Thursday, May 31, 2012

Time & Notions

The other night, I had an epiphany while watching this episode of Alan Watts' "Philosophical Discourse" series. It was probably not the epiphany Watts himself was trying to get me to have, but it was profound nonetheless.

First, notice the prepared but extemporaneous performance. He is not reading his presentation off a teleprompter as a television speaker would today. He has clearly planned his performance, but not written it. There are a number of things he will say sitting at his desk, then he'll get up and write on his wall (I really like the aesthetics of it when compared to today's digital backgrounds and computer animations), and then he'll sit down again. In each position, he has a number of ideas to present. As a well-known popularizer of Eastern thought, he has no doubt said everything he's saying here many times before. These are things he knows well, and things he says in order to affect his audience in a particular way. But his exact words—the sentences he constructs—are (it seems to me at least) improvised.

Now consider: the program lasts 27 minutes and 6 seconds. Dwell on that for moment. Fathom it, friends.

If you really know something, I always say, you can write about it. More specifically, you can compose a prose paragraph about it in 30 minutes. Everyone has their own way of doing it, but I often break it down as a couple of minutes to retype the key sentence (which you bring to the writing session) and focus your mind, then about twenty minutes of writing, then some revision and reading out loud. After twenty-seven minutes, I suggest you take a three-minute break. Then it's on to the next paragraph or the next task on your schedule. That is, Watts is here composing himself on the subject of "recollection" for exactly the amount of time I suggest you write a single paragraph in a journal article. Not only that, he seems to be following a similar compositional arc.

My epiphany came when I realized how much he actually has time to say. Remember that I'm assuming he didn't just come up with it. His presentation comes from a deep and stable base of knowledge. Imagine if he had not addressed himself to a camera but spent the time silently writing at his desk. "Recollection is..." he might have begun. And imagine if he had now spent the time composing exactly six sentences, and no more than 200 words. Meditate on that.

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