My 18 Phrenetic Stages of Academic Paper Writing, Or Why Writing is So Hard

Writing is both beautiful and challenging, with heart-breaking hopefulness in the shadows of sheer impossibility. By creating this digital space, I have been able to create a writing environment where I can bypass many of the dead-ends and disasters of the writing journey. On A Pilgrim in Narnia, I am unpaid and unsupervised, thus I am no longer tethered to soul-destroying expectations of the publishing industry. Of the 1,100 blog posts here, 700 or 800 of them are pieces I have shaped out of my own curiosity, creativity, and desire to says something in the moment. Of those, about 200 articles are pieces that I spent a great deal of time shaping–often hours–containing a new reading or original thought that exists nowhere in the world. And about 100 of these posts are places where I can edit and share the work of others, allowing writers and artists and scholars to speak to the world on this little platform that plays in the intersectional space of faith, fiction, and fantasy.

But a website like this cannot be all writerly things in all seasons. I have a novel or two that I want to get into the world, and an academic fantasy blog with a ten-year-old design cannot replace the tactile experience of holding a book. I have never found this to be a good place for sharing fiction, in any case, and will need to find my way to the places that produce long- and short-form fiction for the tale-hungry masses. I have an academic book near completion and another in design. Because I would like, one day, to have an academic post that allows me to teach and write and serve the community, I need to throw myself into the long and winding paths of academic publication. I have found over the years that Twitter is a good outlet for a certain kind of creativity, and it would probably be good for my CV to move nonfiction pieces out into other outlets. So http://www.aPilgrinInNarnia.com has some limitations.

And then there is the Academic Essay–the various channels of peer-reviewed book chapters and journal articles. This is an absolutely critical element of my work and one that needs focus. Up to this moment, I have been able to produce about one peer-review or long academic piece a year–though they tend to get completed at various points and times, as I am able and as publishers are ready for it. Here is my list thus far:

  • 2012: “The Pedagogical Value of The Screwtape Letters for a New Generation,” Inklings Forever VIII (2012): 12-29 (begun as a 2012 conference paper, written 2011-12).
  • 2013: “The Unpublished Preface to C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters,” Notes and Queries 60, no. 2 (2013): 296-298 (begun with archival work in 2012, written 2012-13).
  • 2013: “Nuestra Señora de las Sombras: The Enigmatic Identity of Santa Muerte,” Journal of the Southwest 55, no. 4 (Winter 2013): 435-471. Co-authored with Pamela Bastante (a long-term, team-based research project resulting in this article and a 2012 conference presentation).
  • 2015: “‘Die Before You Die’: St. Paul’s Cruciformity in C.S. Lewis” in Both Sides of the Wardrobe: C. S. Lewis, Theological Imagination and Everyday Discipleship (ed. Rob Fennell, Resource Publications, 2015), pp. 32-45 (begun as a 2013 conference paper, written 2013-2015).
  • 2018: “Mixed Metaphors and Hyperlinked Worlds: A Study of Intertextuality in C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Cycle” pp. 81-113 in The Inklings and King Arthur: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain (ed. Sørina Higgins, Apocryphile Press) (begun as a Mythcon panel in 2014; written 2014-2015; proofs in 2017; the book won the 2018 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Scholarship).
  • 2019: “The Archangel Fragment and C. S. Lewis’s WWII-era World-building Project,” Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal 13 (2019): 11-28. Co-authored with Charlie W. Starr (begun with archival work in 2018, written 2018-19 and Sehnsucht published it very quickly).
  • 2020: “Rainbow Valley as Embodied Heaven: L.M. Montgomery’s Narrative Spirituality in Rainbow Valley,” Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies (begun as a 2018 conference paper, written 2018-19, last edits in early 2020).
  • 2020: “A Cosmic Shift in The Screwtape Letters,” Mythlore 39, no. 1 (2020): 5-33 (begun as a response to the “Ransom Preface” work in 2012-13, with a Mythcon presentation in 2014 and a C.S. Lewis & Friends conference paper in 2016; most of the writing was 2012-14, with significant revisions in 2016; much of summer 2020 was dedicated to completing this long project and Mythlore published it very quickly).
  • 2021: “Making Friends with the Darkness: L.M. Montgomery’s Popular Theodicy in Anne’s House of Dreams,” accepted with slight revision for peer-review publication in The Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies (initial notes made in 2019, prepared to present in the 2020 Montgomery conference, moved online; wrote the paper in June 2020 and spent much of summer 2020 revising; winner of the L.M. Montgomery Institute’s 2020 Elizabeth Epperly Early Career Paper Award; accepted peer review in 2020; in revision; the digital presentation is not yet complete).

2020 was a really strong year for me, with PhD graduation, two peer-review publications and one paper award (as well as a host of lectures, talks, workshops, and presentations). However, the flurry of activity in 2020 is really the result of years of pretty steady work punctuated by periods of extreme writing sessions–usually, a spring and fall writing retreat each year, and a great deal of editing in the summer and winter. In four days in June 2020, for example, I wrote a 10,000-word paper. In June 2018, I did a 7,500-word paper in a single day and a 3,500-word paper in a single week. I will need two spring retreats this year as I have two keynote speeches and three paper presentations (though one is roughed in already). I have come to realize that I work well in the undulating patterns of intensity and rest.

