Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lessons Learned About Writing

Because heaven knows I've been doing enough writing in Oxford, and because I'm one of those strange people who likes to reflect on the process of composition, here are a few:

- Write to rewrite. Yes, I knew this before. It's one of those maxims that everyone repeats about writing. But never have I realized it so intensely, truthfully, personally. The first draft doesn't matter. Don't write expecting every sentence to turn out perfectly. Shut down the inner censor and throw everything you've got at the page, allowing it to be hideous and wandering and nonsensical if it wants. It's all for the next draft. With enough time, out of all that rubble a pearl will emerge.

- Free writing and free association is a mysterious, wonderful thing. Again, something I knew before, but once I abandon myself to the first draft and allow the mushed-up-word-soup to come, I find myself stumbling across insights I never had before.

- If you have an idea, write it down. Straight away. Don't let it slip out of your fingers, don't rely on your mind or your memory or the muse to strike the inspiration again.

- The essay is about the discovery. Often, I cannot nail down a specific thesis until after I've finished writing something, or until I'm well into it, and this is honestly the way it should be. The word "essay" itself means attempt, something I've been reminding myself of a lot lately. I start out with an idea of what I want to say, a vague train of thoughts that loosely relate, and only through the probing and thinking and writing process can I lash them all together, drawing out a meaning that I never could have predicted.

- One essay can never say it all. Or book, either. So frustrating, the limitations of words and intelligible, coherent arguments. But also exhilarating: one can always return to it, over and over again.

- Be disciplined. Tight prose, always. But not so tight that it bursts under the strain.

- It's okay to let passion and fervent language leak into your academic work. Sometimes better, in fact.

- Read, read, read. And then read some more.

I suppose I did know all of this before I came to Oxford. But not so clearly. It's like returning to an old draft: the ideas are there to begin with, but only time and effort can bring them into sharper relief. Now, on to next week's tutorial paper!

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