Learning to Be a Big Spender

It’s one thing to not follow your own advice; it’s even worse when you’ve forgotten what that advice was in the first place. I used to dispense insights about writing to my freshman writing students; now I feel like getting back in touch to see if I can borrow their notes (yes, let’s pretend they took notes, just for the sake of illustration).

It appears that not only has being a graduate student in English squelched my love of literature, but it also has undermined my ability to write, which is a problem when you’re supposed to hand in a large, dissertation-shaped document in order to graduate.

A couple weeks ago I woke up one morning and did a little math. This isn’t normally my strong suit but this calculation wasn’t too hard to figure out: 1998 = when I started the program; 2008 = now. What I came away with was “10 years = I’ve become one of those guys.”

It’s not quite fair to be hard on myself, I guess, since I’ve been working at real job that enjoy for a couple of years, and I’m not planning to look for academic positions. But it did bring on an existential crisis of sorts, one that helped me realize that I need to either finish this thing or move on with my life.

I realized that I did have a choice. Plenty of good friends have decided not to finish and have been better people for it. I finally allowed myself to imagine who I would be if I stopped, and I decided could live with that person.

So now I’ve given myself a small window in which either to give this one last college try or to graduate with a masters and move on. Which means I’ve had to begin remembering how to write, and write quickly. Not to take notes, or find a better way to organize my notes. To write.

I’ve dusted off Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers for old time sake, and it was good to find some inspiration, however basic the principles might be. Two quotes from Elbow have provided the basis for my writing mantras:

1) No thinking without writing.

“Think of writing not as a way to transmit a message but as a way to grow and cook a message. Writing is a way to end up thinking something you couldn’t have started out thinking. Writing is in fact a way to free yourself from what you presently think, feel, and perceive.”

2) “You have to be a big spender. Not a tightass.”

“I know perfectly well that the more I utter, the more I’ll be able to utter and–other things being equal–the better I’ll be able to utter. I know I can. Noam Chomsky knows I can. But it doesn’t feel that way. I feels like the more I utter, especially the more I write, the more I’ll use up my supply of meaningful utterances, and as the source dries up, they will get worse.”

I’ve spent all day today writing, more than I’ve done for a very long time. And I have one big document where I’ve been making sentences and putting them into paragraphs. And I think I might still have a story to tell about place blogging, about Fred and the Ecotone gang, about finding our sense of place in digital networks.

So there it is. I’m putting myself out there. My last stand. Either way, it will all be over soon and that’s something I won’t let myself forget.


7 responses to “Learning to Be a Big Spender”

  1. Tim –

    I know your professional side more than your academic side, but if this brief post is any example, you don’t have to worry about knowing how to write. It’s insightful and inspirational, revealing at once much about you, about your dilemma, about academia, and about the writing (and thinking) process in general. I don’t envy the decision you face. But I know that whatever choice you make will be the right one. And I thank you for giving me — in a few hundred words — some new ways to think about all sort of things.

    – Ken

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Ken. I didn't expect anyone to be reading, but it's nice to hear from you. Hope to see you around campus soon. Tim

  3. Well said, Ken. This is really… ahem… well written. If you only deleted two words in composing it, I'll be really upset.I can't agree more with the trials of writing. I tried some free-writing myself this morning and I found out some things about my dissertation that I really need to address.Thanks for the post! 

  4. Bravo on your big move. This doesn’t mean you can’t finish the degree, but after a few days of real writing, it will seem both easier and less important. The joke is, once it’s less important, you’ll find you might as well write it, just for fun, see?

    Worked for me. And look how far I’ve gone 😉