By Joycelyn Moody - JMoody's Musings, Writing
Stop, right now, before you advance another step through your early semester research plans.
Remember: writing anxiety blinds. It blocks your view of files you’ve repeatedly drafted for your Most Significant Project Yet.
Survey your research folders – have you mislabeled an indispensable file? Is one folded into the obscure corner of a rarely consulted folder-within-a-folder, a document incomprehensibly unrelated?
It’s time now to scour your laptop for any duplicates of a daunting manuscript you’ve produced once - OK, twice - before. As I often say to my coaching clients, leave no pyrite unturned in your search for jewels you’ve unwittingly buried.
I found buried treasure on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At an Inkwell retreat last July, my alumni buddy C and I were sitting across from one another on the last retreat afternoon, angled toward a pristine view of spectacular foothills and contentedly fashioning introductions to our respective books. Progressing this far had been both my ideal retreat goal and hers: We each wanted to leave with a fully outlined introduction.
We’d been extraordinarily productive, finally thinking through resources we’d wanted to read sooner, dumping chunks of new information into the intro doc, unpacking long theoretical paragraphs, and the rest. We knew we’d made notes “toward” an introduction in the past, but they were nothing as good as what the retreat coaxed out of us and never anything as thorough as what we’d accomplished.
Still, C and I searched our Dropboxes for words like intro and introduction and a few project keywords. We got results of all lengths in conferences papers, PowerPoints, and grant proposals. In course prep files and mandated annual review dossiers. Deep satisfaction.
Until. Gradually, we got clearer and clearer: we hadn’t never drafted our respective introductions, as we’d thought; in fact, we’d actually written “the” intro to our book projects many times over. I mean, in my own standout folder labeled “CHAAA” (for A History of African American Autobiography for Cambridge University Press), among the dozens of subfolders, I had gone looking for variants of the CHAAA intro. I stopped counting at number five, as in Five Forgotten Documents.
Ironically, when I was editor of African American Review years ago, we implemented a forum we called “Forgotten Mss.” Here’s how I described it back in 2005: “Editor's Note: AAR is pleased to present [this] new feature column. Because so much of African American literary, print, and cultural production remains unknown and/or ignored, and so much scholarly attention (even within these very pages) is yet devoted to the most canonical texts and topics of black literary and cultural heritage, AAR will occasionally publish short complete or excerpted texts, long neglected but noteworthy.” In other words, I designed the column to showcase print documents that had fallen out of literary flavor (and just favor) and into the archives, where it was there, too, relegated to those special collections of the neglected. Right now, though, my innovation seems like a bad joke I played on myself.
C and I attracted a lot of attention as we faced what we’d neglected. In the residence’s luxurious living room, we pulled back in dread from the quiet corner where we’d sat. We probably started shrieking a few seconds before we heard ourselves. Our respective searches turned up one file after another, each created in our own inimitable Times New Roman, endless files of “new” introductions. Other retreaters came to check out the fuss, then left, shaking their heads as if such oversight would never happen to them.
But it does, and more times than anyone wants to think about: anxiety blinding us to our multiple re-dos of a high-stakes writing project. (Even trying to write this blog in ways charming and useful to you has jacked up my blood pressure.) C and I felt we were writing some of the most critical books of our lives. Emphasis on felt, as in emotions. Intimidation and fear and conviction that any particular manuscript we had jolted into being had not been good enough to remember. In our minds, then, each iteration just. kinda. vanished.
So, we simply started over – and over – and over and.
The redundancy felt both painful and wasteful. Reassuring, too, yes, but depressing. I admit I took pride in the writing already done—hey, those pieces weren’t all bad! The retreat had both exposed and abated our writing tremors. We’d forgotten our duplicate manuscripts partly out of self-condemnation - they weren’t good enough, we weren’t - but perhaps what’s more awesome was the insight into the intricacies of diverse academic writing processes: beauty, community, and sincerity enable clear-eyed production.
Until next time,