Sunday, February 26, 2017

On Writing and Struggle and Being a Religious (Mormon) Grad Student

So I'm officially the last person in my cohort to be ABD. I realize that the previous sentence might make it sound like I've recently achieved ABDness myself, so allow me to clarify that no, I have not. Not yet. I'm fine with that. And by saying that I'm fine with it, I'm not trying to convince myself to be fine with it. Really, I am fine with it. I've long since stopped judging my work/ability/value based off of how/what other people are doing. Also, I know very well that I've been working hard, and after several starts and stops and research project ideas and epiphanies and inspirations that weren't actually inspirations but were really just me being a little gassy, I'm on track to defend my prospectus and be ABD by April. So really, I'm fine. And I'm content with where I am in my progress towards graduation.

That said, while I really and truly am fine and encouraged with where I am and where I'm going, it has been and will continue to be hard. I know that very well. I'm a realist here. I knew coming in that it was going to be difficult. It ain't all daffodils and sunshine. (Especially those winters when the arctic death chill came sweeping through the Midwest.) There really are times when it's hard. No, that's not strong enough language. There have been times when it has frankly been miserable. There have been times when I've felt thoroughly inadequate and like I completely don't belong here. There have also been moments of gold and flashes of light - times when I have love love loved what I'm doing and the direction my life is heading.

I feel like the last month or so I've been riding the crest of one of those waves where it all seems to be coming together, and I feel good (I knew that I would.) That might be a-little-bit-more-than-partially due to the fact that I got engaged to an amazingly wonderful woman earlier this month. But on top of the awesomity of Shar and being engaged to her, I just feel like my academic and scholarly pursuits are also looking very positive lately.

This is a picture of me being a scholar. A scholar that needs a haircut, sure, but a scholar all the same. 

And so, anticipating that in the ensuing days, weeks, and months as I writewritewritewritewrite I will descend from the mountaintop and the struggles and difficulties and weaknesses and insecurities will resume, I wanted to write down a few thoughts that I can hopefully return to as a pick-me-up.

Early on in my time here at Purdue, my master's thesis adviser Kristine Hansen gave me some counsel and advice that I often go back and revisit. As a part of that advice she wrote, "It's a long, hard slog to the PhD, but if you take it a day at a time and give each day a good effort, you will succeed." As I was expressing above, it has been a long, hard slog, and I only anticipate it being longer and harder and sloggier before it's all over.

Part of what has made it difficult for me is I feel inadequate with my writing. I'm feeling this inadequacy in writing especially keenly of late as I've been working on several projects: my dissertation prospectus (the thing I have to write and defend before I can officially be ABD), and article I recently resubmitted to a journal, and a couple of conference papers. The fact that I've been actually working on and making progress on these projects has been encouraging, but almost every time I sit down at a computer to compose I feel woefully inadequate. The moment my thoughts begin to taken written form, I'm hyper-conscious of them not being as sophisticated and polished as I want them to be.

The nice thing about this struggle is that I know I'm not alone in it; if nothing else, I have the company of my students. It's kind of funny that I feel like I struggle so much with writing when at the same time I teach and study writing and have been doing so for 5.71875 years now. I'm supposed to be the expert in the classroom, but the only thing I feel expert at is trying to write and failing. And then trying again and failing a little less. And then trying again and failing a little less. And that process continues until I'm reasonably content with the amount of failure on the page. I will say, though, that now that I'm in my 11th year of college, I'm able to work through this pattern of failure and correction much more quickly than in years past. In fact, I may even be getting to the point that Don Murray wrote about where I'm able to "glory in [writing's] unfinishedness." That said, it isn't always as simple as all that. It isn't always easy to quiet the inner voice that says, "you're not enough and you never will be."

Luckily, I'm pretty familiar with that voice, since it's the same one that seems to be talking whenever any aspect of my life seems overwhelming and I feel inadequate. I say that it's a lucky thing because I have a surefire way of combating that naysayer: I turn to the scriptures and to prayer.

