Slow starts and motivation

I’m making lamentably slow progress on the chapter I wanted to have drafted by the end of the summer. I haven’t given up all hope of meeting my deadline, but I have reminded myself that sometimes the early stages of the drafting process take longer than you want them to. The difficulty for me is identifying when I’m dragging my feet because I’m mentally not ready to start writing—I haven’t done enough research, I don’t have a strong enough grasp on the secondary criticism, I have no idea how I want to focus my argument or what I can add—and when I’m just procrastinating because intellectual work is hard first thing in the morning and it’s much more fun to read every diverting thing I can find on the internet. I’ve been doing a bit of both lately, but this week I’ve finally been able to see the structure of the draft start to take shape in my head. I’ve got a good sense of where it can start, and what several of the body sections should address. I still don’t know how it should end, nor what the ultimate argument will be, but I’m not going to sweat that until I’ve got several thousand words written.

It helps that I presented a very preliminary paper on the subject of this chapter at a conference in late May. Having to write the paper forced me to synthesize some of my thoughts about my research and turn what seemed like the most interesting avenue into a short, focused argument. That argument may not be all that central to the final argument of the chapter, but it gives me a place to start.

Perhaps even more helpful to this very intimidating chapter-writing process is the response my paper got when I presented it. I didn’t set the world of American literature on fire or anything, but the panel had upwards of 25 people in the audience (!), and I got several questions that indicated listeners were interested and engaged in the argument I was making. The next day, a scholar whose work I’m familiar with and admire approached me to say he’d enjoyed my talk. And last month, a very major scholar in the field contacted me about my paper—he hadn’t been able to attend the conference, but had seen the title of my paper in the program and had some questions about my research in relation to a project he’s working on.

While none of these encounters have any really tangible consequences for me professionally (although I do have my fingers crossed for a citation somewhere in the last scholar’s book), they’re all helpful affirmations that topic of this chapter is one that others find interesting. Keeping that in mind is an invaluable corrective to the frustration and pessimism that creeps in at the early stages of the writing process. When I start to think that I don’t have anything significant to say, or that nobody will want to read forty pages about what reviewers had to say about this one novel, I can remind myself that what I’m working on is of interest to people other than myself. It doesn’t make the early drafting stages any less painful, but it does make them feel a bit less futile.

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