I’m struggling (shock shock) with my essays. Writers block, readers block. Just… struggling. A lot. As I have been for months. And because I am blessed with an amazing social network, I posted a call for help this morning and received a lot of great advice. I’m going to share it here, along with some of my responses.
This was my post:
Help! What do you do when you have lost faith in your ability to do something? I’m trying (I’m trying so. hard.) to work on my essays. But I feel strangled by my blank document. I know that I know this stuff… I feel like I was born to be an academic! But I can’t write anything. I can’t pull anything together. It is incredibly frustrating! I can’t stop reading headphone reviews, or looking for books on Amazon, or just starting sadly at my document. How do you bump yourself out of “I can’t do it”?
I know that “I can’t” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (so says everyone ever), but this current swamp is incredibly hard to get out of. I feel like I’m drowning in my own lack of productivity, my lack of coherence, my lack of ability. One thing I have learned in this last year, which in many ways feels like a year of unravelling, is that vulnerability is worth the effort, and that when I reach out for assistance, my friends (and often people who are not the ones I might have expected) are reaching back.
I recognize that I am teetering on the edge of another tumble down into depression, but I feel that I’ve been on this edge for weeks (months?) now, and I haven’t fallen yet. I attribute that success (which is a success, a massive success) to my social supports (which were not there the last time I walked this path), and to the personal growth I’ve done in the last few years.
So, the responses (some edited):
- Small tasks with rewards.
- I like to either come back later, if you have the time for that. But if not I just start writing anyways, even if it’s crappy, once you get into a flow you can clean up the start later.
- Write something. Anything. Admit that your intro will be terrible and the rewrite that later. I sometimes just have to start, even if for the first page I sound like a 6th grader. Then when you’re done and feeling brilliant you can fix the bad part.
- do you need a break? do you need to lower the bar? can you work on something else? you are unbelievably intelligent, articulate, intuitive and cute and fun! you dress up in costumes and wear cool t-shirts and are not afraid to be vulnerable. in short, you rock. and you don’t need to prove anything.
- (me) Ha, I almost drooped into embarrassing tears with your post. I do need a break! But not a ten minute or even a two hour break. I need a real break. (Very seriously I am considering whether this “real break” involved dropping out of University. And also dropping out of fibromyalgia. Who the fuck signed me up for this shit?) But I can’t have it until I do this work! My mind, at this moment, is the definition of “spinning your wheels.” I’m stuck in a ditch. I need a tow-truck! For my brain.
- I have trouble with this too, and would like to know if you come up with a good strategy to help get work accomplished when you’re feeling like this. I usually just have to force myself to write something, even if it is terrible, as Sacha suggested, but I know even that can be overwhelming sometimes.
- Personally I like to go and write something different (at least 1 sub-discipline different), and then start the real thing once I’m into writing mode.
- I find doing something really brainless (netflix, or even walking my dogs) gives me a chance to “step away” and start to brainstorm and make links. Alternatively, making some notes about the structure I want the thing to take to give myself a bit of an outline sometimes helps. Or just writing something, anything even remotely relevant will result in a bit of a brain dump onto the page that I can wrestle into shape or just completely cut out of the end product at least gets me started. Those might all seem like obvious things
- I have been known to warm up for a 1000 word essay with a 3000 word blog post.
- This may sound a little intense but, for me, I remind myself that the only things that really matter in my life are the things that I do or not do. I remind myself that I want to be a person that “does” and that this aligns with who I ultimately wish to be in the world. It is “doing” alone that makes me feel like my life is in the growing.
- Be kinder to yourself than you’d like to be.
Do something entirely different and preferably, fun.
Also: stream of consciousness may be both therapeutic and productive…
- Tiffany…make your thoughts physical. Get off the technology. Big sheet of paper, lots of big thinking right now…concept maps, post it notes, get it out of your head but don’t worry about the format. Lay key articles around your free flow of ideas. Don’s censor, just create.
