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.