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.

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