I was talking with a friend recently about the special kind of hell that academic writing can generate inside our heads, a distinct kind of neurosis that smothers and kills one’s ego again and again and again.
Sharing any kind of writing can be nerve wracking, sure, but academic writing, I think, carries with it the weight of Being Assessed, of having one’s worth measured against a gold standard to which we plebes can only aspire. A standard, I might add, that’s almost Oz-like in both importance and invisibility: the discourse behind the curtain, natch.
This discussion’s taken on a new weight as of late, as I’ve had two pieces of writing Formally Assessed and found wanting.
These are the stories we like to tell about ourselves:
First and foremost, that our lives form a story, that they can be contained within the boundaries of what we recognize as a coherent narrative.
One problem with this assumption–one that is, I think, so deeply ingrained in us so as to be almost invisible–is that it sets up a very real trap: what do we do, then, what are we supposed to think, when our lives as we know them in any given moment fail to meet the requirements of a story? Of the story we think we’re writing, day by day? Of the story we’re certain we should be creating, we are, we must?
Recently, two of my friends have run headlong into this problem and found themselves struggling to find a way around it. These two friends, it’s worth noting, are at very different points in their lives, and hold very different places in mine: the first is an ex, with many years of co-authorship under his belt when it comes to our lives together; and the second a friend, a co-writer, whom I’ve never met in person but with whom I create texts.
Two people. One plot point in common. Same problem.
Both of these friends find themselves at a point where the stories they feel they should be writing day-to-day are not manifesting themselves in lived experience; both feel some guilt, I think, for not matching their lives to the rough drafts they’ve held in their minds for a long, long time.
One of the great things about posting your writing online is that people will read it.
This is, of course, also a pain in the ass.
When people say nice things about my work–about my ability to write–then the digital broadcast of the stuff is all marshmallow fluff.
Some days I live and die by the kudos, you know, over on AO3.
But when readers don’t like what I’ve written and take the time to make that known, man. Makes me feel like a need a shower, one in which to drown my laptop and save the universe from the crap tentacles of my pen.
Ultimately though, I have a co-dependent relationship with my readers: I need you. Badly. And I hope, once and a while, you might need me, if only for 2500 words or so.
Most my readers, y’all, I’ll never meet; most of you live only, thus, in my imagination. Once my stuff goes up, gets out of my hands and onto someone else’s server, the reader has the upper hand; any status to which I might have pretended as a creator is huff poof boom.
I shouldn’t need anybody’s approval in order to value what I write.
Ok. That’s what I’m supposed to say, anyway. Total bullshit.
My grad program wants to know: what are my goals for the coming year?
Damn straight. But I’ve gotta do a few other things first.
Pass my comprehensive exams: 2 questions, 30 pages, 72 hours, coming up in early September. Hooah!
Drink less. Curse in class more. Especially when we’re talking about mpreg.
Write for an hour a day. Be it a fic or an academic essay, spend 60 minutes a day writing for myself.
Try try try to stop comparing my writing to other people’s. It’s not the most awesome way to determine my work’s relative quality, though it’s awful tempting. How can something that brings me so much joy also be such a source of anxiety? Haven’t figured that out quite yet.
Get an academic article published in a scholarly journal. Accept that I probably won’t get a job based on kudos I receive on Archive of Our Own.
Keep polishing my theoretical lens, one that combines fan studies, rhetoric, and (*sob*) performance studies.
Take pleasure in my goddamn researchwithout drowning in it, that self-centered joy.
Spend as much time with people as I do with my laptop. Preferably with people I dig.
Stop being a dick. Or at least: moderate my dickishness so as to avoid alienating everyone that I like in my life. Get less good at pushing people away.
Give a presentation at a proper Rhetoric conference. Or, as my dissertation director put it, figure out how to sell myself/position myself/other oblique reference to prostitution in my chosen field. Because the whole job thing’s coming up faster than I can believe.
Collaborate with a colleague on a fic or a more “academic” piece, because it’s so damn much fun.
Remember that just because I can say something in a public, online space doesn’t mean that I have to. Or even that I should. Because some people don’t like being characters in my electronic life.
