Sunday, July 9, 2017

Too Much to Say: Complexity

In my previous, I was talking about focus and the importance of limiting what you try to say. For this, again, I am seeking some focus amongst the many possible ideas that I could pursue, and I am going to pursue one point I made in my previous: I argued that many people get stuck because they have too much to say.

I think that most people have a lot to say on subjects that interest them. But writing can have a chilling effect. For some people—people who are inclined to self-doubt—writing out an idea provides an opportunity for self-criticism, and that often ends with the writer rejecting the current attempt.

The problem, I think, is that an idea, once written down and examined, reveals a great deal of complexity.  This complexity makes it easy to critique a sentence and find problems with it.  And for those who are self-critical, finding problems with a sentence can stop things.
Here are some of the questions/issues in my own writing, that can get me stuck:
  • How do I know this?
  • What does this central term mean?
  • What are the implications?
  • What are the political, moral, and ethical dimensions?

Just these can be enough to derail a writing project if they absorb too much attention. Each one of these can be a rabbit hole—a whole world to be explored and explained.
How do I know? Asking how you know something leads to a discussion of what you think, and every time you say “I know because X”, it’s possible to ask “how do you know X?”  There is no logical end to this regression of doubt. You can always ask “how do I know?”

What does this term mean?  This is another place where there is a lot of room to get caught up.  Words and terms are often defined variously.  Crucial terms are often subject to a great deal of debate.  What is “literature”? What is “art”?  What is “design”? What is “deconstruction”? What is “imperialism”?  Defining a term depends on a wider world view: ideas are understood within a larger matrix of ideas, and thus words take meaning within a specific framework of other related ideas (cf. Charles Fillmore’s idea of Frame Semantics). Different views of the world lead to different definitions, and debating such definitions can take a lot of time and effort without contributing much progress.

What are the implications?  Accepting one idea often means accepting others.  Discussing the implications of one idea can lead to any number of wide discussions, as the one idea can be considered in relationship to any number of other ideas.
What are the moral and ethical dimensions? Research—objective description of the world—is ideally objective.  But in the real world, all knowledge has political dimensions, and thus also moral and ethical dimensions.  It is easy to revere Galileo for his contributions to Astronomy, but it is necessary to recognize the political elements in his work: because he challenged ideas accepted by Catholicism, he challenged not only ideas but political power.

There is complexity beyond these ideas. One can always ask “how does the idea relate to X?” For every different X, there is a different discussion. Such discussions may not be infinite, but they almost always push a careful writer to ever-greater length.

I often compare academic writing with legal writing.  Both academic and legal writers try to cover all the possible concerns.  The length and obscurity of legal writing—of contracts, for example—is due to the attempt to touch on all relevant concerns, and to frame things in terms that are clear and beyond debate. Academic writing is similarly careful, and that can lead to long, detailed discussions.
Once you get into a careful discussion of an idea, it’s easy to find additional details to discuss.

In my experience, almost nobody actually gets stuck because they have nothing to say.  In my experience, people get stuck because they need to say so many things.  In practice, my response is always to turn back to the communicative act: if you’re writing, you’re trying to communicate with someone. What do they expect? What will suit them?  Set limits, and set priorities.  What are the most important ideas you want to discuss with your audience?  

For me, I have lots of ideas about research and writing and the search for truth. This blog is a means of expressing those ideas. As I try to get back into regular blogging, I need to write about something, and choosing amongst my many possible ideas is enough of a difficulty that I was motivated to write about that problem of choosing what to say.  Even when it’s difficult to find something to say—something worth saying—it’s not really because I don’t have anything to say, but rather that the complexity of the world means that everything I write is something I can challenge, and that makes me doubt, and that makes it difficult to write something I like.  But that’s not a question of not having anything to say.

If you’re thinking you have nothing to say, it might be because you’re struggling with the complexity that makes every statement a challenge.

One motivation for this post was my experience with people who feel that they don’t have enough to say. People who have to write a large work are often intimidated by all that must be written.  But in my experience, there will be enough to say, and the problem will be to keep the discussion limited. The problem isn’t filling empty space, but deciding what to leave out.  If you dig into the complexity of what you write, there will be plenty of material.

The complexity of the world will leave every work wanting in some way.  Sometimes you’ll benefit from producing and sharing imperfect works. And, with a little luck, sometimes you’ll share something that other people like better than you do.  I’m not particularly happy with this post, but what the heck. It doesn’t really tell a good, focused story, but at least it does talk about a problem in writing that many people face.  

No comments: