Monday, March 31, 2014

Time & Persons

People are to history what things are to the world. They're what it's made of. People occupy time as things occupy space; indeed, there is a sense in which organizing your time means deciding who you are. You are what you do, the sum of all your actions. And action unfolds in time, one thing after another.

I was reminded of this on Friday, in the middle of the second part of my Writing Process Reengineering seminar, which is devoted to the time of writing. (The first part is devoted to space, which I'll write about on Wednesday.) It suddenly occurred to me that I spend as much time talking about the identity of the author—the relationship you should cultivate to yourself as an author, the part of you that writes—as I do talking about scheduling your writing time, "planning your work and working your plan", as they say.

If Bergson is right that "time is that which keeps everything from happening all at once", then it would seem that "I", "the self", my personality, arises out the decisions that distinguish between what I have done, what I am doing now, and what I will do later. The adept in meditation can dissolve this distinction, but this is tantamount, precisely, to the dissolution of the self. To have a past, a present, and a future is to be a person. Or better: to be a person is to have a past, a future, and a presence.

In writing, the relevant "personality" is, of course, the author. It is the author's presence we are supposed to feel when reading. We call this style. I believe that a strong style emerges from the act of deliberately sitting down to write as planned. That is, every time we write, having known the day before that we would do so, and knowing that at some planned point in time up ahead we will stop writing for the day, we strengthen our style. It is the work we do deliberately that gives us our authority; we are authors when we are writing deliberately.


randwest said...

This is a provocative post. It has provoked me to ask if and how you would distinguish between presence and a couple of other common terms used in matching writing to the self: voice and perspective. I was told many years go by a research mentor that I was a poor (academic) writer because I hadn't found my voice.

Thomas said...

Interesting question. There are certainly connections between authority (authorial persona), presence, voice and perspective, but I'm not sure I can provide any rigorous definitions that keeps them completely distinct.

I'm not sure that I'd make voice a sine qua non of academic writing. Except in the minimal sense that you must have a voice. It's not vital that you find out exactly who you are, i.e., what your "authentic" voice sounds like, in order to write academically. But you must find a working way of being present in your discourse.

I once wrote a post about Gertrude Stein's "there's no there there", which might shed light on this. Interestingly, she is arguably a writer with a voice entirely he own and a (resolute) lack of presence, as I've argued elsewhere.

Thanks for getting me to think about it again. I'll take it up in a later post.