This post is a metatextual exorcism: me trying to get the stupid out, as my directing teacher used to say, in re: my research project about the rhetorical tactics of the Overlord. It’s also an excuse for lots of pictures of Misha, so. If that turns you off, you know, I’d suggest you check for a pulse.
Ok, so. Here’s why it’s been hard for me to wax academic about Misha Collins:
It was easier for me to [gleefully] objectify the dude than it was to take him seriously.
Like, bro: I could write some smoking hot RPS about you without breaking a sweat, but put on a Random Acts video and I went all Crayola.
Fangirling over his body? Fine. Fangirling over what he actually did with that body in real life?
I’ve written in this space before about my relationship with writing, but I’ve never really considered how I write, how I get shit done. So using Lifehacker’s How We Work series as a Proust Questionnaire-type model, I’m taking a crack at chasing my workflow, so. Here goes.
A friend pointed out that, in my last post about my digital self, I linked the shit out of that sucker, a choice that she argued had the effect of shifting the reader from a linear experience in this space–scrolling from top to bottom–to one that’s unstuck in both space and time by kicking the reader through my back catalogue of posts, but in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure sort of way, you know, like:
You see a series of doors ahead of you.
If you choose the one marked “slash fic writer,” turn to page 7.
If you choose the door marked “rhetorician,” turn to page 4.
If you choose the one marked “political junkie,” turn to page 12.
Huh. I’d never thought of this place, this blog, quite like that.
Part of it, I suppose, is that because I wrote all of the posts in question–build all the damn doors myself–it’s hard for me not to think of this space as linear. At its core, this blog’s a trace of my thinking, for better or worse, and I tend to think of it in temporal terms. How the posts tagged to what was happening offline, what I was reading, where I was physically located, etc.
Now my friend, she’s very into space, the way that physical environments–especially those designed/designated as memorials–can affect the user/visitor’s construction of knowledge. So it stuck with me, a burr under my mental saddle–and then it ran headlong into George Siemens.
Siemens is an educational theorist and teacher up in the Canada, eh, whose work explores what he calls “connectivism,” a theory of learning that attempts to account for human-computer interactions. In “A Learning Theory for the Digital Age,” Siemens recasts learning as
a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual.
(HAL 9000? Is that you?)
Such a redefinition is necessary, he (Siemens, not HAL) argues, to account for shifts in learning practice and application. Educators must recognize that
knowledge is no longer acquired in the linear manner
but is rather constructed, negotiated, and revised by an individual end user within an ever-evolving panoply of informational networks comprised of both electronic devices–hi Gerty!–and other individual users.
Ultimately, each of us is constantly playing in and with what Siemens calls our “personal learning network,” one which, if it’s to remain useful, must always be kairotic.
So this got me thinking. Maybe one way of approaching this blog–a clearinghouse for my online life–is as the temporary home of my personal learning network, an online space through which I can momentarily move beyond what Spock might call “two-dimensional thinking.”
That is, a place wherein I might learn/write [because for me they are inexorably connected] not outside of time and space, per say, but through it, with the understanding that the Enterprise can fly up and down and beyond just as well as she can fly straight ahead.
But this assumes, I think, that I’ll return to the blog as a reader, too; as someone who engages with what I’ve written after the fact, outside of the kairotic moment in which the words first flew. Hmm. So building this living memorial to my PLN isn’t enough, perhaps; I’ve got to wander through it from time to time and engage the gaze. Participate in a little metacognition.
So, then, if other people, other readers, visit this space, then, it might become a point of connection within their own PLN, temporarily or no.
Besides, you can always turn the pages back and choose another door if you don’t like what you find:
I’ve finally figured out what’s bugging me, what’s dragging me down about the coming semester: the fear of other people’s expectations.
This time last year, no one expected anything from me because nobody knew what I could do. Including me. I just figured: I don’t want to suck. So I’ll go quietly about the business of not sucking.
Now there are, I don’t know, expectations and shit. There isn’t a question of can I do well; I’ve done well, at least in academic terms, and the expectation is that I’ll do so again.
I don’t want to screw up–which isn’t new–but I feel like there are people watching, now, for whom my screwing up isn’t a question. It’s like: you’re here. You carry the name of our program out into the world. And you’re not gonna fuck it up.
