By Christina Morin
A friend on Facebook recently alerted me to this compelling piece: ‘Twenty-Five Insights on Becoming a Better Writer’. Gathered from a veritable who’s who of famous writers, the tips all speak to my own experience of writing and, even more poignantly, to my struggles with writer’s block and procrastination (hence my faffing about on Facebook). The suggestion that particularly stuck in my head – and made me laugh outright – was that offered by Sarah Waters on the subject of discipline. Noting her own self-imposed daily word count of at least 1,000 words, Waters writes that this ‘is sometimes easy to achieve, and is sometimes, frankly, like shitting a brick’. A graphic image, but certainly one with which I can relate. I’ve never tried Waters’ suggestion of a minimum daily word count, which is possibly why I often find myself in the situation where, after a long day at the laptop, I seem to have regressed rather than progressed on a given piece of work. It’s an incredibly frustrating feeling, and one that doesn’t bode well for my enthusiasm levels upon return to the computer. Waters, like a couple of the other writers quoted in the piece, makes the point though, that it’s better to write a load of nonsense, or ‘rubbish’ as she calls it, than not to write at all. At least rubbish gives you something with which to work.
In other respects as well, writing just to write and without getting too angst-y about the rubbish-ness of it all has its advantages. I often find, for instance, that after a long day spent pounding away at the keyboard trying to work an article out, I’m so mentally and physically exhausted, that I can’t see my way out of the word mines I’ve dug for myself. Somehow, though, when I’ve given myself a bit of a break and return to what I’ve written, thinking it a load of toss, I frequently have a pleasantly shocking experience: it may not be Nobel-prize winning stuff, but what I classed as trash upon writing actually turns out be the key to a ‘Eureka’ moment. In fact, it often seems that writing ‘rubbish’ when I can’t write anything else at the very least helps me figure out where I need to go with my argument. That gratifying moment of breakthrough can sustain me (and usually must do) for some time. And, once I’ve painfully excised all the bits of detritus and produced the finished piece, I find that I’ve written a few sentences here and there that might work well in the next piece I’m contemplating or might serve as the basis for a new line of enquiry altogether. Recognizing the value of this ‘rubbish’ can take some time; it may be months or even years before I return to the off-cuts of a finished piece in search of a half-remembered reference or idea, but, the point is, it doesn’t go to waste.
Early in my PhD, a more experienced colleague of mine, upon listening to me whinge about the numerous, hard-wrought paragraphs I had just chopped from my current chapter, told me to think of the process of writing my thesis as making a big pot of soup: countless ideas, sentences, and arguments get thrown into the pot in order to produce an end product that harmoniously blends them all together. It’s a good analogy, and one I try to remind myself of when confronted with page after page of ‘cuts’. Whether these arguments and ideas eventually make it into my current or future work or not, the process of writing them down has ultimately helped me work things through in my head and, even more importantly, on paper.