Modes of Writing

Following from the last post, I’m struck by Derek Gregory writing about his ‘Deadly Embrace’ lecture, because he outlines a mode of working that is almost the reverse of mine. Derek explains how he begins with the visual, and then over time, and a few presentations of the material, it becomes a text:

This is my usual way of working these days.  I begin with a presentation – using Mac’s Keynote software as a storyboard, and trying to think visually about the argument – and then give revised versions to different audiences before trying to set it out in print.  I find it really creative, and it usually solves the problem of getting down to work: before I hit on this, I had no trouble finding all sorts of displacement activities to postpone the hard graft of writing.  This is much more fun, but it still leaves two residual problems.  It’s far from straightforward to convert what becomes an intensely visual argument into vivid prose – and there is always the danger that, once you’ve got the presentation in a more or less final form and incorporated the changes suggested at its different outings, you (I) can’t summon the energy or enthusiasm to convert it into written form.  The trick here is to retain the excitement of live performances – of living arguments – by opening up the writing to further changes.  Once the text becomes a mere transcript of a performance it loses its liveliness.  You can see how it works if you compare the Miliband Lecture I gave at the LSE and the version I gave Erlangen in Germany – ‘War in the borderlands’ – with the version published as “The everywhere war” in the Geographical Journal.

Now this very clearly works for Derek. He’s one of the best presenters I’ve seen, and his lectures are extremely visual and effective. But it’s not how I work. Recently I have been making efforts to make my lectures more visual, and the ‘Secure the Volume’ lecture at Kentucky (video here) or the RGS, or the ‘Fossils’ one that has had a few outings (Canberra, Macau and then, in truncated form, Lancaster) have been heavily illustrated. The Shakespeare material is less visual and more text-heavy, but with the Coriolanus paper I showed film clips, which is a first for me in a research presentation (as opposed to teaching). But all of these began with a text, which I turned into a presentation – first the quotes, then some relevant images, then the ‘structure’ slides. I then take the written text and edit it to work as notes for the presentation, which I practice aloud a few times, breaking up the longer sentences and paragraphs; putting in marginal notes for which passages to ‘skip’, ‘summarise’ or ‘explain’ more fully; and put in the cues for the slides. For me the advantage of this is that I have a fairly good text immediately after the presentation. I then go over the notes for the presentation and incorporate the relevant ones into the master file of the text; add in notes in relation to especially good questions; etc. before I next present it to an audience. If that’s very shortly afterwards then I might make the annotations for the second presentation in a different ink on the same script. But all of this exists on paper, or on file, and it’s there even if I don’t have time to work it into a proper text immediately. If I’d gone back to merely the presentation of the ‘Fossils’ paper after a year away, then I’m not sure I could have worked out how to give it to an audience again.

I’ve written about ‘writing’ quite a few times on this blog; which is partly because I’m very interested in how different people do this. I’m not trying to convince anyone my way should be their way; and in someone like Derek Gregory there is an excellent example of a different approach. Henry Yeung and I did a session on writing when I was visiting National University of Singapore, and we work in very different ways; Graham Harman and I have discussed different approaches before. What matters is to find a way that works for you; and to be willing to experiment once in a while – Derek hints that this is something he has arrived at over time, rather than how he has always worked.

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2 Responses to Modes of Writing

  1. Pingback: Comparing modes of writing | Thinking culture

  2. I know I sometimes think and read about writing more than I actually write but thanks for posting both of these reflections. I just spent a few minutes trying to track down an old post on writing by Jane Espenson, who was one of the scriptwriters for Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and several other series such as BSG, Torchwood, etc.; also a former research assistant for George Lakoff). The post seems to have disappeared from Fox’s website as Firefly is now long gone. But the post was interesting because she described the collective writing process of the team of script writers. What they seemed to give priority to was neither specifically visual nor textual, but instead the conversations about the themes and characters, collectively generating ideas (which were then developed by individual writers, to be sure, but then returned as text to the collective for further discussion). Writing as metabolic and relational.

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