Friday 25 September 2009

Forgetting the point: why do we write things?

At the end of a long week (the days are getting shorter at the most rapid speed of the year this week, somehow making the passage of time strangely disorienting), a few questions about reading and writing are sticking with me. I'm feeling curious about the ways that some of the most compelling motivations for writing become almost invisible or inaccessible to us as we write sometimes. The most frequent example I encounter in the experience of my students, my colleagues, and myself involves the fascinating transformation of something unknown into something known.

Perhaps you have experienced this apparently common phenomenon: you have been writing something, possibly even something in which you have been deeply engaged, genuinely exploring some interesting or vexing ideas, or perhaps grappling with some challenging textual problem or unruly thought. And then, just when you've figured it out and the writing in question becomes clear -- it loses interest. It seems hopelessly obvious. You wonder why you've wasted time with it -- and, perhaps more mysterious and more maddening, why you felt like it was so engaging at the time.

Writing in public about this transformation in the writing process seems like a good idea in part because my experience talking about it with people this week suggests that many people experience this sudden transformation in their work -- but that most decide the sudden loss of engagement is simply their own issue, or a failure of character (or a shortcoming of intellectual project) that they aren't sure they're comfortable thinking about, even if they should. Unfortunately, I suspect that many people assume that the switch from scintillating challenge to obvious bore suggests shameful shortcomings in their own intelligence (how could I have felt this project deserved so much thought? why was this so difficult, since I can see it so clearly now?). However, in fact, it seems to be a particularly unfortunate confluence of a few different qualities of writing. Two seem especially relevant.

First, it appears to illustrate the differential compulsion of the known and the unknown in writing. Writing is such a wonderful tool for exploring the unknown precisely because it charts terrain at the same time that this terrain comes into being -- we therefore can discover, coming into being before our very eyes, thoughts that were only recently unknown. However, especially in comparison to writing we use to discover and organize those thoughts at the very edge of what we have mastered, writing things we already know -- especially when we do so toward a completely known and prescribed end -- can tend toward drudgery. Exacerbating this preference for engaging the unknown above the known, the 'curse of knowledge' makes it difficult for us to even imagine not knowing something we already know -- even if we only just learned that thing, and even if that learning came about through the very text that now seems so old hat.

Thinking about Raymond's Wednesday post on curiosity about what other people read, this difficulty in connecting the selves that have already worked through something with the selves that are writing to explore something (with the desire to communicate about this something unknown with others that often accompanies the compulsion to write through it) seems like one of the reasons we so want to scan through that list of who's just read the library books we're checking out. (Or the books we're returning!) Unlike the conventional reading group conversations we have where we've all just read the same thing, there's a moment at the beginning or end of a book where we might crave a conversation with someone who stands in as a proxy of the me who has not yet read the book - or who has already read it - and who can therefore shed some light on any transformations the reading has effected. So carry on, I say, in that moment when it seems pointless to have just come to the point of clarity in writing. You can probably go back to a draft that will allow you to commune with the version of yourself that couldn't get there yet.

(And, perhaps better yet, leave post-it notes in library books for future readers.)


Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Valentine, for this very interesting post. I seem to remember that Nietzsche said something like, "As soon as I've written it down it's dead in my heart," but I have looked on Google and can't find the quote, so perhaps I am confabulating. In any event, I agree that the quest is sometimes more more engaging than the result. But what do you think of the opposite disease? For me this is that, as soon as I have written something, I find myself continuing to develop and revise it, and then keep on some more, and then some more. It's often a relief to send it off to whomever it should be sent off to, because then I can get on with something else.

Kirsten Valentine Cadieux said...

An interesting question, Keith -- I sympathize with this (all too much; this may be one of the most salient rewards of blogging: the requirement that it simply be done, and that one move on from the text). This Nietzsche semi-quote has sent me on a similarly fruitless quest for a Susan Sontag quote about how very many times she would rewrite essays. (In an interview with James Marcus, she called herself a “compulsive, or let's say fanatical, reviser.”) I will save all of the rest of the choice bits from this train of thought on fanatical revision to mull over and craft into a(n only mildly revised) homage post to Susan Sontag some day soon.

Matt Carland said...

from memory, the quote is:

"one no longer loves one's insight when one has communicated it"

(or something very much like that)

I'm pretty sure it was one of the aphorisms from BG&E

Kirsten Valentine Cadieux said...

Thanks, Matt. That's actually quite helpful -- not least because it reminds one to *communicate* the insight before falling out of love with it (not just to have it oneself, and then get over it).

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