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Can I write my way out of this mental block?

3 January, 2014

It’s only the third, right? Not bad for beginning the New Year with the plan of Blogging More.  That is, I’m blogging a bit. Today. Now. Because I told myself I would. Because I’m on sabbatical as of next week. Because I need to be in the habit of writing. And today particularly, because I have a block. There’s no good reason for it. All indications since November, if not a bit earlier, are that I might just be worthy of hanging out with the smart kids. It’s a damned good thing, too, because frankly, last semester I sucked at teaching. At the same time, I felt teaching sucking the life out of me, but that’s another post to write. Today’s post is about Latin. 

I like Latin. Well, that is to say, I like it as much as any other language I have to think about. Having said that, I tend to think I’m crap at Latin. If recent theories are right, it might have something to do with being told all my life that I have some better-than-average innate skill with languages, and perhaps with the assumption of family and teachers that it was only my brains that saved me from my laziness. In any case, I have difficulties in measuring my own effort, except when physical labor with some sort of tangible result is involved. Add to that a real (also apparently inherited) talent for faffing about (which I admit may have something to do with ADHD, anxiety, and any number of other too-easily dismissible excuses), as well as a solid upper-working-to-lower-middle-class background and a bunch of friends who are hugely productive … anyway.

Over the years that I’ve been blogging, I’ve met an awful lot of people who have made heroic efforts to convince me that the smart, cool, brainy, witty people I love to hang out with are not just being nice. A lot of you have given me very welcome opportunities to convince myself that no one just handed me a PhD and a job. Now that I’ve got an Actual Publication in my field, and somehow managed to fill what was supposed to have been a sabbatical of partial recovery and rest into The Sabbatical Of Massive Commitment (to date, an R&R of an article, an old (huge) project that really needs to be gone, two papers to present in May, a paper in July, a draft of another (very new) paper by the end of the summer, and probably another paper in August, not to mention prepping a new course properly for the fall), I may be a bit overwhelmed, but it feels right. I’m starting to associate all of this with actual effort on my part. It’s a good feeling. 

So why am I blogcrastinating? Because I have a difficult relationship with Latin, and with languages. Translating Latin encapsulates everything about the weird inability to gauge the skill-effort-imposter syndrome relationship. When I translate, I alternate between writing out something that feels right, and then going back and checking every single word, parsing every sentence, reading up on every possible usage, all to make sure I’m not totally off-base. And then I check with colleagues, especially the Toronto and Oxbridge types. Most of the time, my translations are pretty close to theirs. Occasionally, I make a really dumb error — something like misreading an ending of something I’d translated correctly earlier —  which I almost always catch. But every one of those little stupid errors convinces me that I have no clue about what I’m doing.  This is in spite of all evidence to the contrary. It’s in spite of knowing that one of the reasons I was not only accepted for postgraduate study, but also given (that word again) a rather nice fellowship at Grad U. So why am I so damned anxious about this translation? 

It’s for, and with, people whose skills I respect. It’s public. It will be open to criticism. But that’s every conference paper, too. I think what it is, is knowing that this is somewhere where I really can slip up. I want to go through and translate idiomatically, and my experience tells me that there’s a better than ninety percent chance that my first read through will be pretty close. Except when it isn’t. And when it isn’t, it’s almost always a rookie error that a first-year Latin student would be embarrassed at making. If I don’t translate, I can’t make stupid errors, right?  There’s a certain logic in that. Really. 

But now that I’ve written all about my little trauma, I think I’ve figured something out. I don’t worry about whether or not things are hard to do. So what? I give it my best shot, and that’s all I can do. What scares me is the idea that I’m having to work very hard at something and not knowing if that’s normal or not. I’m starting to question the assumption that having a degree and a job indicate knowing as much as one needs. It’s like I’ll never learn everything I need to know. What about you, patient and collegial readers? Have you reached the point where you feel like you know enough? How do you know if what you’re doing is generally reckoned difficult or easy? Does it matter? 


5 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 January, 2014 12:36 am

    Know enough? Are you nuts? Are we dead? The feeling that I never know enough is why I’m an academic, I think.

    Congrats on the sabbatical! Enjoy it to the hilt!

  2. 9 January, 2014 4:30 pm

    It’s a different world I know but every time I have to engage with a tough strategic problem I have massive self doubt. It always feels like I have no clue where to start or where I am going. And yet I know, in my field, I am about as good a strategist as there is.

    • 10 January, 2014 4:12 am

      OMG! HI! I’ve missed you 🙂 and thank you, because even though I knew this about you, I’d forgotten I knew someone who said it out loud so well.

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