I recently tweeted that I was thinking of blogging about how difficult it is to write on a favourite text. This probably (definitely) counts as another ‘academic writing is difficult’ post, but hopefully will be of some interest.
I was thinking about this because I came back to Piers Plowman, probably my favourite medieval text, this week after a two-year break from studying it (apart from attending the IPPS conference in 2019), as I am working instead on Marian texts for my PhD topic. My PhD has allowed me to discover so much; it is great to discover so many devotional tales and lyrics, some of which may not have been studied in much detail before. Working on groups or collections of texts in order to spot patterns makes literary scholarship into a kind of historiography, from which I think there’s a tendency (for me at least) to become isolated if studying a single text. Piers Plowman is a text that, in most circumstances, demands being studied as a single text, because of its complexity and the need to grapple with the huge amount of scholarship it has accumulated.
I told a bit of the story of my Piers Plowman enchantment in a previous post and talk for International Medieval Congress; in this post I’ll focus more on the emotional effects of having a favourite text, and how those feelings and memories can disturb attempts to write on it.
I mean, the ultimate thing is to stop that love for the text from problematising the writing, isn’t it? This is a similar thing as disentangling memories that belong to me from memories that belong to the text. For instance, when I think of the fifteenth-century medical manuscript that I worked on for some of my Masters coursework during the particularly wintry spring of 2018, I don’t remember straight away how it felt or the way it smelled; instead my hands fill up with snow. I remember the cold walk to the library every morning, in a period of intense mental illness, not just more than, but as the manuscript itself. It is work to disentangle them. When I write about Haukyn in Piers Plowman, a sinful but penitent man who has acquired a visible disease on his skin, am I just trying to find ways of justifying reading an exoneration from that sin, because I imagine that in some small way I understand him?
The diligence required to separate oneself from the text can also go the other way, and result in an abundance of worry about what ideas might replicate existing work, whether there’s a gap in the reading somewhere, until it feels like a joke to try writing anything. This text has survived all these years, and it’s so brilliantly difficult – who do I think I am, trying to write something useful about it?
It gets worse when that thing happens which I can only refer to as ‘idea-crowding’ – when, in looking at a page of text intending to write about it, several new ideas appear. They are usually ideas that take up lots of space and sometimes are unrelated to the actual argument I’m trying to put together. It happens every time I look at the texts I love the most, but it is a fairly regular occurrence in general. Learning to push on with working through my pre-existing plan during this ‘idea-crowding’ feels like I’m training myself to neglect my ability to have ideas and make connections, which is the main – and sometimes the only – reason I feel even the least bit qualified to write about medieval texts at all. I’ve been trying to write academically for nearly six years now and it’s still a matter of luck and circumstance as to which ideas get written down, as opposed to a methodical planning process. (I do make extensive plans for writing, but these tend to involve material bunched together rather than a clear map…) I find it easier to hold my argument in my head, because that way fewer extraneous ideas are allowed in. I don’t know if this is due to autism or if it’s something inherent to academic writing, difficult as it always is.
When writing about a long-loved text, all the memories and identities that have trickled through it over the years become amplified and electric at the very moment when they also become the most obstructive and tangled. They are vivified because, while they should not directly influence the writing, they are nonetheless at stake in portraying the text accurately. In the ambition to write something that does an innovative justice to the text, the memory of experiencing the text and academic fascination with it are not distinct.
In the end, being proud of a piece of writing on a favourite text means to have allowed the analysis of the text to be informed by personal memories and empathies, without being subsumed by or in them. In some ways, this seems mimetic of the process of living out those memories, especially when they are painful: the aim is to learn to react to the world empathically based on what is remembered while also openly anticipating the limits of that empathy in what is not yet known and waiting to be learned. Writing about a favourite text can uncover pieces of hitherto lost history, and the manner of achieving that uncovering is motivated by the text’s status as a favourite. It’s this idea, this potential to achieve something on behalf of a text, because of a text, for the potential benefit of a text and its future students – and even its many readers – that enables me to continue trying to write things, instead of giving up.