I’ve had three weeks devoted purely to writing papers. During these weeks I’ve noticed a pattern in the way I get writing done. The first stage is a long thinking stage which could take months or even years as was the case with one paper. In the thinking stage, I collect articles, read, write notes, write the problem/purpose statement for the paper and I think about what I want to say. This stage takes place, in and around all the many other tasks in life. And it involves writing lots of notes. Then I reach a point, usually because there is a deadline when I decide to block off a few days and stay at home to write. I stay at home because I won’t get interrupted and because when I’m in this phase, I really focus and the house can burn down around me and I wouldn’t notice. I try to block off a minimum of three days if I can. The first day involves stops and starts of writing, lots of frustration, some cursing, some queries to the heavens about why I put myself through this and quite a lot of nothing happening. I have patches of writing but nothing coherent. I go to bed thinking that I will never get this paper written. The next day I’m conscious that I have to get the paper written and I’m running out of time. It is almost as if I have to cross a physical threshold that involves making an embodied decision that the paper will be written. From that point, I start seriously writing. I don’t mean that the paper is written perfectly but that I end up with a coherent whole that can be revised and edited into a finished piece. If I don’t consciously cross that threshold, the paper stays elusive. I’ve been trying to understand what that threshold is.
Wisker and Savin-Baden in a paper called ‘Priceless conceptual thresholds: Beyond the ‘stuck’ place in writing’ (London Review of Education, 7(3), 235-247, 2009) talk about conceptual thresholds in writing. One such threshold surrounds ontological questioning, where academic writers experience a questioning of self and how that self relates to being in the world. Being criticised, feeling uncertain about having something worthwhile to say and querying the value of writing and publishing can bring this on. Conceptual thresholds also relate to the language and knowledge of the discipline or discourse we belong to. What counts as valuable knowledge? As writers we sometimes get stuck as this threshold because we feel we cannot contribute at the level expected of the discipline/discourse. Wisker & Savin-Baden (2009) suggest that patchwriting (drawing from other’s work), mimicry (following other’s work), critical friends and pushing through as ways to cross these thresholds.
I agree with Wisker & Savin-Baden and I think I experience conceptual thresholds throughout the process of writing a paper. But the threshold I experience that I’m talking about here, relates more to the emotional experience of writing. I think my body knows how difficult it will be to sit for the next 6-8 hours and become immersed in an extremely complex and taxing task. Even after that 6-8 hours is up, there will still be a lot of work involved in getting the paper finished. I think my body resists before the threshold. The day that I spend cursing and in frustration is preparation for crossing the threshold. In crossing the threshold, I know what is coming but am now prepared to engage in it. It is a conscious decision, that then allows me to engage in the difficult work of constructing knowledge out of nothing, of pulling together disparate thoughts into a coherent form, of responding to an ongoing discursive dialogue even though I may feel I have nothing to contribute.
We all write differently and our processes are unique. You may not experience the same threshold as I did but I think it is worth thinking about what writing thresholds you do face. Can you identify them? What helps you cross them?