Foucault on Writing; Making Time for Writing

From Clare O’Farrell’s Foucault site – reposted with commentary at her Refracted Input blog:

Does there exist a pleasure in writing? I don’t know. One thing is certain, that there is, I think, a very strong obligation to write. I don’t really know where this obligation to write comes from… You are made aware of it in a number of different ways. For example, by the fact that you feel extremely anxious and tense when you haven’t done your daily page of writing. In writing this page you give yourself and your existence a kind of absolution. This absolution is indispensable for the happiness of the day… How is it that that this gesture which is so vain, so fictitious, so narcissistic, so turned in on itself and which consists of sitting down every morning at one’s desk and scrawling over a certain number of blank pages can have this effect of benediction on the rest of the day?

You write so that the life you have around you, and outside, far from the sheet of paper, this life which is not much fun, but annoying and full of worries, exposed to others, can melt into the little rectangle before you and of which you are the master. But this absorption of swarming life into the immobile swarming of letters never happens.

Michel Foucault, (1969) ‘Interview with Claude Bonnefoy’, Unpublished typescript, IMEC B14, pp. 29-30; also available as Michel Foucault à Claude Bonnefoy – Entretien Interprété par Éric Ruf et Pierre Lamandé, Paris: Gallimard. CD

It’s a great quote, certainly. I definitely feel the same way if I’ve not been writing for a while. I’ve been asked more than a few times about writing – usually at the end of question sessions after papers, or when I’ve initiated a conversation with graduate students about publishing, or most often over dinner or in the pub. People are sometimes interested in more general questions about writing, but the most common one is ‘how do you write so much?’ The answer is pretty simple: I try to write every day.

When I’ve been at my most busy – as director of postgraduate students at Durham, while in the first year of editing Society and Space – I would schedule writing time, if not every day, then definitely into every week. I made ‘appointments with myself’ for other key tasks too. I would tell people who had access to my diary that they could move the writing or other task appointments, but not reduce them. So they could be at different times of the day or week to accommodate other things, but not disappear.

Clare links to a couple of reviews of books on academic writing that give similar advice – the way to write is to make time to write. Jo van Every says the same here, and links to this useful post on what you can do in thirty minutes. That last one is interesting as the numbers would change for different people, but the principle is good.

But what do you do if you’re not in the right frame of mind to write when that time comes around? This is a common follow-up question. Then you do the mechanical things that writing requires – you open up the notes file and tidy them up, you download journal articles, get shelfmarks for books you need to check out, fill out the inter-library loan forms or locate a library that has it, check the author guidelines for the target journal, print the last draft and read it over for grammar, maybe seeing a link or sparking an idea… You get the point. But it should be something that moves the writing on, however incrementally. Graham Harman has a good post on working on different bits of the project in parallel, so you can move to a different bit if you get tired of one part.

And while it isn’t counting words that matters, think of it this way: Take a 52 week year. Take four weeks holiday. Take three days per week with time set aside for writing. That’s 144 writing days. Write 500 words a day – about the length of this post, without the quote, or a page of a printed text. That’s 72,000 words. Two articles and half a book. So then a couple of articles a year and a book every two or three isn’t exactly Sartre-level words per day madness…

This entry was posted in Graham Harman, Michel Foucault, My Publications, Publishing. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Foucault on Writing; Making Time for Writing

  1. Pingback: Stuart Elden post on writing « Object-Oriented Philosophy

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  3. I also write everyday. Since I “launched” my blog last week, I have had several people email or facebook me how I could write so much and still work on the dissertation. I’ve replied that I don’t find them to be mutually exclusive, and dovetail each other quite well. For example, on the Foucault/war post that you linked to (thanks very much, by the way), its almost as if I can use the blog post to get the kernel (or several kernels) of what I’m thinking about in relation to that topic. And that seems to me to be the key to writing, and what you read is true: by writing through the crap, you get to what’s important, which is partly why I have to write everyday. In terms of Foucault’s quote, I find it not only to be true with regards to writing, but equally with exercise. In my opinion, one should only have four obligations a day: coffee, exercise, writing, and love — the gaps are filled in with reading and doing dishes. Thanks for writing so much on writing.

  4. Clare says:

    Stuart, Many thanks for these useful comments. I recently started a ‘daily writing club’ for myself and a few colleagues, based on the work of Boice and Silvia who both reccommend daily writing. The club is working quite well to motivate people to keep going. Boice’s research showed that sharing writing diaries encouraged academic writers to be more productive than simply keeping personal records.
    The 30 minutes suggestion sounds very similar to the Pomedoro technique devised by a postgraduate student studying in Italy in the 1980s His unit of time is 25 minutes.

  5. Mark Purcell says:

    Hi Stuart, thanks for posting this. It inspired me to write something as well, over at my (newly launched) blog.

  6. Pingback: Foucault and Writing | Path to the Possible

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  10. S. Diamond says:

    RE: [(52-4) x 3] = 144 x 500 = 72000 very important observation left by an earlier commentator “by writing … crap, you get to what’s important” To my thinking, your sum of 72,000 words is more likeley to represent 72000 words of pre-published crap, which ny necessity must be polished an drefined into material suitable for publication. (unless of course you are so gifted as to write exquisit prose and fuly forged ideas at teh firt go). Please write more about planning for writing, establishing frames and outlines for ideas, the use “crappy-crap” braistorming, and the process of editing drafty-draft crap into an annealed and polished final product. I could also write 8 hours a week on a schedule, and end up with 500 words of “redrum redrum redrum redrum….” every day. Writing words and writing well are different balls of wax. So please, can you clarify this for me?

    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks for the comment and questions. I’ve said before ( that my writing approach is to get stuff down first, in some form, and then edit, edit, edit. I write knowing nothing I write is final, which for me takes the pressure off. The calculation was illustrative – you only need to get 500 words of good, usable stuff, three times a week to achieve that volume of publishing. Most days I write more than that, but then cut, edit, polish, discard, add, etc. the next time I go to the material. There is some stuff I’ve written straight out and then has been submitted largely ‘as is’, but that’s rare. Most stuff is worked over again and again. The key – again, for me – is to get my thoughts down onto the page. I do sometimes plan in advance, but often the plan emerges from some initial thoughts on the page, rather than set out clearly first. Also worth saying that I change my mind through writing – or work out what I’m trying to say by saying it; and regularly change the plan in the process. I may write more on this, but the earlier post might be worth a look.

  11. Pingback: Writing – words a day, and daily routines | Progressive Geographies

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  14. marlanaesquire says:

    Reblogged this on Things Fall Apart and commented:
    Making time to write!

  15. Pingback: Top posts on Progressive Geographies this week | Progressive Geographies

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