Scrappy paperwork and beautiful fragments: our incomplete archives

[Digging through my google drive came across this that I wrote for a session on creative writing, and thought I’d share, though I’ve lost the picture I drew of the extremely Jeremy Bearemy style writing approach my work usually takes. Please enjoy!]

I wrestle with revisions on this one article for months on end. To keep the appearance of working on it, it’s always open somewhere in the eight microsoft word documents I have open at any given moment. I drag it out when I talk to students who are revising dissertations – and I show them that I am doing this too, it’s normal, I say, attempting to sound convincing, it’s a community of writers and we are all learning to write better. 

Except I’m not exactly doing writing, I’m just keeping a document open on my laptop. 

Realistically this is about as close as I’m getting at this point, because other than dithering about with paragraphs one and two, I’ve done nothing for months. The feeling of not having finished it is somewhere between the nagging sense of ‘I’ve left the hob on’, and the utter guilt of leaving my crying daughter in the arms of the childminder. ‘YOUR WORK SPOILS EVERYTHING’ she shouts, and I think, you know, you might have a point.  

My record for arsing around with an article like this is a truly epic three years. I was so ashamed by this point that my only option as to revise it so drastically that I submitted it to a new journal and started again. I had received the withering derision that only Reviewer 2 knows how to dole out – and I’d like to tell you all that I rose above it, but that would be a lie. Ultimately Reviewer 2 was right – wildly insulting, cruel and derisory – but essentially at a certain basic point, right.

That was the point I had reached the worst writer’s block I have ever encountered. The punishing ‘I am an idiot’ kind, of shoving the thought of all work as far into the back of my mind as humanly possible – if I can stop myself thinking about it, then it almost certainly no longer exists. There was plenty to distract me, since at the same time I had handed in my bound PhD I had got a job. 

Things tend to happen at once –  moving from London to Cornwall with two recalcitrant cats – and my brain – the part of your brain that does the writing rather than the bit endlessly scrolling twitter and facebook – that part was seriously running on empty. Writer’s block descended, then, as I was starting my first academic job. I was soon told that for the first semester I would be teaching a single module with sixteen hours a week of contact, all about devising new theatrical work. There was no lesson plan, no schedule of work – just a vague assessment brief, and no idea of how to fill 12 weeks of this. I had two weeks to plan what on earth I was going to do with this time, and took solace in the library searching for something, anything, that would magically deliver me the ideas to fill out what seemed to be this impossibly large amount of time. In the shelves of the library I found Walter Benjamin’s Archives, and though I didn’t know how important this book would end up being, at the time I was mostly drawn in by its selection of pictures. Never underestimate the value of pictures in a book! 

Walter Benjamin is perhaps best known to us for his treatise on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. He was in many respects a tragic figure – his life cut short by a brutal series of coincidences. Benjamin was a German Jewish philosopher, a marxist theorist who considered both the rise of fascism and the changes occurring as a result of rapidly developing technology. This was the age of the radio, of early television, and of the telephone. 

Having already left his home country in the early 1930s for France, in 1940, as the invading German army pushed further west into France, Benjamin moved towards Spain, while trying to secure a visa for the US – thinking he could escape from Portugal. He tried to escape through Spain on the day his paperwork was deemed illegitimate; fearing his grim future at the hands of Nazi soldiers, he decided to kill himself. Had he have tried his escape a day earlier, Benjamin might have perhaps succeeded; a day later and he could have attempted another route. And we would have more of one of the most important thinkers in the twentieth century. Instead we are left with a substantial life and body of work, but one cut short, one filled with missing work and unfinished projects. 

Benjamin asked penetrating questions about the role of the artist, of the author, and of art that we are still – nearly a century – later grappling with. His written work was strewn across sheets of paper, notebooks, the backs of postcards – often shared with friends for safe keeping. At his death he had only a briefcase with him, containing an unfinished manuscript, now lost to us. Another manuscript of his was smuggled out by another refugee, philosopher Hannah Arendt, several months after his death. Arendt and many other scholars and devotees have gathered the fragments of Benjamin’s output into a series of collected writings – and from that, we have what we have of the writer’s work. The Benjamin’s Archive book collates some of the strange ways he kept notes of his work; through prodigious list making of ideas he had had, in tiny spidery writing across scraps of paper, in cataloguing things he had lost or misplaced, and in keeping track of his son’s unique ways of speaking. There is value and a joy placed in many of the things we might hold guilt about – scraps of ideas, the beginnings of things that we have left unfinished. 