- I don’t know how well it would work, but I suggest just writing ANYTHING. I don’t mean the “just start writing your paper,” but just write, a bunch, freeform. When I was in highschool an activity we did to write a story was to just start writing and whenever we got stuck we just wrote “yesyesyesyesyesyesyes” until we thought of what to write again, to encourage us. This might work well with [the above]’s idea, or could be done on the computer to get used to the idea of thoughts going onto the word processor.
- This may be horrible advice and not sure if it can be done but if I can’t do it I don’t. I go for a walk, take a bath, do nothing. And then go back to it. This may help you like that post about the ten good habits to quit doing. Maybe you just need to do nothing and something will come to you.
- (a mostly-paraphrasing of an e-mail):
- Thematize it (I am so bored/anxious about this essay…)
- Have a friend be a “bank” for brainstormed ideas – holding them for you and giving them back at specified times
- Maybe you are thinking about too many projects? Or need to work on a couple of them at a time?
- Cut and paste fave quotations into a file and write around those.
- Maybe speaking it out (recording) or putting it into a blog or other format to get the ideas flowing?
- But if you are feeling overwhelmed, then the task is either to make it bite-sized or to do the self-therapy thing: what are your options? (this works for me really well and I discovered it late)–as in what happens if you don’t get this done? and go for a walk or watch a movie or return to it later? usually, i then figure out how invested i am in finishing it or doing it (how much the deadline matters as opposed to the work itself). important for perfectionists
My friends are wise. And my struggle isn’t unique – that’s one thing that really came through for me. Other people also struggle with this. And other people have chronic illnesses and go through this grieving/growing/shrinking process. In a private message, one friend said that a chronic illness is like having someone sign you up for a very long rollercoaster ride, with the next loop-de-loop still hidden in fog. It’s good to feel not-alone. And these ideas are great.
Here is how I am going to implement them:
- Breaking my big tasks up into smaller, rewardable tasks. This has worked well for me in the past. Right now I’m not sure how to implement it (the tasks seem huge, and I can’t figure out what kind of reward will work). Since I can’t figure this part out, and since I think assigning myself another task is probably counter-productive, I am going to just fall back on an old stand-by. For everything I accomplish – every article or chapter read, every paragraph written, every idea articulated – I’m going to give myself a sticker. I have a new notebook that was given to me for just this purpose, and a little stack of stickers (my friends are amazing).
- Mind-mapping/get off the computer/creating rather than censoring. I’m going to mind-map everything I’ve got so far regarding the London paper (which is my first looming deadline). I’m also going to try to write an outline. And tomorrow I’m going to open up a word document, set a timer for 30 minutes, and just write. Then take a short break to meditate or go for a walk (depending on the weather – it’s getting cold out there!) Then write for another 30 minutes. Then I’ll see where I’m at, and if I’ve got anything that could become the beginning of an actual essay.
- Write something different. I’m going to give myself permission to do some of the other writing that I’ve been neglecting. I am a creative writer at heart, and it’s been months since I spent any time on my own creative work. I’ll see if this feels any different from the “breaks” I’ve been taking to lose myself and drown my anxiety in facebook.
- Blog. Here, right now. Accountability and traceability and evidence of my effort. The friend who suggested this knows me well.
Okay, so the first place I’m starting is the last on that list. This is what I’ve got so far for the London essay, after the cut:
Title (I love this title): Time Tables for Ghost Trains: Techno-Temporal Hauntings in Iain Sinclair’s Downriver and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere
Preliminary bibliography (annotated):
Bruhm, Steven. “The Contemporary Gothic: Why We Need It.” The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Web. Kindle book.
