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Writing is Thinking: Writing as a Way of Life in the Academy

The first part of a two-part writing event and workshop sponsored by the Center for Philosophy, Arts and Literature (PAL), The Thompson Writing Program, and the Graduate School was held on Friday, January 28, 2011. Titled “Writing as Thinking: Writing as a Way of Life in the Academy,” the event was designed to help graduate students and new Ph.D.s in the humanities and social sciences with the perennial problems of crafting research and writing in a sustainable manner. Duke University presenters included Toril Moi (Literature, Romance Studies,Theater Studies, PAL), Kristen Neuschel (History, Thompson Writing Program), and Sarah Beckwith (English and Theater Studies). Invited speakers included Nancy Bauer (Philosophy, Tufts University), Bernard Rhie (English, Williams College), and Aaron Sachs (History, Cornell University). The second part of event will be held on Friday, April 8, 2011. Invited guest speakers include Joan Bolker, author of Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day. The text of Professor Toril Moi’s remarks on January 28 is printed here.


Writing, the process of writing, getting down to doing it: it is crucial in our working life, as students, graduate students, teachers and intellectuals, and yet we talk about it too little. That is why I wanted to devote PAL’s second young scholars workshop to the process of writing. I am thrilled to have such brilliant colleagues share their wisdom with you, and honored to be able to join my voice to theirs. I also want to alert you to part II of this workshop: In the morning of Friday April 8 the psychologist and writing teacher Joan Bolker, author of the book Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day will give an open writing event on the process of writing. You are all welcome to return then!

I’ll address two points and illustrate them with examples from my own writing life. I am of course leaving out a huge number of things. For example: finding a topic you love, writing about things you care about, questions of tone, style and flow, and, not least, questions arising for those of us who are not native speakers of English. But all that will have to be left for another time. First briefly, as bullet pointed headlines:

BEWARE OF THE FANTASY OF THE CLEAR DAY. Let alone the clear week or month. And don’t go overboard with the dream of the clear desk, either.

KNOW YOURSELF. Realize that to write about intellectual and academic matters is a creative process in its own right. The difference between creative and non-creative writing has nothing to do with the difference between novels and essays. (ASIDE: You can learn a lot from advice for fiction writers, as long as you apply what the books say about “character” and “plot” to your needs: for example “ideas”, “examples”, “data” and “arguments.” Also: Even a dissertation needs a plot.)

Get to know and accept your writing process. Study yourself. Watch yourself trying to get ready to write, watch yourself writing. Watch yourself in the same way that Freud listened to his analysands: with “evenly suspended attention.” Call that a Zen attitude if you prefer. Don’t beat up on yourself. Accept yourself. Just figure out what you are like as a writer, and see what you can do to become a better writing starting with what you know about yourself. You can’t become a different person, but you can become a better writer. You write as the person you are. You can’t change yourself into someone else for the purpose of writing. As a process, writing has much in common with psychoanalysis: you need to have faith in the process of writing, be convinced that however bad it feels on some days, if you stick with it, patiently, regularly, something good will come of it. If you don’t have that faith, writing will be unbearably frustrating.


That was the short overview. Now I’ll return to my two points, this time with autobiographical illustrations.

BEWARE OF THE FANTASY OF THE CLEAR DAY. Let alone the clear week or month. And don’t go overboard with the dream of the clear desk, either. You’ve already got the message from my colleagues: write every day. But don’t despair if you can’t get to it one day. Just pick it up again the next day.

I can’t tell you how hard it has been for me to heed this advice in my own life. The problem for me was that I suffered, really badly, from the dream of the clear day, and the clear desk. I couldn’t write unless I had finished off every other task first: teaching prep, grading, administration, phone calls, emails, and even the filing. Not only did my desk have to be clear, my day had to be clear too. The very existence of an appointment at 1:30 p.m. threw me off my concentration for the whole morning: it introduced a tension in my head, a fear of interruption. Moreover, the dream of the clear desk and the clear day tended to morph into procrastination. I couldn’t write if I hadn’t done the dishes, the grocery shopping, the laundry. In fact, when I knew I was going to have to begin an important piece of work (a new chapter, a major essay), I would suddenly begin to feel that I had to polish the two silver candlesticks I own. Or alphabetize my bookshelves. As a result I became fearsomely well organized, got everything done on deadline, and was on top of all the busy work Duke threw my way. Moreover, the closer I got to having to write, the more spotless my house became.

