Critical Intellectuals on Writing

In 2003, the State University of New York Press published a collection of interviews called Critical Intellectuals on Writing, which received a handful of reviews, and sold a few hundred copies, but did not create much of a splash. That has always puzzled me a little. I’ve reread the book (or at least grazed around in it for a while) once or twice per year since it came out and found it, above all, a useful volume. It is a stimulant. It jump-starts my brain and provokes the urge to work.

It is not habit-forming, in the usual sense. But it is helpful for generating some perspective on one’s intellectual and writerly routines -- the first step towards forming new habits.

Critical Intellectuals on Writing contains excerpts from discussions with more than two dozen prominent figures in the humanities. You have Judith Butler and Richard Rorty; Donald Davidson and Luce Irigaray; Stanley Fish and lesser fishes. (A complete list is available here.) The transcripts originally appeared in JAC, which used to be known as the Journal of Advanced Composition. At some point the journal dropped that title while rebranding itself as “a forum for interdisciplinary inquiry into rhetoric, writing, culture, and politics.”

The volume’s editors are Gary A. Olson, who is now provost at Idaho State University, and Lynn Worsham, now a professor of English there. Their introduction makes a distinction between academic writing, which is “inherently conservative inasmuch as it seeks … to fulfill the relatively narrow and policed goals and interests of a given discipline or profession” and intellectual work proper, which they define as “relentlessly critical, self-critical, and potentially revolutionary.”

This passage was cited with interest by one of the few bloggers to have noticed Critical Intellectuals on Writing. I’m not about to rain on the parade of anybody who finds the distinction to be novel. If someone wants to use the book as a kind of introductory Whitman Sampler of critical theories, then that’s O.K. too. But to my mind, its value lies elsewhere.

Most of the interview extracts focus on composition -- the process of turning one’s ideas into words on a page. (Or hard drive, as often as not.) The exchanges usually begin with some variation on the question, "Do you think of yourself as a writer?" The discussions often go on to descriptions of work methods and reflections on how the act of writing and the process of thinking influence each another.

There are occasional bits of intellectual autobiography or rejoinders to what the interview subject may consider misreadings of his or her work. While sometimes interesting, they are not why I revisit the volume every so often. There are scores of books by and about most of these figures, but Critical Intellectuals on Writing is the only place you get a glimpse into their workshops.

The famous Paris Review interviews – running to several volumes, and now available online – did this sort of thing for novelists and poets, of course. But this may be the first time anyone has documented this many of the ceremonies dedicated to the lesser muses of theoretical prose and scholarly nonfiction.

I turn to Critical Intellectuals on Writing when my own productive routines seem to be collapsing or (worse) turning into a rut. This doesn’t mean I raid it for alternative methods or models to imitate, exactly. Rather, it is a matter of gaining energy from the accounts of how other people go about the work. Their reflections on the process -- including the moments of difficulty or perplexity – seem to recharge my own batteries.

Without claiming that it conveys the full depth or variety of the book, I'll offer a quick anthology of memorable passages.

The philosopher Donald Davidson recalls how a friend suggested that the way to write a paper was “to begin by asking a question that anybody could understand or by posing a problem in such a way that anyone would see that it was a problem.” He says he followed this approach for a long time and found it useful – but still finds himself getting tied into knots.

“I often imagine the first sentence,” he says, “and then ask myself, ‘Wait! What comes next?’ Pretty soon, I’m writing the whole paper in my head, and any problems in the composition or organization of the text stops me from writing the first sentence for fear that I would somehow be trapped. When I do finally write something, I often find that the first couple of pages, which usually sort of ease me into the subject, are better left out. So, I’ll throw away these painfully constructed early pages completely.”

Slavoj Žižek pursues exactly the opposite course in composing his psychoanalytic and philosophical writings. “I never write in my head,” he says. “I don’t begin with an entire line of thought in my head. I write in complex units – let’s call them ‘abstract units’ – in which each unit develops one line of thought, usually in three or four pages, and these units more or less correspond to the subchapter headings in my books. I simply write these units and then it’s a matter of how to combine them into larger units…. You can imagine how much I had to copy, cut, and paste – using scissors and tape – before personal computers, so PCs come in very handy.”

The linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky, who publishes a new book every other Thursday, indicates that he almost never sits down to plan one in any detail. When he decides to produce something, it is usually “because I’ve thought about most of it before, or lectured on it before, or written a letter to someone about it.”

The word processor had a transformative effect on his writing: “I discovered that there were a lot of things I could do that I’d never done before. For example, I’d never done much editing, simply because it was too much trouble; I didn’t want to retype everything. And I never did much in the way of inserting and rearranging and so on. Now I do a fair amount of that because it’s so easy. Whether that shows up differently for the reader, I don’t know. But I know I’m writing quite differently.”

