Friday, April 25, 2014

Manifestation and Representation

"If he's using his mind to bend those spoons, he's doing it the hard way." (James "The Amazing" Randi, on Uri Geller.)

We've been having a very instructive discussion in the comments to Rachael's post. In this final post on the subject, at least for a while, I don't propose to take the last word, and I apologize in advance for caricaturing the views I'm engaging with. As I've been saying throughout, I'm not against the moderate, sensible position that doing a lot of different kinds of writing in a variety of moods is a good idea. I'm against the insistent reliance on a particular kind of writing, deeply wedded to thought.

In any case, I was struck by the moment when Rachael felt we were straying beyond the bounds of the original conversation. (It was the very moment that I thought we had returned squarely to my original point of departure.) Suddenly, it seemed to her, I was talking about the "perfectibility" of our texts, which is, she suggests, an altogether different issue:

My dissertation could definitely be improved, in many ways! I can always imagine having written a better text because I’ve never done a perfect job explaining myself to the reader. My limitations as a writer and my own familiarity with what I’m trying to say are always going to get in the way. That doesn’t seem to speak to the question of whether it is better to write what we already know or to write what we hope to figure out.

What strikes me about this is the way she naturalizes her "limitations as a writer", and trivializes the possibility of doing better.* We "always imagine" doing better, she says, and her limitations will "always get in the way". It's reminiscent of what I've playfully been calling Patrick Dunleavy's "extremism", i.e., his view that writing is "almost always" constitutive for thought. This is exactly the sentiment I'm trying to bring to light and critique—it suggests that deliberate efforts towards becoming better writers, concerted attempts to develop a stronger authorial persona, are, well, somewhat quaint. All we can ever expect to do is struggle from day to day with the messy materials of our thoughts and make the best of what comes out.

Against this view, I have been suggesting a possibility that too many authors simply don't consider: try making up your mind about what you're going to say twelve hours before you say it. It's fine to use writing (i.e., another kind of writing) to help you make up your mind if you want; but the point is to sit down the next day at the machine with your mind made up and a straight writing task clearly before you. I offer this as a supplement to all the other things that I completely agree with Rachael and Patrick, and everyone else, is worth doing. Rachael, for example, wants to do a lot of thinking while writing, or a lot of writing while thinking, producing a first draft of some kind. Then,

Once I’ve figured out what I want to say, I’m going to revise as often as possible to be sure that I’m giving the best possible expression to those ideas; all I’m arguing is that writing is a key tool in that initial figuring out process.

There's not much to disagree with here, but there is something to add. Why could there not be some actual writing even after she's "figured out what she wants to say" by means of all that scribbling? If she's going to "revise as often as possible" anyway, then why not also try re-writing a whole paragraph from scratch, this time, however, already knowing what its central claim is, instead of discovering that claim as you go?

I promised that today I would say something about why this matters so much to me as a writing coach. In my experience, many people are prevented from writing as effectively or as happily as they would like precisely because they think that they have to derive their writing from their thought process. They think that if they are going to write they have to be in a mood to think. And so they wait for that mood to arrive, or they try to force it or prime it into existence. They are trying to get their thought process to produce a text that they can then, as Rachael suggests, revise into publishable shape. Now, since they've invested their hopes in their minds, not their hands, when they find, now and then, that they can't write, they naturally feel stupid. My approach gets around that impasse by suggesting that, rather than grounding your writing in an intellectual discovery that you may or may not make as you write, you can simply proceed on the basis of a decision. This puts you in control of your writing process by liberating you from the contingencies of your thinking.

In another comment, Rachael proposes a distinction between representation as "manifestation" and representation as "reflection". I'd prefer to distinguish simply between manifestation and representation as such, in this case manifestations and representations of our thoughts. An action, even a verbal action (like a diatribe, say, or jeremiad) is a manifestation of thought, and often feeling. Opening a window is certainly a manifestation of the thought of opening a window. Representation is something different; it is the deliberate construction of a "picture" of the thought. (Our mime is representing the act, and therefore the thought, of opening the window.) Our authority as academic writers, I want to say, depends, not on our ability to merely manifest our thinking in words, but in our ability to represent it. Our writing does not just perform, if you will, the difficulties we have had in thinking about something, it represents our successes in overcoming those difficulties.

