I’m in charge of student selection for a popular undergraduate program this year – around 1300 applicants for 60-odd places. I’m told that selection will severely restrict my ability to do anything else over the summer, aside from reading student applications, and so I’ve been seizing this last precious week before I’m able to access student files, to get some writing done. Two articles down, a third in process hopefully to be largely completed by tomorrow… I don’t normally write in such an assembly-line fashion, but my other work obligations have made it seem like this would be an appropriate skill to develop…
Producing several articles back to back like this has drawn my attention to aspects of my writing process that I hadn’t specifically noticed before. One of the things that strikes me is that I spend the overwhelming amount of my time working out how to get the article started. I don’t mean that I spend a lot of time staring at a blank piece of paper, wondering what to say – each of these pieces is being developed from one or more blog posts written earlier in the year, and so I’m starting with the argument and the bulk of the article structure in front of me from the outset. What’s taking time is working out how to frame the paper for a formal publication.
Writing for the blog doesn’t pose this same sort of problem, since I generally just start by saying something like “I was reading something recently that irritated me”, or “someone asked a good question in the comments to this other post”, or even “last we left off, I think I had finally gotten to the second sentence of Capital – maybe it’s time to talk about the third…”, or whatever… Even though I know people may stumble across blog posts fairly randomly, without much sense of other things I’ve written, I still tend to write blog posts as though I’m speaking to people who have been reading for some time, and so don’t require much of a run up to explain why I’m writing on some particular topic. This has the incidental effect of excising from blog writing the thing I find most difficult about formal writing: having to start a paper in a way that will provide a sufficient shared context to enable readers from a fairly diverse set of backgrounds to orient themselves to the issues you plan to cover.
So in the past week, I’ve written two papers and a bit, and have spent easily 80% of my time working on the opening couple of pages of each piece.
I was discussing this with Duncan the other day, and had a sudden association to the opening “exordium” to Derrida’s Specters of Marx. This opening has always annoyed me:
Someone, you or me, comes forward and says: I would like to learn to live finally.
Derrida then proceeds to unpack this sentence – which he has just made up – as one might unpack, say, the opening sentence of Capital. He queries the phrasing in his own question:
Finally but why?
To learn to live: a strange watchword. Who would learn? From whom? To teach to live, but to whom? Will we ever know? Will we ever know how to live and first of all what ‘to learn to live’ means? And why ‘finally’?
Now don’t get me wrong: these are pivotal questions which Derrida will explore in the text, and his reflections are moving and substantive – I’ve written in some detail about this work, and am not trying to mock it.
But this opening always throws me. These are the sorts of questions one generally asks of a received text, when trying to draw out the intentional or unintentional implications of its strange word choices or obscure imagery. To subject to the same treatment a question you’ve just introduced – a question that no one else may want to ask, or not in that way, with the peculiar phrasing and structure that you immediately begin to pick apart – this has just struck me as a strange thing to do.
Until I found myself talking the other day about how much time I was spending on preliminaries that were, in many respects, incidental to the argument I was trying to make. I rarely myself started writing on a topic for the reasons I end up putting at the tops of articles – the hooks and frames I use are almost never why I personally got engaged with the material – that’s why they don’t show up on the top of blog posts… By the time I’m drafting a formal version of a paper, I’ve almost always written the entire argument first, and then I end up having to go through an entirely separate process to work out how to communicate to other people “what’s in it for them”, that they should read the piece.
And as I was discussing all of this the other day, the exordium popped into my head. “Someone, you or me, comes forward…” Whatever Derrida’s intentions, it’s sort of the perfect response: “Someone, you or me, comes forward and says, ‘Hey Nicole! Why don’t you write an article on this!’” I can then earnestly respond, not having to explain why I should be writing this – I’ve been asked to! See! The question is right there! The exordium that’s been irritating me for so long, it turns out, is pretty much exactly what I myself do in almost every substantive blog post. Someone, you or me, has asked me to write this… Occasionally, it’s someone… More often, it’s me… But no matter… how am I going to answer the question now…
Somehow since thinking of this, I can’t shake the recurrent thought of this line as the universal article opening: someone, you or me, comes forward and says… how about a paper on commodity speech? someone, you or me, comes forward and says… whatcha reckon about that base/superstructure distinction? someone, you or me, comes forward and says…
Now time to get back to writing that last intro…