Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Downside of Thinking

In my first year of college, when I read Virginia Woolf for the first time - I mean really read her - I descended into an irritable funk. This was not because I didn't "like" what I was reading. It was a whole lot more complicated than that. I descended into the text, and I was uncomfortable, and absorbed, and the intensity of my emotional response was such that I vividly remember picking a fight with my boyfriend, not because of anything that he did or did not do, but because I couldn't really handle what I was feeling in response to the text, or translate what I was feeling to who I was. I figured (I guess) that what I was feeling must extend outward, or have some "real" cause, and so I freaked out. I lashed out. This is a really visceral memory. I remember sitting on the floor of my dorm room, about a hundred pages into To the Lighthouse, and on the one hand really feeling like I was getting it - getting everything - for the first time, and I remember stopping reading and calling FL up and losing it on him. I remember in the aftermath of that really freaking crazy outburst thinking that I probably shouldn't let myself interact with the world without a few hours of a break after reading. That I needed to come down off of the book before I did stupid things.

Now, as much as I realized this at the time, about 17 years ago, I can also recount many examples of this pattern recurring. Because I still have those kinds of responses from time to time, and sometimes I don't have enough critical distance to realize that my problem is a problem of absorption, and not a problem with an actual person. Sometimes I can't find the line that separates my aesthetic responses from my everyday life.

Last night I felt this, but luckily I actually was able to identify what was going on and I didn't direct all of that energy outward. I was able to stop myself and to think about what was actually happening.

I think the issue is this: I'm fine when I'm just sort of floating along, reading around, reading for teaching, reading for something related to something of minor interest. But sometimes, I'd estimate about every 7 years or so, I embark on a path. I come upon an idea or set of ideas that really overwhelms me and intrigues me. I'm not just screwing around, floating, but rather I commit. And that commitment produces an excess of energy. When I'm really having big new ideas, when I'm really working through tough intellectual questions and really in the process of formulating my position within and relation to a text or texts, I go a little crazy. And because I don't know what to do with all of that energy, my go-to response is to translate that feeling as being pissed off.

However excited I am about a project - and really, there's a lot of excitement bound up in this - there's also an angry, upset edge to it. It's intense, and it's difficult for me to control. It's this mix of obsession and fear, of passion and insecurity. It's important, but it's not pleasant.

Luckily, I know, because I've been down this road before, that this phase passes. Ultimately, once I'm out of this initial phase, I will settle into a routine of boring and regular tasks. I will put the thing together, piece by piece, and I will turn all of this chaos into some kind of tangible product. But I have to move through this phase first. I understand that, but I'm irritated by it. I wish I were the sort of person who didn't have this phase.

So, as you might have gathered, this is all bound up in the Next Book. (Referred to from this point forward as NB. And yes, you can expect to read about NB for like the next five years.) On the one hand, I know it's really happening now. It's not just something I'm playing with anymore, or something I'm just devising toward the goal of getting a sabbatical. Somewhere over recent weeks, I've committed. I've gone down the rabbit hole. And I haven't been this excited or this focused on a project since I devised my dissertation project which then became the first book.

I think I knew that this was really happening yesterday when I started a research journal - something I've not kept since I was in the drafting phases of the dissertation/book. You know, I don't think I've looked at that journal once since I finished drafting - and I'm not even sure I looked at it all that much while I was writing. But there's something comforting in having a place reserved for all of my errant ideas, for all of my angst, for all of the things that I don't know what to do with at this early point.

You know, I always tell my students that really thinking should cause some discomfort. That there's a price for really thinking, for seeing things in a new way. And I really do believe that. But as much as I believe it, wow, I hate experiencing it. It makes me positively cranky.


moria said...


The other night, a little crazed and weary from writing towards the next big thing, the thing I am both thrilled and terrified to think might become my dissertation, I picked up a book - a work of scholarship, for crying out loud - and read the first two pages and then just lost it. The vertigo of standing on the edge of a big project combined with the book's dizzying integration of huge ideas and stunning prose were just too much, I guess.

I was going to blog about it, but I didn't know how. I think I knew this feeling of dangerous absorption - though didn't, and maybe don't, conceptualize it the way you do in this post - but I have never experienced it with anything but literature that is very dear to me or music (I can't listen to Bach's cello suites in public). I wasn't prepared to get this feeling from scholarship.

