Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Breaking up the soil to make writing grow

A week or so ago our neighbor brought over his big tractor to till up our garden plots, tearing through the matted roots to turn over big lumps of soil that has sat fallow all winter, and last night he came back to disk it up, breaking up the lumps and smoothing the soil to make it ready to receive all those seedlings eager to stretch their roots out. He does this every year and he will accept no payment except a few loaves of fresh homemade bread, but without his work, our garden would resist planting.

My current academic writing project has also been lying fallow all winter, so it's not easy at first to make any real progress. I'm moving through the text slowly, turning over big chunks and wondering where to put them, how to make them fit with other chunks or whether to toss them out entirely. Later when the big pieces have been rearranged, I'll rake through the text on a more granular level, smoothing it all out so the argument can take firm root and grow.

Years ago when we first turned over our big garden plots, we found rusted horseshoes and other detritus from a barn that had burned, and even all these years later we still bring up the occasional rusty nail or bit of broken glass. In long-neglected writing I sometimes find treasures--a sparkling turn of phrase, an original idea I'd forgotten entirely--but more often I see flaws that somehow escaped earlier detection: infelicitous phrases, wobbly arguments, sentences that wander off into the wilderness and never return.

We work our garden patiently and diligently, inspired by visions of red ripe tomatoes that delight the eye and satisfy our hunger, but the rewards of academic writing are far less tangible. Earlier in my career publication brought the promise of tenure and promotion, but with no more promotions available and no financial rewards for continued scholarship, motivation has to come from within, from a desire to examine ideas and share them with others, from the faint hope that someday someone out there will care.

I'd like to say I write for the joy of turning over the text, handling the language, playing with the words, and some days that's enough. But it's hard to motivate myself on days like today, when the writing feels like a hard, lonely slog through lumpy clods of mud.

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