Thursday, April 24, 2014

Thought and Writing: The Debate Continues

I was going to wait until tomorrow to write about this. But blog comments and tweets aren't really going to allow me to say what I want to say today. (And I've got lots on my mind.) I want here to simply defend my position again. Tomorrow I want to talk about why it's so important to me as a writing coach, i.e., as someone who is trying to help people become better and happier writers.

Patrick Dunleavy has billed this discussion as a "debate", and that certainly captures the spirit of the exchanges we've been having on Twitter and, thankfully, also in the more developed form of Rachael Cayley's blog post over at Explorations of Style. In a classic debate there are two positions, the debaters each adopt and defend one of them, and their rhetoric is intended to move the audience towards it. Of course, it is perfectly legitimate for anyone listening to (and even participating in) the debate to suggest a compromise, adopting a position somewhere in the middle of what is then construed as two extreme views. I think even the debaters, at the end of the day, usually go home with a position that has moved towards the middle. But their contributions will necessarily be taken to represent something more permanently "out there", on one side or the other. That's the function of debate, and it's a valuable one. I'm happy to play my part in it.

But I think the well-intentioned and conciliatory gesture of saying "Isn't it a little bit of both?" is a bit misplaced here. As I've been saying throughout, I'm not against the moderate position on this issue, which is that sometimes writing should be used to clarify your thoughts, and sometimes it should be used simply to express them. I'm against the extreme view that writing is, as Patrick put it, "almost always constitutive for thinking" (my emphasis), and that you therefore can't normally set thinking on one side when sitting down to write. I'm defending the view, which I have developed on the background of years of experience as a writing instructor and coach, that you can actually sometimes, indeed, regularly, and, in fact, often (if six times a day counts), simply and straightforwardly write down what you know, one paragraph at a time, in a timely and dependable way. Your knowledge base should be a reasonably stable formation, but you can't predict where your thinking will take you from day to day, of course. And that's why it's so important to protect your writing process from this capricious, but of course entirely necessary, element of research.

As many have already noticed, a great deal depends on what I mean by "thinking". During the exchanges on Twitter, Patrick and I hit on what I think is a pretty good initial gesture at a definition: thinking makes our contradictions visible. And here writing is obviously an excellent tool. It's not for nothing that I trace my own philosophical tradition through Wittgenstein, who said that the problem of philosophy is "the civil status of a contradiction", and back to Frege, who proposed to use "the two-dimensional surface of the page" to render thought "perspicuous". But thinking is also a "mental" operation, perhaps best described in terms of the effect it has on our beliefs.

Thinking is a way of coming to know something independent of experience, i.e., working only with the beliefs we already possess. Thinking is the act of bringing our beliefs together in close proximity so that their consequences, taken together, can be assessed. I may believe A, B, and C, but not yet D, even though D is a logical consequences of A, B, and C. By thinking about it, I can deduce D, and add this to my beliefs. Now, if A, B, C are also all true, which is to say, things I actually "know", then I can add D to my knowledge. But I may think a little further on it, and discover that D actually implies not-E, though E, I realize, is something I also happen to believe. Here we have a contradiction, something I must think about, and until I realize that A, which was essential to my belief in D, is actually not as true as I thought, the contradiction is unresolved. I don't know what to think.

Now, my point is that there is value in simply writing down why you believe D (i.e., because A, B, C), in a 27-minute paragraph-writing session during which you have resolved not to think so hard that you might compare D to E. I'm not saying you should never get to the point where you realize that D contradicts E, and that D therefore has to go, which in turn forces you to discover the empirical falsity of A. I'm just saying that those 27 minutes are well spent, learning how to say A, B, C and D, and explaining how they go together, even if you ultimately (i.e., long after the 27 minutes are over) reject the paragraph that says D, i.e., for which D is the key sentence and A, B, C constitute the support. Writing that paragraph didn't just show you what you thought (though it did that too) it gave you an opportunity to be a better writer. More specifically, it made you a better academic writer, because academic writing is all about being able to represent things you believe to be true. And at the time of writing, before you began to think about how E figures into all of this, you did actually believe D.

What I'm saying, then, is that it is good for you as a writer to spend at least half an hour and at most three hours every day writing without revising your beliefs, i.e., without "thinking" in the sense I've just suggested. It's no more radical a proposal than suggesting that you refrain from doing field work, or conducting interviews, or analyzing survey questionnaires, or, of course, reading, while writing. All of those activities are likely to revise your beliefs and the author you are should be given a few moments' "peace of mind", let's say, just to try to craft an accurate representation of what you actually think. I say this knowing full well that there are people who will insist there is just as essential a connection between their reading and their writing, or their analysis and their writing. Don't get me started!

