Returning to Writing (And How It Sucks)

On Wednesday, I resumed work on a philosophy book project that has been on the back-burner for a while. More precisely, I have not worked on it since July 2012. (The fall semester of 2012 saw me teaching three classes, all of them essentially new preparations, and then, like, a baby was born.) Back in the summer of 2012, I had recommenced work on my draft notes after a gap of more than year, for I had taken a hiatus from them to finish my cricket book (essentially all of 2011). All of which is to say that I returned to work on a book on which my concerted efforts have been spread out over a period of almost three years. In the summer of 2010, I had engaged in a frenzy of note-making with little attempt to organize them beyond extensive annotation at some points, and in the summer of 2012, I had taken more notes and added some annotations. There are some skeleton arguments in there, some suggestive points to be developed, and so on. In short, it’s one big mess, awaiting clean-up, consolidation, and whatever it is that you are supposed to do when you try to grow a collection of notes into a book.

This week’s experiences, in returning to this shambolic mess, have been an eye-opener.

On Wednesday, I spent my entire editing session adding annotations to a skimpy section of notes. There were many little scribbles which still seemed suggestive and enticing, and invited elaboration from me. Writing went easily; I wrote over fifteen hundred words and then feeling tired and euphoric, called it a day.

On Thursday, I returned to my notes, and attempted to impose some structure on them. Unlike Wednesday, I added very little to no new content, but simply spent all my time reading and re-reading sections–if you can call them that–of my notes and tried to figure out how they hung together, and how they fitted into the outline that I have had in mind for some time now. This was frustrating, tedious, and anxiety-inducing; I cut and pasted and moved some sections, imposed new headings, all the while struggling with panic as I would encounter one mass of disorganized thoughts or notes after another. I ended my writing with traces of anxiety still lingering in me.

Today’s session was a disaster. As I trawled through my notes, I found many small sections that seemed simply irrelevant to my thesis; why on earth had I ever imagined these to ever be useful or illuminating? I opened up a ‘bit bucket‘ file and began deleting material from my notes file and moving it there. When I was finally done, some five thousand words had been moved. I also continued Thursday’s work  of trying to find and impose structure.  When I ended my writing for the morning, I was in a black mood; the self-doubt and fear of failure that seems to be a persistent, painful companion to any writing that I have done was back in full force.

My writing process remains the same as it ever has: I make a lot of notes and then I work them into shape. I have never worked with outlines. This has always meant that the intermediate stage of my writing–from notes to a draft–is acutely anxiety-and-panic provoking. I am now in that phase; a long, unpleasant journey lies ahead. I can only console myself with the reassurance that this one, like the others before it, will find a reasonably happy ending.

2 thoughts on “Returning to Writing (And How It Sucks)

  1. Oh I know this feeling well. Total anxiety and fear that the work will never come together, drafts, more drafts, whole pages deleted, and then, finally, it’ll all come into focus. Keep plugging along man, you’ll get there.

  2. There is really comes a point when it feels like hell. Looking after yourself should be part of your writing regimen. Rest when you need it, do not skip meal, drink a lot of water and do not forget to breathe. Most of the time, brilliant ideas pop out when you are on your most relaxed moment.

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