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daily fieldnotes » uncertainty
 
daily fieldnotes

Tackling “Perpetual Uncertainty” 1

“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, p.xii).

This is true of research too, when the research is about life and meaning and our social world, as mine is. It’s the wonderful thing about my work, what makes me come back and keep working on my dissertation and imagining that I can dedicate myself to this work. While I was doing fieldwork last year in Barcelona, there were days where the writing and ideas and deeper meaning of what I was seeing were all coming together and flowing like swollen rivers in spring.

Yet it’s also true that writing in academia can be as uncertainty-provoking as any other kind of writing. You obsess and try to start and worry over whether your ideas are worth anything. You write ten different versions of the same first paragraph. You try and fail to institute a morning writing routine, and then you try again. You do other kinds of writing, hoping it will spark new ideas and ways to connect the academic work to questions and struggles people have in their real lives.

I’m in the midst of fall fellowship applications for my dissertation year, trying to get started on yet another iteration of a personal statement, selling who I am and what I do for far-away committees of people to evaluate. Maybe because of all the uncertainty of this process, this poem Anne Lamott quotes in Bird by Bird also resonated with me and made me laugh at the obsessions of the writing process (just substitute advisers for friends and approval for affection!):

We who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting
as a group,
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
frustration
discontent and
torture
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift.
Your analyst is in on it
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband;
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us.
In announcing our
association
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves.
But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center,
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your disastrous personality
then for the good of the collective.

(by Phillip Lopate,
Quoted in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, pp.11-12.)