Mary Beard on what to do when your writing is smelling up the place

Mary Beard, a classicist, has a wonderful blog up on academic life over at the Times Literary Supplement, and I very much enjoy it. She’s got a delightful sense of humor, for one. For another, it has reassured me knowing that it took her five years to get a book out of her Sather lectures. She’s come up to the end of the book, and it’s not smelling right, and she lays out the hard constraints that accompany that sinking feeling when something isn’t working:

1. The radical version is a complete restructuring/rethink. My gloomy experience is that if a section or paragraph is hard to write it’s because you’re trying to say the wrong thing. Get the thoughts straight and it will fall into place. That means taking a big enough break from it to be able to think afresh. No time for that.

2. The primrose path is the demon drink. Now actually a glass or two of wine can be rather a good idea in these circumstances. It can remove the inhibitions just enough to get the ink flowing. The trouble is that you have to know when to stop, The second glass worked a treat last night, the third ruined it.

3. The ostrich version is to pretend that your troubles have quite other roots. I have been through the superficially attractive argument that the pages are really rather good; it’s just that I am not ready to let the damn thing go. I’m trying to put off the process of finishing, because I am just too wedded to the project (and scared of the next one). But, nice psychoanalytical fantasy that it is, I fear it just isnt true. The pages do need more work.