Process, Affect, and Writing

In the spirit of some of the preceding posts, I want to dwell for a moment longer on the ideas of process and affect in relation to writing. Like some of my colleagues, I too have long envisioned writing as being fundamentally about the product. I have come to think of writing as the text, the document, the finished work. There is process, of course, for texts result from arrangement, selection, and compilation. The document is a sedimentation of prior work and work is an activity in addition to the thing produced. But on the whole, I have learned to see the process—the working—as valuable for its outcome, not for its own transient existence. This orientation has had negative implications for both the emotional experience of writing and the quality of the texts I produce.

As others have mentioned, I too have found that an orientation towards outcome infuses the writing process with anxiety. But anxiety was not always the most salient affective experience of writing. Before beginning grad school, I was one of those students who generally enjoyed writing. I approached writing assignments as opportunities to think through something, to grapple with some idea. Sitting down to write felt like an act of discovery, accompanied by curiosity and care. This lucky orientation to writing was undoubtedly the result of many factors, among which may have been that my primary schools, where I learned to write, didn’t give grades and focused heavily on the work of revision. Regardless, something has changed. Now, the idea of having to write brings with it crippling anxiety, even when the stakes are practically non-existent. I fret endlessly. I write in fits and starts. I delete and rewrite. Ultimately, I miss deadlines, view the final products as failures, and do what I can to distance myself from what I have created. The reasons for this shift are manifold, but a crucial element has been my gradual instrumentalization of writing. If I once approached the act of writing as an opportunity to explore, I now see it as a means for an end, as an activity valuable largely for what is produced.

My personal reorientation towards writing is almost certainly connected to a broader political economy of value. If I now instrumentalize what I once enjoyed for its own sake, it is because, as someone who must now write “professionally,” I am dependent upon collective allocations of value. And collectively, we have come to privilege those texts which circulate. We justify this privileging with niceties about writing being a way to communicate, to share something of ourselves with others, to participate in the public square of our common humanity, to transgress the limitations of temporal and geographic distances. But in practice, I suspect much of this privileging has a simpler explanation, for it is only through their circulation that texts have been able accumulate the kind of value from which profits can be made and livelihoods maintained. In this sense, our view of writing is ineluctably capitalist. The lexicon of “productivity” has seeped into my consciousness like a mold. And in the subtle way that words, symbolic though they may be, impose themselves upon us, this attachment to productivity has spread and grown deep roots in me. More than I would care to admit, I evaluate my days on the basis of how productive I have been, and in doing so, I minimize the importance of other sources of value, like curiosity, care, joy, or presence—values that somehow feel more intuitively worthwhile. In short, our relationship to writing is entangled with our relations of production.

This instrumentalizing of writing—the skewed allocation of value placed on product—has implications that are both affective and material. It is paradoxical, but for me and for many of my students, the valuation of the product often impinges on the conditions of production, creating a kind of negative feedback loop. When the value of writing is seen as residing in its future product, the activity of writing becomes a process of justification. The words on the page cannot be mere opportunities for exploration; they must ward off the judgement of the future, whether that judgement comes in the form of a grade, a publication, or a paycheck. This is anxiety-inducing, insofar as anxiety is a kind of inability to be present. Held down by the weight of the past and eclipsed by the shadow of the future, the act of writing can be a claustrophobic experience. When we over-value the product and under-value the process, we eliminate the jouissance of the immediate experience of writing. The present is poisoned by the need to justify, and inevitably, to the extent that the writer manages to fight past that claustrophobia, the result is often rather shabby. This post, with its tangents, unfinished thoughts, over-simplifications, and disorderly progression is a prime example.

By obscuring both the activity and affectivity of writing, our product-oriented approach probably leads to an excess of anxiety and sub-par writing, foreclosing opportunities for joy, curiosity, and exploration. What if we inverted our value schema? We could emphasize exploratory or informal writing. We could replace “final” drafts with multiple rough drafts, reflections on the process, or speculative letters about the work that remains to be done. We could reformulate our grading systems to privilege the time spent working instead of the final product submitted, work towards ungrading, or abolish grades entirely. In this light, reclaiming the value of the process, the activity of writing itself, acquires a kind of liberatory glamour. And maybe that glamour is well-deserved, maybe embracing process over product would free many from enormous anxiety, unshackle the labor of writing from the logic of the market, and create spaces for some sort of authentic self-expression and deeper thinking. But I worry that on some level the glamour is more of a thin patina, a shiny coat of novelty that appears different only because it looks unfamiliar on the surface.

