Tuesday, January 22, 2008

On Processing Uncertainty

Well, this is what my professor called a "stunningly good" paper, which categorization she loosely defined as a n"ineffable fusion of author and topic." Essentially, it was me writing through my own terrifying mental block when it comes to writing essays of any sort. Its hard for me to have to admit that I'm not an intellectual. I'm too darn emotional to think logically about anything. There is some standard of clear thought and expression, somewhere, I am convinced--and I am convinced I eternally,invariably fall short.

Thus prefaced, feel free to dive in...

Rough, Bitter Prelude to Thought: Far too Freely-Written Perceptions of Personal Motivation, Inhibition, and the Illusory Goal of Perfection

So this is me. An awkward way to start a paper, I agree, and wholly unprofessional. Still, it is a rough draft, so perhaps I can temporarily get away with an ounce or two of informality—or whatever is the equivalent weight of two pages. But I digress. I intended to lean this introduction in the direction of this complicated writing process we will be discussing throughout the quarter. This is my recent last resort to initiate thought, when I can no longer assemble a competent outline from my shadowy, elusive jumble of oddly-associated thoughts--free-writing. Getting out the jumbled ideas in my dysfunctional brain, throwing them onto the paper, and sorting them out, piece by piece. Somehow I always get caught, though, in the sorting stage. As the apt and thus too oft-applied metaphor describes, I can't see the forest for the trees. Or to take a different view of the matter, I find myself, anchorless and compassless, attempting to navigate an ocean of undeveloped ideas. The concepts of perfection and motivation we touched upon in our class discussion prompted me to write about this struggle in an attempt to explore and identify the inhibitions I face whenever I participate in the writing process, and—perhaps—begin to identify possible remedies.

I want to get at all of my thought. I want to touch the innermost recesses, scrape the last details out of mildewing cracks and crannies and bring it under the scrutiny of daylight—I want to know it, own it, understand and impart it.

I think my largest mental obstacle has ever been a paralyzing fear of failure. I learned to confront this once, using my fear as motivation for my best desperate effort—and I grew to love the process and invest myself personally in the resulting satisfaction that I had done my best, and that my best wasn't bad. After receiving my GED, I became initiated into public school for the first time in twenty years. Spokane Community College soon became my burdensome blessing, as I struggled through English 101 discovering the painful fact that excellence in writing takes more than an extensive vocabulary. Construction is but the frame for content, and I felt as though I was missing the picture. But before I could learn to smear in the basic watercolors of content, structuring an argument with strong thesis, supporting points, and sufficient evidence, I needed to have an argument to prove. I needed to know my own mind—and I didn't. I held my opinions but gingerly, ever ready to give them up if they encountered criticism. In addition, I was terrified of failure, and choked on every essay I was forced to write in class. I wanted perfection, and I knew it was beyond my ability to attain—yet the fear of failure motivated me to continue trying, seeking help, and growing in my ability to communicate thought on paper. And it happened. I remember the day of breakthrough, when a fellow student reported to me that my paper had interested him enough to want to read it, despite his usual passive indifference to peer essays. I had at last received the belated revelation of writing's communicative nature. It was not a mere product to be graded, analyzed for its adherence to composition criteria; it had a higher purpose, that of social interaction and the exchange of ideas. Somewhere between my discoveries at SCC and my drudgery at Eastern, however, my apprehension and panic at the thought of failure began to derail my confidence. My introduction to literary criticism in Binney's poetry class revealed to me the shallow depth of my understanding of literature. Rather than seeing this as an opportunity to learn and grow, unfortunately, I felt a desperate need to force myself to understand concepts that I found incomprehensible in my mental panic. I was comparing my performance to that of others, striving to force myself up to their level of comprehension and meet my own definition of their expectations. I judged every paper I wrote by the grade it received—adequate, average. I took every instructional comment as a personal assessment. “Avoid [this stylistic or logical error]” became, to my mind, “You are a pretentious fool; you fail to understand the basic concepts you treat in your papers and superimpose your own definition of another's work.” I still believe this to be true; rather than seeking to understand completely in order to write honestly and competently, I assume my own inability to understand and compose a weak definition that partially engages the topic but invariably fails to do it justice. Every work I complete is unsatisfactory—after I read the final instructional notation, taking in only the negative, I file it away as further proof of the garbage I compose when I am neither personally invested in nor completely committed to the process. I may receive adequate grades for these papers, but I am constantly discouraged by the knowledge that it was a hopeless, half-hearted effort.
A second mental inhibition I have recently identified may be a contributing factor to the initial fear, and can be summarized in the statement “the more I know, the more I discern how little I know” or similar words to that effect. I understand the writing process less now than I did when I began my exploration, and it intimidates me more. I cannot write, because I know I do not know what I mean. Even after study and research, I only have a general grasp of the concepts I learn—not the deep understanding I feel I need for a competent and confident discourse. There is too much that is unfamiliar and vague, too much that I question, and the sheer volume of information and possibilities of direction often overwhelm my weakening resolve. I have come to the conclusion that my every thought is insufficient, and I must learn to think clearly before I can learn again to clearly write. It is an uphill battle of lost confidence, and I am never entirely convinced that it is not a Sisyphean effort. Having only a vague understanding of the information I receive, I get lost in the information itself without a controlling concept. I flounder and flail through my composition, grasping for the least flotation device. If it is full of air, it is still better than drowning.
Or is it? One of my fears, in composing an argument or interpretation of any sort, is that I will embrace an incorrect opinion or position with which others might disagree. Strike that; “incorrect” is a misleading term and does not describe my actual fear. What I fear is offering an opinion that is worse than “wrong,” of presenting an argument that is not even worthy of argument.

I think I may have identified a diagnosis: My problem is that I focus on my limitations rather than my abilities. I should stop worrying about what I fear I cannot do and attempt to do what I can. As we discussed, perfection is subjective. I should focus on my own abilities, not the abilities and expectations of others, and work toward improving what I have. I ought to take responsibility to plan for each assignment rather than approaching it with timidity and hesitation, and refuse to define myself by the results of the process. Finally, as Professor Wichman wisely impresses on her 201 students, I need to learn to trust the writing process, and to trust myself.