As I Write This

Note: I wrote this at the end of last semester as I worked on a final paper for my Critical Theory class. It is not exactly a typical “workflow” essay, but it describes my work on a specific task and I thought I’d share it.

As I write this, I should be working on a 20-page final paper for my Critical Theory[1] class. As a graduate student in English, I spend a lot of time reading and writing in front of the computer, poised between notes, books, and laptop, cobbling together semi-coherent ideas and then revising the shit out of them. But frequently, in my efforts to finish a particular writing task, I am distracted.

The essay you’re reading now came about after I wrote a status update on Facebook, one of those updates that is, in Walt Whitman’s terms, a “barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.” In the throes of paper writing agony and ecstasy, I needed to be heard:

Typical morning: Wake up, ask Joe to wake me up again in another half hour, go to school, get bagels, drink coffee, start writing a paper (yep, you guessed it, about post-postmodernism), drink more coffee, read more of the book I’m writing a paper about, go on Facebook, look sadly into my now-empty coffee cup, write a little more paper, login to my email, think more about post-postmodernism, write another sentence and then delete it, ask lots of existential questions about the meaning of everything, put on mascara in an effort to boost confidence and re-establish my connection to the world outside my head, write status update, go back to staring at Word document….

A friend of mine commented that she was both amused and interested by my writing process descriptions, and that she’d like to hear more. In her work developing word processing software, insight into the writing process of “real people” was particularly intriguing and professionally informative. What might have been an innocuous comment on Facebook burst the inspiration-dams of my mind and unleashed a creative flurry about the relationships between the writing process, identity, and the internet that instigated the writing of this essay.

As I opened another Word document and began to write this, I was amused by how meta things were getting—I worked on a paper, and then after describing the writing of that paper on Facebook, another friend became interested in my commentary on the writing of the paper and I decided to elaborate on the writing of my writing by writing a new essay which ultimately applies the themes I was exploring academically in the initial paper. It’s dizzying. It’s fragmented. It’s exciting and beautiful.

It’s also appropriate that as I chisel away at my paper about the disjunctive formation of identity in a postmodern, digital world[2], I find myself and my writing style fragmented and informed by comments elicited on the internet. Not fragmented as in broken, but fragmented as in split into pieces that I must arrange in a semblance of order.[3] For me, there is a very thin, grey line between academic and creative work, and just as I am composed of many personality traits, desires, fears, and passions that form a single “self,” my writing exists in an array of scribblings on many different themes that always, somehow, come together into a coherent whole. To quote poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines…Till he with Order mingles and combines.”

Writing is a process of continuous discovery and sharing. Writing is a solitary act turned social, even more so since the internet became my silent partner in the writing process. Here is what a typical day in the life of this writer looks like:

I start by grabbing a cup of coffee, because coffee is the precious elixir of creative life for those of us who opt not to drink two bottles of wine every night[4]. Today, I open my Word document that contains only a heading and a placeholder title that I wrote yesterday in an effort to amuse and inspire myself enough to keep writing: “I Meta Friend: Postmodern Identity Formation and Social Communities in a Digital World.” I have about 19.9 more pages to write, plus a bibliography. I click on my browser and sift through library databases to fill in my cadre of sources on which I’ve already taken notes. The three general themes I’m exploring in my paper are the connections between identity formation and digital media as they relate to social networking sites, digital writing, and digital marketplaces. I need a couple more sources for each topic, so I use google scholar to find sources cited by the sources I already have (again: so meta). I also dabble in the library databases. Within 20 minutes, I have more sources than I need printed out and ready to review.

I can’t help but think how different the research process is for me than it must have been when my mother was going through graduate school. I remember her describing card catalogues, long hours hunched in the stacks at her university library, and the all-consuming process of digging up obscure sources in print. The nuts and bolts of scholarship—researching thoroughly, reading closely, writing elegantly—have not changed, but the nature of each element has fundamentally shifted. My research is expansive, as I am connected instantly to any source I could possibly need. What is more, some of the legwork has already been done, in that tools on the internet help me to understand the relevance of various sources. While the library is still important, it is no longer the epicenter of the researching process. Reading, for me, still involves a hard copy and a pen, but I also take notes on my computer, utilize online dictionaries, and even sometimes use an e-reader. And writing. Writing is still a curious alchemy of turning uncertainty into argument, hashing out meaning through an explication of unknowns, starting with a question and discovering the answer as you write it down. But the manner in which I write, as I’ve already begun to demonstrate, has been influenced by the digital environment at my fingertips.

I think these things, but I still have a mostly unwritten paper and pile of untouched sources, so I write.[5] I start by writing down the titles of the sources I’m working with. I write the sources in the rough order I’ll present them in the paper, and then beneath the titles, I write key words and phrases from the notes I’ve already written up. I tackle my outline one source at a time. I turn my fragmented notes into sentences. Bullet points become softened by transitions. As I fill in my outline, I see connections that don’t fit in to the neatly divided sections, and so I create new topic sentences to follow up on later. At the bottom of my document are several sentences that say things like, “Something about Jameson’s view of digital spaces as they relate to global cultural identity…see Davidson Ch. 3.” The paper is raw and untamed, but coming together. The ideas are making their way into a shape and form I recognize.