The problem was that all this made me extremely frustrated. Although I thought of writing as the most important part of my work (alongside teaching), in practice I was behaving as if it were less important than answering emails from the administration, or from anyone else, or even just deleting junk emails. I ended up feeling as if I never worked, although I actually worked all the time. This was because I secretly defined writing as my “real work” and everything else as what I had to get out of the way to get to the real work.

If you have an enormous capacity for work, you may be able to live like this and still get some writing done. I certainly did for quite a while. It is particularly easy to do this as a graduate student, for, believe it or not, most graduate students aren’t as overwhelmed with demands on their time as they will be later. But it means that you’ll be defining most of your life as that which prevents you from writing, and that you’ll become unbelievably unpleasant to anyone who dares to break into the jealously guarded “clear day.” And most importantly: there will come a time, if you are lucky, that you have so many tasks to deal with, and so much to do, that you will never ever get a clear day again. Something has to give. You have to give writing the priority it deserves in your life: the first thing you do every morning. Every day. Even if it only is for an hour, or half an hour, or just a few minutes. If you can do this, you will feel that you are writing and living.

After much struggle, I have managed to become less punctual with my bureaucratic duties. I now live with overdue reports, and don’t always answer email the same day, or even the same week. I have discovered that if I leave some emails for long enough, they become irrelevant. (As I am talking about email here, let me add an aside: I could write a whole separate paper on electronic distractions. You sit down to write. You just need to look up a date online. For example the year in which Hegel died. Before you know it, you have spent three hours finding out everything there is to know about cholera epidemics in Europe in the early nineteenth century. Except that you actually are writing about Hegel’s view of the family. The iPad makes it possible to do this anywhere. Let me tell you right away: It is impossible to multitask while writing. Nothing good will ever come of it!)—Back to my point. I am also, I have to confess, sometimes late on writing deadlines. In short: I have completely given up on the fantasy of the clear day. The fantasy of the clear desk is still with me, but I have figured out how to limit its hold on me. I still can’t write with a very messy desk (I mean messy with other things; when I write, the writing fills my desk completely), but I solved the problem by developing strategies (shelves, files, inboxes) for making the undone work look neat, and be out of the way. And I always know what’s in the undone work pile, for otherwise I get anxious. As if the pile might hide a paper monster that could leap out and eat me.

I had to learn this since, foolishly, I agreed to write a lot. I ended up having so many deadlines for so many different things that I simply had to write every day. I learned from this. First of all I learned that deadlines are good. They make you write. They make you sit down to write every day. I also learned that if I do write every day, I not only write more easily (believe me: there is a writing muscle: exercise it and it will get supple and strong) and I get to do the work I care about most every day. That is a privilege. But it is a privilege most of us are in a position to give ourselves. All it takes is getting up in the morning and sitting down to write.


KNOW YOURSELF. You have already heard one thing I have learned about myself as a writer. Namely that I procrastinate by dreaming of a clear day and a clear desk. But this is about what happens before you get to the point that you sit down and write. You also need to know something about the kind of writer you are, the kind of process you have to go through to produce a finished piece of writing. So let me say it again: Get to know and accept your writing process. Study yourself. Watch yourself writing. But do it without judgment. Just discover what you do, and trust that if you let the process take its course, it will produce results.

I began writing without much self-awareness. But over the years, as my writing projects became more ambitious, at least in the sense that they became more difficult for me to do, I would begin to feel that I was drowning in my own project. I would write page after page with perfectly good points or examples or analyses, except that I couldn’t actually see what plot they were supposed to be a part of. Or rather, I could all too easily imagine many different ones. Which one was mine? How would I ever transform this tangled web of bits of writing into something like a beautiful weave? Add it to the clear day fiction, and it was disastrous: when I finally got to my one clear day, all I could do was to entangle myself even more deeply in an undefined morass. This would be painful, to say the least.

Over the years, however, I learned to watch myself, and be more patient with myself. I have discovered that I am at once a highly analytical and highly lateral thinker. (You may of course be a totally different kind of writer: the point is to figure out what you are like and work with that.) The analytical part of me is quick to take an argument apart, see its underlying assumptions and find out what’s at stake in it. On the other hand, I am a strongly lateral thinker in the sense that one idea quickly leads me to another, which leads me to another, which suddenly lands me in a place I never thought I’d go. This has its creative advantages, but combined with my analytical side it regularly produces the same painful consequences. When I write I often feel as if I have taken a car engine apart, spread all the parts neatly out in my front yard, and then associated a string of disparate ideas – like a string of flags or Christmas decorations – to each of the hundreds of parts. It feels overwhelmingly chaotic. How will I ever build anything out of this? What do I want from all this stuff? What do I want to say? Why on earth did I get myself into this mess in the first place?

