I ordinarily don’t like to give advice on writing as I don’t believe I’ve attained the status as a philosopher, academic, or writer to speak with authority on these sorts of issues. I often think of myself as a sort of rogue, scoundrel, or hobo that wanders about at the margins of the academy without having really established myself in any way. In other words, I have a pretty low opinion of my work. Nonetheless, I do have some thoughts on how I cope with the struggle of writing. When it comes to writing I have all sorts of tics and phobias that make work a great challenge for me. In my core I am profoundly anti-authoritarian, suspicious of any groups, and resistant to any demands. This, I think, is a fractal like symptom that pervades every aspect of my life from very small things to very large things. Thus, for example, when I was in college and grad school, I would have to read the texts for a course a semester in advance because it was impossible for me to read texts if they were assigned. Something about the simple demand brings out my inner Lucifer, inciting me to defiance. Likewise, I find it intensely painful to fill out forms for the government or the college of any sort. Again, the demand. When it comes to writing I struggle to complete articles and conference presentations. Rather, I experience blog posts and email discussions as far more valuable and rewarding. In this regard, I feel a profound affinity and sympathy for Leibniz. Leibniz was a scribbler, a ltter writer. Even his massive New Essays on Human Understanding was a letter to Locke, abandoned when he died. Leibniz was gregarious and communicative, craving, it seems, talk above all else (let’s not forget he was also a diplomat). I ache for this as well. What is an article but a line on the CV that falls into oblivion, killing more trees along the way, never to be heard from again. What the hell are we doing in writing articles? There is something beautiful in the epistle and in many respects blogging is, as Mel put it to me recently, the new epistlary. Yet again, the issue surrounding conference papers and articles revolves around my loathing of demands. To get around this, I now trick myself, telling myself that I’m writing a blog post or email rather than an article or conference paper.
Setting these weird little ticks aside, the biggest issue I struggle with when it comes to writing is originality. Am I saying something original? Do I have something original to say? The pursuit of originality, I believe, is one of the most paralyzing things for writers and among the greatest impediments to writing. First, it’s important to note, I think, that the more you write, the more you will. This, of course, is a banal truism, which is part of why I like it as a maxim. The point isn’t simply that if you write more you are, by definition, writing more. Note the future tense in the maxim. There are two reasons that you will write more if you write more. The first is professional and institutional. It is imperative to get your stuff out there in some form or another. You might have the most brilliant ideas in human history since Aristotle, but if no one knows who you are nothing will come your way. By contrast, once you begin to get stuff out there writing opportunities snowball. Suddenly people are asking you for pieces here and there, for contributions to their journals and conferences, and so on. Writing issues more writing. This is true even of blog writing. When I think of people to contribute to conferences and edited collections, these people are usually people I’ve corresponded with or who have blogs that interest me. Had they not posted their random thoughts I wouldn’t have thought about them.
However, there is another reason that the more you write the more you will write. Writing is like kudzu. Kudzu is a vine common to the south that grows at about a foot a day. It’s a really amazing (and irksome!) plant. This is how it is with writing as well. Writing grows from writing. Writing produces the imperative to write more. This is because, as you write you discover new themes, new concepts, and things that need to be worked through. Like a growing crystal, writing expands. In my view, one of the biggest mistakes aspiring writers make lies in trying to write before you write. By this, I mean that many writers, myself included, try to have their ideas before they write their ideas. But things just don’t– at least for me –work this way. Now, of course, just as you need a seed to form a crystal in a supersaturated solution, you need a seed to start writing. However, the seed is not the idea. The idea is something that only comes into being in the process of writing. It is not something that is there prior to writing. The point is not to have the idea before you write, but to allow the idea to emerge in writing. And once you’ve produced a lot of chaff, you then get to the arduous work of polishing and organizing. In this regard, it is a necessity to write obsessively and all the time. This is where ideas are born, not before the act of writing.
The drive for originality is also a big impediment to writing. On the one hand, we suffer from a sort of transcendental illusion. We (or I) think to ourselves that if we have an idea it can’t possibly be original precisely because the idea is familiar to us. It is not new to us. But writing is not for us, but for others, whether those others be our own future selves or the self we are becoming in the act of writing (writing has the magical power to remake you) or for the others who might read our scratchings on bit of napkins. On the other hand, originality cannot be anticipated. If originality could be anticipated it wouldn’t be originality. Rather, originality follows the logic of Lacan’s tuche or chance encounter. Originality is something that occasionally takes place, but if it does take place it can only be known as having had taken place, it can never be experienced in the moment. We only ever know that originality has taken place retroactively. As a consequence, it’s important to surrender the desire to anticipate originality so as to clear a space in which the event or chance occurrence of originality might take place.
Finally, I believe it is incredibly important to make ourselves uncomfortable if we wish to write. There’s a way in which scholarship, expertise with respect to a particular thinker or field, is the kiss of death for writing. We become so familiar with our area of expertise that the will to write dries up and disappears. Consequently, one strategy for producing writing lies, for me, in encountering the unfamiliar. If I’ve been spending too much time with the phenomenologists for a year or so, I should throw myself into the study of some branch of mathematics, or the investigation of some period of history, or into an engagement with biologists like Stephen J. Gould. An encounter with the unfamiliar, with alterity, generates an unassimialable kernel with respect to what I had previously been focusing on. That kernel functions as a seed to throw thought in motion, generate new conceptual spaces, form a weave of relations to make sense of these disparate worlds, thereby generating the work of writing.