John McPhee returns in the April 29, 2013 issue of The New Yorker, writing about drafts, writerly moods associated with drafts 1-4, and searching for le mot juste.

“Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall.  Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft.  With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus.  Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. . . . What I have left out is the interstitial time.  You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside.  You get in your car and drive home.  On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words.  You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem.  Without the drafted version—if it did not exist—you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it.  In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day—yes, while you sleep—but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists.  Until it exists, writing has not really begun.” (33)

This is quoted from a note to his daughter, Jenny, so I feel I should not quibble over word choices, but I will anyway: “knit at”?  Can you “knit at” something?  I suppose if I had a really expressive, aggressive knitter in the front row of my class, I might feel she was “knitting at” me, with more vigorous clicking of needles, when I said something she objected to.  Do any of my knitting readers “knit at” speakers in faculty meetings, for instance, if you knit in such circumstances?

I thought this “awful blurting” notion sits a little oddly with the careful organizing detailed in the January piece, on structure.  But on second thought, it sounds like it’s a close relative of my “focused freewriting.”  When I know I need a section on a  particular topic, I will “just write” about that topic, without worrying about the logic and structure of that section.  But it does need to be about that topic, not the broader sort of just-keep-writing freewriting.  McPhee plans his structure, and even starts with the first sentence, and then has to bring the writing into congruence with the structure and opening.

I notice also the degree of focus assumed here: that a writer has two or three hours a day to write*, and more time for thinking in a back-of-the-mind sort of way about what one has written.  Many of the activities in which professors engage can be inimical to developing good prose (reading lots of student papers or decanal announcements or committee reports, for example).

*Luxury! we wrote a book in ten minutes a day, licking the typewriter keys clean at the bottom of a lake—we ‘ad to write on recycled plastic bags—and when we were done our department chairs assigned us to the assessment committee that met three times a week for four hours at a stretch for a full year.

19 thoughts on “He’s back!

  1. I think that even when we’re busiest, that we really do have time to think in the-back-of-mind sort of way so long as we’re engaged with some active writing (or research) each day. I don’t think it has to be 2-3 hours, but it does have to be something that at least touches base with the project.

    When I moved from the binge-purge method of writing to the Boice method, I was amazed at how my subconscious would solve things for me while I was actively engaged in driving or laundry or showering (showering probably being the most mentally creative part of my day) or stuck in a faculty meeting or any number of other short draining activities. Sometimes I will even dream up a solution and have to write it down at 3am. Writing and other work became less frustrating and almost magical.

    But the active practice is important– otherwise that mental energy gets used by other things. I need to give my subconscious food for thought or it forages on its own.

  2. I guess the reason I react against Boice is that I have always written that way, so having him thrown at me as a panacea becomes kind of insulting.

    But, I really do believe in the 2-3 hours and the contemplative time. Of course you have to keep going on less if you do not have that, but still.

    I am being put through semi-hell about having quit that committee. I have to meet with the new person and the chair and an administrator, for reasons not clear to me. I said: (a) can I know the agenda for this meeting? and (b) if you are bringing an administrator from one of the professional schools, can I bring a professor from letters and science? They are sucking our blood with administration and I therefore appreciate your last paragraph, on assessment.

    1. I don’t understand how you can be against something you do. It isn’t a panacea, but it’s a good first step that adds a big boost. If you’ve already taken that step, then that just means you’re ready for more advanced stuff, and likely smaller additional boosts.

      1. Because this dialogue rankles:

        Z: I sense there is something wrong with the way in which this project is conceived.

        World: Just write it. In little pieces. Considering problems of design, approach and scope is procrastination. Have you heard of working a little each day?

      2. You can then say, “Yes, I already do that.” Many people don’t. It’s no different than someone who is already saving 15% of her income being told to save up to the employer match. That advice is still good advice, and many people who aren’t doing it should be doing it.

      3. It depends upon how much derision they use when they say this to you; and in my case on the fact that they are repeating this in order to avoid discussing anything real.

        I am also not like DEH on Boice — he’s Trollope-like and pedantic and Victorian, I find. I think that if you are a social scientist who does not know how to write and hates writing, which is what he assumes, he might be a good fit. It seems he assumes a lot less of a writing habit and familiarity with writing than one has if one is in letters.

      4. Or put it this way: I had a cat who hated brooms because she had been beaten with them by her former owner. You couldn’t sweep if she was in the house, she got too scared. I have been beaten with Boice so badly that I hate him and I could kill anyone who defended him and not care.

      5. Or to put it another way: if you need Boice as a professor, you went to a crap college and a crap graduate program.

      6. Sorry to be so mean but that kind of meanness and stupidity is what I hear when people defend Boice, and I throw it back. He is stupid, and he is mean to smart people, and I want to kill him, I really do.

