I wrote a post a while back about being in the “muddy, muddy middle” of a project and learning to accept that feeling of muddle as both an inevitable and a necessary stage of the (or at least my) writing process. “I’m learning,” I said then, “to trust my own process more,” and I do, these days–more or less. I still feel stress during that phase, but I recognize it for what it is rather than falling into a panic or succumbing to imposter syndrome just because I don’t at the moment know exactly what I have to say or what form it will take.
It has been a longer while, though, since I was in the middle of a longer project: for some time now I have been writing exclusively essays and book reviews maxing out around 5000 words and sometimes constrained to as few as 300. Working within these narrower parameters is sometimes frustrating–at this point, as I have mentioned here before, I am eager for a chance to stretch, to prove (to myself as much as to current or prospective editors) that I can say and do more. There are some things I like a lot, though, about writing shorter pieces with imminent deadlines, and one of them is that time spent in the muddy middle is, almost by definition, also short.
Since my recent “but why always Dorothea?” moment about my research, however, as I have begun to look again at the writers and questions that interested me during my previous work on the “Somerville novelists,” I have realized that I am out of practice at coping with the larger-scale muddle that you enter into when you don’t have such narrow goals and limited time frames established at the outset and in fact aren’t even sure what you are trying to do. It’s not that I’m completely aimless right now: I know the territory I want to be in, and I have a sense of the conversations that I want to listen to and then join, albeit in some as-yet uncertain way. I said only half jokingly on Twitter that so far what I’ve done is put all the books I think are relevant into a pile: that’s not all I’ve done, but it is actually part of what I’m doing, not literally but mentally, and it is helpful because the juxtapositions in themselves start to raise questions that interest me. I’m also gathering references, trying to get oriented in the relevant critical landscape(s), which means trying to figure out what those are! I’m doing what I would call “reading around,” not chasing answers to a particular question but trying to learn enough that I can frame a good question.
These are all reasonable things to be doing in the early stages of research–and I do think that I am doing research, even though I haven’t yet defined its scope or specific objectives. So far, though, it all feels quite diffuse, amorphous, and potentially overwhelming. I have been struggling to remind myself that this happened before when I changed research directions, and that it is okay to take time to learn–and there’s a lot to learn! Patience, not panic, is what’s required, but it’s one thing to know that and another to actually be calm and confident about it, and that’s where I have been struggling. I need to keep in mind that this is the same process, just on a larger scale.
Anxiety aside, I do like what I am have been doing over the last few weeks. I am excited by the things I’ve been reading and the questions and connections they have prompted me to think about, and that’s a really good feeling. One specific example would be my recent reading of The Years. In my post about it, I emphasized my inability to grasp what is going on in the novel, but I didn’t mention why I chose to read The Years right now. It’s because when I started going back through my Somerville notes and posts, I was reminded how stimulating I had found Winifred Holtby’s book on Virginia Woolf and Woolf’s Three Guineas. Since I needed what Eliot in Daniel Deronda calls “the make-believe of a beginning” for whatever this new project is, I decided that I would start (again) there, with what (to me) is Holtby’s fascinating exercise of sympathetically studying a writer whose fiction she found entirely “alien,” and with my own preference for Woolf’s “tracts” over her novels. Holtby’s book was finished (and Holtby herself had died) before The Years was published, but I was intrigued by descriptions of it as Woolf’s most overtly social or political novel, and also by knowing that it and Three Guineas were initially going to be part of one hybrid essay-novel.
I struggled with The Years, but I was also very interested in it, at least conceptually. I’ve been reading about it since then, especially about the splitting of the original project into two separate books. I’ve also been thinking about Holtby’s own fiction, especially South Riding, and her self-deprecating description of herself as a “publicist” (rather than an artist / aesthete), and about other novels that are like The Years in giving fictional form to social and political commentary but in very different ways, such as (surprise!) Middlemarch, but also North and South. I hadn’t planned to put any Victorian novels into my pile of relevant books this time, but there they are now, and that has got me thinking about things like periodization and genre and the ways we group or differentiate writers, especially women writers, which brings me back to Holtby’s critical approach, and I’m also interested in Holtby’s political journalism, which reminds me both of the anti-fascist arguments in Three Guineas and of the links between gender politics and fascism in Gaudy Night, which also includes reflections on fictional form and genre . . .
As you can tell, this is not an orderly process! It’s chaos, it’s a mess, it’s a muddle, and I’m in the middle of it. Actually, I’m not even in the middle: I’m just at the beginning of it, and that’s why I need to be patient, with the work and with myself. I have the luxury of time that I am supposed to use for reading and thinking; I should not squander it by fretting or rushing. Even now, after just a couple of weeks, I think I have made some preliminary decisions, not about what to write, yet, but about what’s a priority to read next: more about and from Woolf during the time she was writing The Years and Three Guineas, more about and from Holtby related to her ideas about fiction and (as) politics, more scholarship about women writers and the ‘social novel’ across the Victorian-Modern divide. Before too long, I will also reread The Years, better equipped to see what Woolf is doing–and, in some ways more interesting to me, what she is not doing there that she does in Three Guineas. That seems like progress: it’s almost a plan! Now I just need to take some deep breaths, stop fretting, and get on with it. Slowly.
This makes me smile. Also, it occurs to me that this reading around to figure out what questions you might ask is something that students either don’t do or don’t know to do or also struggle with the idea of doing, for probably the same reasons as your other post about productivity (or apparent lack of it) so I suspect this might also be handy when coming to talk to students about the work one does before deciding on a thesis for an essay and actually working on the essay itself.
Yes! In fact I had a section in the post about this that I cut because it seemed a bit tangential to my main focus, but you are exactly right. I spend a lot of time in office hours urging students not to start by trying to come up with a thesis but to allow themselves some time to read and take notes and let their argument develop out of what they find they keep coming back to.
Chiming in from the teaching trenches, this is a process we try to start as early as possible. Even our bitty grade 7, when they write their sad little 3-min speeches are urged to read before they decide on a topic.
Absolutely. And it is absolutely the process I believe in for myself – it’s just that I’d forgotten what it feels like when the reading part lasts more than a few days!
Oh, I like the reading part the best! Though I haven’t done any long-form writing since grad school. Honestly, I miss it … but who can afford to go back to school and wander among the stacks?
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I like it too — I just don’t like uncertainty! But I trust I will find a direction for it eventually.
Of course you will!!
Just thinking is research
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I like the way anything seems possible at this stage—so much to discover! But agree it can be anxiety-making—so much to read! I must read and master it all before I can begin! One good thing is that unlike our students, you aren’t on any deadline to stop reading around and produce a thesis. (Although I was just saying to mine that at a certain point you have to stop researching and just write the damn thing, because the research will never be “done”).
I wish you exciting discoveries! I’m really interested in hearing about where this reading will take you.
Thanks, Liz! It’s true that it would be a mistake to think you have to read “everything” before you can start writing. No matter the scale of the project, there’s a sweet spot somewhere, a point at which you know enough to start trying to put your own thoughts in order, which in turn can help you decide what else you need to read before you can say what you want to say with confidence. Somewhere around that same point I find it helps to define a goal and a deadline, otherwise research turns into puttering–happy puttering, maybe, but potentially aimless and endless.
Yes, I was telling my students that sometimes in my own work, research could become a form of procrastination that I could TELL myself was productive.
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