February 7, 2011
Writing and Running
This is a call to everyone in ASP who has something to say, but is afraid to write. Most of us don't need to write for our job. However, if you don't write, it's almost impossible to move past "staff" status. There aren't as many writing mentors in ASP as there are doctrinal folks who can help junior faculty while they are writing. So I am writing about my writing process to let new ASPer's know that it is not them; writing is tough. But it's worth it.
I have been working on a major writing project for the last couple of months. I finally finished this weekend; I had to do the bulk of the writing on days off and weekends because my workload was too heavy to allow much writing 9-5. Finishing a writing project is both a relief and filled with anxiety. It is incredibly satisfying to be done, but then comes the intense worry that it's not good enough, a citation is missing, or that I forgot a topic essential to the discussion. One of the reasons I don't write as much as I should (outside of this blog) is due to the anxiety it provokes when I finish. Unless I have a deadline, I will never stop second-guessing my work.
Writing is a lot like running. I am a long-time distance runner (almost 20 years!). Even for the best writers, it's sometimes a grind. In both writing and running, it's hardest when you are out-of-shape. We generally don't think of needing to be "in shape" to write, but writing makes writing easier and more fluid. This does feel a little unfair, because when you most need to feel good about writing (or running) is when you are getting back after a long break. But that is when it is hardest and most painful.
For nearly two months I resorted to exhaustive, probably unnecessary, research because writing was too painful. I could not get more than a paragraph or two on a page, and I knew I needed 10,000-15,000 words. It seemed insurmountable because I had not written that much in years. I knew I could do it, but I could not remember how I did it, what my process was, what I did in terms of a timeline. But after two months, I found that my one-two paragraphs while researching out came to about 3000 words, and suddenly I had about 20% of the project done. And it didn't seem like I could never do it. When I would come back to running after taking time off due to illness or injury, it would seem like I could never get over the 1-3 mile range. And then, after a couple of months, I could hit 5 miles without stopping. And at five miles, a half marathon doesn't seem so unreasonable after all.
The second hardest time is when you get writer's block, or in running, when you plateau. This usually happens when you have been at it for a while. You become acclimated to the process and you stop responding. Nothing you do seems to make it better. This tends to happen at the worst possible time; when you need to get a project finished, but your mind is empty, or when you are training for a major race, and your legs don't want to cooperate. The experts say beware of overtraining, but work through it. It will break. This was were I was at about two weeks ago. I desperately needed to get past the 5000 word mark, but everything I wrote was terrible. None of it fit with the theme. I couldn't transition between topics. Every word was painful. But I knew I had two weeks, so I worked through it, and it did come together. But during that period, I probably erased more than I wrote. Through erasing and rethinking, I came out with a much stronger theme.
The last painful period for me is finishing up. As I said at the start, I never want to finish because I am afraid it's not good enough or dreadfully flawed. The easiest way for me to get over this is to send it out to be proofread. As soon as I hit "send" I think of five topics I needed to cover but forgot while I was writing. I would never remember what I needed to add if I didn't hit send. The anxiety of someone else reading my work, and finding it lacking, produces the adrenaline to put it all together. Quite honestly, what I send out to be proofread usually is lacking. It's not my best work, and it's not even very good work. In running, this is usually the period when I need training partners to keep going. I am in a pretty bad state about two-three weeks before a race, and I need companions to keep me going. I will not walk unless injured, so even when I hate running, I keep going because I am too proud to be the person who slows down the group.
In that last rush of adrenaline, I can usually knock out a substantial portion of the paper. The fear won't go away until it's published. In this way writing is still like running...you cross the finish line, and you immediately start planning your next race. In my case, I wrote three pages of a law review article while finishing my last work. Writing and researching made me realize how much more there is to say on the topic. So I started with just a heading. Then I jotted some notes about where I wanted to go with the topic. The I took a break from the major project and put in several more topic headings. There was no fear, no anxiety, as there is when I start writing after a long break. It was smooth. (RCF)
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