Patience

Earlier this month, I had two experiences that made me reflect on my relationship with time and the research process. These experiences - namely, patience and timeliness - felt qualitatively different from the sense of pressure and hurriedness that I and others often associate with academic publishing. In the next two posts, I share some first thoughts about what happened.


***

A few weeks ago, I met with a colleague to discuss what to do about an article of ours that had been recently rejected by a journal. I wasn't looking forward to the meeting, mostly because I felt quite unsure about what step to take next. To give a little context, my colleague and I first started writing the piece in early 2013. The idea came from a conference panel we did together in late 2012, after which we decided to develop the conversation between our papers into a broader argument. Today, it's a 6-7 year old draft. It has been peer-reviewed four times by readers at three different journals. It was accepted once and rejected three times. The feedback we've received has been mostly engaged, detailed and helpful, and several editors encouraged us to make changes and resubmit. To that end, we completed three significant rewrites, each time overhauling the structure and theoretical framing, and pruning down our original analysis. Yet the article still hasn't found a home. And for both of us, it's the only piece of writing we've ever had rejected.

Last week, I reread the paper for the first time in months. And I enjoyed it. The core material is lively, evocative and still speaks to me. It's one of the braver, more interesting and unconventional pieces of work I've been involved in. And I feel emotionally close to these ideas - I still care about them and want to continue exploring them. Reading it with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that the work has matured, but also understand why it hasn't been published. We haven't found the right frame for our analysis and are still unsure of exactly what argument we're trying to make. Moreover, it's now a draft attempting to respond to the feedback of at least 12 different readers.

What to do next? We debated rewriting it for a different journal and audience. But this would require another major overhaul which didn't excite either of us. We discussed whether it's time to stop, let it go and move on. Tempting, but we're both still engaged by the material and its potential. We agreed that the strength of the piece is its central analysis, a close reading of two old French theorists. Our love of these thinkers' works, and the intellectual conversation it generated between us, is what motivated us to begin this project in the first place. We realised that the material itself is timeless, but we need more time to figure out what to do with it. Given that there's no longer any external deadline, I wondered, what's the hurry?

As the years have ticked by, we've increasingly approached our article with an attitude of 'getting it done'. During rewriting, we'd ask ourselves, 'what do we need to do to get this over line?' This has often been a frustrated process of pushing ourselves to write and think in ways that don't feel totally natural or genuine just to make the changes requested by reviewers. However, this approach of forcefully reshaping the material - of trying to fit it to the expectations of many others - has produced sections of text that sound just as forced and flat. Writing that has no pulse. In the process of trying so hard the original energy and insight of the piece has gotten lost, and with this, the unique voice of the writing.

Rather than push for publication as soon as possible, we've decided to pause and be patient. Our plan is to let the material sit while we continue on with other projects. To not interfere with it for a while.  To let it sit and settle within us. This experience has been a good reminder of what it's like to honestly engage with writing as a process whose outcome is not certain, guaranteed or the only reason for doing it. Neither of us is sure of what to do next. And there's nothing wrong with this - it's just what's happening right now. From a mindfulness perspective, this not-knowing is actually very helpful as long as we're aware of it. To know and be aware of one's own confusion is itself an experience of mental clarity. And this clarity is something we lacked when we were preoccupied with the end-goal of trying to get the work finished.

Patience is defined as quiet and steady perseverance, even-tempered care, or the quality of being able to bear provocation, annoyance or misfortune without complaint or irritation. Etymologically, it literally means 'to endure, undergo, experience; sufferance, submission'. More informally, I associate it with the ability to wait calmly in uncertain, frustrating or difficult circumstances (such as long queues and busy waiting rooms). While it's seen as a virtuous character trait, the experience of enduring is not an easy one. In my current situation, being patient means allowing myself to embody my confusion - to fully occupy, instead of resisting, the state of being unsure or uncertain. It is both the practice and product of allowing, bearing or submitting to what is despite what we want (e.g. to stasis when we want change, to boredom when we'd prefer pleasure, to a lack of clarity when we deeply desire resolution).

So we're not sure what will happen next with the article. But at least our awareness of this has allowed us to respond with more care to the situation.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A new course and a new blog