I’m grateful for many things. Dr. E’s patience, my dog’s need to put her face really close to my face when I come home, C’s new habit of looking at things upside down through his legs, my own opposable thumbs. But tonight I’m especially grateful for the “Perfectionism” chapter in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Apparently one of the body’s defense mechanisms is to tense the muscles that surround a wound. Left unchecked this tension can drastically prolong the pain of recovery. It might not be a happy moment, but healing cannot begin until those muscles are stretched and utilized again. Wounds aren’t always physical. This seems a silly thing to have to say, but there are a lot of wounds in the world, a lot of tension around those wounds, and seldom a clear sense of how to work that tension free. There were two shootings on university campuses today. There were countless other acts of violence, large and small, that won’t ever be broadcast into our awareness. In light of these horrific moments it seems self-indulgent and rather shallow to think of a wound in writing. But I think there’s a parallel, that these wounds leave can leave us silent when the right words are most needed.
This morning I sat in a conference working group about the problems of disseminating research to practitioners in our field. It was one of the few really challenging moments of the past few days, and a reminder that as a Ph.D. student, as a public intellectual I am supposed to be writing. Not just that I should write a dissertation, or a journal article, but that I should be writing. We should be writing. Actively engaged in the creating, challenging, constructing, deconstructing, motivating, imagining, exploring, expanding, and distilling that writing allows. Perhaps not always writing in text, certainly not always in “scholarly” venues, but writing as a way of being in the world.
To get personal for a minute, I had a weird and pretty overwhelming summer. It started out with online courses and qualifying exams, continuing through to the final revisions on a journal article and a conference presentation. Coursework came to an end and I felt like I had given everything I could give. This blog sat silent. I tried to jumpstart it on our Ireland trip, but I dropped that ball too. The little journal we are trying to keep for C was (is) gathering dust on a bedside table. Hanging over all of that was a the specter of a dissertation, only a blurry shape haunting the edges of my awareness. Its hard to describe what it feels like to look at your own dissertation. Its like the promise of a wound to come. Of course a big part of me was excited to get the thing in motion, and the core ideas of the project were still really important to me, but the blank page haunted me. It still haunts me, though I’ve managed to get more than a few words down. But each one of those wounds feels like a drop of blood squeezed from a clenched fist. I’ll write a page then delete it, write a sentence and stare at it for an hour. The end of a dissertation is the beginning of a career, right? With each word comes a doubt, the impostor syndrome, fear of the unknown, the open wound of not knowing if you are really able, the guilt about worrying over such seemingly petty things. Each word is constantly challenged by an internal voice. I know I can write a better sentence than this, so I should write that sentence now. I don’t know this literature well enough, so I shouldn’t write any more until I’ve read all the books in the world. Its the wound of a perceived failure where tension builds and builds… and builds… and builds.
But here I am now, full of gratitude for Anne Lamott for hanging out on my shelf, for a challenging moment at a conference, and for this venue to stretch out of silence. Don’t get me wrong, I love silence, and its an increasingly rare occurrence in our household. But the further I get into this Ph.D. thing, the further I move into the academy, the more I feel ethically driven to write against silence. I may have worked pretty hard to get to this point, but I am also working pretty hard to recognize how privileged I am to be in this position. Everyone has something that the world requires of them. I don’t know exactly what that means for me yet, but I am certain that I won’t find out by being quiet. I have to believe that uncomfortable writing is more important than comfortable silence.