Bruhm says, “the Gothic has always played with chronology, looking back to moments in an imaginary history, pining for a social stability that never existing, mourning a chivalry that belonged more to the fairy tale than to reality” (259). If this is the case, then Sinclair’s Downriver challenges contemporary Gothic conventions, with backwards glances that are more the wild-eyed terror of running for your life than the wistful glances Bruhm articulates. Neverwhere, on the other hand, embodies this idea of pining and mourning much more clearly. And yet Downriver does meet many of the other criteria that Bruhm articulates as being necessary or fundamental elements of contemporary Gothic fiction. “Gothic texts and films… circle around a particular nexus: the problem of assimilating… social anxieties… into a personal narrative that in some way connects the Gothic protagonist to the reader or spectator. What becomes most marked in the contemporary Gothic – and what distinguishes it from its ancestors – is the protagonists’ and the viewers’ compulsive return to certain fixations, obsessions and blockages” (261). This is certainly true of Downriver, where bits of literary flotsam and jetsam float to the surface repeatedly, chapter after chapter, without ever fully revealing themselves. There is a fundamental blockage in Sinclair’s writing, an unwillingness or inability to provide the reader with a clear insight into the purpose or trajectory of the novel. And in Neverwhere, too, the story circles back again and again to ideas of loss – Richard Mayhew’s lost life in London Above, Door’s lost family – and disempowerment/re-empowerment. Bruhm’s text provides an insight into how contemporary Gothic fiction works and why it works and why it is important in the contemporary moment. This may provide a framework for the essay – measures against which the novels can be held, and their alignment with or deviation from these measures can be explored.
Gaiman, Neil. Neverwhere. 1996. New York: HarperCollins e-books, 2008. Web. Kindle book.
Can I just… ahhhh. Neil Gaiman. I am reading both the Kindle book (in theory) and the audiobook (in practice) and his prose and his voice is just so delightful, and the story is so engaging and so familiar and so lovely and dark and everything about Gothic that I love but have never academically engaged with, and I am loving, loving, rereading this book with an eye to how and why it works. I am enjoying it on the visceral I-love-urban-fantasy-and-Neil-Gaiman-is-my-hero level and also on the esoteric oh-so-that’s-what’s-happening level. Love it. Love love love it. Would like to take a whole course on Gaiman.
Hurley, Kelly. “British Gothic Fiction, 1885-1930.” The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Web. Kindle book.
Gothic texts describe “liminal bodies: bodies that occupy the threshold between the terms terms of an opposition, like human/beast, male/female, or civilized/primitive… Such a Gothic body – admixed, fluctuating, abominable – can best be called an abhuman body” (190). Hurley’s exploration of the “abhuman” is useful in looking at the two instances of haunting that I’ll be exploring in the paper – the ghost of Edith Cadiz on the train in Downriver and the ghosts/projections of Jessica and Gary on the train platform in Neverwhere. In both instances, the ghosts shift/transform during the scene and their transformations cause horror or distress for the protagonist (and viewer?). Later in the chapter, Hurley notes that some Gothic fiction “seemingly supernatural phenomena are produced through scientific practice – by means of physiological manipulation, or chemical experimentation, rather than magical spells” (191). This is relevant to the paper because my argument will be that the trains are linked to the hauntings, that the hauntings are tied to the trains. I don’t know how I’m going to make this argument quite yet, but it feels almost on the verge of coherence. Almost. If nothing else, this passage (and the work surrounding it) will be relevant to both novels if I decide to stray outside my train/haunting territory and discuss the other instances of the supernatural/superscientific in each novel. And, this, “[Gothic] plot elements may change, but its plots still remain exorbitant, piling incident upon incident for its own sake, and its settings are still overcharged with a fearsome and brooding atmosphere” (193) is just an absolutely perfect description of Downriver, a book that can best be described as exorbitance-on-steroids.
Kębłowska-Ławniczak, Ewa. “Writing London in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere: Digging in Search of ‘Raw Material’.” Philologica Wratislaviensia: Acta et Studia. Ed. Zdzisław Wąsik. Wrocław: Wyższa Szkoła Filologiczna we Wrocławiu, 2011. Web. 28 Oct. 2012. PDF.
