Is Writer’s Block Bad?

July 28, 2007 at 8:46 pm

Ryan has asked me several times now to post something to amusicology, and he, and the rest of you, dear readers, have probably given up on me. In my defense, it is not that I haven’t been writing – it’s that I’ve been starting drafts and then throwing them out. You see, I drooled in anticipation of great blog posts about the following:

1.       A brilliant and insightful discussion of Harvard’s new general exam format.

2.       The dilemma of trading in superlatives while writing musical history.

3.       The problem of careerism in musicology.

But it seems that, in each effort, I succumbed to the woes of item 3 above. Yes, I had the blog post, and yes, it was almost ready to go. But then, I started reading it, and that still small voice popped in to my head – was I sure about fact x? Did paragraph y flow the argument in the most elegant fashion? Am I just a whiny grad student?

                Without really planning on it, I had cultivated the whiny grad student authorial voice when writing for amusicology. This is a relatively common authorial register in the blogosphere and is certainly useful for blowing off some steam (see here (facebook login required), here, and – a bit farther in to the career, here). No one knows more than me how frustrating grad school can be, and how good it can feel to just get it out of your system.

                At the same time, when does the griping begin to wag the student? There’s always the one person in the department who can speak only in complaints, and no one really wants to be around. So you see, dear reader, I pent up a considerable amount of anxiety about my posts, and that is why there are none. Typical academic paralysis by analysis.

                So there was that problem. But at the same time, I felt that the reason I couldn’t bring myself to post was something beyond wanting to maintain a positive attitude in front of the world. I think that it also had something to do with a careerist worldview that I have adopted.

                Here’s what I mean. Suppose I wanted to take Gerald Mast’s book on musical theater to task (as I did in one of the discarded blog entries). In the blog world, it isn’t really a priority to choose your words too carefully, to really get to the gist of what the author is trying to say and articulate a reasoned, sustained critique. The point is to push out the words onto the blog, preferably the more incendiary the better. Which was something I can relate to.

                But I am sure I’m not the only one out there who has received a pointed stare from a faculty member, and the stern words “you are critiquing the work of an established scholar.” Actually, I’ve gotten it more than once, and the primary meaning is almost always “you are out of your depth, stop talking.” There are other more subtle shadings, depending on the inflection: emphasizing respect for senior scholars in the profession, the virtues of being a generous scholar oneself, and weighing one’s own opinions carefully before, during and after their initial articulation.

                The point here is that grad students –at least the ones who are interested in realizing their full potential in their chosen field – do not enjoy unlimited academic freedom, even though one of the main appeals of joining the professoriate is the freedom to explore, to question, to probe without restriction of any kind. Indeed, the prerogatives to broadly address one’s discipline, or sharply critique it, or simply speak capriciously, as one sees fit, do not seem to me truly secure until after tenure is received. The wrong feathers can always be ruffled, and grudges can be formed, often without the awareness that it is even happening.

                I can’t say that this situation makes me all that glum, though. For one thing, a carefully reasoned argument or point will always be taken seriously by serious people, regardless of what stage a scholar is in his or her career. For another, I think pyrotechnics of rhetoric in the public sphere are eroding our ability to have serious conversations in general (think of Al Gore and Ann Coulter as occupying opposite extremes of this phenomenon).

                What it does mean, though, is that a musicology blog serves a purpose that is at best ill-defined at present. On the one hand, a blog, with its constant demand for new content, seems unsuited to the weight and rigor of traditional academic writing. On the other hand, the ability to effortlessly disseminate material from a blog means that the words published will be in circulation for some time. For a young musicologist, that is a risk to consider seriously. At the same time, the opportunity to really cultivate one’s style as a writer, and voice as a thinking person, seems to be one of the ideal benefits of a blog. All you need to do is shake off the writer’s block.

Entry filed under: musicologists, musicology, professional development.

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