I work like this for a while. I have three or four pages, and then I sputter to a halt. The sentences stop flowing, and anyway, the facebook itch has been nagging. My inspiration is flagging and failing. So I log in, scan through my news feed, and “like” the updates of classmates in the throes of similar paper-writing miseries. It’s funny, because we love to write—analyzing writing is our chosen field, that for which we have succumbed to lives as starving graduate students—but you wouldn’t know it from our colorful descriptions of the nine circles of hell that seem to be visited upon us by our final papers. I feel like I’ve adequately commiserated with my peers, and so I Alt+Tab back to my document, delete an erroneous comma, toy with completing one of my unfinished topic sentences, and then give up and check my email.

It is that point in the morning where I begin to fear I will never make adequate progress on my paper. I know it’s a matter of sitting down and working through, but at the moment, the email from Amazon promising Gift Recommendations for My Whole Family is so enticing, I follow the link to a shaving kit that looks like something my dad might be vaguely interested in. As I reach the third user review, I panic that I am wasting precious time. It crosses my mind that I have developed ADD, and so I promise myself to get back to my paper, but not before I go on WebMD and check my own symptoms against the clinical diagnostic criteria for hyperactivity.

I get back to business, but only about another half-page gets written before a friend shows up. She takes one look at my desk, which is horrifyingly cluttered with the sprawl of sources, notes, and empty Starbucks cups.

“It looks like postmodernism puked all over your desk,” she says.

“Postmodernism actually puked in my brain, and it was a chain reaction,” I respond. We talk for a bit about existential things, and then I get back to my paper. With the iron-clad will of a gladiator, I poke away some more. I slow down, stare blankly at the screen, read back through everything I’ve written, smooth out a few sentences, copy and paste an entire paragraph that would fit better in a different place…I read part out to my office mate, ask her if she thinks it works, and she says it does.

It strikes me, as I shift bits around, that writing is kind of like identity. We are constantly influenced, mediated, and informed by those around us…but ultimately it is me putting words on paper[6], me sharing my experience in an effort to connect, me learning and struggling to arrive at a version of the truth that I’m willing to put my name on. All semester, I have read about how humans are shaped by the various ideologies and power structures that produce our realities. These theories would have us believe we live in the Matrix, that we are pantomiming lives that are coded and embedded in our environment, our relationships, and our selves. But like Neo, we have the option to take the red pill[7] rather than the blue pill. We can develop a consciousness about the forces of influence in our lives and then assert our freedom, our agency, our voices in writing and engaging the consciousness of others. Language is meaningful, and matters. Writing is the force of change—the agent of revolution inside and outside ourselves—that opens our eyes and our hearts to what is real and terrifying and beautiful.

My writing starts in fragments—a host of free-floating signifiers seeking their referents.[8] But as I write (and do all the other things I do while I write), I figure out what it is those fragments are trying to say. All the resources available to me increase the subtlety with which I approach my topics, and they help me understand the audience with which I am trying to connect. My writing is my way out and my way in—I am simultaneously defining myself and my ideas, expressing a way of thinking and seeing that is entirely my own, while inviting others to share it, to relate to it, to understand it.

I have written this essay because I understood that I had things to say about identity and the writing process and Critical Theory that I couldn’t say in an academic paper on that topic. Writing outside of academia (and, who knows, maybe in it, too) must be confessional. It must bend non-existent spoons[9], recognize the distinction between the true and the untrue, push through the noise and articulate with new certainty those things that mean something. As I write this, I have a paper I need to finish. It is still in pieces, and I need to arrange them in a way that speaks the truth as I see it. But it’s nice that through that writing has come this writing, and this will inform that, and ultimately I will have two works that tell a story.

[1] Critical Theory is a particular form of torture that involves reading long treatises by French or French-influenced philosophers who purport, in endlessly verbose terminology, the ways in which human society and culture is created by ominous forces (like capitalism, or man’s innate, aggressive desire to kill his father and marry his mother). In this universe, humans have no free choices or voice of their own; language is meaningless; authorship means nothing; and literature is dead. All of this study, of course, is supposed to spark a passion for committing out careers to the very same literature we would spend our days tearing apart. So it goes.

[2] Weird, I know….just go with it.

[3] I think to myself, as I write this, “Look up etymology of “fragmented” to see if there is a thematic tie-in.”

[4] Shout outs to Sylvia Plath, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway…!

[5] One thing that will never change, no matter how advanced technology becomes: When it comes to writing, you can plan, research, chat, interact all you want. But ultimately, you must sit down and write. And write more. And then revise. And then rethink. And then write, and so on, until you have said what needs to be said.

[6] Or, er, screen…

[7] If you haven’t seen The Matrix, do your Popular Culture duty and see it. In addition to being visually stunning, it is a fascinating exploration of free will that will leave you with more analogies for philosophical paradigms than you know what to do with.

[8] If you really want to know what the hell I’m talking about, look up “semiotics” on Wikipedia. It’s basically the theory of how words take on meaning.

[9] Seriously, go see The Matrix.