Reflections on writing (or, new means of procrastination).

I’ve been wondering lately why editing my own work seems such a nuisance to me. Given twenty student essays, I can generally edit a ten-page paper in around twenty minutes. When it comes to my own work, however, the thought of revising tends to reduce me to the state of a petulant child (ohhh, do I have to?! I don’t want to do this anymore!).

I’ve spent most of the last two weeks finding any alternative I can to editing: watching the complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and reading short fiction, graphic novels, and non-Ben-related essays. I think the only Ben-related activity on which I’ve spent any serious amount of time is my construction of the Globe theatre from my early-modern and medieval literature.

I’ve also been drawing/painting, an activity which gives my thoughts considerable time and space to mull over my current anathema towards revision; I think I’ve come up with an explanation.

I took some art classes while in secondary school, and even considered work as an illustrator [i]. While I love working with graphite, acrylics, and oil, however, I tend to work slowly and painstakingly (emphasis on the “pains”), taking cares to develop each component of the work as accurately as a can. By the time I’ve produced a substantial piece of work, I’ve spent so much time, effort, and costly materials that, even if a
work seems to be lacking a certain effect, I tend to leave it alone, not wanting to ruin the fairly decent quality of the composition.

Consequently, I tend be a rather mediocre artist: visual art depends upon the artist’s ability to be take risks: to know when to deviate from the designs, studies, and thumbnails: to include spontaneity in one’s work. My best compositions tend to be the ones which I both design and create with rapidity. This applies to my written work as well.

My second chapter was the easiest portion of my thesis to write. The New Inn is one of my favourite Jonsonsian plays: it is, I think, one of his most entertaining, and also yields a lot of discussion concerning politics, the carnival, gender, performativity, and the festive and romantic genres which it parodies. Too, Shakespeare’s As You Like It, while not one of my favourite Shakespearian plays, is at least, well-known to me. Consequently, I came to chapter two calmly, knowing the subjects and the scenes of the plays I wanted to discuss. After writing only a brief outline of the argument, I wrote, allowing the paper itself to dictate when analyses of an additional scene should be included, and the order in which they ought to be discussed: not knowing exactly what was going to happen, it was a pleasant surprise to find myself discussing the relationship between cuckoldry and knowledge.

The language of the argument was somewhat disorganised, and contained more than the usual number of grammatical errors: the argument itself was interesting and a lot of fun to write.

Chapter three, conversely, was the chapter I had dreaded from the beginning of the project. Cynthia’s Revels is, along with Cataline, the dullest of Jonson’s plays, and I struggled to find a way to produce an interesting discussion from it. Additionally, the task of addressing all the hitherto-unanswered questions I had introduced in the previous two chapters, in a novel way (with The Magnetic Lady), as well as addressing a new (but not entirely unforeseen) theoretical problem, and all in the same argument, seemed nigh-impossible.

I found myself re-reading and re-reading again, both Cynthia’s Revels and The Magnetic Lady, filling pages of notes and outlines. By the time I had produced what I felt was an extant, organised argument, I found myself unwilling to now write the thing: having selected every scene I wanted to discuss, noted the points of discussion, and arranged them in exactly the order they would appear in my final argument, I found myself bored with the entire process. The argument was interesting, but the anticipation was gone: by the starting point, I knew where I was going to end up: all spontaneity had been lost.

Finally, I forced myself to simply write the paper, and managed to produce thirty pages in a couple of days. The quality of the writing was, I suspected, poor, and my suspicions were confirmed upon reading. Moments of tiredness showed in unclear grammar, bored inattentiveness resulted in repetitions in argument, while frequent breaks during writing displayed themselves in rhetorical and structural discontinuities.

The poor quality of the writing, however, meant that I spent the greatest amount of time revising chapter three, and after submitting it, it is apparently one of my better chapters, being the most straightforward and clearly-written.