I used to beat up on myself for being so slow to figure out what in fact I was writing about. Now I realize that this is my process. If I stick with it, sooner or later something will emerge. It’s just going to be painful, at times. And it will always – always – take much longer than I think it will. When I am in desperate straits, I think of Flaubert, who complained bitterly of the drudgery of writing an interminable tome about an endlessly boring topic. It took him six and a half years. But the result was Madame Bovary. The example is a little lopsided though: it’s not as if my everyday academic writing will ever be Madame Bovary. Yet it cheers me up anyway.

The number of drafts I go through is astonishing. I literally can’t count them: until it’s very close to finished the whole paper is in a state of flux, in which some sections are rewritten dozens of times, and others simply disappear. I write page after page until I realize that they address a completely different problem from the one the previous three pages addressed. Sooner or later I have to choose which direction I actually am interested in. One section or the other gets cut and put in a “scrap” or “outtakes” file, and I have to begin again, from a different angle. I have a strong tendency to see connections that can’t possibly be explored properly in one paper. I am working on a paper now, for a collection co-edited by Bernie Rhie, actually, which started as a talk that connected three things: the question of literature and philosophy; the question of the Other, and the rather striking parallels between Simone de Beauvoir and Stanley Cavell in relation to these questions. Now, many months later, I realize that the original paper was a hopeless tangle. How could I have presented that mess in public! Yet the paper was well received. Many people told me that they liked it. The lesson one learns from this is that other people are often far less critical than oneself.

And I did have faith in the underlying intuitions in the paper. The sense that there is something there worth talking about. This is crucial, for it makes one keep working on the recalcitrant material. So I kept working on this particular paper. As a result I have reached the point that I have (a) written a separate paper about the concept of the Other in Simone de Beauvoir, (b) have almost finished (Bernie will be pleased to hear this) a paper on literature and philosophy, particularly focused on Cavell and ordinary language philosophy, with only a brief comparison with Beauvoir and (c) have two-thirds ready a paper on Simone de Beauvoir, literature and philosophy.

For me, writing is definitely thinking. It is only when I try to put my ideas down on paper that I begin to realize how incoherent they are, and what it will take to make them even remotely interesting. Writing helps me to see what I think, and to think more than I would if I didn’t write my ideas down. Writing helps me to structure my ideas, for it is impossible to write laterally or three-dimensionally: One paragraph actually has to follow another, just as one sentence has to follow another. Which means that as I try to string my paragraphs together, I begin to realize what follows and what doesn’t follow from my initial idea. I begin to see where I need to go deeper, where I need to do more research, and I begin to see which lines of thought are dead ends for me in relation to my project.

Every time I write something new I have to go through this process. It always makes me think that there is something fundamentally wrong with my brain. I am convinced that there are writers out there who sit down and immediately begin to write beautiful sentences which effortlessly add up to beautiful and well formed essays and books. Since I am not such a writer, I should just give up immediately. What’s so important about writing anyway? Who reads academic books these days? It is time to focus more on my teaching. I have such thoughts. But I don’t let them take over. On better days I realize that it is always worth saying something that is true, and thoughtful. Something that will be of use to someone else. If you think it’s interesting, other people will too. If you have no faith in your own project, you are unlikely to inspire others to see the interest. So you must have faith. In my case, I observe my habitual negative thoughts, recognize them, and get back to writing wayward thoughts that will need to be cut later. I can do that for I have learned to trust the process.

How does one learn to trust the process? Above all by forcing yourself to complete things: term papers, book reports, conference papers, panel presentations: everything counts as long as you finish it. Deadlines help. The more you write, the more you’ll be convinced that you can actually do it. To trust the process is to accept that you are the kind of writer you are, and develop a way of working that builds on that.

In my own case, I have learned that if I stick with it, if I write a little every day, if I continue to produce dozens of files filled with outtakes and irrelevant materials, then one day my pathetically ugly duckling will become a swan. Maybe not the most glorious swan in the pond, but a perfectly good swan of its kind. Or maybe it will become three swans. Writing is thinking, but it is alchemy, too.