Composing the Moment, part 1

The paragraph is where writing happens. But exactly when does a paragraph happen? That’s the question that my approach to scholarly writing tries to answer — and to answer every day. It’s not that you have to write every single day, it’s just that you should answer the question every day, even if the answer is that you will not write anything. Crucially, you should know the answer yesterday. In this post, I want to try to unpack all this as straightforwardly as I am, at the moment, able. It’s going to take a few paragraphs.

Begin with two simple observations: every day comes to an end and tomorrow is another day. That’s just how it works in any particular location on this planet. If you’re living a reasonably orderly life, we can draw a sharp line between one day and the next, albeit one that necessarily ignores the rich experience of sleeping, dreaming, and waking. What we should not ignore is the evening. You should let your day end at what is sometimes called a “reasonable hour”. And what I mean by “let your day end” is simply that you should put down the burden of learning; you should recognize that you have reached a point, usually in the late afternoon or early evening, every single day, when you are not going to get any smarter. Tomorrow, you’ll start learning again, but at this point in your day you should admit that you will not acquire any more justified, true beliefs and not become any more conversant in your discipline until you go to sleep. Until then, you can relax.

Wherever you are, a lot things happen during the day, and, as students and scholars, much of it will in some way or other contribute to our learning. I won’t say too much about the variety of actions and events that make up our learning day, but for most of us it involves some combination of reading, thinking, talking, and listening that, when done right, satisfies our curiosity and makes us more knowledgeable. Notice that I’m leaving writing on the side for now. I want to distinguish it sharply from learning even though I know that it certainly contributes to your overall project of learning. I want to suggest that your writing, ideally, represents what you have learned, so you must do at least some of your writing after you have learned something. It’s that kind of writing I want to encourage you to find time for.

We have drawn a line between one day and the next, and another between the end of the “learning day” and the beginning of a “relaxing evening”. Doesn’t that sound nice? Doesn’t that sound like the life a scholar should live? Isn’t that what you promised yourself you were getting into? I’m not going to tell you how to spend your evenings. I’m going to leave that up to you, except to say that you should make sure that, on most evenings, you are actually relaxing, and not, let’s say, “attending” — a gathering of some kind, an all-night party, or concert, or rally. In the morning, you should feel rested. Enough said.

Just before you relax, I want you to prepare yourself for the next day’s writing. This is a crucial part of the writing moment. A writing moment is only a writing moment if you have prepared it the day before because you must tell your unconscious what you will be doing tomorrow. If your unconscious mind learns to trust that you will in fact write about what you said you will write about at the time you said you would, you will find that it shows up “composed” and ready to work, ready to deliver a coherent prose paragraph about something you know. I’m not promising you that this will happen right away, but, with time, you’ll be surprised at how fortune rewards what is, literally, the prepared mind of the writer.

Needless to say, you must choose to write about something that you actually do know something about. To this end, do not choose to write about something you learned today. There’s a good chance you’ll find out tomorrow that you still have something to learn about it. You might even discover in the moment of writing that you don’t know what you’re talking about at all. Instead, choose something that you knew already last week. You will learn better today if you are not under pressure to come up with something to write about tomorrow. Whether you learn something interesting today or not will not affect whether you’re going to write well tomorrow. You might not learn anything. You might make no progress at all. But tomorrow you will write about something you knew comfortably last week. And, no, I will not believe you if you try to tell me you didn’t know anything last week.

After your learning day is over, then, and before you begin to relax, take five minutes to decide what and when you will write tomorrow. First, take two minutes to call some objects of your knowledge to mind, some “things you know“. Confine yourself to one-, two-, or three-word names, don’t unpack them into descriptions or claims about these entities yet. Just make a list of, say, five things that you feel you could say something intelligent about in the company of another knowledgeable person, a peer. Then, spend three minutes writing some sentences you know to be true about them that you could use as a key sentence for a paragraph tomorrow. I’ll say more about what a key sentence is in tomorrow’s post about the actual writing moment. Knowing what’s coming, as you will learn from experience much better than you will from this blogpost, will increasingly help you get the most out of these five minutes. Finally, book 30 minutes into your calendar at the start of tomorrow, before your “learning day” begins anew. It should be the first intellectually challenging thing you do. Resolve to show up ready to work on your writing for that half hour.

Now you can relax.

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