Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Forests and trees (once more unto the breach)

I've been writing a fair about lately, but not so much in the blog. Partly this is because I've been finding it hard to find things to write about that I haven't written before.

One thing I've been thinking about doing, is to look back at my past posts and maybe do some digests or archives or indexes--something that would help look at the past writing.

I've written about forests and trees in different ways.
Recently I was thinking about how, in a way, the written object is just another tree in a larger forest. As I write, I see that that metaphor will work in (at least) two ways, but I will focus on just one: the written object, is only part of a larger process or program ("partial fulfillment of the requirements").

I had a query from a writer: "Can you help with my dissertation?" I asked to see the dissertation and to have some explanation of the situation in the program: what was the relationship with the committee? Had anyone read the draft? What kind of work was called for?

Any written work serves an audience. We have to see and imagine the work with respect to the audience. The work is just one tree in a forest of discourse, if you will.

I have previously talked about forests and trees with respect to seeing the scope of the entire written work, and not focusing too much on any specific part, especially not without showing how that part relates to the others. For example a single chapter is very different when conceived in a vacuum as when conceived as serving a specific rhetorical purpose within a larger structure.

We can see a different level of forests and trees: just as a paragraph belongs in the context of a section of a work, and a section belongs in a chapter, and a chapter belongs in the work entire, so, too, can we see as the specific work as belonging to a larger collection of discourse. It needs to fit within that discourse.

To shape your work to suit a specific discourse or a specific audience is not the same as selling out. I'm not talking about being a Marxist and saying "I think Marx is all wrong," just for the sake of getting your necessary signatures. That's selling out. I won't rule out the possibility that selling out is a wise choice, but it's not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is you having an idea, and also someone that you want to explain the idea to, so that they understand what you're talking about. Would you try to explain that idea to all people in the same way? Of course not.

Your written work is going to be placed into a context--a forest. And that context is not limited to a context of the ideas being explored. The context includes the practical considerations of filing a dissertation, of writing and revising one, of working with the committee to move towards cooperation and completion.

When you, as a writer, engage in writing, it can be very helpful to consider where in the process you are, and what the steps you are going to take will be. It can help focus effort. An obvious example is with feedback: you have a draft that you have to revise. Do you have any feedback yet? If not, then one kind of revision is appropriate. If you do have feedback, of course, the revision should be guided by the feedback you have.

The dissertation does not stand alone. To say only "I need to work on my dissertation," doesn't recognize that there is a context in which you are working: what kind of work, for whom, and to satisfy what end?

This pragmatic view--it must be noted--is characteristic of the lives of many who are considered great artists. The Van Goghs of the world, whose greatness is acknowledged despite the creator's lack of ability to promote it him/herself, are rare. More often one finds the Picassos, the Hemingways, etc. who pursued publication, who found editors to publish them, who completed work, etc. Who, in short, managed the practical aspects of the process.

The notion of a "pure" academic work that just presents the truth and is therefore universally applicable, is nice but it's naive. Whatever the "truth" in question, it would have to be presented differently to a child than to an adult, differently to an atheist than a fundamentalist, differently to a Marxist than to a post-structuralist. Different people understand the world, and words, in different ways. If you assume that all people will respond the same way to all words, then you will be surprised often. Instead, see that your writing fits into a context, and then let that context help guide the decisions you make.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sometimes it's not as bad as you imagined

I actually read an article on the internet some time ago about how our anticipated responses to events are often very different than our actual responses--I wish I could remember the details, it seems like it would be nice--right about now...

speaking of things I read that I've lost touch with--there was an article on doodling and how it can actually help you remember--I was thinking about that while listening to some music and editing. But I digress...

Sometimes it's not as bad as you imagine. Once I was working with a writer who was hoping to get re-admitted to his program. The first step was to submit a draft for his thesis (it was all he had left). We worked together to get that draft together. As of the last draft I saw, I thought he was on the right track--he made one revision after I last saw it, and submitted it. One of his professors expressed willingness to accept the draft as thesis, unchanged. Sometimes things are just easier than you would expect.

I had a similar experience recently--but I don't want to tell that story until a little more of it has been written.

Still, it's a nice thing to remember. We often anticipate great difficulty or stress, but it is the anticipation that is the real problem; when the moment arrives, it is not as difficult as we feared.

As writers many of us get paralyzed with fear at the response we might get--"Oh, my advisor doesn't like Marxists, so if I use this theorist I'll get in trouble"--If you let that fear stop you from writing what you believe, then you're in much greater trouble, because it's damn hard to write what you think, and it's even harder to try to write what you think someone else wants you to think. And, it's not as bad as you think: if you have used a theorist carefully and elegantly, even a professor who disagrees with that theorist should be able to see the value in the argument. It's true that there are professors who will not accept work that they don't agree with, but I think it's more often to find professors who will accept work as long as it is of sufficient quality.

