I’m going to blog a bit about my writing process, which may be repetitious for long-term readers, but I need to think some things through in order to explain them to the friend mentioned in the last post. It would probably be simpler to give her a name: let’s call her Karine.

From the questions she has asked me, I suspect she’s a top-down worker: she has an idea; she thinks about who else is working in this area; she reads around a bit to define the scholarly conversation she wants to enter; then she finds the evidence needed to support the idea, and starts writing to the scholars previously identified. And I know that Karine works on (or at least starts out with reference to) very well-known medieval authors: people with names! The sort of people that get a lot written about them.

I’m a bottom-up worker. I read something (something anonymous, something that doesn’t get written about very often), and I say, “Huh. That’s cool. There’s this little bit here that makes me think. Oh, and now that we mention it, there’s this other little bit that sort of goes with it.” I assemble a vast lot of little bits that have to do with a topic, and stare at them for awhile. I do a bibliographical search, and very often, nobody has written about this precise thing, though maybe someone has written about it in a different anonymous text, or someone else wrote about a related thing in the same text.

So as far as entering the scholarly conversation, I often feel that I am in the position of waiting for a pause as people discuss, say, their vacations, and then saying, “By the way, speaking of vacation, it’s going to be over soon and have you done your syllabi yet?”

In other words, I’m starting my own conversation, or picking up on one that was left hanging a long time ago. Try fifty years, in cases where the main discussion of a topic appears in the introduction to the edition, and nowhere since.

This is why thinking about audience makes me very anxious. Who wants to enter a party that’s already underway, tap on a glass with a knife, and say, “Now we’re going to talk about my thing!”? Hence my focus on my ideal audience. Ralph and Tony will understand where I’m going. I can sit down and write 500 words for them, without feeling that I’m interrupting anything.

In one sense, because the Current Project was conference papers last year, I’m already in the scholarly conversation. Certain other Names have asked interesting questions about the Current Project. Only, to continue the vacation metaphor, I’m talking about hiking in Scotland and they want to talk about hiking in Italy, or nightclubs in Glasgow. There’s a connection, to be sure, but I don’t have a lot to say about either Italy or nightclubs. Clearly the paper will need a paragraph or so on both topics, since my larger audience wants to know about these things, but basically I’m going to be saying “Here’s why Italy isn’t relevant and neither are nightclubs. Now, back to bagging Munroes.”

At some point, of course, I will have to address the big-picture elements of audience, what critical discussion there is of my precise topic, how I relate Munroes to Italian mountains and Glaswegian nightclubs, and so on. I will undoubtedly have to get rid of quantities of niggling detail that I am presently explaining at excruciating length (I’m the party guest who bores on for hours about the precise locations of all the blisters I got and how I finally discovered this fantastic brand of hiking boots that don’t rub my feet, while you look around frantically for rescue and eventually say brightly, “Is that the time?”). Droning on about the details is, nonetheless, an important part of my process. Ultimately, what I’m saying will have important implications about vacations. However, the nature of those implications—the nature of my argument—stands or falls on niggling detail. If the blisters are on the top of my foot instead of on my heel, the whole thing will fall apart. I have to be absolutely certain that the details are right and that each individual piece of evidence builds to the same conclusion before I can talk about the importance of the conclusion.

In short: I collect little bits of information. I arrange them in different ways until I see a pattern emerge. I write about the patterns. I figure out some other things I ought to write about, and produce a few unconnected chunks of writing about those things. I print out all the bits and look for patterns again, and make an outline. I produce a revised draft that puts all the pieces in what seems like the right order, including the chunks about other things. Then I revise the bejesus out of that, usually involving more struggling with the organization and exactly what the thesis is and where it should go. It takes a long time. Often it turns out that the real thesis is something sort of sideways on to what I thought the thesis was, and some other reader has to point this out to me. I used to mind this more. Now I think my job is to keep working on my mosaic pattern till the picture is clear from some angle, and if I’m not the first one to see it, that’s fine. It’s still my work and my picture.

I have tried other methods. But I’m not comfortable with them. My process may seem unnecessarily baroque, even painful, to a top-down thinker. It’s how I work, though; I’m used to it. I still wonder if I might someday discover a better way, some quicker and easier path to a finished product. Writing seems to be difficult (in different ways, perhaps) for many of us. At this point in my life, it seems simpler and faster to work the way I work than to try to be someone else for awhile and then fall back on the way I work. And what I’m aiming for now is the revised draft with the pieces in the right order.

8 thoughts on “Talking to Ralph and Tony

  1. And now to go in a completely different direction……when reading about your writing process I was reminded of a scifi book I read a while back – "The Algebraist" by Iain Banks – his main character is an academic in a future highly technical society and there is some lengthy exposition about the demands of his particular and unique discipline, which involves studying the culture of a very eccentric alien species. Not finding fault here or suggesting arenas to explore, just thought it was rather neat your words reminded me of that text. I think Banks was writing with some affection for academics at least…

  2. Hi, aepva! I'd forgotten you read me . . . while I was writing, I was thinking about the other a from RL who reads but never comments. I sometimes wish I studied eccentric alien species. Of course, I live with a whole lot of non-humans: do you think I could get a paper out of the cats' interactions?

  3. Me too. I've often thought that those top-downers end up in other fields. I'm always surprised, and a little suspicious, to find them lurking around our text-burrowing neck of the woods….

  4. Of course…cats are alien species. Who was it that came up with the wonderful image of the alien entity taking off its cat suit at the end of the day? I seem to think it was a TV animated image but am wondering if it's something I imagined. Sometimes they do things that make me wonder what they are thinking…like when my big old Norwegian cat goes outside, only to watch me inside through the windows. Seriously, he sits on a rock and watches the windows for me. If it's nighttime and I turn out the lights, he gives up and comes in. What is the attraction of that?

  5. Thank you *so* much for writing this post– it very well describes how I write, too! I find it a frustrating process but I simply cannot outline first and then write. I am what is sometimes called a "discovery writer" in that I have to write in order to find out what I'm thinking. I can outline after I make a first draft. Hooray for bottom-up writing!

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