On Writing, Honesty and Van Gogh
I have recently received two reviews on my writing pieces, which felt like a great achievement for a number of reasons. Five or six other journals rejected one article before it was actually reviewed. Another, a chapter for a prestigious collection, which I am co-writing with a colleague in Australia, finally got reviews from two prominent scholars in the field of water policy. Many of these comments are very critical.
When I received the email on my article, I felt overcome by joy that I made it to review. Sitting in a kitchen, I would scream at my mobile phone “I know, I know” when I read a reviewer comment with which I agreed. My mom stared at me as if I was from a different planet. It felt excruciatingly painful, I felt stupid not to have considered all those details brought up by three reviewers, but deep inside, I was very happy. For one, I made it to review after so many rejections. Secondly, I felt myself part of the academic circle, where you write and others take the time to read and comment, and then you write again, they read again and you finalise your paper. It’s an important endeavor in its own, and there is some divine pleasure of belonging to that virtual community which holds values of research, science and writing in high esteem.
The second case was worse. It is the chapter I am co-writing for a collection published by Oxford University Press. And we have not really worked out all the points between ourselves, so there are bits of the text which I know, are suboptimal, and with which I do not even agree, but allowed into the draft. Thus, receiving comments from top people in my field on the work with which I was not happy in the first place felt extremely painful. I was afraid to open the email for two days, and when I did, I read through comments very quickly. I still have to make myself sit and read through them fully (planning to do that later today). This is the fear of being judged, being called stupid, and it is strongly exacerbated by the fact that I am aware that I did not do my best in writing. I was not fully honest in my writing. Thus, the lesson here is that whatever I write, and with whoever I write, I need to be fully honest in my arguments and believe hundred percent in what I am writing. Otherwise, peer review becomes excruciatingly painful, and in general, what is the point of publishing something that one does not fully believe in?
Thus, the lesson here is that whatever I write, and with whoever I write, I need to be fully honest in my arguments and believe hundred percent in what I am writing. Otherwise, peer review becomes excruciatingly painful, and in general, what is the point of publishing something that one does not fully believe in?
This is however not just about honesty. It’s about the fear to be judged, to be called names, to be seen as too strange of even crazy. Many creative people fear these prospects. And that is why one needs to write, to expose, to take risks and to be honest in those attempts. Original and honest. No other way to be creative, I am afraid. No comfortable, clean, safe and secure ways to be creative.
The recent post about Van Gogh and his struggle with the blank paper canvas is my routine struggle with the blinking courser of my computer. I know the fear of sitting to write something, and all the emotional baggage that comes with it. But I hope I will be able to overcome this, as now, I have guidance on how to finalise these two chapters. Here is the prose of Van Gogh, a man I am getting to respect and love more and more.
If one wants to be active, one mustn’t be afraid to do something wrong sometimes, not afraid to lapse into some mistakes. To be good — many people think that they’ll achieve it by doing no harm — and that’s a lie… That leads to stagnation, to mediocrity. Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility.
You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerizes some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves.
Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas IS AFRAID of the truly passionate painter who dares — and who has once broken the spell of “you can’t.”
This post is partly inspired by the post on BrainPickings.