It’s Not Like The Good Ol’ Days Here

Writing on this blog has become increasingly onerous. For the first year of this blog (which I put online in November 2011), I was in between book projects, and was able to blog almost every day (I was also keen to establish a writing habit and stuck quite rigorously to a schedule); then, my daughter was born, but I was on paternity leave, and then later, on academic sabbatical, and so, was able to find the time to write a post quite frequently. But in the past few months, I have returned to teaching full-time, and have balanced that with both a book deadline–due at Temple University Press by January-end–and parental responsibilities. (The ongoing variability in my daughter’s sleep patterns has meant that I’m exhausted and sleepless more often, and simply lack the inspiration and energy to write. Needless to say, this has affected my reading capacities as well; many library sessions of ‘study’ have seen me helplessly nodding away, unable to keep my heavy-lidded eyes open.)  Working on a book has meant that quite often when blogging, I’m distracted by the thought that valuable writing time, energy, and imagination is being ‘used up’ here when it could be used to polish a still-rough manuscript (one which has already missed the first deadline at summer’s end). And of course, teaching full-time–three classes, all new preparations–means less time for writing blog posts, or even thinking about them. Very often, a full day of teaching leaves me exhausted the next day as well. (I realized quite early in my teaching career that even a seventy-five minute ‘performance’ is physically draining in ways not quite understood by those who don’t teach.) I had hoped that I would be able to blog about my teaching–the actual material discussed in class, analyses of discussions with students, responses to questions raised, and so on–but that hasn’t been quite how it worked out.

The sum result of all of which has been that gaps in my blogging have grown, and quite often, when I have been able to put up something here, it has had a ‘dialed-in’ feel to it–something rushed and under-cooked. The gaps in blogging continue to grow; I’m appalled at the number of ‘absences’ I have logged in the past  few months. (Sometimes I have fallen off the blogging wagon for as long as a week–and that has been without going on vacation.) This failure to blog, to keep up the schedules and standards I was used to, or demanded of myself, has at times introduced a deep despondency. At times, I have wondered whether this blog is viable at all. But the thought of shutting it down is deeply depressing too. It would feel like an abandonment when the going got tough.

For now, I plan to continue. My blogging frequency will not be what it once was–as it will have to be if I continue teaching a full-load and working on my book projects. An academic book project has been languishing for two years now and needs to be picked up again if it is ever to be completed.

Perhaps the only consolation is that at least I will still be writing; if not here, then elsewhere.

The Physical Dimensions of Writing

Writing is a physical activity. This fact is quite well known to schoolchildren who write–with pencils and pens–diligently, and at length on their notebooks. (It must have been known too, to Georges Simenon, whose fingers must have needed dousing in ice water after his daily ritual of prolific pencil-fueled writing.) But it is even common knowledge to those among their cohort who now type on tablet and laptop keyboards; the wrists ache, the fingers are bruised. The exhaustion that results after a long spell of writing is not just that of brain cells wearily picking themselves off the cranial floor, but also that of limbs strained by the constant expression of the writer’s commands. And then, somehow, later in life, overcome by the over-intellectualizing of this particular mode of interaction with the world, the notion emerges that writing is all brain and no body, that a disembodied intelligence is at play, that writing enables an escape from physical confines of the body–which is true in a way, but not if taken literally.

Small wonder then, that writers are acutely conscious of their bodies when they write and keenly attuned and sensitive to the physical channels through which their words make their way to paper or screen. I’ve written here about my writing experiences with a fountain pen on paper; the modern counterparts of that implement, the word processor, the computer monitor, the keyboard, are just as deserving of attention.

One way to hint at my sensitivity to the physical dimension of writing on a computer is to note that a central reason why I will never buy a Mac is because I do not like its machines’–whether desktop or laptop–keyboards. Their keys do not afford my fingers the right kind of tactile response; they do not provide me the feedback that I subconsciously seek when I press down on them. I have had favorites in the past: the AT&T 4425 and IBM 3270 terminals were perhaps the  most deeply satisfying in terms of their immediate responsiveness, in their ‘give’ and in how they seemed to facilitate the rapid movement of my fingers over them. (I’m not a trained touch typist but over the years my fingers have, to some extent, internalized the locations of letter on keyboards and now move with some facility over them.)

These preferences mean that I very quickly disdain, or approve of, particular writing spaces or implements because of how they generate both a physical and mental space for writing. The ergonomic comfort of a chair and desk are obviously factors, but just as important is an ineffable sense of connectedness–in the right sort of way–to my writing machine and through it, to the visible word that is the result of my writing. Thus, because I do not like writing on laptop keyboards, and will only do so when absolutely forced to do so, I have hardly ever written in coffee-shops or on the  move. For better or worse, I’m desk-bound. (In the post just linked to, I noted this same physical aspect of writing.)

This physical dimension of writing is important for the writing process in the simplest of ways: to start writing, you must place your hands on the media through which you write. Put pen to paper or put fingers to keyboard.

Once contact is made, the game can begin.

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.