*See Rachael's pushback against this reading of her remarks in the comments below.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Thomas. I'm perfectly happy to have reached the 'agree to disagree' point (and I've very much enjoyed the conversation), but I wish to push back a bit against the notion that I'm 'naturalizing' limitations and 'trivializing' improvements. I wouldn't be working with writers if I didn't believe I could help them overcome limitations and make substantive improvements. That you and I have different approaches (and that you find mine wanting) doesn't mean that our aims are different. My belief that I will help writers more by acknowledging their difficulties and by giving them strategies to confront those difficulties does not imply the sort of defeatism you are attributing to me here. Lastly, my point about our having gone outside our original discussion was important to me, for this reason: my views about the importance of using writing to sort out our thinking is precisely about the original drafting process. In my experience, the creation of a draft is the most difficult part of the writing process, precisely because people don't have access to the sort of 'thoughts' that they can then 'decide' to write about in 12 hours time. I don't think any strategy for dealing with the early text that emerges should be taken off the table: revision can mean a lot of things, including rewriting from scratch when necessary. In a comment yesterday you said that 'thought writing + revision' isn't enough to establish a satisfactory authorial persona, but that remains, to me, the best possible way to tackle academic writing. Thanks for this interesting exchange, Thomas!

Thomas said...

Likewise! This has been one of the most constructive and fruitful engagements (especially under the category "disagreement") that I've probably ever had on the internet. Many thanks.

Thomas said...

And, yes, I think think we can agree to disagree about the sufficiency of thought writing + revision. I really do think that a many of the complaints that people have about the quality of writing in the Academy today are complaints about the voice that emerges from the presumption that that is the best way to write, and that all anyone can ask is an earnest attempt of that kind.

Today, we are all too often being asked to read other people's repeatedly revised but ultimately unfinished thoughts. Too many writers think it is normal not to be really sure even themselves what they mean before submitting their work for review. And then they just sort of try to satisfy their reviewers as best they can. There's a lack of ownership, if you ask me. My approach is an attempt to get people to train their ability to "hold" a thought. It's not so much an ability to say something, perhaps, but the will mean something by one's words.

Rasmus (16 paragraphs from thesis completion) said...

I haven't followed the debate very intensely, but it seems that some of this discussion misses out your (Thomas) suggestion to write down key sentences in the individual sections of a paper as the more 'creative' process of finding out what you think - in my practice of implementing your advice to writers, the writing of the (5) key sentences that will form for instance a theory section is where I do my creative structuring of arguments. Once I have this draft of an argument (it's an abbreviated form of Rachael's draft, I guess), I look at the whole argument and it's parts. Does the whole express what I want to say (and spend 2.5 hours saying in detail)? Do I feel like I can say the individual things (i.e. write a paragraph around each of those key sentences, using what I already know)?

Setting aside half an hour for this endeavour is a pretty easy way for me to test an idea, rather than committing to drafting the whole thing. I can also spend a little less than 4 hours 'drafting' a paper (i.e. Writing 40 key sentences) to see if I think an idea is viable for me to turn into a paper, with my current state of knowledge. That process, I think, is actually quite 'fun' (not haha fun, but fun in the 'thrill of intellectual discovery'). And it's very efficient. Say we talk about an idea for a paper on Tuesday afternoon. I decide to spend Wednesday morning drafting it and Wednesday at lunch we discuss an outline. It's painless for me (because I have only one morning of work invested in it) and efficient for us (we can see if an idea has legs, how it could be improved, where it's most interesting, etc).

Rant aside, I just wanted to give you a moral high five: I've been using your approach over the past three years and it's an awesomely good way to get ideas onto paper in a structured way. There may well be individual drifferences in practice (although you would probably say these differences are overstated), but I've gotten happily through my doctoral work using these ideas. Thank you for that.

And the real kicker here: that 40 sentence outline can comfortably be turned into a paper in less than two weeks (9 3-hour days of work including time for re-writing introduction and conclusion, 5 if I work with a co-author), which I at least find takes so much stress and pressure off academic life.

Thomas said...

Thanks, Rasmus. Yes, you seem to be using my approach exactly as intended. Indeed, it is tempting for me to take the hard line and say that a lot of thought-drafting is a waste of time and creative energy that would be better spent crafting crisp, sharp key sentences that express the central claims of each paragraph of a paper or chapter.

Enjoy those last 8 hours of writing!