Monday, September 07, 2009

Writer's Block

For some reason, I cannot get to the place where I keep the words. This would be what most people call "writer's block." I hate that. I hate the term and I hate the concept. Really, the only cure is to simply write. As with any sickness, the cure takes a bit of time before you feel better again and you usually need to feel better right now.

Right now, a generalized sense of anxiety has the words blocked. The anxiety is not over anything in particular or really anything that has anything to do with me right now. After a week of demoralizing meetings, school started and I felt much better to be actually teaching. Sure, our college fired the highest level administrator that we have. In reading the comments on the news articles on the subject, I am once again struck by the amount of resentment and hostility directed toward college professors, particularly by the business-modelling educrats. Of course, this last is not new, and neither it nor the firing actually affect my day-to-day life.

Then, just as Historiann pointed out an article about the University of Illinois' attempts to create an educational sweatshop, our distance learning program asked another history professor and I to create and provide content for online class so that they can get adjuncts to take over the teaching. They want to exploit our intellectual property and labor with little compensation (and no royalties) for the end product, then turn around and exploit the adjuncts' labor by essentially turning them into underpaid t.a.s, all to cram in more online classes with students who have real anxieties. It's sort of a Wal-mart model of education. I don't know how that will go or if I can even refuse to do it or anything like that. Still, that shouldn't be affecting me like this.

The main point of anxiety for me right now, right this very second, is a paper proposal. Two hundred fifty words should not be so difficult. All I have to say is "this is what my paper is about, this is how it fits with your conference theme, please accept it." Why is that so difficult? Why do I feel like my head hits a wall every time I sit down to write it? Why can't I just do it?

Why? Because, me being me, I have to take this tiny little paper proposal and blow it up into a symbol of my whole future career, my future life, and my entire ability as a historian, past, present, or future. My ability to put these 250 words on the page has become an emblem of my self-worth, and my inability a revelation of my fraudulence. If I can't do these 250 words, then I am a loser, a joke, unworthy of my job, my doctoral degree, or love from anyone, anywhere, at anytime. My whole life rides on these 250 words!

You can see why I cannot access any words.

I get these stupid attacks when things seem to matter. I can write and write and write, as I did earlier in the summer, when the product doesn't matter. When it does: performance anxiety. I get bogged down in the little details. How should I begin? How does a paper proposal start? First person, third person, passive voice to avoid all persons? How to say what I mean?

Where are the perfect words -- and they HAVE to be PERFECT -- to say that writing a biography of Frederick Douglass from the perspective of the women who influenced him is novel and revolutionary (well, maybe "revolutionary" goes a bit too far)? How to say that, in focusing on the women, I can question the ways that this "woman's rights man" understood gender and gender roles in both his private and public lives, with particular emphasis on the intersection of the two? How to say that, in focusing on the women, I can explore the ways that these individual women within the institutions of slavery, marriage, and political activism used their relationship with the most famous black man of the 19th century to define themselves and their understanding of these institutions? Should I just limit this paper to the abolitionist women (which might be the better way to go)?

Can I say that I want to attempt a feminist biography of Douglass? Is a feminist biography of a man possible, even if that man was for women's rights? What might a feminist biography in general look like? I mean, I keep tossing around this concept of "feminist biography," but what the heck do I mean? Should I just let that concept go?

If I write a biography of Douglass from this unique perspective of the women in his life, is that a feminist biography? Can it be a feminist biography if all of these women will be defined by their relationship to Douglass? Did they define themselves in that way? If not, how did they define themselves, and what function did Douglass serve in their lives? If so, then what did they gain from that -- or lose? What is important about their lives both through their association with Douglass and separate from Douglass? Is this a feminist biography, or a biography of a series of relationships that can illuminate the intersection of race, gender, sex (as in both sexual scandal and miscegenation), power, and political activism in the 19th century?

Yes, I think that last is the best way to go: "a biography of a series of relationships with women that can" and blah blah blah and how a gendered analysis of Douglass's life might allow for greater understanding and so on and so forth.

Perhaps now would be the time to stop free writing in public as a sorry excuse for a blog post and go write the damn thing!

ETA: Shitty first draft accomplished! Before noon!


Susan said...

It sounds to me as if the problem is that you're writing a book proposal and not a conference proposal. . .

As to the distance ed piece: does your union have a policy on online courses and intellectual property? If not, it needs to develop one -- there are a bunch of model policies around.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Susan, you are so very right. I've taken on the whole future, including the book proposal, in writing this very tiny paper proposal.

I'm actually just about to take a look at the contract. Although our union reps are pretty darn fierce, the school may actually have full rights to the documents we generate.

Feminist Avatar said...

I am thinking that the paragraph: 'Where are the perfect words...' is pretty much a conference proposal with a bit of tweaking.

Equally, the discussion of what is a feminist biography might be a great questioning type conference paper- if it is the right event.

Ink said...

Hooray on the first draft done! I always feel much better in the revising phase...

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Holy Gadzooks, woman! We must be on the same wavelength. Not 10 minutes ago I posted my own musings on getting started writing, including a reference & link to Lamott's "shitty first draft." Amazing. Must be the season for ambition, and its dark flip side, fear.

But here we are, both having written actual words! Hooray!

Digger said...

Gratz on getting something written! From what you posted above, it looks to me like you could do one of about 5 different papers!! But, you only need one, for now :)

profacero said...

HI! I have some catching up to do around here. !

Bavardess said...

I think the idea of a feminist biography of a man could be provocative and interesting. Yay on the first draft. But boo on the people trying to exploit your labour to do cut-price education.

Nancy said...

I think we should talk...I've spent three years+ writing a historical fiction account of Helen Pitts Douglass, would love to exchange some ideas. Shitty first draft? I'm on shitty third draft by now. These are important stories to tell (as Douglass himself would have avowed.)

Glad to have stumbled across your site!


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