When I find myself struggling in writing, I am often able to draw strength particularly from one of my favorite passages of scripture in the Book of Mormon. When I was teaching at BYU I would often share this with my students at the point in the semester when everything seemed to be piling up and the workload was getting to be nearly impossible. I liked doing this because it seemed to help them, but it also did a pretty good job of helping me as I faced similar piling ups and impossibilities. Being at a secular, public institution now I can't share this directly with my students, but I still go back to these verses when I'm feeling particularly unsure of myself.

Actually, before I share the scriptures and why I find them helpful, allow me to share a little bit of context for them.

The scripture comes from the 12th chapter of the Book of Ether in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is a collection of scripture written by prophets in the Americas from about 600 BC to 400 AD. One of the last prophets, Mormon (for whom the book is named), collected, condensed and abridged the writings of all the prophets in the previous nearly 1000 years of his civilization. He then gave his abridgments to his son Moroni. Moroni, the last man in recorded in the book who was faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, wandered alone with his father's abridgment of sacred records for many years. During his wanderings, Moroni added to his father's compilation by abridging and compiling the Book of Ether, which was derived from prophetic writings of a people that even predated Moroni's own. It is in this context that Moroni is writing (not abridging) Ether 12.

Quick summary:

- Moroni has in his possession and has likely studied extensively his own father's compilation of writings, writings full of wonderful and powerfully written stories, prophecies and sermons.
- Moroni is abridging and writing about several prophets of God, one of whom, according to Moroni, "[God] madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty...unto the overpowering of man to read them."
- Moroni knew, being a prophet himself, that several hundred years in the future the things that he was writing would be found, translated, and spread widely throughout the world.

With the weight of comparison with others greater than himself (according to his perception), and the weight of the expectations of an unseen and probably judgmental future population, Moroni felt unsure and inadequate, and he took his concerns to the Lord:

23 And I said unto him: Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing; for Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing; for thou hast made all this people that they could speak much, because of the Holy Ghost which thou hast given them;

 24 And thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands. Behold, thou hast not made us mighty in writing like unto the brother of Jared, for thou madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty even as thou art, unto the overpowering of man to read them.

 25 Thou hast also made our words powerful and great, even that we cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words; and I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words.

Moroni was nervous that the things he was writing weren't up to snuff. He worried that the people in the future who were reading what he was writing would make fun of him. When I read these verses I see myself, though to a much, much lesser degree. Don't get me wrong, I'm not setting myself up as a prophetic figure in any way, and I surely don't have the same pressures on my writing that Moroni had, but that insecurity. The phrase, "the awkwardness of our hands." Stumbling because of the placing of my words. I can relate to that. A lot.  

The following verses after Moroni recounts his struggles, are, to me, some of the sweetest in all of holy writ:

26 And when I had said this, the Lord spake unto me, saying: Fools mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness;

 27 And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.

Verse 27 of Ether 12 is one of the most oft-quoted verses throughout The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and more often than not it gets used in the context of weakness in general. In any area in which we feel weak, in any area in which we feel like we are not enough, in any struggle, insecurity, or slog, we can find strength in the grace of Christ. As we humble ourselves before Christ and find and build our faith in Him, His ennobling and empowering Atonement can provide us with the ability to overcome whatever weakness we need to overcome.

I believe that to be true in the general application of the scripture, but I love that the direct context of the passage - the particular weakness in question - was the struggle to write.

Many times over the past several years I have found myself in positions where I feel like I can't do what's being asked of me, that I can't write what I need to write. But in every one of those instances, as I have knelt down to pray and ask for divine help and strength to enable me to write beyond my ability, that divine help and strength has come. In every case. I have been able to complete the tasks before me, and even on occasion I have been able to feel pretty good about my work.

So as I go forward with the coming writings that are sure to push me well beyond where I'm capable, I know in whom I have trusted previously, and I know that I can have the confidence to do all things with His help.

Quick end note: A year or so after coming to Purdue, a professor of mine from BYU, Trent Hickman, gave a devotional address about this same idea that I very highly recommend. I felt validated knowing that he too struggled sometimes, and that he had found similar comfort in these scriptures.