I go through periods of time where I live like a hermit. While I do go to work, I generally wake up, go to work, go home, I work/write/sleep, and get up and do it all over again. On the weekends I might venture out to get coffee or stop by the farmer’s market, but otherwise I return to my home office and sit in front of the glare of my computer screen for hours on end taking breaks only to stir whatever big pot of soup or chili or stew I have cooking on the stove or to eat from said pot of food. I do see friends on occasion, but more often than not the friends have initiated the hang time request, and I often also neglect personal email and gchat (things that when I am not being a recluse I do frequently and with great attention).
It’s no surprise that as a writer/scholar/thinker I often become more reclusive when I’m working toward a goal or deadline; as of December 1st I finalized a draft of the article derived from the ideas about nonce genres articulated earlier on this blog. Dec. 1st was the goal and I met it. There’s something about needing to get work done that inspires this kind of bunker down, dig in, work-hard-but-forget-to-play-hard mentality for me. My periods of solitude, I’m sure, would seem to be exactly like that seductive life-of-the-writer ideal people expect (and I perpetuate it through my Facebook and Twitter statuses, for sure). I do, after all, work on my computer in a small warm room surrounded by books on shelves and on the hardwood floor underneath my feet. There is always a warm steaming mug café au lait or loose leaf black currant tea or snow monkey tea—or else there is always a mug of coffee or tea half-finished, ignored and cooling during particularly productive periods where my fingers do not leave the keyboard keys.
But I don’t actually buy into that romantic image of the writer/scholar/artist alone in his or her office, deep in the throngs of creative action or else taking long walks or staring out the window waiting for lightning to strike. In fact, I specifically teach several articles to my students about where good ideas come from written by authors and scholars who specifically question and complicate the concept of the “eureka” moment so often touted as an inevitable (albeit mysterious) event for writers (see Flower and Hayes, “The Cognition of Discovery,” and Steven Johnson’s TED talk on “Where Good Ideas Come From”). This romantic ideal, along with the romanticized notions of the writer at work, are endlessly perpetuated in portrayals of artists or in descriptions by creative individuals themselves.
What is not as visible, however, is the level at which these great moments of solitude are simultaneously great moments of collaboration with other writers. While I may neglect to connect with real human beings socially the energy otherwise spent socializing is far from lonely, as it’s in these times that I am best living with and conversing with the ideas of others I am writing with and against. As many of my students argued so intelligently in the recent assignment on where good ideas come from, written works (especially essays that require evidence from outside sources) are textual enactments (or, I’d say, materialization) of collaboration and conversation. Often in writing instruction we use “conversation” as a metaphor for how students might incorporate other source material into their essays, but I’m coming to feel (with my students’ help) that collaboration might be the more appropriate. As Johnson articulates:
We have this very rich vocabulary to describe moments of inspiration. We have the kind of the flash of insight, the stroke of insight, we have epiphanies, we have “eureka!” moments, we have the lightbulb moments, right? All of these concepts, as kind of rhetorically florid as they are, share this basic assumption, which is that an idea is a single thing, it’s something that happens often in a wonderful illuminating moment.
But in fact, what I would argue and what you really need to kind of begin with is this idea that an idea is a network on the most elemental level. I mean, this is what is happening inside your brain. An idea — a new idea — is a new network of neurons firing in sync with each other inside your brain. It’s a new configuration that has never formed before. And the question is: how do you get your brain into environments where these new networks are going to be more likely to form? And it turns out that, in fact, the kind of network patterns of the outside world mimic a lot of the network patterns of the internal world of the human brain.
The essay is one such environment. Although Johnson isn’t directly talking about writing, his idea can easily be applied to the writing process. Several of my students made this leap, and intelligently so. Like the coffee shops where groups can gather to exchange ideas and build on those ideas, the essay is also a place where an author or authors get to put all these ideas and voices into one “room” and work through the ideas so that those new configurations take shape. The essay is a materialization of the networks of ideas that lead up to “new” and refreshing ideas.
The idea of the essay as room is not new, indeed written works as rooms goes back to Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein. My purpose, however, is not to conjure up the Burkean parlour metaphor (see Brufee) where an individual enters such a room, offers his or her position and takes part in the conversation and then departs and the conversation continues. Rather, this time of relative solitude coupled with the recent work my students have done has reminded me that it is a writer’s engagement with the ideas of others that helps new configurations (the argument, the thesis, the claims) to materialize in written work. It’s collaboration: working with and against the ideas of others, adopting some and resisting others. Negotiation and concession are necessary gestures in all collaborations, aren’t they?
It makes sense to me now, then, that my favorite part of the writing process (and I am sure this comes from my work in and for writing centers) is when I finally send the work to a reader, and my conception of audience materializes. My readers take part in the negotiations I’ve entered into with others’ texts and help me to arrive at a clearer understanding of the meanings I’ve constructed. It’s that moment that the work steps out from the bonds of purely intertextual conversation and into true life conversation and collaboration. My trusted readers for this article offered thoughtful responses and questions, suggested other scholars I might consider, and paraphrased key moments of my argument as they were working their way through it. They also offered their own ideas as true-life counters or concerns to my claims which then allowed me to acknowledge those potential counters and thereby strengthen the claims I came to build.
Networking ideas together through writing is revealing and does, sometimes, initiate a kind of “ah ha” moment that feels a little like a lightning strike… but I never feel solely responsible for those ideas, nor do I feel they’ve been gifted to me by some muse or heavenly intervention. The ideas I offer in writing (in all writing… in scholarship, in this blog, in poems) are perhaps equal parts others I cite, the great many texts I’ve read and written previously, and the feedback and views of my readers, as well as my own workings in relation to those other ideas. What my students thoughtfully articulated what I’ve been having trouble with, is that what is truly original is the ways in which the author has arranged that network of ideas on the page (the individual authors’ decisions for how to make material that network of ideas). Ideas in essays might initially take shape by chance or by following the ideas as you would in conversation, but the great value of the writing process is that the author can revise and reshape those ideas and the negotiation of those ideas to suit the needs of the individual work. It is, perhaps, only through craft (the shaping of the text) that written works achieve “originality” which are then seen as the author’s own.