On throwing away writing you slaved to do, and taking writing advice that doesn’t work for you

On Wednesday, I faced facts: what I had for Chapter 2 was not working.  I had had the sinking feeling around Chapter 2 for close to two weeks, and I had ignored it, but by Wednesday I clearly heard the sounds of the toilet flushing every time I looked at what I had. So I poured myself a gin and tonic, and I walked away from roughly 5000 words in a chapter that was, simply, collapsing.

I was having so much trouble writing this chapter that I did something I almost never do: I launched into it without an outline.  I know. But there are the free writing people who argue that you will uncover your thesis if you just allow your creative juices to flow, and if you let volumes and volumes of words come pouring out of you.  So I let myself free write for about a month, and then I began trying to pull a draft out of that free writing, thinking there had to be a ‘there there’ despite my strong feelings that it was just a mess.  I forged on, despite my sickish feeling.   The free writers assured me, turn off your inner critic and just create! You’ll have something by the time  you are done. It’ll be janky, they said, but it will be there, they said.

What can I say?  It just didn’t work for me.  By Wednesday, it was quite clear to me that I had oceans of writing about nothing in particular, nibbling at the edges of themes that had no core thesis, and I was getting further away from finding a thesis, not closer.

I have always been a careful storyboarder/outliner for manuscripts. Deviating from my normal routine occurred in the name of experimentation, and it failed.

Wednesday I was sick with annoyance.  I looked for consolation online, among writers, for how to console yourself when you let writing go.  I found nothing.  I talked about it yesterday with people, and one of my colleagues I respect a great deal, Nancy Staudt from the law school, said, “Well, I think the best scholars do this kind of thing–they edit out bad work and don’t try to hang on to it.” It was a very kind thing to say, and I also think it’s true. You can substitute writers in for the word  “scholars” and there you have it.

There simply isn’t any point in keeping writing that you are not proud of. When you are freelancing on a deadline or when you are an assistant professor or graduate student and you need to get material out, you make deals with yourself that you’ll do it all much better when you have tenure, or when you have more time.  Well, I have the time, and  I don’t need to make these compromises any more.

Goodbye and good riddance Chapter 2. Your replacement will be rigidly outlined.  That’s just how I have to do things, and I’m at an age that I should probably just accept that what works for me doesn’t work for others, and vice versa.  For those of you who can and do free write successfully, go forth with all the creative mess you need.  I have to go back to outline. It’s a security blanket, and that’s just fine.

Do I regret the experiment? I guess. When you have to go back to teaching and you’ve wasted a good two months of your sabbatical on writing that went nowhere, it’s painful. But maybe I needed to relearn what my dissertation taught me: that my creative process is unique, and while it’s good to try out advice, listen to your gut.  My internal critic isn’t a mean mom trying to wreck my life; she’s a level-headed scholar who knows when something is good enough to be going with and when it isn’t. Maybe I needed to learn to respect her more.