Even my editors and the admins of conferences I’m attending, it’s inherent in their communications with me: you’re not gonna fuck it up. You’re a professional. This is what you do. We trust you to come here or write this and talk intelligently about this stuff.
Which is fucking terrifying.
I’ve realized that I like going in with no expectations–my own or anyone else’s. I like flying in blind, with no one knowing me or my work and being like pleasantly surprised or whatever that I’m not a complete idiot. That I do know how to write, sometimes. How to speak, less often.
But that shell’s been spent and the bullet’s long gone. Don’t get to be a virgin forever, I guess. Now I gotta give the people what they want, what I think they want, and it’s no wonder that reading acres and acres of fanfic rather than putting any of my stuff on paper looks pretty fucking fantastic from here.
I’ve internalized all of this crap, is what I’m saying. And it’s acting like a major block that I’m allowing to prevent me from getting shit done.
A few weeks ago, I wrote this impassioned, angsty post about my squick points in SPN fandom. I was very specific. I was very serious. I was very delusional to think that everything would stay so neatly within the proper boundaries.
Especially since past me wrote, then:
But I guess I see the whole notion of squick in slash as generative, as a way of delimiting one’s imaginative [sexual] boundaries and then shifting those borders as needed.
Which, at the time, I thought applied to other people. That my “imaginative boundaries” were firmly planted; once negotiated, now settled.
And I was pretty freaking certain about the Stonehenge of my squick: real world. As I said then:
So I actively avoid learning anything about the real world side of SPN.
Enter Tumblr. And Stonehenge falls.
Still, it seems that past me was at least aware of this possibility, though I tried to couch it in terms of my scholarship, ’cause that’s the shell I run to when I’m freaked:
Maybe it’s just temporary. Maybe it’ll be like my once avowed opposition to J2… a taboo that flew by the wayside thanks to my research on meta slash fic.
Sam loves research. He does. He keeps it under his mattress, right next to the KY.
Shut up, Dean.
So this week, when I found myself happily reading J2 and liking it, for gods’ sakes! and it wasn’t even anything I could vaguely point to as being useful in this paper or the next one, I had a moment of: oh shit. Who am I? What have I become?
Well, that goes without saying by now.
Then I self-flagellated myself to a friend, someone I can count on to slap me down if necessary, and this person said:
Dude. There’s good stuff in every genre. If you’re reading it and you like it, it makes you happy, then do it. If you don’t and it’s not, then stop.
Basically: stop angst-ing about reading porn. Jesus.
Now, I still don’t want to know about anyone’s kids, or people’s marriages or ways of working or dogs or whatever–see? I’ve already said too much. But I’m less terrified of what will happen if I do, accidently. I still don’t seek this shit out, this kind of real world knowledge, but if I pick some up through an AU J2, really. My brain will not explode. And I’m not, therefore, a terrible person.
I can be amused by stuff like this and not forfit my professional fangirl card, not lose the illusion that I can summon cool detachment in the middle of Wincest and go “hey, yeah, I can use that. For RESEARCH.”
Because I totally can.
This is a long way of saying, I guess, that the fences are still flexible in my corner of fandom. Which I knew, but. I guess I wasn’t ready for the pastures to move so soon, you know?
I guess what worries me is that I have a tendency, once I drift into a particular subgenre as a reader to want to go there as a writer. But I’m sure that won’t happen here.
I am caught up this week in the final, insistant rush that the end of each semester brings, each with its own particular kind of hysteria. This term, the due dates for my final projects are nicely spread out, which is allowing me [in theory] to give myself over to each of them in turn. It’s kind of nice, actually.
Though as Friday’s deadline–the first of two–begins to loom, I’m trying to shake free of the niceness and push myself more aggressively into the Cult of Done, so I can move quickly to the next project, which is due next Wednesday.
And then, of course, my students’ work lies in wait at the end of the tunnel, waiting for assessments that are due next Friday.
So another week or so of this, of this semester, of this first year of a PhD program. And then summer vacation!
But until then, I think I’ll stick to more immediate terms: today, tomorrow, and the next. Otherwise? Things might be looking real ugly-like.