Friday, September 04, 2009

Writing Again or At Last

Since I was old enough to read, I wanted to become a writer. Well, that's not necessarily true. Since I was old enough to read I wanted to be surrounded by books and by words. I loved (and still love) becoming lost in a book, being completely absorbed by a novel. I like having the author's syntax still stuck in my head. I owe an entire vocabulary of outdated and unpronounceable words to the Victorian novels I devoured in middle school (vocabulary which has proved useful in academic papers and the SATs). Books kept me sane in a small, salmon colored room in London, during my commute across town, and through now 9 years without cable. I believe it is the natural impulse of a reader to want to cross over into creating what she loves best. So, for as long as I can remember, I've kept journals, dribbled out poetry and essays, and chose schools and classes that demanded an intense interaction with the written word.

Writing is, unfortunately, much harder than reading. Or, at least, I find it more difficult. Thinking it over, I'm somewhat convinced that this is partially because I practice reading more often than I practice writing. The professor I had for the short story class I took a few summers ago at UP adores John Updike. When he taught the class story "A&P", the professor related how Updike treated writing like a job. He rented office space, sat down to write at regular times, and thus produced nearly a book a year during his life. It seemed strange to me at the time that writing would be like any other occupation or craft. While I cannot count the hours I've spent playing scales or repeating footwork patterns, the idea that writing would have to be actively worked at still seemed strange. I suppose I felt that writers just sat down and did, that they had some sort of idea in their head and applied pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and a novel emerged. Naive, I know. And that image of Updike walking up a flight of stairs, unlocking a door, and ceremoniously sitting at his desk and beginning to write has stuck with me ever since.

Not that I necessarily know what to do with it. Despite halfhearted efforts to work through The Ode Less Travelled or to set aside time to work on this blog, nothing has materialized. Again I find I must contradict myself as soon as a sentence emerges. Nothing has materialized in the form of something that could be submitted to The New Yorker. However much has materialized in the way of message board posts, literature reviews (which I find strangely and immensely satisfying), final papers, presentations, and reviews. I can even now say that I have an article "in press". What in earlier degrees had been a constant source of anxiety and dread is now a somewhat pleasureable requirement.

This requires some explanation. A naturally neurotic person, my anxiety problem came to a head in my senior year of undergrad. Under the combined stress of being a senior in college, two break ups (one of the relationships having lasted nearly three years), and trying to apply to graduate school and determine my future, I found I could not write. I had always been a procrastinator. The fear that something wouldn't come out perfectly or to mine or other's expectations kept me from really working on something until the last minute. I needed the fear of a deadline to kick me over the edge before an essay would flow. I learned to edit as I wrote, printing out drafts when I started to lose steam and tearing them up with pen. At my worst (or best, depending on your perspective), I wrote two term papers in a single 18 stretch (over 12 pages each) and aced them both.

However when faced with my undergradute thesis, I found I couldn't get the fear to push me over the edge. I felt absolutely terrified. I could read and outline, but at that time in my life all I wanted to do was to be left alone and to sleep. When I did manage to pull words into setences and then into paragraphs, I became disgusted by the effort and would delete it all. Happily the counsel of an advisor and the loving intervention of two friends who discovered me hysterial in the reserves room of library allowed for a week long break from school when, finally over the edge, I pulled together something like a thesis, passed, and graduated. My graduate thesis was a trial on a similar level. Admittedly here the research was much better and the writing flowed faster the second time around, but I'm still not terribly happy with the final results nor the final few all-nighters to pull it together. I still had not learned how to draft nor, most importantly, how to write without the pressure of fear.

Writing without fear would come after a couple years of talking with a therapist, settling down into a new life in Oregon, and figuring out what I was going to do with myself. The writing assignments I took on at work helped greatly. Those assignments provided a fair amount of structure and control in terms of topic. While analysis was often welcome, the driving force behind the projects was clarity and concision. I learned to make my writing tight and engaging. I learned not only how to draft, but how to put my work out there for my peers. My coworkers and boss actively read everything I wrote (or most everything). This past quarter I exchanged reflection papers with a classmate in a peer-editing scheme, something I would have never contemplated 3 or 5 years ago - mainly because I would never have gotten something written far enough in advance to allow for it!

While I am very proud of the work I have produced in my MLIS program thus far (proud enough to post portions on my web space), I still want to be writing other sorts of things, particualarly essays. I want to learn how to set aside time for writing for pleasure just as I've set aside time for writing for work and for school. This is a sample of what I want to create and, though it's taken me nearly a week to finish it, the sort of thing I want to put up here at least once a week from now on.

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