Friday, November 12, 2010


I tell scholars that they should write every day, and that they should do so according to a schedule that is made well in advance. They should know for how long they are going to be writing and what they are going to be writing about every day of the week to come. Today it is Friday, so before the day is through, I should have looked at my calendar and determined exactly when (Monday, 9-10, Tuesday, 9-10, etc...) I'm going to write, as well as what section of what paper I will be working on. Ideally, I should know what claim(s) I will be supporting in prose during each of a total of between 1 and 15 hours next week.

When they hear this, people sometimes tell me I am naive about the amount of control one can have over one's time. Some say that the requisite amount of control is only available during a sabbatical, others say that it is certainly not available while you're engaged in field work, or during periods of intense teaching. To that, I say, "Nonsense!"

Most of the people that tell me they can't control when they will have time to write lead perfectly bourgeois, perfectly decent, perfectly middle-class lives. They get up in the morning. They get showered and dressed. They bring their children to daycare or school, they spend the day at work, where they meet their social obligations with a high degree of commitment and professionalism (they make appointments and they arrive at the appointed times and in the appointed places). "And when the day is through [they] always hurry to a place where love waits, [they] know." They pick up their children from school or daycare. They bring them home. They eat dinner at a decent hour. They get their children to bed on time. And then they go to sleep. Nonetheless, they claim that they "can't control" when they are going write and what they are going to say.

The other day, I discovered a passage in Karl Weick's Social Psychology of Organizing (1979) that gives me a bit of insight into why people say this. "G. W. Bateson," he says, "has argued that one of the major insane premises of Western thought is that we have self-control. He illustrates this by discussing alcoholics" (page 87, my emphasis). Now, that isn't quite true. Bateson's paper offers "a theory of alcoholism" (that's its subtitle), not a theory of Western insanity "illustrated" with an account of alcoholism. But it is quite telling that Weick's general claim, namely, that self-control is an illusion should be modeled on the delusions of self-control that alcoholics have. Leaving aside whether Bateson's theory still holds (it's forty years old), I would hesitate to generalize the fact that alcoholics can't control their drinking into a general "[falsification of] the idea that one is the captain of [one's] soul" (Weick 1979: 88). A theory of alcoholism is not a theory of mind—except, of course, for the alcoholic.

But here's the troubling thought. What my authors are telling me is that they are as much in control of their writing as alcoholics are in control of their drinking. It raises an intriguing but disturbing possibility. Some people (alcoholics) should stay away from drinking altogether because they simply can't control it once they begin. Can the same be true of writing? Do bad writing habits develop like a drinking problem? Do they develop into a lifestyle and then a pathology? We normally begin while we're in school. All this is worth thinking about. At some point, after years of binge writing and weekends spent letting our texts spiral out of control, the would-be scholar may have to give up being a writer. It may simply no longer be possible to control the process.


Jonathan said...

The alcoholic in AA "controls" drinking by announcing in advance that s/he has no control, recognizing a state of powerlessness. Maybe the writer should make the determination that only regularly scheduled writing should count, an obligation as serious as keeping an appointment with a student, is within hir control.

Thomas said...

But that's the problem. The writer knows that s/he should write only between 9 and 11 but fails to keep that appointment again and again , writing instead from 4 pm to midnight the "night of" (or starts at 10 and writes til dinner time).

And this happens every time there's a CFP or whatever, despite good intentions.

Likewise, the drinker knows s/he should limit herself to a glass of wine with dinner, maybe a beer after work, etc. But again, and again, s/he gets blotto instead and the next day is completely wasted.

The drinker, finally recognizing that s/he cannot control his/her drinking, stops drinking altogether. That's all the control that's left (admitting that controlled drinking is impossible is the first step to regaining control of his/her life).

What I'm wondering is whether some writers must make the same tough decision. Never to write again. (Or, as AA would probably prefer we said: not to drink tomorrow, and then the day after, and then the day after that.)

Too much sloppy drinking early on forces some to live the rest of their lives without enjoying a good glass of wine. Does something like that apply in the case of writing?

Jonathan said...

Yes, but I think once the writer begins to keep the 9-10:30 a.m. appointments, the irregular writing jags and sprees will begin to disappear or be rendered harmless. You don't even need to abstain, or to have these more irregular writing sessions proscribed. They will take care of themselves if the regular schedule is under control. Imagine if you could cure alcholism by drinking from 9-11 in the morning, one shot of brandy and 9 and another at 10!

Thomas said...

But you're begging the question. If a writer can sit down at 9 and get up again at 10:30 and not write another word until 9 the next morning, then, yes, the writer is in control. Here's something Bateson gets from AA:

"We do not like to pronounce any individual as alcoholic, but you can quickly diagnose yourself. Step over to the nearest barroom and try some controlled drinking. Try to drink and stop abruptly. Try it more than once. It will not take long for you to decide, if you are honest with yourself about it. It may be worth a bad case of jitters if you get a full knowledge of your condition."

Troels Riis said...

Are you saying that we should drop homework in public schools?

Thomas said...

The idea that homework is the root of the problem is an intriguing one. I'm going to have to think on this. If that argument can be made I'm going to have bring about a revolution in occidental pedagogy.