However, even though I have shaped myself over the last 17 years as an academic and nonfiction prose writer, producing a huge portfolio of work in quite diverse genres and media, I still find this writing really, really difficult. Part of it is the workload that I have taken on. Another part is the distraction-laden environment that I am in. While writing this note, I have had to answer two phone calls and an emergency email, I wrote a strong page of notes for a talk that jumped out of this writing here, and I am thinking about my lecture on the Aorist and Future Passive in the Greek language, which I am giving in an hour. I think I need to make an infographic. There is always something fluttering not far from the centre of my vision.

But, most of all, academic writing is hard because of successive layers of challenges and choices along the way. Will a concept work out? Is my instinctive reading correct? What’s the right mode or media for this discussion? Do I actually have anything to say? Can I pull this off? Is it good, true, and beautiful? These are the questions that continually cycle through my imagination at every single step of a long process–from the spark of an idea to the selfie with the journal or book that just landed in my mailbox. Writing, even academic writing, is a deeply personal and psychologically fraught endeavour. Adding to the reality that it is hard in the sense of extensive research, deep reading, finding clarity of thought, wrestling huge swaths of material into place, ensuring that the work is logically sound, and finding a creative and winsome way of communicating complex ideas, it is a process filled with doubt and discouragement.

And in the end, there is the haunting question of “why?” No one pays me. None of this has led to an academic job. I know a few people read the work, but rarely is there deep academic engagement. What is it all for?

Deep in revisions in response to peer-reviewer comments, these are the thoughts that ran through my mind yesterday. These peer-review comments are great (not often the case), but they are critically challenging and pull me in different directions. I’ve been wrestling with the same paragraph on my screen for 10 days. I have been uncertain of how to resolve another section and have spent two weeks thinking and reading. And one of the comments is basically “redraw the entire imagistic thread of your piece,” which I don’t have the heart to do. Or the need, necessarily. For after these weeks of wrestling with this post-submission draft, I have broken through and have a full draft that responds to my invisible peers’ concerns.

As I teetered on the edge of giving it all up yesterday–or rashly resubmitting without due care–I began a Twitter thread that captures the interiority of academic writing here. I thought I would share it with you. Right now, I’m on step #13–but the hasty step #14 haunts and threatens me. I could jump at any time. However, if my wiser self prevails–we are all Gollum and Smeagol when writing, I think, at least in some moments–I will let this sit for a few days and come back fresh next week. In the journey of writing, there are few shortcuts, though some paths become more familiar. In academic writing, there is no way around the mountain and no way to avoid slaying the Demogorgon who guards the gate. So I will do the work to finish this piece well.

Still, I thought I would share this Twitter thread with you. Perhaps it will encourage you to know that you do not wander alone–or to prepare you who are new to academic writing for the perils in the path.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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10 Responses to My 18 Phrenetic Stages of Academic Paper Writing, Or Why Writing is So Hard

  1. Thank you so much, Brenton, for this piece–and for all your work. Your voice matters greatly–keep on keeping on, as we all must!

    Like

  2. Mark B says:

    As a recent convert to your Blog. I am astonished at the amount of stuff on here. I’m like a kid in a sweet shop. How do you find time to actually read? Wonderful essays on here. Want to read the L.M. Montgomery ones as I’m halfway through the Anne books. But everyone I like you seem to like too. Fantastic. Thank You.
    Mark

    Like

  3. robstroud says:

    What an amazing piece. So many points where I found myself nodding my head, and numerous others where I thought, “that’s a novel way of considering the subject.” Thanks for the insight into your personal creative process–a process that results in an abundance of praiseworthy work.

    “There is always something fluttering not far from the centre of my vision…”
    — one curse of brilliance

    “On A Pilgrim in Narnia, I am unpaid and unsupervised, thus I am no longer tethered to soul-destroying expectations of the publishing industry…”
    — for which your readers here thank God

    “I have come to realize that I work well in the undulating patterns of intensity and rest.”
    — ah, the transient nature of inspiration’s adrenalin… or the visits of the muse… always remember, as you suggest here, that rest is important too… in fact, it is divinely ordained!

    Blessings, my friend, in all of the wonderful projects the future will present to you.

    Like

  4. John Gough says:

    In 1985 I finished my PhD on British author Penelope Lively’s novels for children and adults, up to 1985, and one examiner thought it was OK and another had a long list of grievances.
    I tackled those grievances, one by one, knowing that that examiner was commenting out of context, and failing to actually read what I wrote.
    The result was that I won my PhD because I defended it, in the same way that I had written it, using the actual texts, and not accepting that they were different from my interpretation of the author’s words.
    Page limits and word counts are always negotiable.
    The truth will out! I was awarded my doctorate.
    Keep strong!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: A Flash of Joy: Discussing C.S. Lewis and L.M. Montgomery Online with The C. S. Lewis Society of Central Indiana (Fri, Feb 19th, 2021, 7-9pm EST) | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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