Dissertation Days (2): All Over the Place

I’m a little all over the map today. Got some strong work done this afternoon, and I think the early bits of contextualization are coming together somewhat coherently. I wrote some new material in those early sections, primarily about the postwar desire for children as a bulwark against the terrors of the atomic age and some stuff about the ambiguity of the postwar figuring of the atomic bomb as explicitly female (it’s weird, believe me). So, that felt good.

This evening…well, I’ve cannibalized a lot from an earlier draft, which isn’t a bad thing, but it rather makes me feel like I’m cheating when I tell people I’ve written 2,000 words today. But still, it’s not entirely cheating if you also do some revision on those bits that you’re copying and pasting from that earlier draft, right?

I feel like the three close readings that I offer are coming together. It would probably help if I wasn’t so scattershot in my composition process, bouncing from one section to another with basically no rhyme or reason, but that’s basically my writing process, as weird as that sounds. It sometimes does a number on my productivity, but I think at this point I’ve actually managed to harness it into a force for productivity.

I’m going to take the weekend off, as is my usual practice. I’ll probably still be thinking over the project the whole time, mulling over ideas, trying to think if there is a better, more concise, more accurate way of representing the chaos of jumbled ideas in my head on the actual page. That’s always the hardest part for me. I know that I’m onto something important and that I have a contribution to make; it’s just getting it into written words that’s always the hard part.

I suppose I should also keep a record of my word count. It’s currently sitting at a little over 9,000 words. The upper limit of this chapter is 18,000, so I’m basically halfway there. At this rate, I should be ready to submit a revised draft to my adviser by the second week of May. That will mark roughly a month and a half of revision time which, for me, isn’t so bad.

Well, I’m almost at my 400-word limit. TLDR version: I wrote some stuff today, some of it coherent. Monday, I’m going to make sure 5 pages are ready. 

I can do this.

Dissertation Days (1): Revision, Revision, Revision

Since I’m a fan of new initiatives, I’ve decided to start keeping a semi-daily record of my progress on my dissertation, in order to keep myself accountable and to help me keep track of my progress. And, since I love being publicly visible, I’m going to do so here.

Each post will be strictly limited to 400 words. I have a tendency to get wordy, so this will help me learn to be concise.

As some of you know, I’m currently in the process of writing my third chapter, which argues that colour in the midcentury historico-biblical epic expresses a desire to escape from modernity and its associated pressures (the atomic bomb, the dreariness of labour, the irrevocability of time) into the world of antiquity, flush with desire and visual/sensory plenitude. At the same time, these films also force an encounter with history’s terror through the spectacle of destruction.

So, the feedback from my adviser on the first draft called for some deep revisions, and I’ve been hard at work on that for the last two weeks. I’m now almost halfway done with the draft that I think I will resubmit, and that feels pretty gratifying.

The historical context is a lot more coherent, and I think I’ve managed to curtail my typical “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach,” in which I basically toss together all of my research and hope for coherence (it usually isn’t very coherent). Even now, even after all I’ve written and all the progress I’ve made, it’s surprisingly difficult

However, as I’ve made my way through this version, I’m happy to say that I’ve managed to find my own voice and to articulate my own arguments, rather than having them drowned out by the cacophony of competing voices that I tend to rely on overmuch.

So, when tomorrow dawns, I plan on continuing the progress that I’ve made so far. As of now, I’ve been doing a lot of cannibalizing of early drafts, drawing in the more coherent parts. I’ve got a pretty strong grasp of the broad contours of the argument, so now I have to do the hard part and start filling in the gaps in the piece. It’s always the hardest part of the process, to figure out what exactly it is that I am trying to do and say in each part of the chapter.Ugh.

Dissertation writing is hard, but here’s to a productive day tomorrow.

What Tolkien Taught Me About Writing

Once upon a time, I thought that productivity was all that mattered when it came to my writing. I would do everything in my power to make sure that I met my word count each and every day (usually somewhere around 1,000 words on a given project). As long as I met that goal, I felt like I had accomplished something. The pressure of deadlines–particularly those in academia–sometimes leads to this frantic pace of composition. My motto was “As long as I met my word goal, I can relax.”

This maxim has largely been true of both my academic and my fiction writing. Once you’ve reached that word goal, you can consider your job largely done. The downside to this productivity model is that it can sometimes (often) be difficult to shift mental gears and get into revising mode. Indeed, for me at least, the shift into revision very often feels less straightforwardly productive than producing words on the page. As a result, I sometimes find that I get trapped in a cycle where I’m just producing endless reams of words, many of which won’t even make it to the final cut of whatever I happen to be working on.

Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal of value to be found in this sort of goal-driven mentality. However, there is also something to be said about the importance of reflection and revision, the former before the writing takes place, the latter afterward. There is something uniquely rewarding about both of these aspects of writing, as you allow ideas to gel somewhat in your mind before setting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and give yourself the time to really attack your writing with a critical eye (as difficult and sometimes painful as that is). And nothing compares to the feeling of trimming out the excess words that inevitably creep in, especially when you are always focused on producing more words (as painful as it may be to let go of those little representatives of productivity).

Tolkien, as many readers of this blog no doubt already knew, was a very deliberate sort of writer, often revising a draft many times over the course of its composition. Indeed, the entire mythos that he developed was spawned during World War I but would be continually revised and expanded right up until the last years of his life. Tolkien understood (I believe) the necessity of letting ideas mature before settling into a final form, and what some may interpret as vacillation I interpret instead as a willingness to engage with the fundamental changes that occur in any work, whether fiction or nonfiction.

This really came home to me last year, when I began the long journey of reading the numerous volumes of The History of Middle-earth (compiled by J.R.R.’s son Christopher). Reading the volumes around The Lord of the Rings in particular, I began to get a sense not only of how Tolkien’s vision changed, but how he would also hold onto certain things, especially names, long after the point where it became clear that they were not longer practical. As you read through these volumes, you definitely get a sense that Tolkien was, in his own terms, a niggler, always fussing and tweaking even the tiniest and most mundane of details (he would even write a thinly-veiled version of himself in the quirky and quaint Leaf by Niggle).

And that, I think, is one of the most fundamental and important lessons that I’ve learned about writing from one of the masters of the craft. It’s okay to have a set idea of what you want to get out of a piece of writing, and sometimes it’s okay to even sketch out an online of the entire project. However, I also think (as Tolkien seems to have), that it’s also okay (and sometimes preferable) to have a more freeform approach, allowing the ideas to sort of sprawl all over the place before you corral them into some semblance of coherence and meaning. Sometimes, it’s okay to not quite know where you are going with a short story, a novel, or even a dissertation, until you actually discover your destination in the midst of writing.

In other words, Tolkien helped me to discover the joy of discovery in writing. And that, I think, is a valuable lesson for all of us who enjoy the act of composition, whether we be academics, creative writers, or some unsettled combination of the two.

Happy writing!