The following excerpt made it into my journal last month and I remembered it again this week. It is Eugene Peterson in his memoir, The Pastor, talking about writing as conversation, rather than as a way of ‘passing on information or feelings’. He notes that:
It was a way of writing that involved a good deal of listening, looking around, getting acquainted with the neighborhood. Not writing what I knew but writing into what I didn’t know, edging into a mystery…walking through a dense forest in the dead of night with a pencil flashlight between your teeth, about two feet of the darkness illuminated before you as you work…your way from word to word.
At the time I journalled this quotation, I also noted that it resonated with me in regard to my dawning research endeavours. Now that the research process has started, however falteringly(!), Peterson’s words are ringing in my ears again.
Whilst I am not currently writing anything of depth at all (and for good reason!), nevertheless each week I am challenging myself to write even short sentences about what I think I am trying to do with this research. The hope is that after weeks of thinking and reading and praying and writing, I am going to be able to solidify my thesis and to start to consider how I might go about establishing it methodologically.
But to articulate thoughts which are unformed and all too ephemeral if I don’t capture them is really hard. Harder than you’d think, in fact! So, in my very limited experience so far, this process is exactly like Peterson describes concerning his writing, save that I think he’s lucky if he can see two feet in front of him. Right now, I have about six inches of vision (if that!).
I am clearly not writing what I know. And yet, almost intuitively, I have been trying to write my way into what I don’t know. I love that phrase of Peterson’s, ‘edging into a mystery’, because that is exactly how I feel about this research. If I knew where I were going right now – if it were obvious – then what I might produce would not be worthy of a higher research degree.
There is a process to research, I am finding, and to bypass the process is essentially a surefire route to producing thinking which is neither rigorous nor sustained. I suspect that I am guilty of a lot of thinking like this. In fact, I rather fear that I am quite lazy academically: once thinking through something becomes difficult, my brain has a tendency to try to opt out because thinking hurts too much! And I think that in the past, generally speaking, I have got away with this more than I should have done.
So, the formative effects on my cognitive processes is one of my major motivations for pursuing yet another degree: I need to push myself hard enough that I will learn how to think deeply and rigorously, worshipping with my mind, thinking and writing my way into what I don’t yet know. In a way, research is another spiritual discipline for me, a way of becoming what I am not yet.
Still, whilst edging into mystery is hard, I have been reminded several times that this is, for me, a faith exercise. As another new starter in the research process said to me this week about her project, ‘I have to trust that God, having led me into this, is going to give me the outlines of my thesis and my original contribution to knowledge’. I laughed when she said that because this has been exactly my thought. I believe that my research process takes place within the hands of the Eternal One. He did not bring me this far to leave me. In fact, somewhere there is a clear thesis and an original contribution to knowledge which he has for me to make – but right now it is hidden and to find it I am going to have to learn to edge into the mystery!