Friday, February 28, 2014

Talking, Speaking, Writing

I talk a lot about writing. I meet regularly with authors, both individually and in groups, to talk about how their writing is going. These are people who are explicitly trying to follow my advice, so I'm getting constant feedback from them about what works and what doesn't work. Only half ironically, I usually joke that if it's not working for you it's probably because you've misunderstood me. That's actually often the case; much of my work consists in clarifying my instructions for the particular circumstances that are being faced by a particular author. Or, perhaps more precisely, my work consists in insisting that the solution even to a very specific, very complicated problem faced by a writer lies, in the first instance, in applying my very general, very simple advice. I have to teach, yes, but also persuade. Don't believe what I say, I tell my authors, do what I tell you.

I also speak often on writing. I sell a six-hour seminar to research institutions about how to organize writing processes, during which I do most of the talking. And I'm often asked to lecture to university students at all levels about the importance of writing and the nature of scholarship. My speaking engagements are occasions to outline my philosophy of writing, and even my philosophy of science, and pass along my many years of experience as a writer and writing coach in the form of a by now very comprehensive system of content and time management. I tell stories and draw pictures, I instruct and, I hope, inspire. I even have a few gags. And I answer an increasingly familiar series of questions from the participants and students. While many of my "bits" are old hat to me now, there's always an opportunity to improvise a little, to try something new. All in all, I like public speaking.

Now, I do most of this speaking and talking as a coach, not a scholar. It's one of the reasons I find it relatively easy to write about writing, and not so easy to write about organizations (the closest thing I have to discipline is organization studies). My ideas about writing are part of a conversation (and sometimes monologue) that I'm very much a participant in. I hear myself explain them often and I am regularly challenged to clarify and defend them. I know what objections there are, and I know why those objections are misplaced. I don't win every argument in these discussions, and I sometimes have to withdraw and rethink a particular position, but I never feel like I've been excluded from the discourse. That makes it easy to sit down on a morning like this and say what's on my mind. I know what I'm talking about and I have a good sense of who is listening.

Next week, I'm going to write about the problems that occur when you have been excluded (or have excluded yourself) from the discourse on the object you are trying to write about. You may feel you have something important to say, but you are not in comfortable contact with the people you want to say it to. I have as much experience with that kind of writerly privation as I do with public speaking.

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