Avoiding The Bears

Get a new plan, Stan

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Blackadder: Am I jumping the gun, Baldrick, or are the words “I have a cunning plan” marching with ill-deserved confidence in the direction of this conversation? 
Baldrick: They certainly are. 

(Blackadder the Third, ‘Nob and Nobility’)

Nothing good in academia happens without a plan.

I am telling myself that, repeatedly, because the time has come to start writing a new chapter. I’m having the usual excitement/anxiety I get when I realise I’ve probably done enough research to get writing;  I start thinking ‘OK, this is it. This is the CENTRE of the whole THESIS and I have to NAIL IT’. (I think that every time. I imagine I’d have trouble writing if I was like ‘eh, this argument’s pretty incidental to the stuff before it, to be honest’).

Said performance anxiety is particularly high this time because:

  1. I’m going into my fourth year soon, I really should start treating this as the home stretch and, y’know, sprinting.
  2. Writing my last chapter felt like attempting several simultaneous acts of keyhole surgery, whilst playing baroque music on a harpsichord, in a blizzard.

I am aware that what I was actually doing was writing some stuff about history and books, and printing it out, and looking at it. Actually, I think a lot of the problem was that I couldn’t understand why it was knotting up my brain so much.1 I’m quite happy with the finished chapter, and a little perplexed by how deceptively simple it looks from this end of the telescope. But I’m going to try my damnedest to make things a little easier on myself this time.2

Hence the plan. I suspect a lot of confusion and soul-searching could have been avoided if I’d been a bit more strict with myself about planning. Because, as I say, nothing good in academia happens without a plan. No good lectures, no good seminars, no good papers, and certainly no good monster chapters. I’m going to leave seminars to one side right now because teaching is too important for me to treat it here as a sideshow to the business of writing, but suffice to say that I had the above realisation following a reading group in which I presented some letters to a bunch of nice folk I know very well and man, I should have made an actual plan for that.

I have precious little advice and few words of dubious wisdom this time. Instead, I’m going to blather about the many ways in which I am just a bit rubbish at making and sticking to plans for things I write. You can stop reading now if you want, I won’t judge you.

Anyway: teaching plans, no problem. I might deviate from a seminar plan or just outright ignore it if the class goes in another interesting direction, but it’ll be there and I’ll know it well and refer to it. I have a far more complicated relationship, though, with chapter outlines and so on.

I usually do at least attempt a plan of some description. I tend to fill them with jokes, weird shorthand, and vaguely aggressive notes to myself, just because that’s how I write when I’m thinking and planning. Which is more-or-less fine, except that quite often a supervisor or two will want to read what I’ve planned, and then I have to spend ages making it fit for consumption by a person who isn’t me. Even I’m a little too embarrassed to send a senior professional colleague a document that says ‘Even if I don’t do much this poem is angry doggerel gold’ and ‘Subtle this the hell up. And play nice’.3

Another, more serious, problem is that my plan-making process tends to go something like this.

  1. Start making plan.
  2. Enthusiastically plan first bit in some detail.
  3. Become increasingly vague as plan progresses.
  4. Spend rather too long coming up with snappy titles for the different sections.
  5. Get bored with planning.
  6. Decide to start writing because hey, let’s see how it goes.
  7. [Optional if planning in manuscript] At some point during or after points 1-6, lose piece of paper on which plan is written.

And the third and most serious problem is that as soon as I get into the writing of a piece – particularly if it’s a long piece, like a chapter – I find myself ignoring the plan. It just never quite works when I start writing stuff down. About a third of the way through I’ll begin to know what I’m doing and then I’ll be able to plan the rest, or at least sketch it out. But that opening third is not the most pleasant of experiences.

I suspect that struggling over and reworking and essentially writing through the difficulties (structure-wise, argument-wise, etc) of my chapters is a crucial part of the process for me. I think-write, always have done, whether I’ve written a detailed plan or not. The best things I’ve produced have often been the things I’ve been just about ready to tear my brain out over, repeatedly. At the same time, I’m not so wedded to some idea of the mystical ‘process’ by which I call down my chapter-writing muse that I’m not willing – eager, even – to keep on working at methods of making it a bit less psychologically draining.

The plan I have made for this coming chapter is better than most I manage. I have planned half of it, and have a basic idea of the argument of the second half. And, well, screw it, I’m going to give writing the first half a go, because I imagine that it will swing off in some unexpected directions pretty quickly so I should just get going and find out what those directions might be. I’m also hoping that maybe, maybe, the plan will help even if I don’t stick to it.

In fact, I’m wondering whether sticking to the plan actually isn’t the point at all.

Some of the best seminars I’ve taught have been ones that have headed entirely off-piste. You can’t go off-piste, though, unless there’s a piste. And a chairlift to get you up the mountain. And I have never been skiing in all my born days and should shut up about it now.

But what if the plan that nothing good in academia happens without is not actually a plan you stick to? Surely sticking to your initial plan for anything that takes a writing, researching, playacting-out, defending, hating, sobbing over, contradicting, negotiating process is like actually staying with the kid you march home from primary school one day and inform your mum you’re going to marry. It might work for a tiny minority of fortunate-but-presumably-not-fond-of-variety people, but for the majority of us some combination of fate, practicality, personality, and perhaps eventually sexuality manage to separate us from the people that were our One True Loves for a Week in Year 2, while the appeal of the awesome Lego skills/Ninja Turtles backpack/ability to do the best handstands in the class that first drew us to them fall by the wayside of our developing psyches. I mean, the ‘our’ thing is an ineffectual stab at comradeship here because I was over there reading something. But kids do this, right?

Anyway. That child with the Ninja Turtles backpack or whatever probably grew up perfectly nice, but you’re probably not with him or her. They’re doing their thing, you’re doing your thing. Plans got changed.

See, they weren’t bad plans, necessarily, but the process of living changes how you want to live. And thus it is, perhaps (she says, hauling it back to the topic) with academic stuff. You plan so you know where to start, where you might head after that, and (eventually) where you were going to go so that you can decide to head off in a different direction.

Writing, at least in my experience, will almost always sabotage itself. Writing helps you notice and think things about texts, events, and arguments that you don’t necessarily get by just reading and thinking about them. I usually disagree heartily with each plan by the time I’ve finished writing, so surely I should stop beating myself up about the fact that I never stick to plans. Some people progress intellectually by disagreeing with others; I apparently, progress by disagreeing with Past Kirsty. That idiot.


1. I suspect it was a case of Too Many Books. Lots of little pamphlets, dancing before my eyes…

2. My brain, immediately: ‘Hah. Good luck with that.’

3. Actual quotes from my current chapter plan. I’m not sure why I need the instruction to be nice.

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