Thursday, January 28, 2010


As I was presenting the various components of Writing Process Reengineering in Budapest last week, a number of participants began to draw parallels to factory production and soviet bureaucracy. Other parts of the workshop, however, especially those related to editing, suggested something much more like an art. So I proposed to meet them half-way: academic writing is not like working in a factory, but its also not quite like making a work of art; rather, it's a craft. The room in which you write is a workshop. Enjoyment comes from the increasingly masterful manipulation of materials. When writing, your materials are words.

This idea of "manipulation", of bending words to your will, of making them mean what you want to say, has got me thinking about my ongoing and planned hobbies. I play the piano every day and take a half-hour lesson once a week. My children gave me a sketch pad and some graphite pencils and chalk for Christmas. Finally, for some time now, I've been thinking about taking up boxing. What do these things—piano playing, drawing, boxing—have in common? And what do they have in common with writing? They are all things we do with our hands.

(A brief detour through the OED: Though the etymologies are apparently a bit hazy, "book" and "box" may come from the same root, namely, "fist". The Latinate term for boxer is "pugilist" and the Romans had something they called a "pugillaris", which was a writing tablet that "filled the hand". A kind of notebook. While it is still sometimes argued that "book" comes from "beech", i.e., the tree that supplied the bark for the earliest writing tablets, others say that writing tablet, i.e., that "pugillaris" is the basic sense.)

I think there may be an important insight to be gained from practicing various manual arts. My list is not the only possible one, but it strikes me as quite well put-together. It covers a broad range of activities, supporting thinking, feeling, seeing, and even hurting. Craft skills related to everything from music to violence. So this year, which will be my thirty-ninth, I will, in addition to writing and editing, make a real effort to (a) play the piano, (b) draw pictures of things, (c) learn how to box. The important thing to understand is that scholarship is not just something that happens in our heads. It is something we quite distinctly do with our hands.

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