Lynn Hunt 谈论文写作~
Writing is stressful. Sitting in my computer chair my neck and shoulder muscles almost immediately tense up as I dig around in my brain for the best phrase or even any coherent string of words, whether I am writing an essay like this on
Because writing is an act that is far from completely accessible to our conscious minds, recommendations about how to write history may well be irrelevant. And yet they are not useless, if they can make writing seem less like scaling a Himalayan peak after having spent a lifetime as a couch potato. I know that is how I felt when I confronted the task of writing my dissertation. Doing research seemed so much easier, even those days in French archives when the archivist seemed not to comprehend a word I was saying, or those nights when I lay awake wondering which two French cities of 1789 I should compare out of what seemed an endless array of choices. Notecards with city names—Amiens, Blois, Caen, Dieppe and so on—turned over in my dreams, which is an awful waste of dreamscapes. But no, there is nothing quite like the terror of the blank page or the empty computer screen in front of you.
My first rule, in such a situation, is not to look at notes. In the era of digitized databases, digital photographs of manuscripts and archives, and digital copies of notes taken of books and archives, such a rule is yet more imperative. Even when I was preparing my dissertation, when my handwritten notes could fit into a carry-on suitcase (it was blue with a flowery pattern and more or less joined to me at the hip when traveling), the rereading of notes posed a serious menace. Some of my fellow dissertators spent months going over their notes hoping for manna from heaven, a eureka moment, or just enough inspiration to get started. Reorganizing your notes is a form of house cleaning; it might make you feel good about yourself as a tidy person, but it will not produce a chapter—or even a page. On
I say this in part, I confess, because I have always been and will always be, I hope, a terrible note taker. Before the computer revolution—that is, for my dissertation and my first two books—I took notes longhand on yellow legal pads, had no filing system, and in any case, on
Documents that have turned out to be vital to my argument, which I on
My second rule, when looking at the blank screen, is called the “radish rule” in honor of my grandmother, who never published anything but did produce many radishes in her garden. Every day in the summer she would call my mother and inform her of the number of radishes in her garden at that moment, a number that grew steadily over time until the end of the season. You want the number of your pages to increase steadily over time, culminating in the completion of a first draft. Whether you use an outline or not (I jot down bullet points in no particular order as a way of starting), what really counts is momentum, not momentum as in a jet racing forward to the completion of its route but rather momentum as in three steps forward, two steps back, two or three pages written (maybe even five!), then revised the next day while another on
Admittedly, momentum requires a certain tunnel vision. This is on
What is that something ineffable and how do I know this? I do not belong to some kind of occult organization with special séances on the magic of writing, unless you want to so describe, with some reason, the guild of scholars more generally. Everyone who has written at any substantial length, whether prose or poetry, knows that the process of writing itself leads to previously unthought thoughts. Or to be more precise, writing crystallizes previously half-formulated or unformulated thoughts, gives them form, and extends chains of thoughts in new directions. Neuroscience has shown that 95 percent of brain activity is unconscious. My guess about what happens is that by physically writing—whether by hand, by computer, or by voice activation (though I have no experience of the latter)—you set a process literally into motion, a kind of shifting series of triangulations between fingers, blank pages or screens, letters and words, eyes, synapses or other “neural instantiations,” not to mention guts and bladders. By writing, in other words, you are literally firing up your brain and therefore stirring up your conscious thoughts and something new emerges. You are not, or at least not always, transcribing something already present in your conscious thoughts. Is it any wonder that your neck gets stiff?
Even as your pages proliferate like my grandmother’s radishes, they must be weeded and thinned out if they are to grow to an optimal size. Nothing is more imp
You do not need to believe me, because professional help is always around the corner. The best advice about writing that I ever got was many years ago from the poet and prose writer Donald Hall. His book Writing Well was then in an early, if not a first, edition (it is now in its ninth), but he also generously read the pages of those of us who were junior fellows in the Michigan Society of Fellows. He was a senior fellow, and I knew that my dissertation needed serious work. From him I learned that writing requires an unending effort at something resembling authenticity. Most mistakes come from not being yourself, not saying what you think, or being afraid to figure out what you really think. His approach was not at all solipsistic, for he also recommended a different kind of attention to others who write. When you are reading a book that grabs you, consider how the author accomplishes that effect. What is it that draws you in? What makes you think it beautiful or forceful or astute? Which quality do you cherish most? What can you learn about writing from it? Assistance is available close at hand but you have to know where to look for it.
In short, on