Some auto-ethnographic thoughts on the phenomenology of writing

How do you find time to write? I’ve become fascinated by this question in recent months. Implicit within it is an understanding of ‘writing’ which I’m coming to see as deeply problematic. It treats the creative activity of writing as a matter of temporal budgeting. But how much time does writing take? It obviously depends on what we mean by ‘writing’. According to the typing test I just took, my typing speed is 120 words per minute, which is pretty fast in population terms but not exceptionable for someone who has been touch typing for a long time. At this rate I could type an 80,000 word thesis in around 11 hours. Except I obviously can’t and not just because of the debilitating RSI that would no doubt ensue. In the touch typing test I’m transcribing from on screen text into an on screen text box. In my writing I’m creating something new. So what does that act of creation require? At its best, it relies on inspiration:

The notion of revelation – in the sense that suddenly, with ineffable assuredness and subtlety, something becomes visible, audible, something that shakes you to the core and bowls you over – provides a simple description of the facts of the matter. You hear, you don’t search; you take, you don’t ask who is giving; like a flash of lightening a thought flares up, with necessity, with no hesitation as to its form – I never had any choice.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Hommo, Pg 68 (Duncan Large translation)

I feel like this sometimes when blogging. In the past I’ve described it as thinking-through-writingAs I put it last summerthere’s a certain experience of immediacy and urgency in writing which has always been one of my most valued creative experiences: when an inchoate idea is at the forefront of your mind and the process of rendering and externalising it feels like one of the most natural (and important) things in the world. But this only seems to happen if I blog immediately. I grasp at the ‘feel of an idea’ and immediately begin to try and elaborate upon it, drawing out the form incipient within it (or less pretentiously: I put it into words straight away). This is when blogging is really fun. It’s also fast. When in the habit of doing this, I often find I can write a 1000+ word post in 30-45 minutes. But it’s the role of the habit here that I don’t entirely understand. Partly I think it’s a matter of routine. There’s something about immediately grasping an idea and giving it form which will tend to engender the experience of inspiration. Hearing and taking, rather than searching and asking. So perhaps it’s getting into the routine of responding to ideas in this way as and when you encounter them.

Last summer my enthusiasm for blogging suddenly and surprisingly deepened. I say ‘surprising’ because I’ve been blogging in one guise or another for over a decade. But I’d always seen it as a useful and interesting diversion, whereas I suddenly found it began to matter to me as a form of creative expression that I found intensely liberating, as I began to acclimatise myself to pursuing a career in the academy after an experiment in full time web editing that made me realise that being anything other than a sociologist would bore the shit out of me in the medium or long term. Blogging was a release from all the structural pressures corroding the creative impulse that had led me to wonder if I actually did want to be an academic. Embracing the lack of constraint attached to this blog (for me) and making it my main vehicle for intellectual exploration, which I guess it had been becoming anyway, helped me make my peace with the jumping through hoops that a modern academic career unavoidably entails. If I can write whatever the hell I want here then I come to feel better about subjugating what I want to write to instrumental considerations elsewhere.

In terms of more formal writing I’m an archetypal binge writer. Until recently, I’ve tended not to write for weeks at a time and then write flat out for one or two days. For a brief period of time I become utterly engrossed by what I’m writing. This absolute immersion in the task at hand tends to eliminate any propensity to self-censorship and I usually find I can write a great deal, often articulating new ideas and drawing out new connections, in a very short space of time. This worked hand-in-hand with a technique I picked up from a Bertrand Russell book years ago:

My own belief is that a conscious thought can be planted into the unconscious if a sufficient amount of vigour and intensity is put into it. most of the unconscious consists of what were once highly emotional conscious thoughts, which have now become buried. It is possible to do this process of burying deliberately, and in this way, the unconscious can be led to do a lot of useful work. I have found, for example, that if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic the best plan is to think about it with very great intensity – the greatest intensity of which I am capable – for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done. Before I had discovered his technique, I used to to spend the intervening months worrying because I was making no progress: I arrived at the solution none the sooner for this worry, and the intervening months were wasted, whereas now I can devote them to other pursuits.

Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness, Pg 49-50

So until recently I’d found writing largely unproblematic. I read, I blogged, I talked and every now and again a few thousand words would pour out of my brain in a way that was often quite enjoyable. Deadlines helped but they weren’t essential to this. The problem began when the process of trying tosqueeze too much into the rest of my working life (particularly a full time job, commuting from the midlands to london and setting up a training business) led to the rapid disintegration of this comfortable, albeit occasionally manic, routine of creative production. I made very little progress on my PhD for six months and struggled to get back into a writing groove, not least of all because I had to deal with my masses of data, which in a way I’m still not back into. Binge writing is unreliable: it’s a little scary how much time can elapse before you realise that you’ve not had a serious session of writing for a long time.

It’s because of this PhD delay, as well as my impending deadline, that I’ve been trying to force myself into a daily writing routine. Frankly, I hate it. It makes me self-critical about the intellectual content of my writing in a way I have never been before. Largely because I previously edited my work but didn’t assess it. I’d read it through, note points that needed developing or consider ones that should be removed. But these considerations were post hoc and practical, immediately feeding into the next stage or the next project, rather than leading me to say “this is shit” to myself. Forcing myself to sit down and write for a set amount of time every day completely takes the fun out of it. It leads me to try and write when the ideas aren’t ready to come out. The only occasional experience of inspiration I’ve had in this period has been when I’m working intensively, over and above the daily goal, to meet a deadline I’ve agreed with my supervisor.

So I can see that I’ve bounced from one writing extreme to the other. A complete draft of my PhD is days away (if that). I’ve then got a bit of work to turn a complete draft into a finished draft. After that I want to find some middle ground between my unreliably organic binge writing and this stultifying imperative to sit down and write every single day. But I’m not sure where that middle ground is. It involves inspiration. But does it involve habit? Or is what I’ve been thinking of as ‘habit’ actually a matter of attentiveness, recognising the potential emergence of inspiration and responding to in a way which gives it maximal expression? Perhaps it’s also a matter of cultivating the conditions necessary for this attentiveness? But what are they?

Edit to add: this post was an example of the experience I’m talking about. I’ve had these thoughts spilling around in my head all day. So when I sat down to articulate them, it took well under an hour. Whereas if I sit down for my ‘minimum of two hours daily work on my PhD’ it could easily take me twice as long to write half as much.


Categories: Outflanking Platitudes, Sociological Craft

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2 replies »

  1. Austin Kleon (http://tumblr.austinkleon.com/) has written a lot about the self-discipline of daily creativity. And while it seems a whole lot less romantic than the image of a passionate writer powering through the night by candlelight, it means you get stuff done regularly until waiting until inspiration comes.
    Gustave Flaubert said: ‘Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.’ So far it’s working for me 🙂

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