Writing, like language, is always a vehicle for power. And under contemporary conditions, where power is so often tied to the flexible metabolism of capital, we should be wary of things that present themselves with the sheen of liberatory gloss. Processes can be commodified just as easily as products. Social media—in turning life itself is into an endless process of drafting, freed from the inherited mandates about what makes writing good, or what counts as writing—has made this abundantly clear. There is, I think, an intuitive elegance to the act of reconsidering. The act of rendering the familiar unfamiliar is a generative one; it creates possibilities for change. There is immense value in being open to being wrong, or in merely being willing to examine what we are doing at some measure of distance. I do think there is merit to carefully reconsidering our approach to writing through a closer examination of the relationships between process and product, between activity and affect. But, unless the context in which we write drastically changes, writing will remain tied to some notion of result. And that is also something to reckon with. At some point, I have to press submit, and in doing so, I will give this text the appearance of a finality it does not possess. It will become a thing produced.

One Reply to “Process, Affect, and Writing”

  1. Thanks for writing this really interesting post, Osha! I resonate with what you’re saying about the anxiety that is produced by the “professional writing” we’re asked to do as graduate students, and how a shift in mentality that prioritizes process and the conditions of that process over product might alleviate some of that anxiety. And that the extent to which that anxiety can be alleviated is tied to our living and working conditions and how they structure our time, access to resources, and emotional security. I think that’s a crucial point that is also relevant when talking to our students about their processes of writing.

    Unlike you, I hated writing growing up, mostly because I had been told I was a “math and science person” by my family and many teachers, causing me to be tracked and track myself into this non-existent rigid binary of good writers and bad writers, creative people and logical people. These ideas about writing and writers started to become deconstructed for me in college when, to everyone’s surprise, I decided to major in Spanish which was essentially a major in literature and cultural studies. And this involved a lot of writing, and in Spanish — a language I had learned in school and abroad but not one of my dominant languages. Interestingly, my position as a non-native speaker opened up a space for me to reevaluate and restructure my relationship to writing. I didn’t expect myself nor did my peers or professors expect me to write in perfect academic Spanish (which was an expectation in my classes taught in English) from the beginning, and there was room built into the rubrics and grading to account for the inevitable “mistakes.” Of course, as I progressed through the major, the stakes became higher and culminated in a senior capstone research project, the longest paper I’d written in what was expected to be polished, academic Spanish. In hindsight, and largely due to our conversations in WAC, I’m realizing that the capstone project was the first writing project I enjoyed doing not only because of the content, but also because I had a mentor who scaffolded the process in ways that invited me to turn in “bad writing” before requiring a submittable project to the committee. Writing that mini-thesis is what pushed me to pursue a PhD, where I imagined I might be able to restart the clock on my contentious relationship with writing.

    Although to some extent this has happened — I look forward to writing in ways I didn’t before — graduate school has also exacerbated my anxiety about writing. The neoliberalization of the university and graduate education has created the conditions under which we exist in cycles of (sometimes public) scrutiny and competition. And these evaluations are largely based on a variety of writing activities — of course our dissertations, but also fellowship and grant applications, reports, journal articles, book chapters, conference papers, etc. I’ve recently been working on fellowship and grant applications for another year of funding to finish writing my dissertation, and they were such challenging pieces of writing precisely because of the anxiety attached to them not only due to their competitiveness but also because of how determinant they are on my livelihood and well-being. Not to mention my dissertation, which carries a heavy load of emotional and professional insecurity.

    Thanks for bring up the political economy of our writing practice. It gives us lots to think about in terms of our own writing as well as the complex and precarious conditions under which our students learn and write. Here’s to looking for and creating spaces of joy in the writing process!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.