One of the mysteries of writing is that however much of it I do–and by now, my publication record notwithstanding, I have actually racked up pages and pages–I never seem to believe that I can do it the next time. This is a genuine puzzle to me because with all the other skills I have learned–dancing, playing cello, tai chi–I always have confidence that I can dance the next dance, learn the next piece, carry out the next sequence. Of course I knowthat I can still literally write. Most of what I do in the course of any given day is writing. However, despite having written academic text before, I cannot quite believe that I can do it again.
How do we trick ourselves into believing that we can pull it off again? The easiest answer is to go on writing the same thing over and over again, or at least taking the same tack again. I suppose that most people believe that this is what academics do; they have a formula and they repeat it. To some degree the format and conventions supply some of the content, but ultimately skilled academics don’t write like that. Style matters everywhere, because it is how we think originally. I am always heartened to read the early and late works of some critic or theorist and find strong, surprising differences in style and approach.
A senior academic once said to me that whenever he felt this way, he consulted his cv and reminded himself of what he had done. Looking at the trail of evidence that he had indeed written, he was able to write again. Perhaps because I have not written as much yet, I find it difficult to use that trick. I look at my earlier work and cannot entirely persuade myself that it was my doing. Perhaps it was a magic trick. I know the pixies didn’t write my dissertation, but I find it difficult to remember the labour and discipline that produced the text.
I think the real solution to this problem is forming a clearer sense of your process; knowing what conditions and habits enable you to enter into the slipstream of effortless articulation. In the postscript to The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco emphasizes the importance of this:
The writer (or painter or sculptor or composer) always knows what he is doing and how much it costs him. He knows he has to solve a problem. Perhaps the original data are obscure, pulsive, obsessive, nor more than a yearning or a memory. But then the problem is solved at the writer’s desk as he interrogates the material on which he is working–material that reveals natural laws of its own, but at the same time contains the recollection of the culture with which it is loaded (508).
He goes on to say, later, that among the best commentators on process are ‘minor artists, who achieved modest effects but knew how to ponder their own processes’ (509). Knowing your own process, then, may not be a guarantee of great artistic results, but it may be a key to practising usefully–producing lots of minor works that allow you, occasionally to grasp a little genius.
I have realized only recently that one of the things I find enabling is to write to a very specific person, using the intimacy of writing a letter to a friend. By temperament, I am not much of a social butterfly. I need and enjoy one-to-one time with people in order to feel that I have had a meaningful encounter. It makes sense, then, that also as a writer, I cannot perform to an assembled crowd, however friendly the crowd may be. I like dialogue and exchange, but I need a fairly delimited sense of who I am having that conversation with to say something useful.
I’ve also realized that I like and need to read things several times over again and again in order to feel as though I have digested them sufficiently to write about them. This does, undoubtedly, make me very slow. It also makes me feel stupid, since just about everyone else seems to be able to read a book once and start writing about it. (At least, that is how it seems to me). Since I mostly write about literary and cultural theory, it is not a terrible handicap to be a repeat reader. It takes ten readings of Homi Bhabha before you really understand his project. The point is, that if you don’t know this about your process, you can make yourself unduly anxious wondering why you can’t start writing that article about historical fiction when you’ve only read Lukacs The Historical Novel once.
Perhaps one of the strangest depths to plumb is to work out where your ideas come from. I have long been conscious of a persistently lateral tendency in my thinking. I know that I do not develop my ideas in the same way that other people develop their ideas and therefore I am highly suspicious of my thinking. I don’t trust it, even though it is the source of my originality. If I can’t overcome that sense of suspicion, then I won’t ever be able to make use of it in my process.
In contrast with my strange, lateral mind I am consistently struck by the logical precision of my peers, and wonder how I ever made it to this position when I think and write as I do. But a friend suggested a version of the senior academic’s trick to me: I am here. Much better academics than me have read my work and found it of some value and I can trust their opinion that I should continue trying out my thoughts. We can’t depend on others to give us the confidence we lack, but we can have confidence in their belief in us. It’s a confidence trick of the best kind.