Tomatoes and Chisels
Updated: Mar 6
As a child I loved writing. Or at least I thought I loved writing. Since the age of about six, I spent hours each day, obsessively writing descriptions of the mundane details of my life: what I learned at school, overheard in conversations, felt throughout the day, ate at meals, and saw on the playground. It snowed today and I wore my new coat. I ate school french toast for lunch. I wish I didn't have freckles. I filled journals with this elementary reporting, scotch-taping in the occasional friendship bracelet or restaurant menu for good measure.
I wrote this way throughout my life, speeding through large, hard-backed journals in an almost frantic fashion, never editing, re-reading, or even reflecting on them. It was kind of like an assembly line - finish one, move onto the next, stack them on a book shelf. Part of me thinks this was a helpful way of processing the formative things in my young life - moves between houses, my parents' divorce, unrequited middle school love, the embarrassment of acne - but now that I have landed in Michigan and am beginning to work on healing my trauma from the last five years, I have started to look at it in a slightly different light.
Now, on the days that I have found a quiet space in the local library, I realize how much I enjoy the permission to disappear that writing and reading provide. As I look out the big windows of the second floor study room, I feel viscerally safe in my anonymity and "work". The activity offers an observable indicator to everyone around me that I am not available. Please don't talk to me, or bother me, or even look at me, because I am writing. I think that might have been part of my obsession as a child, when I somehow learned that in my family, community, school environment, neighborhood, demographic, or all of the above, voluntary reading and writing meant that a child was not. to. be. bothered.
By the time I started my PhD. in Madison, Wisconsin in the fall of 2010, my journal practice had withered and writing had morphed into purely a means to an end. It was a tool I used to describe a statistical analysis, to summarize the debates in the existing literature, to argue one idea, then another. The practice of writing wore a brittle gray tone. When it was time to write the book manuscript for the dissertation, I already loathed putting words on a page.
As I wrote up the results of my fieldwork - the findings from the interviews, surveys, press archives, human rights databases, and municipal-level data - I started referring to the writing process as "brute forcing it". Each day, I would sit in front of the computer, and force myself to put words on the page, as I simultaneously listened to the criticism I knew I would endure two years in the future during my defense. As every sentence tripped onto the page, I could hear the multiple counter-arguments against the point I was trying to make.
At the same time, deep in my gut, I didn't want to be arguing anything at all. I wanted to describe the faces of the people I worked with in Colombia, the tone of their voices when they shared their stories of violence and survival, the faint sound of regaetton music in the background of an interview, a woman holding her crying baby as she recounted her story, full of trust towards a random American girl standing in her dirt-floored kitchen. But as I wrote, I relentlessly stripped myself and my emotions from the topic, snuffed out any personalization in the voice or tone of the manuscript. I kept forcing myself back into the objective, the scientific, the aggregate, the "political science" version of the truth.
To accomplish the task, I used the pomodoro technique and a simple website as an accountability and tracking mechanism, to get through my days and the pages that I had to produce. Each page I wrote was one micro-step closer to freedom. At that point in my doctoral tenure, I was "All But Dissertation" (ABD), had already done 15 months of intensive fieldwork, collected enough data for a large chunk of a pre-tenure academic career, and simply had to write my way across the finish line so I could move on with my life.
As you may have noted by now, there was very little flow and almost no joy in the process of writing my dissertation. I worked in painful, 25-minute chunks, followed with a 5-minute break where I would search for ultimately uninspiring motivational quotes on Pinterest or get depressed about my life while on Facebook, just in time to start the next tomato. My days were measured in tomatoes. J would come home from work and he would ask, How many tomatoes did you do today? Nine. Nice work. Thanks, can you pour me a whisky on the rocks?
A few weeks before I had to submit the dissertation manuscript to my committee, I wrote my shaman (more on that on another day) and told her that I was struggling with the theory chapter, and that I was essentially stuck. She wrote me the following,
"At this point, you are done, so just concentrate on what you feel is the minimum that you need to write about for that chapter, and it will be fine. Give yourself small goals for each day so that you don't struggle too much. Just visualize it as already done (in another reality, it IS already done!)."
I loved imagining that the dissertation was actually already finished in another dimension, I just had to show up each day and power through my tomatoes to finish it. And I did. But after about two years of writing that way, coaxing what felt like dry and shriveled tomatoes up out of fallow ground, I decided I didn't like to write anymore. That I would actually never do it again. And so I stopped altogether. I couldn't even write emails for a while, and then finally could, which is about the time I started a job at the non-profit in D.C.
But recently since we moved to Michigan, I have found myself with slivers of unstructured time and a desire to disappear into words (of my choosing) again. And when I feel the unresolved traumatic memories rattling around inside of me, bumping up against my confusion about this next step in my life, there is an organic desire to write. With some hesitation, I relent, I write a little and see where it goes, with no pressure to do it in any sort of way, format, chronological order, grammatical perfection, just see what voice and information come out.
Now, instead of filling up pages with descriptive memories to store away like canned goods in the bomb shelter, or using writing as a battering ram to charge through an open door to prove a point, as political scientists are bound to do, I have decided to use writing as a new set of tools. A broom and a chisel.
I am using my writing to sweep up stray, random thoughts, grouping them with their rightful colleagues or cousins, and then sending that little support group out onto the paper. I then spend some time with them, as a group, introduce them to each other, edit their interactions a bit, make sense of why they know each other already and thank them for hanging out outside my head. I am clearing out some space I need. And those tiny swept spaces can fill with light.
And then there is the chisel, which I find even more interesting. Because like my shaman said, there is something, in another dimension, fully formed, already there. I just have to chip away for awhile and see what is waiting. Each finished blog post slowly removes bits of this mysterious mass that has calcified over the first 38 years of my life. I am simply removing small chunks, dusty residue, and little crumbles, to reveal something that it is whole on the inside. It reminds me of when my son has those gem kits or surprise dinosaur eggs and you take a chisel and a hammer and chip away to see what plastic or rock treasures await.
But I don't really know what is inside. Some days when I write - or think about writing - I am like, Oh, my understanding of my son's differences and challenges are in there. Other days I am like, Oh no wait, I think I see my relationship with my son starting to take a solid shape. And other times it feels like I am revealing the contours of my future self frozen in motion as she prepares to take a definitive step out of the limestone encasing. And then on other, less auspicious days, it seems like maybe it's just a big old plastic dinosaur. But i guess it doesn't really matter, because here I am writing again, regardless.