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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Plenitude and Privacy

[This post is by Thomas Basbøll]

It seemed like a good idea at the beginning but I've decided to abandon my summer writing project. I don't, normally, recommend dropping a plan like this. (And even reasserted this philosophy when I began to feel doubt.) For one thing, it makes you less resolute in your future planning every time you show yourself that a plan is not really binding. That's why the most important plan is the little plan you make from day to day. That's the one you really must keep.

But planning to write for 9 hours (18 paragraphs) over two weeks, or 20 hours (a whole journal article) over, say, forty days, is also "realistic" enough that, once the plan is made, you should try to follow through even if it feels like a waste of time. It can feel that way because your goals change or because you adjust your assessment of how much you know. Always remember that the primary purpose of each writing session is to become a better writer. In that sense, the time is never really wasted.

Sometimes, however, you may feel that what are you doing when writing is actually wearing you down. Sticking mechanically to the plan becomes like running the last half of Haruki Murakami's 100 km marathon. You may live to regret going through with it. This shouldn't happen, of course, if you are writing only 27 minutes a day in a frame of mind that says you're only writing a first draft or only writing for practice. But if you see each writing session as a public "performance" of your ability to write, one that you are essentially committed to publishing on completion, then you will experience the writing session very differently. This will put a strain on your prose that may not be sustainable.

And that's why my plan was not really exemplary. I had committed myself to making each paragraph public immediately after I had written it. In a sense, this is a familiar experience for me—most of my blog posts are written in about 30 minutes in the morning and posted at a pre-specified time. But these are "just" blog posts. What I was doing here was committing myself to composing a coherent paragraph about something I know, intended for an academic audience, and knowing that it is one fourtieth of the final result.

Moreover, I would also have to try to be "exemplary" in my writing. The pressure to perform in public was originally exhilarating, but quickly produced a profound weariness. The only thing worse would have been to put my writing under video surveillance, i.e., committing myself to posting not just the paragraph but a screen recording of the 27 minutes that produced it. I was not so much writing as speaking. But with a (self-imposed) obligation to a level of clarity that we never ask of speech.

I sometimes compare writing to "bullet time" as imagined in the Matrix films. Writing does not happen in "real time". A paragraph that takes a minute to read will have taken any amount of 27-minute writing sessions to produce. The words are arranged in a careful manner that speech could never achieve. The reader then just lets each word pass through their minds, exactly as you have planned it. Every time you write you are in principle "merely drafting" because you can always go back and change it before communicating the text to anyone else. That possibility, and writing with an awareness of it, just is the experience of writing. It is "the privacy of your own mind".

It is the basis of Barthes' "freedom" and King's "telepathy". The first isn't absolute and the second is only metaphorical but the experience is convincing because of the enormously disproportionate distribution of resources. The reader will take one minute to read something that the writer had at least an hour but actually an indefinite amount of time write. I was giving myself only 27 minutes to pull off something that needed much more time. I was trying to do it without that sense of an indefinite (if not finally infinite) amount of resources. A very important aspect of the writing experience was getting lost. It is the sense that there is plenty of time.

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