      7. That sounds really crazy.

        You want to kill someone who has good advice that many people don’t use because you already do what he advises and he’s a boring writer.

        You want to kill a nice older gentleman and you say he is stupid because he has researched and written a book on what kinds of work habits lead to productivity in writing on average in randomized controlled trials.

        You want to kill an innocent person, and you do not even disagree with his advice, you just think that he should be dead because although other people can use the advice, you are already past that stage in your writing productivity. Therefore he should not be allowed to live.

        That is a frightening definition of crazy. I really hope you did not mean that. In fact, I’m a little afraid of engaging you here, because that’s the kind of crazy a person does not want to encounter IRL.

  3. “Knitting at” totally makes sense to me! You don’t knit at *people,* you knit away at a *project,* getting it closer to done. Maybe this is clearer if you are working a complex chart and crossing out the lines as you finish them — you are knitting at the chart, or knitting away at the unknitted yarn.

    I always write from the middle outwards in multiple directions, which ties up with his metaphor, but reminds me more of the process by which an oyster gets irritated by a speck of grit and works at it until it builds up into a pearl.

    My writing process is more irritating than semiprecious, I must add.

  4. Yeah, “knitting at” made sense to me in the same way that Sisyphus describes. Perhaps kind of like “picking at,” but instead of being destructive, you’re being constructive?

    Z – Nicoleandmaggie are worried about you! But I kind of get your rantiness. I’m not a fan of self-help-ish discourse in general, and it’s annoying for people to offer it as a heal-all when you’re already doing it and it doesn’t seem to work or there are other barriers to enacting that advice (that you already damn well know, thank you very much)!

    DEH – Comments are closed on your last post, but I’d really like to join the summer writing group. I have an article I need to write, so I have a concrete writing goal, and I promise only to talk about what works, not about what didn’t! 🙂

  5. Well, Nicole and Maggie, what seems crazy to me is fawning over self help gurus. Again, I am sorry to be mean but I am sort of out of patience with behaviorism, and lectures on writing from people who do not like it. I was really nice to Boiceans for the first 25 years or so, but I finally got fed up.

    I do not disagree that you should work every day and that you do not need to wait for huge blocks of time. But that is elementary — I mean literally so, I started writing papers that way in the sixth grade. I am glad Boice’s books exist for people who did not learn those things in school or figure them out for themselves earlier on, but I really think he is talking to people who do not like to write, see it as a chore, and have little experience writing. I also dislike behaviorist training — so authoritarian, pointless, and borderline abusive.

    What irritates me is the repetition of this elementary school style advice in lieu of discussion of ideas, strategy for dealing with editors, etc., etc. — there is a lot more to writing and publishing and intellectual work than just producing something grammatical and internally consistent. I know how to write and I have excellent work habits, and I dislike listening to lectures about these from people who do not, who tend to be the Boiceans. I also dislike it when people refuse to discuss anything else by shifting the discussion to basic work habits.

    I find Boice and the Boiceans violent because of what they project into others: any problem you have is reduced to lack of discipline, and they, who obviously do not like to write, are always superior. I am not convinced at all that this is “innocent” — I think it is very mean, actually.

    Anyway, it’s not N and M’s fault I am out of patience; I am just not in the mood to be nice about Boice and Boiceans any more, I have been nice for a very, very long time. This generated several interesting posts on my own blog. It comes down to this: Boice is a non writer himself, writing for people who never acquired an artistic discipline.

    He and in my experience, his, appear to imagine everyone is like them. If one tries to have any kind of discussion of anything less basic than the things they like to talk about, they get upset and start repeating step 1 and saying you haven’t “got it” yet. I know N and M think you can have a reasonable discussion with a Boicean but I really have tried this in real life and I have found one cannot, because they will not go further than repeat the insistence that one work daily (duh!).

    There is also something about the use of timers and other forms of self flagellation that drives me around the bend about the Boiceans; I have been setting amounts of time to do homework in since the sixth grade or so but I just look at the clock; all those alarm bells the Boiceans use make me jumpy. It comes down to the punitive attitude and the self-harrassment, I guess, and again I do not think this is “innocent” or that it amounts to “good advice” — I find it violent and violating.

  6. Dame Eleanor, I will have to read that McPhee piece now; thanks for posting on it. What he says about the mind working on the piece later is absolutely true; it’s what all the writers say about writing, only I love what he says about “interstitial writing.”

    I can’t join the group this summer–too much travel and too many bits and pieces of a project instead of a single project to write–but am looking forward to reading the posts.

      1. I thought so! And just FYI: Spouse now thinks that I am in a permanent writing group with you, since I did that other one. If I report getting a piece done, he says, “Did you tell Dame Eleanor?”

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