writing


As I compose a new draft of my research article today, choosing where to put each idea that I’ve carefully crafted or hastily sketched over the last year (gulp) and a half, I realize how much I appreciate a good introduction.  I have written many introductions to this paper over the last year and a half, each of them trying to find the right framing technique for the ideas to follow.  The color of the frame matters, it trains the eye to see what’s inside in a particular way.  It forms expectations.

I enjoy reading narrative more than exposition, and so I am drawn to introductions that launch with anecdote.  My last draft began that way.  It, sadly, has to go.  The frame was too loose.  It lacked force of focus.  This draft needs a lead that focuses the eye on the political, on the cost of teaching undemocratically.  I think it needs to bring the word “dictator” to the fore.

But my teachers at U of Chicago taught me to begin with common ground, with an idea that readers would identify with–or with some conflict that the paper will contribute to:  “there has been much debate….”  Creating this sense of “oh yes” identification at the outset draws readers in and establishes your credibility as “on their side” or at least “relevant to their concerns” and therefore worth reading.  Do I therefore want to begin by stating the value of teaching democratically in a way that readers will affirm?  I can continue with details about process syllabi, which I know many of my readers will be unfamiliar with and skeptical of.  I could also save this for later.  OK, I think I’m–once again–back to outlining.  It is a comfort zone for me.  Am I procrastinating again by returning to outlining again?  Or have I identified, through my drafting process, that my former outline wasn’t right and therefore I need to return before I can move forward.  Writing is certainly recursive for me.

I feel like a kid who has disassembled a radio and the parts are lying all around on the ground.  My article has enough ideas.  It has enough data.  It even has enough words.  Currently the ideas, words, data, and references are a pile on the page.  My job is to give them order and craft.  This takes self-confidence.  Do I know where to start?  What word comes first?  Can I say what I mean coherently?  It seems not so hard when someone else is doing.  As the kid with the radio parts, I wish I could call an adult radio-fixer over just sit and watch while she reassembled it into working order.

I’ve had my fair share of legitimate excuses these past four years–new job to learn, pregnancy, baby to care for–but I don’t have them anymore.  Sure Caroline still woke up cold with a tummy ache in the night last night, but just once.  That doesn’t count as a legitimate excuse for not making progress on my article this morning.  This phase of writing is just plain hard, no getting around it.  I’m both a visionary and a wordsmith.  The launch of an article, when all of the ideas are flying and coming into some sort of visual (for me) relationship to one another, is engaging and pleasurable.  I enter the “flow” zone.  The wordsmithing of a paragraph is also gripping for me.  Tedious when I stop and see how few lines I’ve completed, but still, I enjoy it and experience flow.

The middle steps of the writing process are another story.  I lag.  I procrastinate.  I abandon projects.  I’ve dreamed them, but they don’t exist yet.  The middle section is what Peter Elbow suggests that writers freewrite, but I find the distance between freewriting and wordsmithing a final draft to be too great to be of much value.  I can freewrite.  Making the freewritten draft into something usable is very difficult.  Elbow actually suggests freewriting the same section three times as a way of improving it, getting it closer to final draft, while never getting stuck.  Perhaps that’s a solution.  It seems that the third draft can’t really be called freewriting anymore, then, since the mind isn’t free but trying to stay loyal to the preconceived–and improving–argument.  Well, it’s nice to have that technique in my toolbox in case I get stuck this morning.  40 minutes of drafting, here I come.

It’s Tuesday morning, the first week of university classes.  I felt prepared to teach yesterday, and I’m almost ready to go today as well.  My article revisions have not progressed much in the last week, however, but here I am, slowly getting down to it.  I’ve gotten up at 5 a.m. to create writing time.  I’ve pressed “start” on the coffee pot I prepped last night.  I’ve fed the fish.  I’ve put of a sweatshirt. I’ve opened this blog.  I’m moving slowly at this hour of the morning.  But I’m here and it’s time to get to work.  I hope that I can make enough progress this morning to feel enticed to get up tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…

Fall semester begins in less than a week.  The campus is busy with kick-off celebrations and faculty meetings.  This year, I’m up for it.  We had a lovely summer, even while I taught a lot.  Unlike the previous three years, this August I’m not longing for a vacation just as school gets underway.

I could say that it’s because I chose to vacation in Montana rather than attend the NWPM Portfolio Workshop, which I was sad to miss but duty to family called.  Maybe that did play a role in my feeling rested.  I think the real cause of my newfound energy is that my children are sleeping through the night AND I’m getting exercise on a daily basis.  Pregnant and/or nursing a baby wore me out for the last three summers.  Worth it, but exhausting.

I’ve made a commitment to try to wake early to write.  I thus went to bed at 9:45 with an alarm set for 5:45.  I couldn’t fall asleep for a while, wasn’t that tired.  I woke up at 1 am, not that tired.  Steve (lovingly) kicked me in his sleep at 5:00, and I wasn’t that tired, though I had been deep in the middle of a dream about a virgin wilderness and a gaggle of geese lowering themselves into a lake.  I got up.  Time for coffee, Cheerios, banana, and writing.

I feel some fear as I turn to writing this morning, but I hope that this time and space becomes a familiar friend to me.  Don Murray wrote of writing as a lover, always exciting, always teaching him things, always waiting for him.  I hope to get to know my own writing with so much familiarity over this next year, as my life as a mother has changed and given me this early morning hour.

As a writer, it’s tempting to yearn for a large span of time and to delay writing until one appears–which is infrequently.  Research on productivity suggests writing in shorter sessions every day.  How short is short?  I don’t rightly know yet.  This weekend I had success with 90 and 40 minute sessions.  I accomplished tasks I had projected would take much longer, which is rare for me.  Today I have only 20 minutes until I want to head home to see my children, achingly cute as they are.  Here I go.  I’ll let you know what I got done in 20 minutes…

Well, I wrote an insightful, but very messy, couple of paragraphs on the effect of standardization on democratic pedagogies.  The thinking and drafting felt very rich.  It does seem possible to “get into” the ideas of my project sufficiently in 20 minutes to take it one small step forward.  20 minutes.  I can find that on the busiest of days sometime between 8:30 and 4:30, no?

I had an excellent writing session yesterday.  I’m a house guest at a lovely cottage on Lake Michigan for the weekend, which might have helped.  The children are playing with other children, running and laughing outside.  I can hear them enjoying the unstructured free time that child development experts say is vital (and diminishing) for kids.  This feels like summer.  I worked for 90 minutes, made two outlines, and began reorganizing my prior draft into these two outlines.  I saw the path forward from here to completed draft.  I felt motivated to continue.

In his teacher research work last year, Jeff Large discovered the power of success as a motivator for students’ persistence.  If students didn’t believe that they could be successful at a school task, they didn’t try.  If they had a taste of success–working a math problem through to the correct answer–then they did persist in trying.

Yesterday was a good writing day.  Here I am, back at my computer again for more.

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