Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Situational Writing

As usual, In the Middle supplies a post/link of high use-value. I hope my blog grows up to be like ITM someday.

ITM links to an advice post on being a prolific writer. It's wisdom I wish I had possessed years ago, but I am happy to think that I have gotten beyond it. After all, I have been quite busy the last several years with many projects, and I seem to have many more upcoming.

The writer of the advice post is Graham Harman, whose blog Object-Oriented Philosophy seems to be quite popular. The good scholar explains that productive writers - and, I suspect, productive people generally - adopt a situational approach:
For those who are still stuck in the self-torturing masochism of the grad school persona, high productivity can seem suspect. “It takes me so long to finish one article, how can these people be churning out so many? They must be cutting corners.” But they’re actually not cutting corners. They’re just adopting a different attitude toward their work. Instead of thinking of yourself as a young warrior initiate on some gruelling hunt or vision quest, where the lion is so painfully difficult to slay that it would feel like cheating if it took less than a few years (heavily male images, I know, but I can’t completely jump out of my own self)… instead of that… I for one think of it as architecture.

The last time I made this analogy, a good-natured architect wrote in laughing and saying that I give architects too much credit. Well, I don’t know about that. But what I like about that profession is that you have to build things, and each project has its own specific parameters that need to be met. What makes it relatively easy for me to write articles and lectures compared with before? Easy: I’ve learned to let each situation do much of the writing for me.

Here’s what I mean… The masochistic grad student attitude is that heroic force is needed to generate each sentence ex nihilo. (At least that’s how it was for me.) But in fact, most of writing boils down to organization, which is why I always say that Outline is All. If you have a good enough outline, it’s already written. And don’t think you’re not being original when you focus on the outline, because no two people ever break down a subject into precisely the same parts. We’re most original when we’re not trying to be original, but simply saying the things we really believe. (It takes a lot of work to find out what we really believe, because much human debate involves posturing rather than genuine individual beliefs, and this can confuse us as to what is real and what is posturing.)
I am happy to report that I have learned many of these lessons. I learned them the hard way, but I don't think that matters much now. I certainly have known well the meaning of one of my favorite statements by Philip Roth: "The road to hell is paved with works in progress." I identify very much with Harman's need to work hard at externalizing:
All that matters is that you are always trying to externalize. This is a learned skill for me, and hard-won. I feel naturally like a terrible introvert. And yet everyone is always giving me the exact opposite feedback on that point (at least since about 1999, which not coincidentally is when I finally buckled down and finished the dissertation). I think the reason people call me outgoing is because I have to work so hard at it– a lot of energy is going into it constantly, because I remember too well what one can backslide into if constant forward motion is not underway. And forward motion occurs, primarily, through connection. This may be communication with other people. It may be working on some small but useful task. It may be a constant openness to new influences. It may be travelling to new places to connect place names with definite mental images.
In my own life and in my own way, I have learned to take things one at a time, to resist the urge to get lost in the writing process, and to keep externalizing my intellectual work. These are the reasons I feel confident about being back in the game on my diss. and on moving forward.

Sorry for the personal post, but I wanted to share.

1 comment:

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I felt the same way about the post, so that is why I shared it. I'm happy it was useful!