Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What It Feels Like for a Girl

Today, over at In the Middle, is a discussion initiated by Eileen Joy on an essay in New Medieval Literatures. So far, nothing surprising, except that it's an essay by me and my friend and collaborator, Tom Prendergast, with an afterword by Carolyn Dinshaw.

It's always terrifying to read a discussion of your own work. When you write, you imagine people being completely blown away and utterly convinced by your compelling arguments; and so it's always an awful shock when they start talking about the things you got wrong, or didn't understand, or the book you should have written instead. I know we are supposed to be interested in debate and dialogue, but it's also true that most of us have so much of our personhood invested in our work that we find it hard to put the ego aside when we read such discussions.

My own response is to scan quickly, looking for the worst-case scenario, and to breathe a sigh of relief if it doesn't come: "Oh good," I think, "I've come through ok." That's the old academic fraud syndrome, whereby we all think, at heart, we really don't know enough to be doing our jobs. Having got through that first step (and I haven't, always: but that's another story), I then re-read looking for the brilliant Oscar-winning praise. Such moments of unadulterated ego-boosting don't come along very often, of course, and so I then settle back into the middle way, back struggling with ideas, doing the best I can, and hoping it'll be enough next time.

At the moment I am engaged in a gargantuan struggle with Chapter Two of my book on the Order of the Garter, which, hydra-like, will not stay put in whatever sequence or disposition of ideas and arguments I try and impose on it. Being on sabbatical leave is lovely in terms of how the day pans out (working from home; eating lunch in the garden; starting to play piano again), but brings immense pressure, too. I really do have to finish this book this year, but am struggling to organise the material.

I have also been struggling immensely, I am now willing to confess, with my concentration and attention. I'm blaming the hormonal roller-coaster of drug-induced menopause. Levels of anxiety are higher than they used to be, but at the same time I also care much less than I used to about a whole lot of things (that's one of the lovely things about getting older). But finally, over the last couple of days, I've been working better, so I am optimistic I might be starting to come out of the fog.

3 comments:

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I'll say this about the NYC 2006 presentation: it is strange that I didn't mention it in my post NCS post, because it really stayed with me, especially with its challenge to envision what we do as scholars as medievalism (a challenge that became even more pointed in Swansea I think). More than any of the papers I heard at that NCS, it was the one that really got me to stop separating temporalities and become -- well, in all honesty to become less of an interpretive elitist.

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks, as always, Stephanie, for this characteristically honest and self-revealing post, in which you voice professional and personal anxieties and struggles many of us pretend we don't have [but of course we all do]. It *did* freak me out a little bit to think that anything I could possibly say about an article you wrote would give you discomfort, of course, on any level. I think it's fairly apparent by now [at least, I hope so] that I mainly like to write about work I admire for its provocations to thought and for its ability to open up avenues toward a broadening of the possibilities for our field [as opposed to the type of work that is mainly about shutting down those possibilities, or about telling others *how* they should read a text one way and not another way, etc.]. I'm not interested in antagonistic discourses that pit ideas against each other in some kind of competitive agon; given the high amount of personal anxieties and time and labor that surely go into any article or book, I always like to think of things as gifts of a sort--sure, we like some works and some ideas better than others and I think we're even "attracted," for various reasons, to particular thinkers, ideas, and methodologies, and we are likely beholden on some level to help each other be as rigorous in our work as we can possibly be [we need some give-and-take of ideas in order to always be pushing ourselves to never stop re-thinking everything in order to move knowledge forward, as it were, to deepen it, to offer as many angles of vision as possible, etc.], but nevertheless, I still see, again, every essay, every book, etc. as something that was sacrificed for and offered as a gift which bids us to enter into a conversation, one hopefully structured by a certain amity and accord and understanding that the work we do is--or should be--collective.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Thanks, you two.
You are both great examples of how scholarly exchange should be: concerned more with ideas than personalities; willing to re-think accepted ideas, etc.

I *love* the idea of books and essays as sacrifices and as gifts: that's certainly what this book I'm writing feels like at the moment.

But we do know there are people for whom response is *always* personal (in a bad way). You know, it's always the grant assessors, or the reviewers, or the examiners, or even the thesis supervisors and dissertation directors who have it in for us.

The defence mechanisms we build around ourselves to protect our egos can sometimes be a little hard to break down from the inside.