Thursday, November 26, 2015

How Did I Not Notice I'd Become a Writer?

As I do every weekday morning, I'm sitting at my little desk tucked into the corner of our spare room, writing. I wake up at 5:30 and write until about 7:45, and then I get ready for work. The soundtrack to my writing is my partner's deep breathing upstairs--he won't wake up for awhile yet--and my cat loudly wondering why I don't come play with him. I don't have to worry about any small people waking up to disrupt me. I just have to worry about getting my butt in the chair and my hands on the keyboard. 

I don't keep track of how many pages I produce per day, but I do keep track of how many days of the week my butt gets in the chair. I'm a religious (albeit very idiosyncratic) bullet journaller, and writing is the first thing on my list every day. And that consistency is really helpful. In the last two weeks, I've submitted a chapter, gotten back (and completed) the revisions on another, and made progress on a third. My committee is really happy with the project, and so am I. I look forward to my writing dates with myself. Despite being entirely happy with my choice to become an academic administrator rather than an academic, I love the two hours a day that I get to be a researcher and a writer. I also love that that time has finite limits, and I think that's what makes the difference. 

I am, you see, the person who is a grad dean's time-to-completion nightmare. I started my PhD in 2008, and I won't be done with it until the spring of 2016. I've been working on it part-time since 2013, yes, but I also finished writing my dissertation proposal in November 2011 and it took me until the spring of 2015 to get halfway done with the actual dissertation. Writing used to be torturous. I must have rewritten the second section of my first chapter fifteen times, easily. Writing was either so slow that I felt like someone was pulling words out of me with pliers, or so dammed up that the words stayed inside where they'd prick and niggle and reduce me to a quavering ball of anxiety and fear. I didn't know how to learn how to write in a new style--as my dissertation is not modelled on others in my field--or for a new audience--for despite repeated warnings not to, I'm writing the book, not just the dissertation--without trying and failing hundreds of times. I almost gave up, so many times. I didn't much mourn the loss of my writing time when my first admin job required hours and hours of overtime. I devoted dozens of pages of writing just to figuring out why I was writing at all. 

I can't tell you exactly when that changed. Finding a different supervisor, one whose approach and interests better match what my research looks like now, helped a lot. Finally getting that second section right, and then knowing how to move forward, made a difference. Figuring out why I was writing, the reasons besides getting a PhD, broke down barriers. Without realizing it, I started to think of myself as a writer. I sit down every day and tell stories about being a woman writer in Canada in the 1950s, about how other people also figured out how to become people who have to sit down and create something out of words every day, and about what happened when they did. They didn't find it easy either. They doubted, and nearly quit, and mourned their lack of community, and assumed that their most recent bout of writer's block would last forever and they would never write again. They also went on to win the big awards and sell thousands of books and change the way we think about writing and the world. I've started to write down ideas for my next project, because these hours at my desk have become precious to me and I won't give them up even once this is done. 

Doing a PhD--deciding to finish the PhD that I started, more accurately--has been one of the most difficult things I've ever done. Not in and of itself, but in how it made me get in my own way until I learned how to get out of it. Somewhere in there, I became a writer. The dark days seem very distant now, and I'm not precisely grateful for them, but it's the best word I can think of. It was hard, but necessary, to stop defining myself as an academic when I decided to move into administration. It felt like giving something up. But I have more, am more, now. I have a job I love, and I became a writer.  

4 comments:

  1. What a great post, Melissa. I think this experience is very common: of the writing being so, so, so difficult, and the breakthrough is not so much intellectual or scholarly, but something much more fundamental, and mundane. Growing into the role, self-knowledge, self-compassion, self-inquiry. Really wonderful of you to share this with us.

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  2. Thank you Melissa. I am all about privileging becoming over just being. It's all a process and a practice.

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    1. "becoming over being" -- love this as thinking about becoming a writer and so many things besides. Am reading The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson right now and thinking about becoming...

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  3. Wonderful idea and it maps onto my experience too - women, academic, writers, creative cultural researchers - I realized during and after the process that 95% of my brain/body/life was so oppositional and blocking the real work that just completing the damn thing was like 500000000 marathons - so here's to recognizing the incredible work that it takes to write oneself into becoming

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