Monday, March 05, 2012


My arm was itchy. I was starting to lose
feeling in my leg. The devil
is to be encountered.

You say amnesia
is different from bad memory.
Because it could dislodge the lie.

I think it helps if you're writing a book.
Here's the rain. Here's the rain
is a good title. (Kate Greenstreet, Case Sensitive, p. 106)

My physiotherapist told me something interesting recently. Ten years ago, I broke my arm and was not very disciplined about retraining it. I've always thought that a number of key muscles had atrophied or something, because over the years I've been leaving all the lifting to the other one. But it turns out that my arm is not worryingly weak. Rather, the "map" of my arm in my brain has been distorted. Accordingly, the exercises I've been given do not involve any weight, only concentration. I have to move my arms in particular circles in order to redraw my mental map of ordinary motion. It's very interesting to think about.

I suspect that bad writing habits also distort the maps that we have in our brains. If you don't sit down every day and write some true, declarative sentences, you get out of shape (lose strength) but might not suffer any intellectual damage. If, however, when you do write, you studiously avoid writing simple, declarative sentences that can be true or false, that is, if you are always constructing some kind of qualifying clause so that you don't actually have to know what you're saying, then you may really need to retrain your ability to speak your mind.

There really are people who seem to be always trying to "get around" writing a simple declarative sentence, to "work around" having to say something true. Some do it very intentionally (because they don't believe in Truth) and, in some cases, a distinctive and effective style does emerge from it. Note that this is because they really want a map of the motion of their language that does not pass through any veridical territory. But when I failed to retrain my arm it was not because I had anything in principle against using it to lift stuff. It just hurt to do so for a while, and I was too lazy to work back to a normal state of health. So my brain found a way around it. A new normalcy.

This week I'm going to be discussing some simple exercises that can help you retrain your style and keep it in shape. These exercises map onto my standard proposal for an introduction, i.e., the first three paragraphs of a paper. The idea here is to write three sentences (and subsequently three paragraphs) that you know to be true. But these sentences are to comport themselves differently towards your reader's knowledge. Since all three sentences are for the introduction of the paper, however, their truth is not going to very "heavy". That is, these exercises are only training the motion of your prose, not its strength. There is almost no load here.

Here are the three exercises, which I will say more about in the days to come.

1. Write a sentence everyone knows is true. That is, write a commonplace.

2. Write a sentence about the same thing that only you and your peers know is true. That is, "theorize" the first sentence. How do people who have access to specialized knowledge and technical jargon talk about this thing that everyone knows to be true?

3. Finally, write a sentence that only you know is true. Before you exercise your reflex for false modesty, consider your data. Your peers may be very smart, but they do not have access to what your data tells you is true. Until you publish, only you know this stuff.

This exercise can obviously be completed within a single 30-minute writing session. Or you can work at only one of them for 30 minutes. You can use them as a ten-minute "warm up" exercise before you start your "real" writing. Or, finally, on one of those days when you "don't have time to write", just do one of them for five minutes.

1 comment:

Tanya Golash-Boza said...

I love this! I like the idea that you can train yourself to be a better writer, and am always looking for ways to do it.... other than just sitting down and doing it every day.