Sunday, June 14, 2009

How I Write (and an opening paragraph)

Over at In the Middle a few days ago, Jeffrey linked to a couple of posts by Graham Harman on writing more productively. I skimmed them quickly, as you do, but two things stuck out. One, that there was a time for being disorganised, for procrastinating, for suffering writer’s block, and being morbidly self-defeating; and that was in your youth: by the time you became a practising academic, it was time to put all that behind you. And two: that the secret to being a good writer was to have an outline and write to it.

Well. I guess. The alternative view is more likely to be held by people like me, who don’t have a systematic approach to writing. I am one of those classic literary critics, even when I’m not writing about literature — as I find I’m not doing very much at the moment — who finds they don’t really know what they think until they have written about it. So the idea of an outline, for an essay, at least, doesn’t make much sense for me.

On the other hand, if I don’t have a method, what I do have is a tried and true practice, which I have learned to embrace and relax into, a bit, over the years.

Typically, these days, it starts with a commission (Harman makes this point: that as you get more senior, you are much more likely to be writing in response to such than generating all your work yourself), and a happy acceptance, because I think I might have a workable idea from something that came up in class one time; or a spin-off from something that doesn't fit into my current book project(s), projects which I am much more likely to have originated myself.

I usually start writing this bit of the essay quite soon, the bit I think will be the core of it, as I love having some drafted text to work from. At this stage, I’ll probably try and generate about 500 words a day: more sometimes comes, and that’s a bonus. I’ll also start writing what I think might be an opening page. This will often sound quite grandiose, as I try to make a framework for the idea that I think will be the heart of the essay. I’ll polish the opening couple of pages quite carefully, trying to set things up, not as an outline that will lead me to the conclusion (at this stage I really won’t know what the conclusion is); but more as a kind of map, or a framework.

Then as I get going, things start to slow down. I start to find counter-examples; I realise I haven’t read enough; I realise I can’t do it all from home and will have to go to the library; I realise this idea could actually make a whole book (see “grandiose”, above); and then as I write more and more sections, I start moving them around in the document, trying to get the right balance between theory and example.

At this point I will have to print it out, so I can see more clearly where I am going. First, I make sure there is a reasonable sequence of argument through the paragraphs. Typically, though, I’ll just let the pages sit on top of the printer, unable to bring myself to read them) while I dither around some more. This is the stage of despair, made bearable only by my recognition that this is almost always the way I write. (It’s similar for books, too, but on a larger scale.) And then I often find that the germ of the idea with which I began is actually not the heart of the essay. It was my starting-point, and my point of entry, but is not going to end up as the main argument. This is a seismic shift in my thinking, and makes me wonder if I’ll meet my deadline, but does give the writing and reading a new impetus, and makes me feel I am learning something, or thinking something new, which is a very good feeling to have when writing an essay.

When I really get down to reading the secondary and critical work more carefully, my own document is already pretty messy, but I have done this first stage myself, and so I feel more confident that I’m not just recycling other people’s work. If they agree with me, that’s great, and they go into the footnotes. But my hard-won frame, or map, is my own, and that makes it easier not to get overwhelmed by others.

At this point, if I’m lucky, I’ll find a new opening for the essay, which allows me to ditch the grandiose style, and enter more elegantly, but with the advantage of knowing more clearly where I’m heading. Then I can write through the essay, again and again, polishing the prose, not just for style (though I do love this part of it), but also making sure the vocabulary and structure of the discussion work.

Probably by now I’m still only about two-thirds of the way through, but the last third is easy, since I now know where I’m going. This is Harman’s point, of course. I’m just not in a position to write that outline at the very beginning.

Because I have re-written a lot as I’ve gone, the last stage of writing and revision is pretty quick, because I have found my voice and refined the conceptual vocabulary. And one thing has changed over the years: I am now much more likely to have written proper footnotes as I go.

With this essay I’m writing at the moment, I now have my opening. It doesn't always have to be a quotation, but this one was irresistible:

Someone had indeed had the happy idea of giving me, to distract me on evenings when I seemed abnormally wretched, a magic lantern, which used to be set on top of my lamp while we waited for dinner-time to come; and, after the fashion of the master-builders and glass-painters of gothic days, it substituted for the opaqueness of my walls an impalpable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colours, in which legends were depicted as on a shifting and transitory window.
In the “Overture” to Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel likens the effect of his magic lantern to that of medieval stained glass. The capacity of this pre-cinematic device to transmit coloured light, to tell stories, and to transfigure the materiality of his surroundings introduces one of the central problems of medievalism: how can we best make sense of the differences and the similarities between the medieval past and any given present? Marcel draws on the gothic past to describe the new invention, while at the same time lifting the “impalpable iridescence” and “supernatural phenomena” out of any medieval religious context, emphasising the play and movement of light and the lantern’s capacity to depict “legends”. Memories, here, are personal, cultural, and technological.

There's a bit more polishing of this opening to go; and I still have to write the last sections, on Vincent Ward and Stan Brukhage, but I feel close to making the deadline, which is Thursday. There are heaps of ideas and films I haven't talked about, and am seriously thinking I might write more on this topic at some point. Thanks to everyone for suggestions; they've been exceedingly useful, and I will try and make due acknowledgement in the essay. It's for an online journal, scheduled for publication later this year. If it's accepted, and all, I'll post a link when it's out.


Pavlov's Cat said...

That's a wonderful opening -- your whole argument seems to be curled up in it.

How differently we write -- though with equal amounts of pain, I see, and both with E.M. Forster's (I think) question in mind: How do I know what I think till I see what I say?

Kate said...

Fascinating to read about the different ways people write. My method is very similar to yours - I find I can't organize my thoughts in a coherent enough way to create an outline until I've actually written something. I start with a hunch, or the germ of an idea, and work from there.

It's reassuring to know that not everybody creates a solid plan at the outset and sticks to it - my graduate supervisor was one who did, and was often troubled by the 'messier' way in which I worked!

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

A little later in _Remembrance_ Marcel returns to the cathedral at Combray as a polychronic structure, associating the oldest parts with the darkest ("hiding the rough, savage eleventh century in the thickness of the walls, from which it appeared with its heavy arches plugged and blinded by crude blocks of ashlar only in the deep gash incised by the porch by the tower staircase, and even there concealed by the graceful Gothic arcades that crowded coquettishly in front of it ... plunging down with its crypt into the Merovingian night...") He goes on, with light being the thing that can turn the darkness into a fairyland, even if compared to Chartres the small church is wanting in stature and artistic beauty. Anyway, he is clearly obsessed with how light is part of the "fourth dimension, Time" as he puts it.

Not much on the stained glass per se though. I think the tedious M. le Curé says something about it a little later, when he talks about St Hilaire in the window. But that is not much.

But not to lose sight of the bigger project here, which is intriguing to say the least.