Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Destruction as Production, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hit “Delete”

It can be REALLY hard to throw away fourteen pages of a dissertation.

Especially when you’ve been working on them for four months.

My fourth chapter was going nowhere. I’d started it right before I started working full-time, and over the course of the next four months I had literally gotten maybe a few sentences a day written, and each sentence was like pulling teeth. I had twenty-five pages of notes and was quickly falling into a reading trap (reading more and more and taking more and more notes but doing very little actual writing). More and more often I would get home with plans to work but would find every excuse to avoid it, because just thinking about this chapter made me feel ill.

Part of it (no, really, most of it) was the subject matter. This chapter was on Akira, which I recognize as a super-important film in not only the realm of anime but cyberpunk / sci-fi / visual spectacle. But I’ve never liked the film. Sure, some of it is gorgeous to look at, but the story bores me. And I was trying to write via an angle that I had very little expertise in–the actual mechanics of anime-creation and graphics. So I felt a bit like a tap dancer who’d just been asked to perform in a ballet.

And then I took a week off from work, which gave me the time to get back into a good headspace and see things a little more clearly. I sat down to watch another movie–Oshii Mamoru’s Sky Crawlers–thinking that maybe it would give me some inspiration. And the movie was great.

I started writing about Sky Crawlers and had written fifteen pages in the space of two days. I’d thought those pages could be added to my fourteen Akira pages, but in reality I only saved about two of them. And once I abandoned the old stuff, I felt SO much better.

Even though everyone’s reluctant to abandon a piece of writing, especially one that they’ve slaved over, I think most of us realize that it’s essential to the writing process. Half of writing something good, whether it’s a dissertation or an email, is knowing what to cut out. And there’s a strange sense of satisfaction in taking something you’ve worked on–but that has also kept you up at night–and just dropping it in the virtual rubbish bin.

So, lessons learned:

1. Don’t try to write on a book / movie that you hate. Yeah, sometimes you have to, but avoid it at all costs. You don’t have to LOVE it, but something has to draw you to it.

2. When things get really bad, watch or read something random. Maybe it’ll end up as material, maybe it won’t, but it can shake up your brain a bit and get you out of a rut.

3. If writing is genuinely painful, consider starting over. Don’t stress about “wasted time”–even if all that work didn’t result in a finished product, it probably gave birth to plenty of meaningful thoughts and ideas that will show up in your next piece.

4. Destruction is an essential part of the creative process. This isn’t news to most people, but a lot of us kind of ignore it. Drafting and developing doesn’t just mean that you write a draft and then tweak it–sometimes it means that you write a draft, get rid of 60% of it, and then revise and add to what remains until it barely resembles your original work.

Chapter four is a completed draft now, 28 pages in about 3 weeks. I’m going to do my best not to cling to it too tightly.

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3 comments on “Destruction as Production, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hit “Delete”

  1. Anthea
    October 11, 2011

    I understand the pain that you went through. I had to rewrite several of my thesis chapters since they just weren’t working in terms of the larger whole. It was hard and frustrating while I rewrote them but I’m really glad that I did it. Yes, I abandoned a ton of text but I really preferred the newer text.

  2. gradland
    October 12, 2011

    The newer text is almost always better than the old. I’m guessing that all of my dissertation chapters are going to be subject to chopping and re-sculpting to the point that I won’t recognize them anymore.

  3. David Milliken
    January 27, 2012

    As an English major and now a blog writer, I have enjoyed your post. When I did my Master’s thesis, I specifically prescribed for myself the first four novels of John Barth. I wanted to do something on a contemporary writer and at the time he was the cutting edge of meta-fiction. I thought he was cool. Besides, satire, irony, allegory and parody had always put me off and I wanted to understand. It worked, but I would have been happier, I suppose, working with Whitman. It wasn’t that I hated Barth, but he was off putting at times. Writing to develop a blog following is a steady process of writing and trashing, writing and trashing — all jn the search for an elusive reader. Good post. Thanks.

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