So I didn't know how to write about it, because I didn't know what it was. And here, this morning, I read this, and this is exactly how. Thank you.

PhysioProf said...

It is interesting that you consider this anger as an incidental and undesirable side effect of your generative process. I actual consider it an integral and necessary part of mine.

Dr. Crazy said...

Hmmm. I think it probably is integral and necessary, but that doesn't mean that I've got to like it or that I entirely understand it :)

Nik said...

Just last night, as I awoke at 4 a.m. and could not go back to sleep, I came to a similar conclusion. Until I figure out how to wrap my mind around this book, there will be moments of discomfort. I suppose it's better that I take it out on my sleep rather than on my husband although I'm not always careful to make sure that's how I divide my punishments. But until I get the whole purpose and true reason for the book to exist out of my head and on paper, I apologize in advance both to my sleep and my husband and promise the latter that I'll try to abuse more selectively the former.

Susan said...

This is fascinating. I'd add that the energy that causes the anger at the start is probably necessary to keep you going with the boring bits that come later on. I don't have the anger but I do sometimes feel like fireworks going off in all directions.

Dr. Crazy said...

Moira, is this your first time commenting? If so, welcome! If not, welcome back! You're welcome, though I'm sorry that you're also in the discombobulated place!

Susan, you're exactly right that this is the energy that keeps one going through the boring bits. I think I translate it as anger because it freaks me out to have all of those firecrackers going off. The boring bits may be boring, but once you're there, you know what you're doing. I think it's the uncertainty of this part of it that I find so upsetting.

Nik - get some sleep! Otherwise you'll be irritable from the lack of sleep and take it out on your husband! I encourage much napping!

Janice said...

I'm not the only one! The butterflies in my stomach transform into angry, tense creatures as I engage in the early steps of a research project. (I'm sketching out a revised book plan that will be both more ambitious but more workable. But it scares and challenges me, which is not always easy to tamp down when you have to turn around and walk into the classroom or return to marking.)

A journal sounds like a good idea. I bought a small notebook for just this reason. Now I need to flip it open and start writing away!

Dr. Crazy said...

Janice: my research journal is hot pink (cover) and the paper is lined on one side and totally blank on the other (though I didn't choose this on purpose, though I figure I can stick post-its and such on the unlined sides, since this is what I ended up with). It cost like 4 bucks.

In contrast, I told FB about it last night, and he confessed to me that he'd bought a journal for "ideas" like 8 years ago - a very nice one that cost like a million dollars. He's never written a thing in it. What I said to him was this: Well, how could you? What idea would be good enough to record in such a fancy journal? And you're not the sort who keeps journals anyway!

In other words, I love a "journal" for research that doesn't have too much pressure on it. If what you've got is a small notebook, I say, go for it! You don't even need to look at what you write there! It's just for all of the thoughts that don't matter! Forge on!

undine said...

Interesting. For me, the feeling translates into energy, as in "I have to get up and walk around now while I absorb these ideas."

Unknown said...

What Undine said. At least, sometimes when I am writing, and I'm really onto something I'll find myself suddenly at the other end of my house, its even happenned when I tried to write at my office and found myself in the corridor (which is a little embarrassing). Though this might be a different stage Though for me there is a similar reading stage that involves being unable to sit still, and wandering around grabbing things that connect to what I'm reading...

grumpyABDadjunct said...

I get angry and I have to walk around, and since I usually work in the library that has led to some weird moments! Nothing weird to me about the anger, as Johnny Lydon says "anger is an energy!"

Phul Devi said...

I totally get the idea that intellectual engagement can produce an intense emotion that is not immediately assimilable.... what confuses me is why it manifests itself as anger. Why should excitement about something that's a positive stimulus, engender such a negative response? (And I DO think that general, undirected anger is a negative, as opposed to productive anger spurred by specific injustices and the like.) Is it truly the experience of anger, or is that simply your only way of framing the overflow?

Dr. Crazy said...

