Monday, September 04, 2017

What is "Writing" (Really?) / And a New Video with Yours Truly Talking About Four Exceedingly Rare Books

On his always thought-provoking blog, the author of Deep Work, Cal Newport, recently posted "Toward a Deeper Vocabulary"  on how we need more words for "writing." As a productivity expert (among other things) Newport has often been invited to "dissertation boot camps." He writes:
"Something that strikes me about these events is the extensive use of the term 'writing' to capture the variety of different mental efforts that go into producing a doctoral dissertation; e.g., 'make sure you write every day' or 'don’t get too distracted from your writing by other obligations.' The actual act of writing words on paper, of course, is necessary to finish a thesis, but it’s far from the only part of this process. The term 'writing,' in this context, is being used as a stand in for the many different cognitive efforts required to create something worthy of inclusion in the intellectual firmament of your discipline." 

I agree. In writing all of my books it has been my consistent experience that "writing" is not a linear process akin to clocking in, and, say, ironing shirts. It's a complex, zizaggily circular-ish process-- to quote Newport, "involving different cognitive efforts"-- that oftentimes doesn't look like "writing."

(That said, sometimes-- sometimes-- you've just gotta velcro your posterior to the chair and bang the words into the Word doc.)

As those of you who have been following my blog have heard ad infinitum, I am at work on a book about Far West Texas. Um, that means I need to write it. But there are other tasks directly relevant to ending up with a published book, for example, reading about Far West Texas, traveling in and observing Far West Texas, taking notes, transcribing notes as dictation, reviewing photographs and videos, interviewing people, transcribing those interviews, and so on and so forth.

Right now, for example, I am finishing Andrew Torget's excellent Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands and last week, I plowed through Andrés Reséndez's also superb The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. Pending writing for me is an essay / podcast (to be edited and incorporated into my book in-progress) about the Seminole Scouts (many of them ex-slaves) in the Indian Wars...

If I were to simply sit down and commence typing, it would be akin to trying to cook without having assembled the proper equipment and ingredients. In other words, I need to have read Torget and Reséndiz (among many other works), to have transcribed my notes, and so on and so forth.

Not that I have not done quite a bit of the writing already, I mean, there are words on paper, there are bits and pieces, an introduction, some sections... Like I said, the process is zigzaggily circular.

I oftentimes compare "writing," in its broadest mushiest sense, to cooking. And chefs will understand me when I say, you have got to master mis-en-place.


What is mis-en-place? In plain English, you don't want to start the whipped cream for what might be a chocolate cake when your countertops, stovetop, and sink are cluttered with pots and spoons and dishes and splotches from the mushroom croquettes. Or whatever it is you were making. You need to start clean; then assemble your utensils and equipment; then assemble your ingredients; then wash, cut, chop; then cook.

So to follow the analogy of writing as cooking: reading and researching could be compared to assembling utensils and equipment; taking notes, transcribing, and filing could be compared to washing, cutting and chopping... and typing, say, to putting the skillet onto the burner... that is to say, actually, finally, cooking.

Back to starting clean. In 2014 I published Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual (a book that was, in a way, a digression, however, the Mexican Revolution will appear in Far West Texas book, as you might guess, if you've ever seen a map of the Texas-Mexico border). This week, I wanted to be working on the Far West Texas book, but two long-pending tasks for that Mexican Revolution book were nagging at me. These were to

(1) Finish the editing on the transcript of my 2016 talk at the Center for Big Bend Studies Conference about the book (this is for an academic readership,  extensively footnoted, and includes new material about another edition of Madero's book)  

(2) Finish a short video to share some images and information about four exceedingly rare books in my personal library, which for scholars of the Mexican Revolution, and especially anyone studying Francisco I. Madero, would be vital to see.

So that is what I did the past few days--I read Torget, I finished editing the transcript of my talk and posted the PDF (which you are welcome to download here), and, whew, I just uploaded that video I have been meaning to make since 2014(!)


Was this procrastination? No, gentle reader, it was good old fashioned mis-en-place. Stay tuned for the podcast on the Seminole Scouts in Far West Texas. (Listen in anytime to the other 20 podcasts posted to date here.)

Back to the question of the writing process. How do you know when what you're doing is a legitimate task towards finishing a book (or thesis or story or essay), and when it's procrastination? To my writing workshop students, I say, you need to decide that for yourself. As for me, I rely on intuition and common sense (which sometimes contradict each other), and then, no drama, I just decide. Yes, once in a while (usually when I did not heed my intuition), I look back and think, hmm, maybe thus-and-such could be done differently next time. And whatever, it's fine. I don't ruminate about woulda coulda shoudas (that would be procrastination!), I just get to the day's work, as best as I can.

> For more about the writing (and publishing) process, check out my talk of yore for the Writer's Center, "The Arc of Writerly Action."

> See also "Thirty Deadly Effective Ways to Free Up Bits, Drips & Gimungously Vast Swaths of Time for Writing."

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.