Surprises. (The fancy title would have been: “On the phenomenology of writing”)

It’s all worked out in my head: the paper is there, the literature is reviewed, I’ve found a spot where my claim makes sense without merely repeating what has been said, my argument is fairly clear, the sequence of sections seems fine. But there is a problem: the darn thing still needs to be written! What’s keeping me? The deadline is approaching. Why can’t I just do it? Everyone else can do it! Just like that: sit down, open the file and write down what’s in your head.

I’ve had sufficiently many conversations and looks at “shit academics say” to know that I am not even alone in this. But it’s both irritating and surprising that it keeps recurring. So why is it happening? I know there are many possible explanations. There is the shaming one: “You’re just lazy; stop procrastinating!” Then there is the emphatic one: “You’re overworked; take a break!” And there is probably a proper scientific one, too, but I’m too lazy to even google it. Without wanting to counter any of these possible explanations, it might be rewarding to reflect on personal experience. So what’s going on?

If I am really in the state described in the first paragraph (or at least close to it), I have some sort of awareness of what I would be doing were I to write. This experience has two intriguing features:

  • One aspect is that it is enormously fast: the actual thinking or the internal verbalisations of what I would (want to) write pass by quickly. They are passing much faster than the actual writing would or eventually will take. (There are intriguing studies on this phenomenon; see for instance Charles Fernyhough’s The Voices Within)* This pace of the thoughts is often pleasing. I can rush through a great amount of stuff, often enlarged by association, in very little time. But at the same time this experience might be part of the reason why I don’t get to write. If everything seems (yes, seems!) worked out like that, it feels as if it were done. But why should I do work that is already done? The idea of merely writing down what I have worked out is somewhat boring. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the actual writing is boring. It just means that I take it to be boring. This brings me to the second aspect:
  • The actual writing often comes with surprises. Yes, it’s often worked out in my head, but when I try to phrase the first sentence, I notice two other things. Firstly, I’m less sure about the actual formulations on the page than I was when merely verbalising them internally. Secondly, seeing what I write triggers new associations and perhaps even new insights. It’s as if the actual writing were based on a different logic (or dynamic), pushing me somewhere else. Then it feels like I cannot write what I want to write, at least not before I write down what the actual writing pushes me to write first: Yes, I want to say p, but first have to explain q. Priorities seem to change. Something like that. These surprises are at once frustrating and motivating or pleasing. They are frustrating, because I realise I hadn’t worked it out properly. I just thought I was done. Now the real work begins. On the other hand, they are motivating because I feel like I’m actually learning or understanding something I had not seen before.

I don’t know whether this experience resonates with you, but I guess I need such surprises. I can’t sit down and merely write what I thought out beforehand. And I don’t know whether that is the case because I want to avoid the boredom of merely ‘writing it up’ or whether ‘merely writing it up’ is actually not doable. Not doable because it wouldn’t convince me or surprise me or perhaps even because it is impossible or whatever. The moral is that you should start writing early. Because if you’re a bit like me, part of the real work only starts during the actual writing. Then you face the real problems that aren’t visible when all the neat sentences are just gliding through your head. – Well, I guess I should get going.

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* And this post just came out today.

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