It really pisses me off that I am capable of writing this blog post right now.

Why? Because I spent the better part of today staring at Scrivener, attempting to eke out one, maybe two paragraphs of my dissertation. And after much gnashing of teeth, En Vogue singles, and superfluous hydration, I was indeed able to wring out a few sentences. I’m not going to venture a guess at the word count because that would just depress me – and, besides, I suspect that much of what I produced today will, at some point, be deleted. I am not being self-deprecating — well, not entirely. Today was a Bad Writing Day (BWD, henceforth), one of those days when producing words felt like traveling through a birth canal lined with sandpaper. And when one is caught in a BWD, it can be difficult to claw one’s way into the greener pastures of the Good Writing Day (GWD, henceforth). For example: On a GWD, music helps me to maintain a rhythm as I think, write, and revise. Today it distracted me and induced YouTube cravings. Another example: On a GWD, I might pause to reread what I have already written for inspiration. Today I was this close to deleting all thirty-five pages of Rachel’s Disparate Thoughts on the Jerkface Narrator of Vanity Fair (Thackeray’s full name to be included in the actual chapter title).

So here I sit — writing, because it feels good to produce words, but simultaneously angry because these are not the words I want to produce right now. One of the reasons I decided to begin blogging was because I thought it might somehow be academically productive to stretch my non-academic writing muscles. Perhaps that will prove to be the case. But I also firmly believe in writers’ solidarity, and, for me, part of what marks that solidarity is the willingness to say when writing has not gone well – when one has had been caught in the sticky mire of a BWD.

Performing competence–even when it is very much a performance–is something that any professional must do. (As a Professional Student, I assume I can generalize here because it seems a safe generalization to make.) If I did not think that I could survive a day in academia without dissolving into tears, then I would hopefully choose another profession. But for genuine collegiality in any field, I believe that people must be willing to share their experiences of incompetence, too. We have to be willing to admit when we have been blindsided by a BWD, or even trapped in a cycle of the nasty buggers. We are professionals, but we are humans first. Our work typically feels more pleasurable and rewarding when we speak about its progress–or lack thereof–with candor.

To be clear, I do not believe that everyone, everywhere, should publicly announce, “I really sucked today!” every time s/he feels that has been the case. However, I do think we form stronger communities when we can admit vulnerability. I have always known that I could never exist in a profession where I was denied such a community, one with open-hearted support and honest intimacy. And I–along with everyone who has ever had to write a single paragraph–know all too well the isolating, desperate feeling of so-called writer’s block. As far as I am concerned, there can never be too many balms for that feeling, whatever forms they may take.

After I gave up dissertation writing for the day, I exchanged a few messages with a friend who is further along in her writing. “Tell me I am supposed to feel like an idiot,” I pleaded with her. A few hours later, I realize that we are not “supposed” to feel like anything – we simply do or we don’t. But I have discussed dissertation writing with enough seasoned veterans to know that BWDs, and all the feelings of shame, despair, and isolation that accompany them, are by no means rare among our population. I will not let today hold me back–nor will I let any future BWDs prevent me from pursuing the work I love so dearly. But I will openly claim this day, just in case anyone now, or in the future, could benefit from the sense of solidarity that comes from shared, frustrating experiences.

Today was a Bad Writing Day. My ideas felt stale. My writing felt forced. And while a BWD does not necessarily mean “bad” writing, what I wrote today might not make the final cut. But I have to write through the BWDs to reach the GWDs. Those days will be there too – it just might take a few hundred crappy words to reach them.


4 thoughts on “The BWD

  1. Thanks for writing about something all writers face but rarely talk about. Your post made me want to ask you (and writers at large): do you associate BWD’s with writing that won’t make the final cut? Or, do you include that as a possible part of a BWD, but also see this happening on GWDs? I’m thinking about my students, and how I want them to accept that producing writing that is still in the draft phase is a good thing… sometimes you just need to get some ideas out of your brain/out of the way before you can get to what you really want to discuss. I’m working on my prospectus outlines now and there’s plenty of stuff that is just me “getting it out there” and that I don’t even want in my prospectus…. but I feel like those crap words are getting me closer to what I care about.

    On the topic of BWDs, though (and solidarity): my worst writing days are on days that I don’t remember why the heck I took on a particular project in the first place. I had a terrible time writing a graduate seminar paper a couple of years ago, and to this day I use that experience as a lesson to myself (approaching mantra territory, really) on why it is so important for me to take the time (sometimes hours, sometimes days) to think about my own investment/interest/passion in a topic before committing to writing about it. If I don’t care, I can’t bring myself to do the hard work of writing in the first place.

    Keep up the blogging!

  2. Pingback: This is the Academia I Want | Positive & Promise

  3. On a tangential note, how do you like Scrivener? I’ve been using Evernote and I appreciate the flexibility, but I’m concerned it might be “too flexible” when I move into actual diss. writing…. Thoughts on Scrivener pros and cons?

    • You know, I’m still learning all that Scrivener can do, but so far I love it for diss writing. My favorite part is the word count target, which you can set for each writing session and for each document at large. I’m also someone who tends to check my page count obsessively, so writing without page breaks is good for me. There are also great research tools which I need to explore more fully so that I can take full advantage of them. All in all, I say it’s worth it. But then, I have never used Evernote and know that many people like it.

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