Kębłowska-Ławniczak picks up on a “counterpointing shadow story in which Richard’s loss of identity and tourist exploration of the underworld turns him into an Amateur Sewerman” (102). This “shadow story” is one point where the Gothic themes of loss and identity, articulated by Hurley and reinterpreted for the contemporary Gothic by Bruhm, are evident in Neverwhere. She also notes and discusses the “conceptual, temporal and spatial indeterminacy” (106) of Gaiman’s London Below. This indeterminacy is critical to my argument, because the fractured and shifting time that the trains enable/embody (?) is only possible because of this uncertainty. The trains make it both spatial and temporal, particularly in Neverwhere but also in Downriver. I haven’t engaged with this chapter as thoroughly as some of the others, but I think there’s a lot of promise here for teasing out how and why the trains are haunted, and what that means for each novel as a representation of contemporary Gothic. She also says “barely readable texts do exist in urban poetics” (108) and I love this, because I think it applies perfectly to Sinclair’s Downriver, which I consider a very “barely readable text” indeed.
Luckhurst, Roger. “The Contemporary London Gothic and the Limits of the ‘Spectral Turn’.” Textual Practice 16.3 (2002): 527-546. Web. TandFonline.com. 24 Oct. 2012.
Luckhurst wrote an article about London, about London Gothic, and he references both Neverwhere and Downriver. This is the article that sparked the research proposal that I am currently attempting to expand out into a full paper. I pulled half the article in quotes, and this, I think, sums up why – “London is different, the argument proceeds, and is more amenable to the disorderly mode of the Gothic, because the creative destruction of its specific embodiment of modernity is peculiarly hidebound by the ancient commands and ancestral inheritances that live on amidst the mirrored glass and cantilevered concrete. These traces, Wolfreys argues in Writing London, are ‘spectral through and through: they are the marks of already retreating ghosts who disturb any certain perception we may think we have concerning the city’s identity’” (531). (Obviously that would need to be reworked, and I need to find and consult Wolfreys). I am afraid that I run the risk of simply restating Luckhurst’s arguments. Where I think my paper differs is in my specific focus on the trains, and my close-reading of the two instances of haunting – Edith Cadiz and Jessica/Gary. Although Luckhurst is absolutely the springboard that this whole idea jumped off from, and I am leaning heavily on him right now (particularly because my own brain fails to function), I do think that I’m making a unique contribution through my specific focus. I hope, anyway. But, what Luckhurst says in that quote is really what I’m hanging my argument on – that London is full of hauntings, and that these hauntings are integral to London Gothic as it is performed in Downriver and Neverwhere.
Sinclair, Iain. Downriver. 1991. London: Penguin Books, 2004. Web. Kindle book.
I hate this book. I hate everything about its overwrought and inaccessible prose, its impenetrable plot (does it have a plot? Fucked if I know), its never-fucking-ending metaphors. It is like a thesaurus vomited up a novel. It is gross and excessive and it makes my head hurt. It never lets up, its pace never alters, it never provides an easy paragraph or an accessible sentence. I blame Luckhurst for writing about this novel and Neverwhere in the same article, leading me to believe that Sinclair had something similarly lovely and accessible to offer up, convincing me to commit myself to writing on this awful, awful, awful “novel.” Curse you, Luckhurst! Curse you!
Botting, Fred. “Aftergothic: Consumption, Machines and Black Holes.” The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Web. Kindle book.
D’Elia. Jenifer. “Sometimes There is Nothing You Can Do: A Critical Summary of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.” Studies in Fantasy Literature: A Scholarly Journal for the Study of the Fantasy Genre 1 (2004): 29-37.
Klapcsik, Sandor. “The Double-Edged Nature of Neil Gaiman’s Ironical Perspectives and Liminal Fantasies.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 20.2 (2009): 193-209. Web. 28 Oct. 2012.
Wolfreys, Julian. Some books? So far, no luck finding electronic sources.
That’s all I’ve got. But, written out like this, it seems like a fair bit. It’s not an essay, it’s not even close to an essay, and I’m still missing more than half my sources (in a 12-page essay, I should have at least 10-15 scholarly sources and I’m sitting at a measly 4 – though I think that will round out quickly once I start going to the source material cited in the work I’ve already engaged with), but it’s not nothing. And that’s… something?
With eloquence like that, how can I not ace this thing?!