In any case, before you suggest a middle ground, please, please, please, remember that I am not advising you never to use a page of writing to bring your beliefs into contact with each other in a way that makes their contradictions visible, and, more generally, in the spirit of revising what you believe about a particular issue. Nor am I advising you to put off writing anything until everything you know is clearly and distinctly present to you in your mind. I am advising you to regularly take off your thinking cap and put your ass to the chair and just say something you think is true for 27-minutes, using at least six sentences and at most 200 words to explain why you think so. That's one of the things you want to be good at as a scholar. You will only become good at it by practicing.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

More on Thought and Writing

On Sunday, Patrick Dunleavy started a conversation on twitter in response to my suggestion that our authority as authors develops with the writing we do "deliberately". What I meant was that we become better writers when we use writing to express the knowledge we have already acquired, ideas we already hold—in short, when we write something we decided to write about the day before. Patrick expressed a familiar objection to this approach to writing: "Writing is almost always constitutive of thinking. You don't know what you think, until you try to write it."

It's important to stress that neither of us are absolutists. Patrick says "almost always", and I certainly don't object in principle to what people call "thought writing", i.e., using writing as a tool to discover what you think, and to clarify your thinking. My suggestion is that you should also sometimes write down thoughts you don't need the writing to show you you have. You should sometimes do some writing that is not "constitutive" for thought. "Sometimes" is putting it too mildly. You should write often—at least half an hour a day—in this non-thought-constitutive mode. When you are using your writing to think, you are not becoming a better writer.

During the twitter conversation, a number of people expressed agreement with Patrick and disagreement with me. They, too, have found (as many people find) that what they were thinking becomes clear to them in the act of writing. I know the feeling, and, like I say, I don't deny that writing is an important tool in the clarification of thoughts. I am trying to draw attention to another important function of writing: to clearly communicate the results of our thinking. In this regard we can all improve, and we can work on this problem only when we set aside the problem of thinking for a few minutes and consider the problem of writing explicitly.

One thing that I think people forget is that, sometimes, when we say we are using writing to clarify our thoughts, we are really using thinking to get our writing done. We are imagining that the difficulty we are having writing that paper (in time for the upcoming deadline) is really the difficulty we are having in thinking about its subject matter. We think that an intellectual discovery in the eleventh hour (before the midnight deadline) will get the whole thing to fall into place. But what is often, indeed, almost always needed, was not the constitution of a new thought, but a decision to write down something we already know.

(To be continued on Friday. I'll respond to Rachael Cayley's post then too. Go read it.)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Thought, Language, and Writing

The philosophical problem of the relationship of thought to language is related to, but not identical with, the literary problem of the relationship of thought to writing. It is important that we don't conflate the two, for while an argument can be made against the "ontological illusion" that thoughts have some kind of existence independent of their articulation in language, we should not let this convince us that we don't know what we think until we see what we've written. This issue came up during a series of twitter exchanges yesterday, which allowed me to push back against what I think of as a prevalent and pernicious myth about the relationship between thought and writing, one that is especially mythological and pernicious in the case of scholarly writing.

As readers of this blog know, I suggest we think of our scholarly writing as the act of writing down what we know in coherent prose paragraphs, 27 minutes at a time. The claim that each paragraph makes should always be decided upon the day before, leaving only the writing of the supporting sentences for the 27-minute writing session (which you can have up to six of each day). A common objection to this is some version of "I don't know what I think til I see what I say"; it is absurd, on this view, to ask anyone to decide the day before what they are going to write. How could they know? As Dyi put it on Twitter, do I imagine that people actually have "access to what [they] think", so that it can be simply "transferred onto the page"? Well, actually, yes, that is a presumption I make. I believe that you know something in advance—say, twelve hours in advance—of the writing, and that you can make a conscious decision about which item of your knowledge you are going to commit to the page tomorrow.

Obviously, it is possible to think a thought without writing about it. To show this, all I need to do is ask you to imagine opening a window, and then to communicate this idea in mime to someone else. Surely, whatever you come up with, and however competent your miming is, the "thought"—the idea of opening a window—is available to you without the aid of, specifically, writing (even "in the head"). What this tells us is simply that there is a difference between having a thought and expressing it, whether in writing or otherwise. Obviously, I could also ask you to write a coherent prose paragraph of about 150 words describing, in detail, the act of opening a window. But that act (of writing) stands in no closer relationship to the thought (or act) of opening a window than the mime's actions. Now, you may be a great mime or less great mime. You may be a great writer or a not so good one. But you will only become better at either by imagining the relevant thought and then practicing the art of its presentation.

