On Academic and Other Writing

09 Jul

I had hoped to post this this weekend, but a back injury waylaid my plans.  Funnily enough, after I spent almost the entire day Saturday finishing my dissertation proposal, I wanted to write more afterward. I felt like writing for me. What flowed through my fingers was not a great work fiction or anything particularly interesting, but it was liberating to put the thoughts and emotions that accompanied this accomplishment into words. They’re probably not what one would expect. They are certainly not what I thought I would write, which is why it was important to take the time…

I just finished my dissertation proposal, which is an enormous relief on the one hand. There were many times I didn’t think I would ever be done. I began calling it the never-ending task. On the other, I must confess I’m disappointed and disillusioned. I had wanted to finish it so much sooner, and if I’m honest, I feel like it robbed me of the life I had wanted while in Aix. (I’m glad I get to come back for another month to finish research in August and hope to make up for lost time then.) I don’t know what I could have done differently this spring and summer, but I still can’t shake the feelings of disappointment and discouragement.

I know it’s not my best writing sample.  I wrote it because I had to, not because I wanted to, and that makes an enormous difference. The writing is functional; it conveys what it’s supposed to, but it’s lifeless, flat – exactly how I felt when writing it. The only joy I found in the process was when the pieces began to come together (and that was mostly because of my research, not actually working on the proposal). At least I find the actual research, digging through dusty old manuscripts more engaging. I am excited to truly begin to research now – not just finding the documents I think will be useful but actually analyzing them and determining how the puzzle pieces fit together. I’m also apprehensive that it may not live up to my hopes, and I worry that I will find writing my dissertation the same soul-sucking process that the proposal has been. For me, writing without passion is not writing at all, much like life. I love writing, and if I do not love what I’m doing, then even though I’m putting words on a page, it cannot be writing.

I need something that will inspire me again, something that reignites my passion. Right now, I am just a jaded grad student who finds academic writing quite meaningless.  All too often it seems to devolve into intellectuals arguing over things that matter very little in the grand scheme of life. The proposal did inspire one thing – an almost daily existential crisis. I want to do something meaningful with my life and with my writing, but I’m at a loss for how to do either at the moment.

I believe that the projects that will build on my dissertation have potential. The purpose of one study in particular is not just to understand the past, but also to make a difference for people in the present.  Studies that may produce tangible and positive outcomes for people in present now inspire me more than purely intellectual pursuits. I have always wanted my work to matter more than just to a few scholars,  but it seems imperative now. While I think this is a good goal to have, I feel like I’ve lost an important part of me, the part of me that was curious, questing, hungry to learn more, which drove me to reach for my full potential. Perhaps I just need the opportunity to discuss interesting ideas with like-minded people to be re-inspired and to rediscover the mental gymnastics I used to enjoy so much.

I had planned to start my academic blog months ago, but life intervened. Maybe that will begin to inspire the intellectual in me again. However, it needs to be more than just a space where I can process what I’m learning; I want it to spark a wider conversation. Academia, especially disciplines such as history, where so much of our work is done in isolation can be quite lonely. Hopefully, launching the other and meeting more researchers at the archives will alleviate some of that. I need other people to bounce ideas around to maintain enthusiasm for what I’m doing, but after this past year, it is very difficult to put myself out there in academic writing – probably another reason my academic prose falls stillborn on the page. I’ve crawled into a protective shell, and I’m finding it difficult to crawl back out.

One thing I know with certainty: I am a writer at heart. It has always been my preferred method of self-expression. If I can find my heart in academic writing again, I will become the scholar I wanted to be from the beginning.

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5 responses to “On Academic and Other Writing

  1. Henry David Thoreau

    July 9, 2012 at 7:34 pm

    “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

    • pilgrim752

      July 10, 2012 at 4:17 pm

      I wasn’t sure what to make of this quote when I read it the first time, but I choose to take it as encouragement to live life to the fullest. While I agree with Thoreau that we must experience life to write and that the insights gained through living enrich our writing, academic writing actually requires the opposite. Thus my dilemma. I make my living through academic writing, specifically historical writing, which necessitates that my time be spent in archives during the day and analyzing documents and reading secondary literature in the evening rather than the rock climbing I dream of. There is a lot to be said for living a life of the mind, but when one feels trapped there, it is just as confining as any other cage. The trick is to find balance between the experiences “out there” and the interiority of intellectual pursuits. And that is precisely what I intend to do. It is simply another challenge, and I’ve never been one to give up on a good challenge.

  2. mcparedes

    September 3, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    I just started creating a blog today…and found your article. It is so eerie for me because I am experiencing the same challenge of trying not to over eat and to go walking (walking and probably tai chi is the only exercise I can do right now because of my health condition)… thanks for writing this article… I am not alone in my experience… specially those journeys I take (within)…

    • mcparedes

      September 3, 2012 at 1:06 pm

      Sorry, I was referring to the article “running free”…:)

    • pilgrim752

      September 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm

      Thank you so much for your comment. I know that the journeys we take inward to confront fear and other obstacles that prevent us from living life to its fullest can feel quite lonely, so I just wanted to reiterate that you’re not alone. Though it can be a difficult road to travel, it is worth it. My mantra is to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and over time it becomes easier, especially as we face our fears and replace the lies we have believed about ourselves with truth. Best wishes on your journey to health and healing.


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