own writer sluggishness stirred up and animated by blogging (after nearly a decade post-dissertation), but I haven't done as many really searching and thorough blog pieces as you have. So - more power to you!