My view is that the idea that writing is inextricable from thinking is an affectation that undermines the efforts of writing instructors like me to identify the specific problem of writing, the literary problem of representing thought in prose. People who claim that they are not thinking about their area of expertise unless they are writing are saying something rather disturbing about their expertise. What are they doing when they are teaching? Or just conversing with peers? Or reading for that matter? What mental operations correspond to these things qua being knowledgable people about a particular subject matter. Most importantly, how do they decide whether or not they have written an idea down clearly, or otherwise effectively. If their only access to their thinking is the evidence provided by their writing, how can they decide whether a particular paragraph fails to capture their meaning?

I'm willing to commit to the strong version of this thesis, by the way. I'm not just saying it is possible to think without writing. I'm saying that, as a scholar, it is absolutely necessary to spend a good deal of time writing without thinking, i.e., writing down what are already "finished thoughts", rather than drawing on your writing skills to think those thoughts through for you. True: it is sometimes helpful to your thinking self to enlist the assistance of your authorial persona. But I'm not sure that's always the real motive behind the mixing of thinking and writing. The truth is often that you're trying to use the part of you that thinks to do your writing for you, which is unwise. You may as well be trying to open crates with a precision screwdriver, as Wittgenstein's sister once said.

After you've gotten the thought clear, in any case, whether with or without the aid of writing, do yourself and your writing self the favor of taking another 27 minutes to work on the problem of writing alone—detached from the problem of thinking. It is only when you decide on a thought and then undertake specifically to write that thought down (not: to think that thought in writing) that you can focus your efforts on improving your writing skills. You must not, at the end of the 27 minutes say, "Now what do we have here?" or "What was I thinking?" but "How did that go?" You have to be able to distinguish clearly between what you are trying to say and how well you are saying it.

I'd like to close with an interesting observation that Woody Allen once made about how he evaluates his own films. There is of course the question of the wether it's finally a good film or not but, as I understand it, he leaves that to audiences and critics. For him, the much more important question is whether the film as it appears on the screen resembles what he had imagined before he started making it. I suppose he and his critics would be within their rights to judge him as an artist based solely on the aesthetic effect of the final outcome, but as a film maker his pride is bound up in something different: his ability to represent "what he had in mind" on film.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Taking a week off...

…from almost everything. It is Sunday morning on the first day of this break, and, as often happens at such times, I feel pretty much exactly like this:

(Source: Nivaagaard Collection.)


Friday, April 11, 2014

Taking Feedback

Before seeking someone else's opinion of your writing, make sure that your mind is prepared to learn. That is, do not go into the feedback loop with the attitude of Branford Marsalis' students, who only want to know how good they are, how right they are, and how talented they are. You are seeking feedback in order to discover new ways to improve.

All texts can be improved. When I do masterclass workshops on how to edit a text we work on one paragraph at a time. One exercise is to put the paragraph on the screen, read it out loud, and then ask simply "What's the best sentence? What's the worst sentence?" There is no question here of finding good and bad sentences. If the paragraph consists of nine sentences, there simply will be a best and a worst one, even if all of them are good, or all of them are bad. The exercise is just asking us to be discerning in an ordinary, practical way.

Always remember that your reader is in no position to judge your knowledge or your intelligence. And it is only if you have given everything (which is impossible) to the text that you can take their feedback as a final judgment on your abilities as a writer. In the old days I would ask people to submit work to my workshops that they had spent some time bringing up to their highest linguistic standard, a paragraph written "at the top of their game", but I've realized that this only makes things difficult. These days I tell them to bring a paragraph that they've spent exactly 27-minutes writing, so that we all know what we're dealing with, and imperfections are completely understandable.

When listening to feedback, remind yourself that you are a finite human being who has spent a finite amount of time accomplishing a finite result. Don't, however, keep reminding the person who is giving you feedback of that. If you keep saying that the imperfections in your text are understandable because, well, you're only human, then you'll give your reader the sense that they are wasting their time. Did you want to hear their opinion or not? Just listen with an open mind, eager to hear how the text can be improved.

And that's the most important thing. Always listen to your reader as someone who is suggesting, however implicitly, what you should do during the next five, ten, twenty hours of work on this text. The reader is not evaluating the text itself, but the work you have done to produce it. They are telling you how successful you have been in accomplishing your goals. So as you interpret their feedback, whether that be from a colleague, a reviewer, an editor, or even the reader of a text you have published, always do so in terms of the writing or editing tasks that the feedback implies.

A text is always the result of a series of rhetorical decisions, decisions about what to say and how to say it. If your reader says your sentences are too long, they are suggesting you spend some time shortening them. If your reader says your argument is too "compact", you should imagine making the same argument with more paragraphs. If your reader says you are contradicting yourself, they are suggesting that you say one thing or the other, not both, and probably that you have to delete a few paragraphs. In the end, you decide what you will actually do with the time you still want to spend on this text. You reader is trying to help you make those decisions. Your reader is not making them for you.