I would agree that general, undirected anger is unproductive - if not entirely negative, in that I will find a way to direct it, ultimately into productivity - that's one of the reasons why I feel like this is a downside of thinking for me :)

Is it truly the experience of anger, or is it just my way of framing the overflow? Hmm. On the one hand, I think it's a framing issue - that the feelings are intense, and they are complicated and... in many ways deeply ambivalent. On the one hand, I'm very excited. But it's not a joyful excitement - it's a sort of tense, fearful excitement.

And also, there is "true" anger bound up in it. Anger at the isolation that such a project entails (as much as I also look forward to the solitude of it), anger at myself for not having the thing fully realized in my head (though also gleeful anticipation that I will somehow figure out the fully realized version), anger at my dissertation adviser (because he exists, and because he does not love me the way I want to be loved, but that's just the baggage of grad school talking), anger at my institution for not supporting my research the way that I want them to do (and the angry anticipation of them failing to do so for the length of the project). Ultimately, all of that "true" anger is anger about not feeling totally in control. And in that regard, it's anger at the project itself - just for *existing* - because there's no way to be in control of something at this early stage and to have it turn out as anything good. Oh, and I'm angry at myself for having had this idea that I so want to pursue, because this was supposed to be the time where I was going to rest on my laurels a little bit. So I'm angry at myself for having had this amazing and interesting idea that I can't just put on the back burner. Which yes, is a teensy bit crazy. But it is my way.

So I guess this is the long way of saying that yep, it's anger. The trick, though, is to take that anger and to do something with it - something positive. And that's why I've got to pursue the project. Why I can't just let it go and rest on my laurels. Because if I dropped the project, I'd still be angry but I'd have nothing to do with that anger.

I also think that the "anger" part of it in this particular case is bound up with the topic. I'm angry at the critics who I think have gotten some things that I think are critical wrong (a) and I'm angry that nobody has noticed this really prominent dark thing that I'm going to be examining (b). It's hard not to translate the intensity that one feels as anger when the focus of one's work is going to be the representation of brutality, violence, shame, etc. Thinking about all of that stuff easily leads one to anger - or at least it leads me to anger.

Oh, but then when I think about it - I'm always angry for reasons a) and b) when I start something big. I think that my ideas happen out of a real sense of injustice - that the critics before me are BLIND! BLIND, I SAY! In other words, my confidence to do something of this magnitude often comes from an adversarial response to the scholarship that exists. This may also explain why my endnotes of my dissertation are populated with diatribes against and attacks on scholars much more accomplished than myself.

Ultimately, I think anger has always been really central to my process for getting it up for an idea. Not a bad thing, really, as long as I recognize it for what it is, and I do something good with it.

Kilegha said...

thanks for writing about this. i experience something very similar, but i've taught myself to welcome it because i know it will likely translate into a breakthrough, or, more tangibly, a publishable product! : )

i also relate to another commenter's sense of vertigo, of excitement that sometimes overcomes you when reading a passage in a book that weaves together lots of big ideas.

one possibly related anecdote: sometimes in my upper-level courses, when i am teaching in my area and working through the big ideas closest to my heart, i can feel myself starting to tear up, like i've tapped a well of emotion that is triggered by intense intellectual activity, and i can barely help from choking up. my first reaction is embarrassment: why the hell do i feel like crying in the middle of an academic lecture/monologue? but then i accept that talking through ideas/lecturing often moves me in some deep way, like i'm discovering or perhaps remembering truths that i need to know, or that i forgot.

ok, getting ramble-y. thanks for this.

Terri said...

shit. just lost my post. trying again. ..

thanks for this. i experience something very similar, but i try to trick myself into welcoming it, as it likely leads to a breakthrough in my thinking, and/or something "publishable!" : )

i also relate to another commenter's sense that reading academic passages that weave together lots of big ideas leaves me with a sense of vertigo, with physical discomfort. but also a sense of exhileration.

a possibly related phenomenon: when i'm lecturing/monologuing in my upper level classes about big ideas that are closest to my heart/work, i sometimes start to tear up, like i might cry. my first reaction is one of embarrassment: why the hell am i crying in the middle of talking to my class? but i've come to accept that intellectual intensity can trigger emotional response, at least in my case, and i'm okay with it. it's as if through talking i am getting closer to discovering new truths, or remembering ones i have forgotten.

ok, getting ramble-y. thanks.