And, what’s more, we are writing in dark times: not Benjamin’s, perhaps, but not so far off, a time of far-right leaders and populist thought which pushes against experts, against intellectualism and the pursuits of critical thinking. We are in a time of hate crimes and violence against marginalised communities, a time when political leaders can espouse homophobic or islamophobic talking points. And if any of you can sit down to write – to productively write – just after watching the news headlines then we should probably swap places straight off, because I’d like to know how you do it!

And on our smaller scale, Higher Education is a challenging place with huge demands on our time: to be productive, to measure out each chunk of what we do against a particular box on our workload – and to ignore the many many hours of what we do that are reflected against no box, because if you added them up, the whole thing gets too depressing to be able to adequately function within it.

So we find ourselves pushed to write, to be productive and work towards clear goals and outputs. To make things, to make concrete outputs; we are pushed to make ‘units of work,’ which will be graded first by our anonymous peers and then within whole structures. I think about Benjamin on the mountain with his briefcase, and I think that somehow there must be another way to think about what it is we do when we write, what we gather and hold with us, and what we leave behind us. 

Much of Benjamin’s work is about writing and the processes of achieving it; he too had a serious obsession with stationery. He warns ‘avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial.’ (Benjamin, One Way Street, p. 65). He also reminds the writer ‘never stop writing because you have run out of ideas.’ (65). He describes the process of writing in a cafe – indulge me for quoting it at length!

“The author lays his idea on the marble table of the cafe. Lengthy meditation, for he makes use of the time before the arrival of his glass, the lens through which he examines the patient. Then, deliberately, he unpacks his instruments: fountain pens, pencil, and pipe. The numerous clientele, arranged as in an amphitheatre, make up his clinical audience. Coffee, carefully poured and consumed, puts the idea under chloroform. […] With the cautious lineaments of handwriting the operator makes incisions, displaces internal accents, cauterizes proliferations of words, inserts a foreign term as a silver rib. At last the whole is finely stitched together with punctuation, and he pays the waiter, his assistant, in cash.

— [Walter Benjamin, One Way Street: Polyclinic, pp. 88-89.]

In preparing for today I re-read some of his work and kept coming back to the issue of the starting point of writing – what we do when we have the idea. 

The first time I thought of my idea, my hunch, it was joyful, or I suppose initially the first feeling of ‘this might work felt exciting. I was joyful about delving into a new project, into exploring this idea, into finding something out. I do remember disbelief that what felt like a very obvious point was in fact, not really written about. So then, joy took a brief detour into checking – and then the more I looked for evidence of my hunch the more the possibility took root. The excitement of new things is slightly addictive. 

However much I know it is not, I endlessly think that the writing journey looks something like this, a straight line between two places where you start with joy, you proceed straightforwardly, you write the thing. Job’s a good ‘un. But much of my writing looks a lot more like this [SECOND PICTURE OF JUMBLED LINE] writing may start with joy but as the project morphs and changes, other emotions become attached with the project, and oftentimes, that emotion can be charged with guilt. This can feel like an overwhelming burden: like a thick fog over my feelings of the work. Why am I guilty?

That I can’t finish the project – that it’s a case of sitting down and writing it and I should be able to do it.

  1. That I have other unfinished projects which I will now play in a special show reel in my head, usually before sleeping.
  2. That it was somehow inappropriate for me to try and do it in the first place and my guilt is a sign of that, because I am in some way not good enough to continue, or I should not.
  3. I feel guilty for taking on too many projects, or that I’ve had to do so many kinds of work. Nothing is being done well enough, so I feel guilty about the quality of work as well as the lack of quantity. 

