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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Inspiration, Where Art Thou?

This is an interesting post, because it show the typical writing process of someone who relies on inspiration. The writer begins by saying
So far, I'm having a bit of "writer's block". Although I do believe in suddenly having a great idea, and then transforming it into an article to send for publication,

I don't think it works like that. Having great idea, a little lightbulb flash, and then getting an article out of it. The writer's instincts are good, because he or she goes on to write:
I also think that it takes time and patience to develop a great idea, and that a little mandatory writing every week will do more good than writing non-stop until you finish that article.

S/he then goes on to describe an idea developed six months previously, that then fizzled out. The problem, as I remarked in a comment on this blog, is that the writer seems to be thinking in terms of individual articles resulting from isolated flashes of inspiration rather than an overarching research agenda. Without such an agenda, individual ideas have no framework to sustain them. This lack of a framework, together with a belief in "inspiration," is a sure-fire recipe for "writer's block."

My research agenda, for example, is explaining the development of late modernism in contemporary Spanish poetry and fusing together strands from intellectual and literary history through the work of authors who belong to both. It has several components and dimensions, some related to intellectual history, some to poetics, some to the work of specific poets or essayists. Some of the individual ideas I get in relation to this project might fizzle out and go nowhere. If I had to rely on one idea at a time, I would get very frustrated. If an idea didn't work, I would have to go back to work from scratch on another atomistically conceived idea. It would be easy to waste time, because an idea that went nowhere would have no interesting consequences if it weren't conceived as part of a research agenda.

Even poets work like that. Each of the poems in Lorca's Romancero gitano is not a lightbulb flash. Rather, he had the idea of fusing an elaborate neo-gongorine style with the anonymous ballad tradition and creating a series of gypsy characters. Working on that project, he came up with several secondary ideas based on previous snatches of folkloric and mythic material. He developed techniques that he used in several of the poems in the book. A dialogue (or interpellation) between the poetic narrator and the protagonist of the poem, for example, occurs in at least three poems. The flash of inspiration for Lorca might have been seeing that a technique he has already used once might work again in a different context.


I don't mean to be picking on this anonymous blogger, who I have reason to believe is an intelligent scholar and teacher. I simply saw that the reliance on inspiration led to predictable results. The blogger also mentions being rejected by a top-flight journal on the grounds that his or her work (sorry, I haven not determined a gender for this writer) is not groundbreaking. S/he says that s/he doesn't aspire to that, but to be good and solid. That's fine. I would still like this writer to be happier, less reliant on the whims of the muse.


Spanish prof said...

Thank you very much for commenting on my post and writing more extensively about it in your post. I didn't know whether to answer there or here, but it's probably going to be more productive here.

I do agree to a great extent with what you've said, and I know part of my problem is that although I do have a research agenda, I probably haven't been able to narrow it down and work productively on it. In part, it's my own fault. But I also think a part of it is the reality of the institution where I work.

I work at a liberal arts college, with a 3-3 teaching load, great emphasis on teaching (that's how they charge a very expensive tuition), and a requirement of 5 articles OR a book for tenure. I also needed 2 articles published for my mid-tenure (which I achieved, and passed successfully). Given those requirements, I had to make a practical bet, and went for the articles. In the process, I probably lost track of the bigger picture, and started thinking in terms of individual articles. I don't regret my decision. I like my job, I like what I do, and I want tenure. And given the realities of the publishing market and that English is not my first language, I believe I made the right choice. I do realize how it affected my research, though.

And that was the second part of my post. I finally got a sabbatical (you don't get them automatically but have to compete for them with all the faculty of the university), and I am afraid of not being able to organize myself for completing the book. Your comments help me focus, which is something that I sometimes lack.

As far as the top journals go, I guess I was frustrated that that was the only feedback I got. As a beginning scholar, I would like one day to be published in one of them, so feedback would have helped. I revised the article and submitted it to another journal, where I am still waiting to hear from them.

I guess another issue is that although I like my colleagues very much, the last person that had been hired (and remains) in the department had been hired 10 years before me. So I don't always feel I have somebody traveling the same path I am with whom to share worries or issues.

I just wanted to end by saying that I'm happy that I found your blog. I started blogging two month ago, and although there are many great academic blogs around, you are the first one with whom I share the field (although I do Contemporary Latin American narrative). Thanks for commenting on my post, and I don't feel like you are being picky at all.

By the way, I am a woman.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you took my comments in the constructive spirit they were meant.

I agree that the journal should have given you more feedback to explain how you could have improved, rather than the generic response "not groundbreaking." That's rather unhelpful!