Trust Your Instincts
Sometimes - I don't know whether you get this - I feel a kind of wild call to take off down some other avenue of thought, usually when I'm deeply frustrated or bored with whatever I'm doing. I then run off and collect up whatever has piqued my interest, either ransacking my own shelves or buying a book or three. Eventually these wild calls ossify and I find a pile of books or other materials laying around, cluttering up my work space, and I think, 'Just what was it I had in mind then? Why are these books here? And I have to clear them up and put them away.
I did this yesterday. I've been struggling with an article that has been through multiple revisions, the time between each one expanding as I get progressively sicker of my own prose and further away from the idea or conception that produced the writing in the first place. This is a particular problem for academic writing as you have to immerse yourself in the body of scholarship that precedes your work, and many academic pieces eventually become clogged by the weight of reference and citation that they have to bear. Writing academically can be an entropic process, a slow winding down of energy from a state of initial excitement.
This is particularly burdensome for me as I have become increasingly horrified by the process of revising my own work; nauseated is perhaps the better word. My almost visceral reaction against this (and against writing on a computer - I am doing so now for convenience, actually on the glass screen of an iPad, but have reverted to pen and paper in the main) produced one of these wild calls. I thought of Jack Kerouac and his imprecations against revision, the idea of 'Spontaneous Prose', and so, of course, ran off to read On The Road, which I haven't read for many years. I started it this morning and I'm enjoying the energy, the rhythms of the prose, as well as that romantic vision of the self and of America that Kerouac inherits.
A few weeks ago I presented a paper (on the film of London Orbital) which mixed critical and creative impulses; this I wrote in longhand. The paper was in twelve sections, and all but one of the sections were as I wrote them, first draft, and as I read it out I realised that longhand writing had generated a kind of rhythm, a spontaneity if you will, that was perfect for the spoken presentation. It seemed more immediate than other of my (over-)worked pieces. The problem is, of course, is that engagement and immediacy that is perfect for a presentation runs fairly diametrically against what has become the norm in academic practice.
My frustration, then, with having to re-write this other paper resolved itself yesterday evening, when I looked over the sheaf of notes I had accumulated, and realised that a previous sketching/mapping out is really what I was aiming for, and my sense that I was losing the very thing that impelled me to write the damn thing in the first place could be recovered if I stopped trying to lens my own thoughts through the work of others - scholarship become authentication become colonisation - and returned to what I wanted to say. It was reading a short Ballard piece, on airports, I had salted away in a folder over 15 years ago that made me realise that I had been on the right track all along.
Roads, tracks, avenues, calls to flight, airports: little wonder that the article I'm revising is centrally concerned with mobility, like a lot of my current work. But it's movement in writing, in thought, that I want to recover, which is why I'm going back to Kerouac. Not to imitate, to have him dictate to me, but to try to achieve the focus that is as close to automatism that I can get only through longhand, without the interpolation and interpellations brought about by typing on a keyboard. In a notebook I wrote last night, an aide-memoire, 'Trust Your Instincts'; in the past, too, I've found out that these usually turn out to have been write all along.
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