If we can tell ourselves "Sometimes it's better than I imagined" or at least "sometimes it's not as bad as I imagined" we can write more effectively.

And that creates opportunity: the chance of something good happening is much greater when you risk that possibility and risk the rejection that goes with it--as the old saying goes: you can't win, if you don't play.

And sometimes even the worst result that you imagined, isn't as bad as you expected: your work gets panned, but maybe you understand why and you see how to move forward from there.

So write. And if you find yourself worrying about some bad outcome, think of the writer I worked with: sometimes they actually like the work that you did. Think about that possibility, and get to work thinking about the work, rather than sitting fearing the worst that is yet to come.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

One cookie now or two cookies later

Yesterday I was talking with my friend about some difficult issues he was having related to raising his son, and in particular with respect to a complex decision where there are clear pros and cons on either side of the equation. On a certain level, of course, it's laughable to ask me about raising a child, since I've none of my own. But philosophy is philosophy; some wisdom is always worthy.

When we were talking, I was thinking of him and his son just as people like those I often help--which is to say graduate students. He's a smart guy, but his son is eight, so you can't quite talk through ideas the same way with an eight year old. "But there has to be a simplified parallel that he would understand," I finally claimed.

And there is; it's a classic one. I think that Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence says something to the effect that those who, as children, choose two cookies later over one now, tend to be more successful as adults--successful in most measurable dimensions, in terms of career, social life, etc. I don't know if Goleman's assertion is true, but it is clear to me that the one cookie now vs. two later is a model for many of the things we face in life.

My friend was concerned with some issues of social responsibility, but also with his son's social community, too. He felt a conflict between large-scale social responsibility, and a desire to care for his son and to give him opportunities. Two different value systems were coming into conflict.

As I was out running today, I was thinking that the one cookie now vs. two cookies later paradigm is a good one for talking about the complexity of issues, and for showing how we can be faced with questions whose answer is not clear, or which inevitably involve some sort of compromise.

Suppose you're offered one cookie now vs. two later. One good first question might be "how much later?" If you only have to wait one minute for the two cookies, it seems like a no-brainer. Similarly, if you are going to wait a decade to get the two cookies, it seems pointless not to take the one right now. Somewhere in between these two extremes, we might logically presume that there is a point where it is hard to decide.

In exploring the complexity of the question, we can also note that the reward offered for waiting (the two cookies) can be altered--maybe it's three cookies later, or ice cream and a cookie later instead of just a cookie now.

These are terms, I think, that an eight year old could understand. On the other hand, getting an eight year old to see the point, and to accept it may be unlikely. After all, this is difficult for adults to manage.
Some decisions are like the one cookie now vs. two cookies in one minute decision: it's easily made. Most are not.

When we're writing, or when we're managing a project, or when we're trying to decide whether to support an institution (like my alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley), we're faced with questions that are much more closely balanced. Yes, the University builds weapons of mass destruction; it also harbors and supports some very good progressive thought. Yes, the university sports programs are problematic in many ways; they also do some good, and buying tickets to one game won't really make a difference. Yes, you want your son to be able to have communal activities with friends, including ones that you enjoyed as a youth; you also want your son to be able to make socially responsible decisions that promote peace, justice, etc.
Or, to take this out of the realm of my friend and into the realm of the writer: we might offer this similar paradigm:
shitty draft now vs. good draft later. How long do you wait for the good draft? A shitty draft now may be far superior--if, for example, you have been told you must submit something immediately or be dropped from your program. Sure, at such a moment it would be nice to have a good draft, but often we feel that the draft we currently have is a shitty one.
The answer is never clear. Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy, once wrote that a bad letter in good time was better than a good letter late (though he said it more elegantly than my awkward paraphrase, I have lost the original quote and the reference to my source--I think it was from a collection of his letters). But if you submit a bad draft to a publisher, you may be rejected out of hand, hurting your future chances, while waiting longer would have meant a better reception.

Sadly there is no clear answer to many of the problems that we struggle with (which may help explain why we struggle with them). I believe that the more clearly we can see what is involved in choosing the different alternatives, the better we can make a choice that will serve us well.

Well, the logic sounds ok, but I wouldn't want to try to convince anyone of the wisdom herein--least of all an eight year old.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


This is a hideously overused buzzword, partly because it's a good idea.

A writer told me "I had to send something to my advisor. I'm not thrilled with what I sent her."

My response: this is a win-win situation. Either she likes it, in which case you win, or she doesn't, in which case the two of you agree, so you also win. What could go wrong?

I realized that this is the perfect paradigm: always turn in work that you're not happy with, and then either you get an unexpected good result, or you agree with the reviewer!

(Disclaimer: professional writer on closed course. Always write safely and obey the rules of the styleguide. Unless you're pretty sure your audience won't be upset.)