Write On

Half of writing -- and most of life -- comes down to having plausible excuse for what you already plan to do.

April 19, 2005

Later this year, I'll give a paper at the annual convention of the American Political Science Association. For someone who is not a political scientist, this is a bizarre prospect -- like one of those dreams in which you must take a final exam in a course you’ve never actually taken. My topic involves tracing one strand of neoconservative ideology back to its source in a far-flung mutation of Marxist theory. I’ve been doing the research for about 20 years, off and on, without ever quite supposing that it would culminate in a presentation in front of a bunch of professors.

Then again, the matter is sufficiently esoteric that "bunch" may not be the exact word. Chances are there will be more than enough chairs.

In any case, a mass of old books and photocopies are now stacked up, to an unstable height, on my desk. And on top of the pile there is a notebook. The reading notes, the rough outline, the first draft or two ... all will be written there, in longhand.

My friends and colleagues are occasionally nonplussed to learn that someone trying to make a living as a writer actually spends the better part of his workday with pen in hand. (It’s probably comparable to finding out that your doctor grows blood-sucking leeches in the basement.) Like an interest in the fine distinctions made by the ancient Trotskyists, my writing habits are idiosyncratic, anachronistic, and more or less impossible to justify in terms making any sense given the state of 21st century American culture.

Yet the rut is now too deep to crawl out of it. I have my reasons. Or perhaps, to be more precise, my rationalizations. Not that they persuade anybody else, of course. It’s particularly awkward when an editor asks for a progress report. There is a certain uncomfortable silence when I say, "Well, the notebook is almost full...." 

Nowadays, the word "text" connotes an artifact that is "always already" digitized -- something to be fed into a streamlined apparatus for circulating information. But the word itself comes from the Latin root texere, to weave, as in "textile."

In my own experience, though, writing is not so much the crafting of paragraphs as it is a matter of laboriously unknotting the thread of any given idea. And the only way to do that is by hand. The process is messy and not terribly efficient.

Writing this column twice a week, for example, is a matter of juggling two legal pads of different sizes, plus anywhere from one to three notebooks. It is easy to detect which parts were written with a cup of coffee in one hand: The sentences are long, the handwriting spiky, the parentheses nestled one inside the next. By its penultimate phase, the draft is a puzzling array of arrows, boxes, Venn diagrams, and Roman numerals. (Also, as the case may require, whatever lower-case letters of the Greek alphabet I can still remember.)

The effect resembles the flow chart for a primitive computer program to be run on a wheezy old tube-driven UNIVAC.

Only as the deadline approaches is anything actually typed up, in a kind of spastic marathon. By that point, a certain passage from Walter Benjamin always comes to mind: "The work is a death mask of its conception."
Actually, with hindsight, it’s easy to see that Benjamin got me started on this erratic and circuitous course. In a collection of essays and fragments called One Way Street, he offers a set of aphorisms on writing, including the one just quoted. (First published in 1926, it is now available in the first of a four-volume edition of his work in English published by Harvard University Press.)

"Let no thought pass incognito," Benjamin insisted, "and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens." (A line that became more poignant after the Nazis came to power, forcing Benjamin to spend the rest of his life in exile.)

But one passage in particular made a huge impression on me. "Avoid haphazard writing materials," admonished Benjamin. "A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensible."

As if to clinch it, there is an interview that Roland Barthes gave in 1973 that seems to ratify Benjamin’s point. Under the title "An Almost Obsessive Relation to Writing Instruments," it was  reprinted posthumously in a collection called The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, published by the University of California Press.  

In a gesture very typical of his structuralist penchant for creating categorical distinctions, Barthes notes that his own writing process goes through two stages: "First comes the moment when desire is invested in a graphic impulse," said Barthes. It was a phase of copying down "certain passages, moments, even words which have the power to move me," and of working out "the rhythm of a sentence" that gives shape to his own ideas. Only much later can the text be "prepared for the anonymous and collective consumption of others through transformation of into a typographical object" – a moment, according to Barthes, when the writing "is already beginning its commercialization."

Clearly the important phase is the one in which "desire is invested in a graphic impulse." And for that, you need the right tools. "I often switch from one pen to another just for the pleasure of it," Barthes told the interviewer. "As soon as I see a new one, I start craving it. I cannot keep myself from buying them."

The one exception was the Bic, which Barthes found disgusting: "I would even say, a bit nastily, that there is a 'Bic style,' which is really just for churning out copy...."

So the penchant for haunting stationery stores (and otherwise indulging a fetish for writing supplies) has the endorsement of  distinguished authorities. But my efficiency-cramping distaste for the computer keyboard is somewhat more difficult to rationalize.

Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes died long before word processors were available, of course. But a good excuse not to write first drafts that way comes from the poet Ted Hughes, in a passage quoted by Alice W. Flaherty in her fascinating book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain.

In an account of judging in a contest for children’s writing, Hughes recalled that the entries once tended to be two or three pages long. "But in the early 1980s," he said, "we suddenly began to get seventy and eighty page works. These were usually space fiction, always very inventive and always extraordinarily fluent – a definite impression of a command of words and prose, but without exception strangely boring...."

In each case, the kid had composed the miniature magnum opus on a word processor.

"What’s happening," according to Hughes, "is that as the actual tools for getting words onto the page became more flexible and externalized, the writer [could] get down almost every thought or extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated."

Which sounds, come to think of it, somewhat like what Barthes called "Bic style." And quite a bit like the output of various academic presses it would be discrete leave unnamed.

Not that writers had to wait for the advent of the word processor to produce work that was (in Hughes’s terms) "extraordinarily fluent" yet "strangely boring."

Indeed, in the mid-1920s, Walter Benjamin gave practical tips to scholars who wanted both to impress their readers by clobbering them into a stupor. In a satiric chapter of One Way Street called "Principles of the Weighty Tome, or How to Write Fat Books," he laid out the principles that many still follow today.

"The whole composition must be permeated with a protracted and wordy exposition of the initial plan," Benjaim wrote. "Conceptual distinctions laboriously arrived at in the text are to be obliterated again in the relevant notes....Everything that is known a priori about an object is to be consolidated by an abundance of examples.... Numerous opponents who all share the same argument should each be refuted individually."

Benjamin himself never got an academic position, of course. Even so, good advice is timeless.  


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.


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