Not that I want to turn down a compliment, and even I’m impressed that I managed to produce a fairly interesting post-structuralist reading of at least one very dull play, yet I find myself vaguely disappointed. Spontaneity (and fun) produced the greatest raw product of my thesis: it is the laborious original planning, however, and an attention to the re-organisation and grammatical revising of an argument that determines the final quality of a composition. [ii] I have neglected this revision process in second chapter thus far, and I feel I have cheated it somewhat.[iii]

Time for serious editing.

End Notes:

[i] an illustrator. Of (science) textbooks. I was an unusual child.

[ii] final quality. As I adore ordering terrified verbs and nouns into proper syntax, I suppose I have chosen the right career.

[iii] cheated it somewhat. I’m also confused: chapter three, so painful to write, is my best chapter; similarly, my the Jameson paper which is probably the best piece of work I’ve produced was written on four hours sleep, late at night, during an illness, and, at the time of submission, I could barely discern my own argument. Does a painful writing process always produce the greatest results? Probably not, given that the papers I wrote under similar conditions for my lit. crit and lit. theory redux courses last term were the two worst papers I’ve submitted. There doesn’t seem to be any continuous factor or condition of producing a consistent quality of work.

I suppose this is a truth of the writing process: writer’s minds and states are simply not consistent. Incidentally, I’m currently reading John Mullan’s Anonymity (London: Faber, 2007). In his discussion of Currer Bell/ Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot/Mary Anne Evans, Mullan discusses the need to attribute a single consistent style to a single author (in the case of the former, whose inconsistent style led her contemporaries to surmise her work was the product of two genders), and a single name to a consistent style (several alterations in name during her lifetime, Mullan surmises, suggest why we continue to print Evans’s works under her pseudonym, while Brontë’s pseudonym is largely forgotten). Given that continuity in an author’s mind/works does not exist, why are we so obsessed to attribute a work on a clearly-identifiable author? Mullan has not yet mentioned Barthes or Foucault; I hope he does, as such a discussion would be both interesting and relevant to study in anonymity.

Sorry about the tangent.

2 August 2008 ~ St. Catharines


2 thoughts on “Reflections on writing (or, new means of procrastination).

  1. On the topic of the title, and the writing process:
    I was a very eager student in elementary school and through most of highschool…for example, I would start an assignment as soon as it was mentioned, which led to problems when I had teachers who later clarified/altered their expectations. But then, one year, I had to write a poem in one class that others had been able to do over several days. The comment I received? “The crucible pressure makes gold”. Now, I’m a terrible procrastinator.
    I also agree that I feel like my work is better / more coherent / consistent when I do it in big chunks. I was always in classes with people who said things like, “I wrote a page today”, and that never worked for me. I thought about everything I was writing a lot, ahead of time, with lots of notes and outlining, but the actual writing always had to be done at once. And, considering the above comment, usually the day before (or morning of) a due date.

  2. I like that phraseology (“the crucible pressure &c.” )

    Whenever procrastination gets ridiculously out of hand, I remind myself that in a typical exam I can write an average of an essay an hour in an exam situation. True, they aren’t anything I’d like to publish, but they are direct, concise, and generally accurate. Really, how much more difficult is it to produce something on a work you’ve (probably) read and been thinking about for awhile already?

    That said, morning of papers always result (for me) in comments like “good ideas, but your sentence structure is unclear at points” (polite professor talk for “Good God, what happened to your knowledge of fifth grade grammar? Was that even a sentence on page five?”). Those comments don’t usually get to me, as I know (and so too does the prof.) they’re just a mark of an o’erbusy schedule; I’d like to avoid those comments for this project though.

    I’m not entirely sure, now, why I compared writing and art. I suppose that both forms involve knowing when to pour out raw creativity and when to employ the more painstaking technical skills. Both can involve taking risks though: I think with writing I have a better intuition regarding when to use each respective skill. Also, the ability to copy and paste my work creates the reassurance that, if I muck the whole thing up in over-editing, I can always retrieve the original. Not so easy in art, and I’m just too slow to be comfortable with the occasional necessity of scrapping everything and starting again.

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