But here is the reality, guilt is a useless emotion when it comes to writing – and it is not free. It comes at a tremendous personal cost to you as an individual, but crucially for the purposes of finishing anything ever, for your ability to move forward, it leaves your own balance as a writer totally overdrawn. If I feel guilty about what I haven’t done, what I should have done, then the emotion is focused in like some kind of custom-built personal attack dog. It knows my worst decisions, my good intentions, and exactly when to deploy each of these grenades for best effect. And it will never make me a better writer. It will never finish a single project. It is not only useless, but it actually impedes my ability to do anything other than feel bad about what I have done, or what I have not yet done. 

Not all unfinished writing is meant to be finished. Sometimes our work is transitionary – it is going to get us from one way of thinking to another. And it might never need finishing. Sometimes it may be we genuinely have no interest in continuing work on this project and there is no pressure to do so, so perhaps we can let it go, and give ourselves permission to stop. Unfinished work can reveal the process, can teach us more about how we write and how we shape our ideas. Benjamin went so far as to say that the work is the death mask of the idea, a harrowing thought, but one I think which indicates his willingness to sit with the unfinished.

But there are also things we have to say that no one else does. The things that gnaw at us, that we really care about. 

Perhaps you might feel that anyone could write what you can’t finish, but I really don’t believe that. Your voice, your way of thinking, belong only to you. And you don’t know the impact your words will have on a reader – who might need your work to help them forward, or your unique way of thinking to unlock the problem they are stuck on. Your work has a value that guilt will not allow you to see.  

So how do we move away from this feeling? It’s important to note I don’t feel this emotionally fraught about all of my writing, or even about all of my unfinished writing. It rather raises the question: why do I feel so strongly about some of my work? Benjamin writes on the way some pieces of work are harder to share than others: 

We do not always proclaim loudly the most important thing we have to say. Nor do we always privately share it with those closest to us, our intimate friends, those who have been most devotedly ready to receive our confession 

The things I battle most to finish are the things I care the most about. They are the ideas that put my way of thinking about something out into the world – they are raw, not because they are unfinished, or uncooked, but because they represent something supremely important to what I am trying to do. Despite the endless fun of imposter syndrome, this isn’t actually about that, it’s about the fear of getting the work to do the thing I want it to do. To contain and distill the first idea, the joy of the project in its rawest form, in a way that a reader will be able to sit with it.

But I also want to pause to address a very specific stage – which is the shift from the emotional connection with unfinished work to a very practical one. This total writer’s block situation has happened for me twice, with two of the most important pieces of work I’ve attempted to get down onto paper. By important here I’m really thinking about the size of the idea – the heft of the thing I was trying to capture and how much thinking had gone into my process. But the second time this has happened to me – in fact this was over the last year – I noticed something very particular in these final shifts from horrifying guilt to finished. There is a time when the emotion is gone, and you’re doing small administrative things to your work to get it to the finish line. What does it take to get the work from guilt to admin? In the case of my unfinished paper, it was actually writing two paragraphs. The spell of the unfinishable work cracked, and then it was straightforward fixing references and fixing typos. 

Benjamin was fairly unforgiving about the pleasures of the finished work. He wouldn’t have made much of the joy at the end of a project – he wrote: 

To great writers, finished works weigh lighter than those fragments on which they work throughout their lives. For only the more feeble and distracted take an inimitable pleasure in closure, feeling that their lives have thereby been given back to them. For the genius each caesura, and the heavy blows of fate, fall like gentle sleep itself into his workshop labor. Around it he draws a charmed circle of fragments. 

Perhaps I am feeble and distracted as I quite enjoy the feeling of getting my life back after the end of a project! However, perhaps there is a lesson for us too – in understanding that what we do when we write is a much longer process than one project, and how we allow ourselves to think about what we haven’t finished is as much as anything, a call to refinding the joy of the idea, of the start. 

Here’s how I know it’s not all about worrying how good it is – because while imposter syndrome is a sneak, there was one specific occasion, in an MA module I teach where we do a mock academic conference. And one student took the finished form of this saga of an article and picked up where it left off to see what else might need to be done, to address what I had not finished. Because if guilt were really the motivating factor of the writing I might have felt terrible, or sad, or angry at myself for missing the ideas he was presenting, but I actually felt excitement. The same excitement as I did at the beginning of the thing, because it’s the beginning of something else. The reader had sat with it and made something new too. 

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