I spent my first writing session this morning--the session which I devote to writing about my process--reflecting on how much control I have over my writing. To put this more accurately, I asked myself how much control I like to have over my writing. I framed my writing around this question--once I got going--because I didn’t have a specific topic in mind when I began writing. This isn’t the first time I have not chosen a topic before hand. I have done that on a few occassions since I changed my approach to writing my dissertation. I also did this on a daily basis when I worked through The Artist’s Way with several friends a few years ago (during which I discovered that I like to draw). I had a lot of success with this approach, because I was able to get into the habit of turning my internal censor off and work negative thoughts out of my system. But I still find that not having a topic in mind can be a scary prospect. Such was the case at first when I began my writing session about process this morning. When I asked myself why I needed a topic, I hit upon the idea that I wanted to be in control of what I was writing instead of letting it control me.
I don’t know that everyone who writes feels the same about the writing process as I do or makes the same kinds of assumptions that I make. But by asking myself why I like to have control over my writing, I discovered that I make a great deal of assumptions about the writing process that are false. The biggest of these is that writing should come naturally and effortlessly. I know from experience that this idea about writing is incorrect. But somehow that hasn’t stopped me from unconsciously making this kind of assumption about writing even after spending the majority of my life in an academic environment in which I constantly write and write and rewrite and rewrite some more. In addition, despite training myself to write recursively in these sessions each day, I find myself--or at least I found myself doing so this morning--worrying that not having a clear topic in mind before hand when I sit down to write is a horrible strategy. I ask myself questions like, how can I possibly focus my thoughts if I don’t know what I’m going to write about in the first place? Or what if I am simply making things up that turn out to be not well thought out or down right wrong? What if I’m just spinning my wheels rather than making real progress towards finishing my dissertation?
Let me be clear. I did know that I was going to write about process when I sat down to write first thing this morning. But I didn’t know what aspect of my process I would focus on, if focus is the right word here. Was anything in particular troubling me? Were things going extraordinarily well? How was I feeling about my dissertation in general? Had any particular negative or positive thoughts about dissertating invaded my consciousness when I woke up?
As I wrote above, I think the anxiety I felt over not having a clear topic in mind beforehand this morning is largely about an unconscious need to be in control of my writing. But, of course, I am always in control of my writing in a sense. The difference is that instead of forcing myself to write about a predetermined topic that may or may not be worth pursuing, I force myself to write without any preconceived assumptions in mind, or, given that I have been making assumptions, as few as possible. This approach allows me to explore multiple possibilities instead of just one. And doing so usually takes me in unexpected and fruitful directions. That is precisely what happened in both my writing sessions today. For my writing session on process, I was able to not only see that the assumptions I had been making about being in control of my writing were false, but that a topic did emerge out of my thoughts. As for my dissertation writing session, I made some discoveries about the atmosphere of distrust of the foreign that the practice of translation creates in my primary texts (well, at least in one of them, since I only had one of them in front of me while I was working).
I also think that having made a pretty specific assumption about what kind of control I have over my writing misses the point of the writing strategy I have adopted. That strategy, quite simply, is that a writer writes. Having preconceived ideas about writing generally hinder rather than aid the writing process. And they stifle the imagination. By this, I don’t just mean that preconceptions about writing stifle my capacity to creatively work through issues that arise in my primary texts, though that is certainly a part of it. But, perhaps more importantly, I also mean that preconceptions block how I imagine the writing process itself. More often that not, those types of blocks lead to less writing, which is the opposite of what I am aiming for each day. Nor do I think--or at least I have to remind myself of this--that this kind of writing strategy prioritizes quantity over quality. Quality isn’t simply a matter of polished writing over poor writing. In my view, polished writing that doesn’t engage the topic at hand beyond the surface is not necessarily quality writing. And I think that the best way to get at the contents beneath the surface of my texts is to throw all my preconceptions about writing out the window and allow myself to imagine the possibilities that the text presents to me.