Many of the interviews were conducted in the 1990s -- so the topic of how shifting to the use of computers has influenced the writing process tends to come up often. Today it will seem mildly antiquarian to read the account by J. Hillis Miller, the paleo-deconstructionist literary critic, of how he produced his early work:

“There was a period a long time ago,” Miller recalls, “when I wrote on a typewriter and then revised with a pen, writing things up and down the margins and on the backs of pages. Then there was a long period, essentially when I was at Yale, when I wrote longhand in notebooks. That allowed me to revise on the page and on the back of the page. (If you were to see those notebooks, you’d find them totally illegible.) Then I would read the manuscript onto a tape; it would be typed by a secretary; then I would revise it; and it would have to be typed again.”

For some reason the term “phallogocrat” comes to mind. Now he uses a Mac.

During a recent rereading of Critical Intellectuals on Writing, one set of reflections jumped out as especially interesting and suggestive. In it, the feminist philosopher Sandra Harding describes her strategy of writing with an eye to finding the toughest knots or obstacles in her own thinking.

"I usually start with an argument in mind – some view I’m criticizing, not necessarily an individual, but some assumption or some claim – and develop a little paragraph or argument.” She creates an outline, then prepares “little abstracts of the arguments in different sections, and then I start on whatever I think is the hardest section to write.”

This means going “from an abstract to an outline to say a six-page version of a forty-page paper, and then I pick whatever's the most problematic aspect – the thing that I can’t envision, that’s least clear to me – and I try to write that section up into, say, a ten-page version. (I am for a paper that’s at least fifty percent longer than what I’m going to have to end up with.) Then I go back and work with the other sections, kind of growing them up and keeping them in balance with each other…”

Putting the first draft aside for a few weeks, she may return to find that “the paper is not where I thought it was.” This means starting over. “My computer directory is full of these different versions of the paper,” she says, “and later I may go and take a paragraph or a section out of one after I’ve got the second paper well formulated.” This is not just composition by accretion but writing as process of discovery.

The novelist John Gregory Dunne once stated that "writing is manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe." There is something valuable about this sort of demystification. The interest of Critical Intellectuals on Writing is not that it defends "the pure good of theory" but that it respects the craft of plumbing. Or so it seems to me.

Two more final thoughts. As noted, the book was published in 2003. In the interim, the very nature of writing and publication have changed, and "composition" now can include building a website or collaborating in ways that go beyond earlier forms of co-authorship. If someone decided to prepare such a book in a few years, it might encompass very different sorts of conversations from these.

Meanwhile, I'll recommend the book to people trying to think about their own habits and attitudes about writing -- and point out that, after several rounds of purging my overcrowded bookshelves, it has survived. But then, that's also because Critical Intellectuals on Writing is not really available in e-book format. (It seems there was a PDF at one point, but that's not the same thing.) SUNY Press should consider this a hint.

Scott McLemee
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Revision and Patience

I've taught high-school and college writing for nearly 15 years now. And I've directed a university writing program for three. In that time, I’ve found countless risible examples of student writing. I try not to share these. But temptation occasionally gets the better of me.

Here's a gem from this past semester. A student in a required first-year course recently sought to explain what he had learned. (I require such a written explanation at the end of the semester.) He wanted to show that he grasped something about "presentation," a category including grammatical correctness and stylistic felicity. So he wrote: "My improvement in presentation has improves also, I’ve gone from writing long and confusing sentences, to writing more clear and readable ones."

This is like hearing a cologne-soaked man intone: "We should talk more about how I’ve stopped philandering, perhaps over a drink at my apartment." Nevertheless, I’d like for you to consider something. Something that I had to remember myself. Writing is different from casual romance in a very important regard: the writer gets to revise. And the revision erases the first performance altogether. Would that all were so.

Perhaps, in some teaching practicum or graduate seminar, you were exposed to the glory of composition pedagogy, so you know the glittering magic of process and the transformative luster of revision. Those of us in rhetoric and writing delight in such terms, so we readily forget that others aren’t so dazzled by their appearance. Allow me to illuminate.

The student mentioned above did write a poor sentence at an inopportune time. But I won't say that he learned nothing of grammar and style. Over the course of this semester, I watched as he wrote and revised several papers. The first drafts typically featured many sentences like the above. But subsequent drafts improved. As the class practiced editing techniques, as they learned a few choice grammar rules, I noticed that his ability to improve … well, improved. He got better at sentence-level revision. He learned to write concisely, clearly, and appropriately. Just not in the first draft.

By the way, the ability to revise for correctness and felicity improves all writing. It improves my writing. The second-to-last sentence in the paragraph above started out like this: "He really did learn to write clearer, more concise, and more readable prose." Then it became, "He did learn to write more clearly, more concisely, and more readably." Somewhere during the third iteration, I settled on a form but misspelled "learned”: "leared."

Even the writing teacher needs a chance to rewrite.

Since my students submit their materials in electronic portfolios, I can revisit various stages of their work. I can see evidence to support this student’s claim. His ultimately elegant expressions evolved from hideous, writhing syntactic monsters. Unfortunately, he did not have an opportunity to reconsider the sentence quoted above. While professing his ability to revise for style and grammar, he could not revise for style and grammar.

