An Essay Crisis

Like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car

HeadingsDon’t worry about style – you can sort out that later when it comes to revision. … Don’t worry about the first sentence….I’ve seen too many essays that have started off too well and then fallen flat .. What you need is a basic structure but you know that already…. You could always start in medias res; don’t worry about the introduction…. keep on writing. Write anything. Just get it out. It’s much better to have a draft rather than nothing at all;  you can work on a draft….stream of consciousness….whatever comes into your head… Use bullet points. Don’t even worry about sentences, just write notes, then work them up….I vomited out 22,000 words and condensed them it to 5000 words. Just reduce it. We’ve all been there…..Believe me; we’ve all been there before…

I enjoy language. I like its sounds and rhythms. I read, every day, purely for pleasure. I enjoy writing, too. In a different life, it was language that led me to Law. When things go well, the words seem to write themselves. The effort is to keep pace with one’s thoughts. The process is thinking rather than writing. Like most people, I feel inwardly content when things go well:  when the words flow, there’s no need to worry about style, no need to strive for effect. There’s a wonderful feeling of being able to see to the end. The fingers attack the keyboard; the hand writes furiously. It’s all there. It’s like playing the music one loves. There’s a sense of innocence about it all. The writer or the musician is the servant because the words and the music have always been there. When the insufferable ego no longer gets in the way, innocent artlessness produces the individual voice. By scribbled prosesacrificing oneself, one becomes oneself. Does that make any sense at all?

I now feel bound to tell a different story. A couple of weeks ago I wrote an essay as an assessment for the University. I’m still reeling. When I finally submitted the essay, I destroyed page after page of unfinished draft – draft is putting it strongly.   I wasn’t crafting an essay. I was attempting, again and again, simply to make a start. When that failed, I would move to a different section, start a new paragraph (paragraph 3, the discussion part), complete an illegible sentence, stop, and then discard the sheet before moving back to the beginning.  In the end, I discarded about thirty separate sheets. I tried the same thing in my note book, starting, stopping, scoring out what little I’d written and then turning over to a fresh page. Then the dreaded laptop made an unsatisfactory process, in some senses, worse.   All I had to show for my experience was a blank screen; every half sentence, every incomplete paragraph had been deleted. I had had a similar experience last December, but nothing quite as bad as this. This time, I had an extremely detailed essay structure and had read a considerable amount of background material – the pressure to produce was enormous – but the title still seemed to be a sticking point. Each time it changed, the structure was adjusted or even rejected. In the end, I opted for a “yes, but” type essay and decided to leave the title blank. I tried the stream of consciousness approach to writing. Nothing came. I didn’t know what to write.



Boldly, I began to think about argument even when the words didn’t come. I imagined myself in court addressing a sympathetic judge and watching his hand steadily noting down my submissions. Why couldn’t I cut out narrative and simply get to the point? I needed to see the moving hand. As if writing a letter to an old friend,  I wanted to picture his expression lighting up. Don’t bore him. Make him interested. “For the purposes of legal argument, you may, Mr Learmont, assume that the evidence is still fresh in my mind. Indeed, the facts of the case fall within a relatively short compass; I’d be grateful, therefore, if you could take me to your primary submission”. If the hand stopped moving, then something was wrong. Cut to the chase then, but in the infinity of history, how much raw evidence could I reasonably assume on the part of my reader?

I thought that being in a communal setting might help. I attempted to work in the Classics Library at the University. I generally like the place. It’s high up on third floor of the William Robertson Building. I love the natural light, the classical statues and the books. The fact that everyone else appeared so purposeful, in fact, made matters worse. What did the other students – all so adept at their keyboards -have which I so obviously lacked? That insidious rustling sound, the sound of mice rushing beneath the eaves of a timber framed house, tormented me. And why were none of them reading? How could they possibly write so quickly if they didn’t read?  It only made the block worse. I felt paranoid, old, defeated. The insistent noise of keyboards flayed my nerves. Conversation made me irritable. Still nothing came. By the printer, I came across discarded drafts. The standard of English prose seemed lamentably poor: one incomprehensible quotation stitched to another; pure jargon with punctuation conspicuously absent. Why do people quote, when they could put it far better themselves? Does writing these days, go beyond texts, e-mail and Facebook?   Have we entirely sacrificed thought to message and medium ? Things seemed to have changed so much over the past thirty years. My own desire to produce reasonable prose simply made matters worse. I remembered how Lord 20140422_162134Denning, one of the most distinguished and creative common law judges of the 20th century, conveyed the most complex legal principles in straightforward, even entertaining prose. He could make a story of things. How I detested the tendency of academic prose to obfuscate, but I found that my own the desire to write decently, stifled what I had to say. In the evenings, I read Evelyn Waugh.

I tried the National Library of Scotland, but again couldn’t escape the sound of scurrying mice. I was amazed –once more that growing feeling of paranoia – that readers could write and even listen to music simultaneously. How could they possibly do this? The thought was distracting. In the locker room downstairs, the floor seemed to be physically unsteady. I felt as if I were floating. Still nothing came. The afternoon before my first deadline, I had produced nothing. The flip side of anxiety was depression.

There was something else, too: I felt a nagging sense of competition. I wanted to “do well”, to succeed. Perhaps society is as much to blame as I am. I have seen it in children; I have seen it myself. When competition paralyses, when competition causes tears, how can it possibly be said to be “healthy”? Isn’t the point of education to find something you love, even at a university? Even, dare I say it, at the “11th Best University in the World for Humanities”? The pleasure principle is not such a bad thing. From that, so much else must follow.

20140422_162205There is no magical end to this account, but the night before submission I did “see to the end” rather as the exhausted mountaineer peers over a mountain top and sees the first smudge of dawn. From that point, I did feel that it was downhill all the way and that gravity would somehow keep me going. I even felt cheerful. I worked through the night and submitted with half an hour to spare. A fresh deadline did help, although the previous week I had felt paralysed by fear. Then it had seemed too close. Now the nearness of it helped. These things are finite. They have to come to an end. At some point, very early in the morning, I vowed that I would describe the experience, something along the lines of “An essay on not being able to write an essay”. To my delight I have almost finished that as well. A little bit of writing, every day, helps.



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