November 12, 2014KR BlogUncategorized

Dr. Murphy, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Writing Abstracts

Abstract is a misleading name for an abstract, for an abstract should not be abstract. Today, I will write an abstract for my next conference paper, and it feels a bit like writing a story. Like a pitch for a screenplay, the abstract should contain key details, the skeletal elements of the conference paper, and these bones should sparkle. While great academic writing is usually dry, devastatingly clear, mechanically simple yet theoretically complex, the abstract is about telling a compelling story. It can also be dry, but it’s an opportunity to cut through the smoke that afflicts the prose of novelists and professors alike, and force yourself to commit: this is what I’m going to do in these 12 pages, and this is why it matters.

As a writer of poems, conference papers, a dissertation, and now fiction (I’m working on a novel), I try to find value in each writing exercise I encounter in my daily life. Literally, I treat each one as an exercise, a workout that disciplines my writing muscles and my writing mind. It keeps me flexible, motivated, and rebuffs that part of my brain that resists generic restrictions or convention under the pretext that I want to be “free” to create from the most pure source of inspiration. This pretext is an inside con job. What we call writer’s block is often the willingness to surrender to this strain of thought that is both lazy and perfectionist. It says I need to be free of rules in order to create; it says writing is a craft, but my brilliance will allow me to take short cuts; it says that writing when I’m not inspired will just lead to bad writing, so I’ll wait until I feel like doing it, etc.

Like any good con job, the lie contains a grain of truth, or, to put a finer point on it, a truth is used to tell a lie. It is true that the greatest artists among us have an ability to roam in relatively free realms of imagination and spontaneity, where the remnant kernel of limitless genius we carry through childhood combines with adult wisdom and wounds to produce real, deep human magic in the form of story, images, or sound. But the thought that I have to just be free, and that writing in this mode or genre or within this set of conventions stifles that freedom, so I’m going to avoid it, this idea is childish; it is the tell-tale sign of an amateur or hobbyist writer, not a craftsman. If each writer is a body of water, an ocean of ideas and individual experiences that connects us to the collective consciousness of archetypes and timeless energies, then writing conventions are like channels that restrict the flow of water, and thus increase its velocity, and can carry your reader along like ships riding a current.

I say all this because these are the resistances I still find arising in myself. Every act of writing is a battle between the craftsman I want to become and the amateur I still, in some ways, am. Perhaps I am a perpetual mixture of these two, and perhaps that is a gift. It is the child in me that does the hard, heavy dream work, which is rather effortless for children but often painfully difficult for adults. It is the craftsman in me that has to take the boundless work of the child, which conforms to the individual scheme of this child’s reality, and make it a communicable work of art that speaks the language of other people. As children we can dream and imagine so powerfully but our ability to communicate our reality is limited. As we grow we learn to communicate effectively with others by conforming and contorting our wondrous reality to fit the inherited language employed by those around us. But in the process, we lose the mysterious, magical, utterly unique palette of language and sound we had always used to engage, describe, contain, and expand the world.

Perhaps it is an overstatement to say I love writing abstracts, if love means the intense feeling of interest, curiosity, attraction, and care that attends time spent with the beloved. Perhaps it is more that my love for writing abstracts is an action that I decide to take regardless of the emotion that assails me at the moment. I can choose to love a writing exercise because I know it is an opportunity to break down walls inside myself and take action, a small but personally powerful declaration that life is worth living, and that I am fortunate to have this struggle and not another more elemental struggle around basic survival. As a writer of poems and stories and blog posts and abstracts and journal articles and monographs, every day brings a different challenge and an opportunity. Each one can be an opportunity to remind myself that I love doing this, that even when I think I can’t face the task of the page, the act of writing transforms me in a way that thinking about the act of writing cannot. In fact, their effects are opposite. Writing allows me to remember how to reside inside myself. When I channel my reality into a format, like a blog post, it gives me the velocity to move through the next challenge, like writing an abstract. On that note, I have work to do.