Moving Back and Forth Between Writing Projects (or a lesson in overcoming writer’s block)
As I write this, it’s currently 11:40 pm on a Friday, and I keep thinking about the next paragraph I’m adding to my dissertation chapter. I just ended by introducing Whitman’s comparison of his 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass to Homer’s Iliad, but oh how I can’t wait to make explicit Achilles and Patroclus’ undying (well one does die) love for one another. And, how this homoerotic relationship provides an entry way into reading what Whitman’s homoerotic vision looks like in, specifically, “Song of Myself.” But, before I dive too far into the Greek warrior sensual waves, I should say that I was definitely not in this writing headspace a few days ago (to be exact, the light switch moment happened for me two days ago). I felt a sense of not only writer’s block, but a need to distinguish between the rhetorical modes that I’m using. Let me deconstruct this for you…
At the end of December, I finished my chapter about Whitman’s first introduction into ancient Greek literature, via Frances Wright’s A Few Days in Athens, and a quite tantalizing erotic concluding quote about the speaker figuring out “the phallic choice of America” (yes it’s that blatant and more on that to come, pun intended). And then from January to mid-April, I turned my writing attention to a pedagogy article that was released by Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies (a special issue on “‘Teaching to Transgress’–a bell hooks pedagogical theory–in the Emergency Remote Classroom”). But, this week, right after I put the finishing touches on proofreading my article, I was left with rhetorical and genre writing confusion. It was such a disorienting experience moving away from my article and back to my dissertation. Let me explain to you the symptoms of this almost amnesia-like state of writing.
To convey to the readers of Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies my approach for teaching Whitman, alongside a queer of color critique, I was holding bell hooks, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Walt Whitman’s writing in my head for at least four months. And with Morrison’s text Playing in the Dark, hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, and Whitman’s contradictory vision of democracy (present starting in his 1855 Leaves of Grass) all swimming in my mind, I tried to let go of these texts and just keep a hold of Whitman’s poetry. Because my current chapter goes right into the first edition of “Song of Myself” (unnamed in 1855), I thought “Oh if only I hold onto Whitman, I will be able to easily transition back into where I left off in my chapter” but my creative mind wanted to keep hold of the queer of color framework that I had used when questioning how whiteness impacts Whitman’s poetic voice (a queer, white, male one). When Whitman’s speaker opens “Song of Myself” with “And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.,” I asked my students is this democratic idyllic idea possible in a country that holds onto white nationalist roots (2-3)? Okay, so I’m still deeply impressed with how the article had me conceive of my own personal identity (a queer, white, cisgender, man) and scholarly identity (a 19th-century American and British Lit. scholar), and how powerful my students’ analyses were in my “Whitman’s Multitudes” course (I learned and am continuing to learn so much from them). But, how do you move back and forth between writing projects? How was I going to get back into the writing headspace to look at Whitman’s homoerotic poetics and his turn to ancient Greek literature for that inspiration?
Well reader, here’s what I did to break through this disorienting feeling:
- Listen to bell hooks’ The Will to Change while grading and working on podcast material.
- Join the Walt Whitman Birthplace’s James Baldwin reading and discussion series (still going on each Saturday and led by the wonderful poet Indran Amirthanayagam).
- Checked out, from the library, a queer antiquity documentary from the library (Before Homosexuals: From Ancient Times to Victorian Crimes, director: John Scagliotti).
And this is how each helped me work through my turn back to my dissertation (I should add that my go-tos–Broadway, Disco, and coffee–didn’t hurt this process)
- hooks’ deconstruction of America’s toxic patriarchal system that holds men back from expressing their vulnerability and a full spectrum of emotions provides an urgent message that for men to fully love, they must know how to dismantle patriarchy’s hold on them. I am still pondering over the following quote: “To know love, men must be able to let go the will to dominate” (xvii). I’m now pondering whether hooks’ theory can make its way into my chapter along with my use of a queer of color critique of Whitman’s poetry (this could come into my discussion of Whitman’s homoerotic vision of democracy in “Song of Myself”).
- Each week, with Indran’s openness and prescient questions about reading Baldwin during the pandemic, his thoughts and the other participants are helping me expand my knowledge of Baldwin’s writing on the roots of systemic racism in America’s democracy.
- As “a prequel to Before Stonewall, Before Homosexuals unearths the diverse and fascinating garden of human same-sexual desire” (Scagliotti)…for queer scholars, what else do you need to read to instantly be drawn in? Reading this on the back of the dvd not only enticed me but also sparked my interest when I read that Scagliotti journeys throughout the Western world to uncover how same-sex desire is found “from ancient Rome…[to] censored chapters of the Kamasutra, Native American two-spirit rituals and much more” (Scagliotti). While I have not yet watched the documentary, you can be sure that I’ll be writing about my viewing experience (and whether it makes its way into my chapter) in the upcoming weeks.
All of these texts have helped (or hopefully will help) me reconnect with my dissertation since I broke the writing anxiety, in my head, that I have to keep the writerly voice in my pedagogy article separate from the writerly voice in my dissertation chapter. How will the queer of color critique that I apply to Whitman’s poetics appear in my dissertation? I don’t have an answer yet to that question, but I know that when I turn to my queer analysis of how Whitman writes same-sex desire in “Song of Myself” it will take into account how queer whiteness flows throughout the verses.
I’ll check in with you all next week, when I’ll provide an update on my experience reading James Davidson’s chapter on Achilles and Patroclus in The Greeks and Greek Love: A Bold New Exploration of the Ancient World (2007).