What was done to him was like what happens on the train, when you think you are moving forward, but are moving backward, and suddenly find out the real direction.
"Yes, it was all not right," he said to himself, "but never mind. I can, I can do 'right.' But what is 'right'?" he asked himself and suddenly grew still.
--from The Death of Ivan Ilyich
There is a certain point in a paper writing process when, all of a sudden, you feel as if you do not know anything at all about what you are writing about. Despair grips you to the point where you actually believe that you did not learn anything all semester. Going to class, doing the readings, writing about the readings, doing assignments on the readings—somehow, you scrape through all these learning opportunities without acquiring one valid piece of knowledge.
If we were to envision what happens, we might say that the writer is happily, earnestly climbing up a mountain—he is eager to synthesize his knowledge and research into some distinctive position, and he enjoys some success. However, right when he gets to the top of the mountain (when he is confident enough to articulate his bold and creative thesis), the force of flinging himself on top of the mountain flings him right off of the precipice.
All of a sudden, a few new considerations reveal that everything you know and think might be wrong. Here I sincerely think to myself: “I know nothing of Aquinas—I do not understand him at all. How can I write?” I acquiesce to the falling, and watch as the cliff’s top becomes further away from me as I descend into the rugged valley. “I think I’ll just stay here. Lie here for awhile.” “Let’s forget Aquinas ever happened. Can we tell that to the registrar?”
Happily, there is strength to overcome such despair. Upon finishing the paper I realize that my despair—though likely an inescapable part of the paper-writing process—is wrong. “I guess I know one or two things about Aquinas,” I concede to myself: “At least, much more than I knew four months ago.” And what more can I ask for?