Thursday, May 17, 2007

Unknowable outcomes

"But I have to admit that there is a demand in my writing...that a sort of opening, play, indetermination be left, signifying hospitality for what is to come [l'avenir]: 'One does not know what it means yet, one will have to start again, to return, to go on'..."
-J. Derrida

OK, I know it's gross of me to open a blog post with a quotation from Derrida, but it's just that this - which I read in the context of doing some research for the paper I am now writing - captures my writing anxiety perfectly. I know he was writing about a very different context - the notorious difficulty of his own work - but if I work on the terrain of the literal with this quotation (vile traitor that I am) it tells what is happening to me with this paper I'm writing. Which is just an intensification of my writing process in general.

Which is that I never know what's going to happen. And that stresses me out. Big time.

I have tried to be the kind of writer who plans. But every time I try to write an outline, I end up with approximately three point form notes. And they don't correspond to anything that actually unfolds in the work, in the end.

For this new conference paper, which I have to have finished a week from yesterday, I started with nothing. I didn't even have a three-point 'outline'. I had a couple of questions. They aren't going anywhere very fast, though yesterday I finally sat down to write and came up with a relatively paltry 750 words. It is like I watch what pours out of me and am estranged from it...I don't know what's going to happen. That indeterminacy, that very strong element of chance, seems somehow wrong and bad an unscholarly of me. When I make a choice to go in Direction X, and am leaving behind all the other possible directions, it is terrifying because I don't even know what all those other possibilities are...because they only become clear to me in the writing. So if I don't pursue them, I'll never know them -- and what if one was the "right" one, or at least a better one??

It's so random.

And it seemed that yesterday, maybe because this is the most opaque paper I've ever written (I mean, opaque to me, the writer) what came out was some kind of crazily over-confident tone. I had been reading all of these special issues of important journals on [Theme I'm Writing About] - unbeknownst to me, I seem to have picked something a bit trendy (with my interest stemming from the appearance of this theme in the stuff I am working with in my book project). So all these special issues are unfailingly robust and clever. The editors' introductions are all written with the ease and suaveness and confidence of people who know what the hell they're talking about - and they know it damn well. There are keynote addresses reproduced in these journals - wry, funny, learned. And exceedingly confident. They're senior academics, leaders in their fields. What do you expect? And I've seen that my writing in this paper is mimicking this kind of's still full of questions, but it's all clever and witty and obliquely jokey...and so very...not me. I don't know what's going on. But I'm going to bear it out and see, I guess. It could make me look like a complete idiot, though - like some insufferably poncey junior academic trying to be something she's not...And it doesn't match the uncertainty with which I am approaching this theme, not at all. Perhaps that's it - I'm borrowing this tone to cover up the fact that I'm just not sure. And that would be -- ugh.

Let's hope that some certainty comes by the end of the paper, otherwise there will have to be a major tonal revision.


medieval woman said...

This is an excellent post - I pick up on some of that prose even here! Not at all poncey, but very clever and witty - I totally think this is you!

Do you think that it's kind of like picking up an accent when you've been in a place for a while? I wrote a post similar to this a million years ago, but I still think it's true. We pick up the styles of those we're reading by osmosis it seems. It can be a bit jarring!

Good luck, dear!

dbm/gaa said...

mw is right, I often pick up the "accents" of people I'm reading heavily when I write, then it all comes out as me in the final draft. Me, but somewhat transformed I should say. I think my writing grows this way, not always in positive ways but growth nonetheless.

squadratomagico said...

I think your process sounds exciting! That happens to me once in a great while, too -- where I'm not sure what's going to come out of my keypad next. It's not my usual process, but I think it's fun to have that sense of discovery about your own work. And I wouldn't worry about the tone, either: it likely is the style you need to make a persuasive and engaging essay on this particular topic. Writing is hard work, to be sure, but there also is something mysterious about it, and that tone probably is coming out for a reason. Trust yourself, even if you don't feel entirely in control of the process.