Writing Wednesday: Roadblock

Oct 31, 2018

I am at roadbloack in my book proposal. This is normal, insofar as most writing projects will hit roadblocks from time to time. But I wanted to take a quick moment and unpack what it is, and note that a roadblock is different than writer’s block. Writer’s block is a condition of not being able to think of what to write. We are all familiar with writer’s block, even the kind that is really just procrastination masquerading as writer’s block. But the genuine species occurs when the mind—because of fatigue, lack of preparation, distraction from life or politics—cannot focus on the immediate task of generating new words to write down. A roadblock is kind of the mirror opposite of a writer’s block. I know what needs to be written, but I do not have the materials, citations, and resources to get there. As it happens, solving a roadblock is a lot like crafting national security strategy. It begins first and foremost with a definition of objectives, and then proceeds to devise the means-end logic chain of tasks and smaller objectives which will advance toward the final objective.

As I have written before, my project is on American grand strategy and international religious freedom. Specifically, I examine Cold War national security decision making and the elevation of religious freedom into the core of U.S. foreign policy. My dissertation had two case studies, Dwight Eisenhower and Henry Jackson. There, I showed that there was a decided shift in the scope and orientation of religious freedom in foreign policy between Eisenhower and Jackson. Eisenhower relied on religious freedom in areas where his freedom of movement for military options were limited (Asia and Europe) and his policies were ad hoc, i.e. not formalized. Jackson, by contrast, crafted what I think is the first ever domestic legislation defending the rights of religious minorities abroad. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment began a process of institutionalizing religious freedom into the framework of American national security which culminated with the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 (recently updated in 2016).

Ok, so what’s the problem? Like any dissertation, mine needs a lot of work. Among the changes are additional case studies which provide the argument with more substance. There is a lot more to international religious freedom, specifically under Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Carter, especially, is an interesting case because of the tension between the wide consensus that his human rights record was positive and the lack of its application in key areas. A colleague of mine from the Clements Center, where I was a graduate fellow, presented a wonderful paper on Carter’s strategic learning. And while that paper is yet to be in print anywhere—hence the author and details must remain undisclosed—I will add that it reinforced my thinking that I’ve yet to see any serious engagement with Carter as a national security actor and thinker. (Though, to be fair, I am in a roadblock because I have not yet done comprehensive research on Carter’s presidency.)

And therein lies the challenge. For my book proposal, I have a section of chapter summaries. What little I’ve just written on Carter is near the bleeding edge of what I “know” about his presidency. I am therefore running up against a familiar paradox, the knowledge of ignorance but the demands of needing to write a preliminary statement as though I do know.

While working on my dissertation this was an easy problem to solve. I simply started researching what I did not know while working on chapters for the things I knew. But as I cannot postpone the proposal for a month or more while I deep dive into the weeds of late-Cold War national security strategy, I still need to find ways of getting to a minimal, preliminary point of knowledge.

One way out is to shot-gun the writing process. As every first-year Ph.D. student knows, a shotgun approach consists of the random sequence of reading-writing-editing (not necessarily in that order) of a topic for final papers. And before you scoff, note that if it is good enough for DNA sequencing, it is good enough for social science book proposals. (Surprise, it may also be good for grand strategy.)

An ad hoc approach of skimming about Carter and Reagan may help me get my proposal finished, but unless I also have an eye toward the broader ends of the project and my own learning (not just the substance of the book but on myself as a scholar and writer), I will limit the quality of my output. Short-term decision-making may actually yield better long-term success. This works if learning is a central goal of the adaptive process. And that is where the parallels between strategy and writing seem to converge.

A clear goal (quality book manuscript) aligned to short-term means (persuasive book proposal, chapter outline, empirical metrics), followed with careful execution (deliberate, daily writing) are the core of any clear strategy. And so, back to reading, and writing, and editing (hopefully in that order, but no promises).

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Luke Perez is an Assistant Professor in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. My research investigates religion, ethics, and American foreign policy. He is currently working on a book manuscript on the origins and development of religious freedom in U.S. grand strategy. My other interests include American and international political theory, American political development, and political ethics.