I blame focus for what is admittedly stage one and a half of my writing process: panic. Completing the assigned readings and taking notes are always my stage one, but before I begin to draft in stage two, I often put down the assignment out of a fear of focus. The word focus just seems like a reminder of everything I can’t write about, and herein lies my logic for just not writing at all. Usually I have some sense of a topic at this point, but given the need to find a narrow argument, I often spend hours or days sitting on a topic—not actually doing anything—out of fear that if I write before I devise a focus, I may end up hitting a wall and/or completely wasting my time. I do the same thing with promptless essay assignments: I convince myself that I need a specific question to answer in each paper before I begin to write. What if I were to completely miss the point of the assignment? In short, I sit around totally flustered, convincing myself that I can’t do anything until the focus pocus kicks in.
We have all been there—so overwhelmed to the point at which the pressure to turn in a finished product on time weighs down any ability to think clearly. While yes, focus is and will always be the goal of a paper, there is, in fact, no such thing as focus pocus; our brains don’t just extract focused ideas out of vacuums. We need to illustrate some sort of situation from within which we can find a focus. I do this by abandoning focus. I temporarily put it aside, and swim nonfocus for a bit. The perk of doing so is that once I’m swimming—in reading or in drafting—I can’t sink. I can only sink if I dive, headfirst, into a final draft without getting wet first. Once in the pool, the information is much more likely to sink in me.
Sure, it helps to have a specific direction when you begin to write, but sometimes the most compelling, focused papers end up being the ones that began having twelve theses. Such a paper is often a sign that the brain juices are flowing: perhaps even a sign of excitement.
While I enjoy this stage, given deadlines, there comes a point at which I have to begin “weeding” – the process by which I make connections within my own writing, cut out what no longer seems relevant, and then keep digging within what I already have. I always begin writing weeding with what we Fellows consider a “self-fellowing” process: I notice what seems to work and what doesn’t, and I ask myself questions: What are the patterns? What are the different facets of my topic? What’s confusing? What does the author seem to be saying? I usually do this when I’m as far away from my own writing adrenaline as possible. It’s important not to be in your head at this stage so that you can be your own fresh reader. This makes it much easier to categorize ideas without feeling the urge to run away with them.
Sadly, in this act of editing your own focused conversation, you will likely end up cutting a few (or many) ideas. Some writers call this “killing your darlings.” But regardless of how much you cut, every stage of the writing process is equally as valuable. It is often those random bits of information that you don’t end up using that lead you to a more focused idea rooted in a slightly different context. And because all of our ideas are connected somewhere in our brains, we can consciously file ideas away, but we can’t actually kill them (like we can weeds).
Perhaps you are already familiar with another form of weeding: verbal weeding either as you are speaking or in reflection after the fact. Have you ever mentally prepared for a conversation, and then after having the conversation, decided on everything you didn’t really need to say and everything you could have said? The key here is that you wouldn’t have been able to reflect had you not had the conversation to begin with. So weeding through your paper can only really begin once you initiate the conversation with yourself. The beauty of writing weeding above verbal weeding is that you can capture, rewind, and rewrite your own conversation at any point along the way.
My message is that they key to writing is patience. Trust the process. You already know how to weed. Don’t wait around for focus pocus.