“The great learning is rooted in watching with affection the way people grow.”
This week, I discovered my reader. As an author, the book I’m working on is my job. I am by no means just an author, and it is not actually what pays the bills, but this book does occupy my attention, puts me to work for an hour every morning. It is meaningful work because my attention is directed at a subject I care about, but it was already clear to me before taking up the project again that, at the beginning, I would be struggling with something very central: my image of the reader. It’s a book about academic writing, so my reader would obviously be an “academic”, but what does this really mean, and what do I think of academics? How do I actually feel about my reader?
I’ve always wanted the book to be as useful to scholars as it is to students. That is, I don’t want to describe “academic writing” differently when I talk to students and when I talk to scholars. Academic writing is always writing for your peers, whether they are colleagues or classmates. But what do I really mean when I say this? How are they connected? I don’t want to give too much away, but I think I came up with something useful this week. Academics are knowledgeable people and knowledge comes from learning. Students are learners; scholars are learnèd. But this does not mean that students don’t know anything, nor that scholars don’t still have a lot to learn. That is, I am writing for people who know a great deal but who are also learning. And I want to show them how writing can support this project.
A book employs an author but implies a reader. It “implicates” the reader in the author’s project and the author can lose the reader by implying things that the reader cannot identify with. There is always a danger that my readers will feel that I think they are ignorant or stupid, or cowardly or lazy. The truth is that I think they are. But only because, like me, they’re human. I have a great affection for them. We can always do better and becoming a better writer is a kind of self-improvement. The challenge of a book like this is to invite the reader to grow without insulting them. It’s going to take some work.
This is going well. I’ve been spending an hour every morning writing roughly four paragraphs (around 800 words). I’m giving myself some rather open tasks and letting my writing flow somewhat freely for now, and my plan for next week is to put myself under a bit of pressure. I’m going to try to write a thousand words a day, disciplined by five key sentences. Since the ideas I’m writing about are very familiar to me, and I’ve now got a good sense of my pace, I am giving myself an hour and a half to do it. Basically, 15 minutes per paragraph, so about half the time I would normally recommend for a writing moment.
Some of it will be rewriting things I’ve been working on over the past two weeks. If I’m lucky (and good) I will have drafted a 5000-word chapter of my book. It’s a book I imagine as consisting of five such chapters, framed with a 3000-word introduction and a 2000-word conclusion, so 30,000 words in all. It will be called simply How to Write Papers. I’ve been promising it it for years and it has only recently become clear to me why I haven’t finished it. Hopefully it will become so clear to me next week that all the remaining barriers will be gone.
Then I will try to say something less cryptic about it too.
This week I started back in on a book I worked seriously on two summers ago and then abandoned for a while. My goal for now is to produce a draft chapter for the core of the book. I’m aiming for roughly 6000 words about the nature of academic writing. The book itself is to be a “how to” book for writing papers that will, I hope, be equally useful to first-year students and full professors. The trick is to define “academic writing” in a way that emphasizes the similarities between students and scholars.
The first week went quite well. I’m writing for an hour every morning between 7:00 and 8:00. I’ve written about 3000 words, but not in a sense that constitutes 15 or 20 discrete paragraphs. (Technically, I’ve only had time to write 10 x 27 minutes.) Some of the words make up paragraphs that are, as it were, second attempts at paragraphs. I’ve written a paragraph and then rewritten it within a single writing moment, or I have written one that was way too long and split it into two, keeping both for now to decide what to do with them later. At this rate, I’ll have twice the 6000-word goal before Christmas. Then I’ll have to read it through and reduce it to 30-40 paragraphs, i.e., 30-40 claims that I think are true about writing in an academic context.
I like the way it feels to work on the book this way. I’m saying things that I’ve known comfortably (or at least confidently believed) for some time, and which I have of course lectured and written about (here) often before. I’m working from the center of my strength for an hour every morning it. It’s a good way to start.
Unaffected by “the march of events,”
He passed from men’s memory in l’an trentiesme
De son eage; the case presents
No adjunct to the Muses’ diadem.
Ezra Pound, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley
The year I turned thirty, when I was studying “thought translation” in Tübingen, I took the time to read some philosophy in German. In the bookstore, I was seduced by the plainly printed editions of individual essays, like the Günther Neske “opuscula” series “aus Wissenschaft und Dichtung”, in which I read Heidegger’s Die Frage Nach der Teknik. I also bought the Klostermann Texte edition of Edmund Husserl’s Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft. Long before reading it, Ezra Pound had taught me about Basil Bunting’s formula “dichten = condensare,” which he discovered, we are told, when he was “fumbling about with a German-Italian dictionary,” and let’s imagine that, as I walked along the Neckar, past Hölderlinturm let’s say, after fumbling with a dictionary of my own, the words “Philosophie als strenge Dichtung” came to me. You can believe that or not, but you can look the next thing up yourself. Husserl’s essay consists of 97 paragraphs, numbered in the margins, which filled 50 pages of Logos when it was originally published in 1911. The 1965 Klostermann edition includes a “content analysis” that provides a condensed, one-sentence* summary of each paragraph. Enough said.
This is the last of twenty deliberate paragraphs that I planned to write, one a day, over the past four weeks. Before that, I had written a spontaneous daily blog post — less structured and less disciplined. Both experiences have, of course, been instructive. Over the next four weeks, I will be writing two paragraphs during an hour every morning. My goal with this process is to write about 6000 words towards a book for students and scholars about how to write papers. This time, however, I will not be posting my work daily to the blog. Instead, I will write a weekly blogpost about the process.
*Since I dared you to look it up, I should probably come clean that “one sentence” is a bit of a stretch. It’s how I prefer to remember it — as a key sentence outline.
His true Penelope was Flaubert,
He fished by obstinate isles;
Observed the elegance of Circe’s hair
Rather than the mottoes on sun-dials.
Ezra Pound, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley
In his ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound suggested that “poetry remained an inferior art until it caught up with” Flaubert’s prose. Following Stendhal, he argued that prose, not “poetic ornament,” is the best medium “if you are trying to give a clear and exact idea of the ‘mouvements du coeur‘; if you’re trying to show what a man feels, you can do it only by clarity” (p. 97). This way of putting it probably inspired Hemingway’s idea that a story is a “sequence of motion and fact” that represents the emotion that the writer is trying to convey. It also resonates with Eliot’s idea that a play must provide an “objective correlative” for a character’s feelings, and philosophy can be considered an art in precisely that sense, except that what it correlates are concepts, not emotions. Early on Wittgenstein said you could do philosophy simply by arranging a series of scientific propositions, i.e., by showing the reader what it is “possible” to say, what makes “logical” sense. Philosophy, we might say, is trying to occasion, not the movement of the heart, but the stillness of the mind.