And so, this end-of-the semester self-evaluation that I require of my students is a cruel little puzzle with no satisfactory solution. This is like evaluating a professional dancer’s merit based on an impromptu oration that describes his most recent and successful performance. Or evaluating an orator based on an interpretive dance version of her best speech. Perhaps the impropriety under investigation is not stylistic but pedagogical, not my student's but mine.

It's easy to chuckle at a single sentence, easy to focus on what's written and to overlook the writing. Good writing instruction, as you may have heard, requires attention to process and opportunity to revise. Or so a diligent, though not initially eloquent, student reminds me.

Mark Longaker
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Mark Longaker is associate chair of the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin. He is grateful for his student’s patience and permission to reprint the quote in this article.

The Facebook Mirror

I have one of the world’s greatest jobs. I teach writing to college students. In my off-hours, I listen to complaints about student writing: They can’t spell, write a complete sentence, or use commas appropriately. Often these complaints are accompanied by an invitation to identify the villain(s) responsible for this catastrophe. Television, e-mail, texting -- I may choose one or all three.

This year, in an effort to spice up a few dinner parties, I’ve identified a new candidate for the Hall of Literacy Villainy, and in doing so, throw stones at two favorite demons of civilizations: pop culture and computers. This year I nominate the Hollywood darling Facebook.

Facebook presents far more danger than the cultivation of lowercase first-person "i"s and emoticons :). The real threat posed by Facebook is not that it ruins writers' ability to punctuate or encourages them to replace words with pictures. The problem with Facebook is that it nurtures one of writing teachers' greatest foes -- the teenage fantasy that writers write only to themselves and to those who are just like them.

Although Facebook is properly classified as "social software," it is more accurately categorized as mirror-ware, a whole new kind of social that consists only of us and our self-projections. And it is that mirror, that seductive invitation to reflect us and only us back to ourselves that damns us.

On Facebook, we post pictures to represent ourselves: our best, shiniest, toothiest, happiest/sexiest ponderer/wanderer/adventurer. The fairest ones of all. Or we post some other person or object as icon. Puppy, baby, six-year old self. The poor person’s version of identity airbrushing. To deepen the portrait, we post our status, likes and dislikes — bananas, skiing, taxes — and photo albums of grand vacations, graduations and celebrations. To our walls we announce opinions, as they come. What we find good, stupid, evil, sexy.

Facebook writers expect homogeneity from their audience. All readers read the same observation, and insights in the same way, regardless of who they are, what they know, what they need to know or even what they seek. Facebook writers do not select, shape or color moments and thoughts for particular readers. They trade the pleasure of imagining the absent reader for the imagined adoring gaze of selves. And they expect their friends to "like" their posts, pictures etc. immediately, and to shower them publicly with praise.

With Facebook, we don't need to explain why Obama should be elected or gays shouldn't be allowed to marry or a hundred seagull photos merit viewing. If birds bore our friend Gerard, too bad. If Gerard didn’t vote for Obama or has a male partner, that’s too bad, too.

Although our Facebook friends include those we haven't seen in years, decades, even, we can pretend that they share our experiences, our views, and our general disposition towards life. No justification, no explanation.

On Facebook we never think outside the four walls of the self, and we need never imagine readers different from us. We expect neither argument nor curiosity nor challenge. Just a thumbs up or down.

Teachers spend years working to broaden students' intellectual worlds beyond their own virtual backyards. We challenge them to discover ideas that come from individuals who might be very unlike them; people they would never conceive of friending, or if asked to friend would be more than likely to ignore. Or who don't have computers.

So is Facebook truly the new scourge of writing? Maybe not. Like all tools of such ubiquity and power, Facebook must be recognized for what it is — a medium that invites carefully polished reflections of our favorite self. But writers generally write for readers other than that self. We need, then, to provide contexts that allow our students to know and consider those readers. How often do we ask students to hear, read and truly understand a viewpoint different from their own? How often do we expect them to think of someone, anyone, other than themselves? The ability to imagine a perspective other than our own — the idea of an audience consisting of curious minds rather than adoring fans — defines our most effective writers.

Technology is not the smooth broom sweeping the art of writing across the threshold of death. The placing of blame often, if not always, is a means of self-exculpation that renders us powerless. If in reading their words we find that our young people have no sense of others beyond and/or different from themselves, we should supply them with that sense.

Brutus, dear, the fault lies not in our Facebook stars.

Lisa Lebduska
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Lisa Lebduska is associate professor of English and director of college writing at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.

Critiquing, Defending Academic BS

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Composition scholars consider whether their language and tone alienate the public -- or raise tough issues.

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Freshmen at Brown had no idea that anyone other than their academic advisers would be reading what they wrote, but their letters were being evaluated by writing instructors.

Choose Your Own Freshman Comp

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Words From Wartime

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For veterans in college, “writing what you know” is not so simple.


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