When you’re embroiled in a long writing project (like, oh, a dissertation), you pick up little tricks for staying productive. One of those tricks is to stop writing for the day before you’ve exhausted everything you have to say, so that you’ve got something to get you started the next day. I think it was Joan Bolker who called this “parking on a downhill slope” in her book Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day (which contains much better advice than the title suggests).
This tactic works most of the time. But yesterday, I opened up my fifth chapter to find that I had finished my last writing session with this:
What is needed, I argue,
That’s it. I didn’t leave myself any indication what, in fact, was needed. As I tried to re-orient myself by looking at previous paragraphs, it struck me that “what was needed” was an end to that sentence. It didn’t help that I had written “what is needed, I argue” on a Friday, and I didn’t sit down to write again until the following Monday. I had two days to forget whatever it was I thought needed doing.
Without any breadcrumbs to follow, it took me a good five minutes to pick up the trail. Eventually, I scrapped the whole “what is needed, I argue” line and took the new paragraph in a completely different direction. In a sense, the frustration of having parked on a really awkward downhill slope made me reconsider — and improve — where I was headed.
There are limits to metaphors, so likening the act of finishing a writing session to “parking” only gets you so far. Maybe one problem with this particular analogy is that it reinforces the idea of writing as a linear activity, as if writing is like driving a car to a predetermined destination. But writing isn’t straightforward in that way. My experience yesterday reminded me that writing is full of fits and starts, messy and recursive. I ended up somewhere other than where I thought I was going.