Plato regarded writing as a particular kind word-work. In that era, (the 5th c BCE Athens), speaking was, hands down, the more truthful way of presenting oneself and any idea. Writing was treated suspiciously: it is a derivative of the self, capable of corruption. Memory was the gold standard. Anything worth preserving was memorized.
Fast forward 2500 years and writing is the way that Western, modern societies think about truth. Laws are preserved and guarantees made “in writing.” Speaking is ephemeral, memorization is considered the path of those who have nothing original to add, and writing attaches to an author and coalesces an identity and preserves it for generations. We remember people because of what they wrote.
And of course, we remember the great icon of speaking—Socrates—because of Plato’s recorded dialogues.
I won’t get into the irony of that situation, nor about whether or not writing is better/less than speaking. Bringing up Plato’s distinction of writing and speaking allows me the occasion to reflect on the drama of writing as I experience it. Anxiety runs amok when I sit to put my academic voice to paper. I end up twisting my ideas into words and editing them over and over again. The effect are essays/papers that are serpentine, tracing some path through a wilderness sentence by sentence, linking a word introduced in sentence #1 with sentence #2 through a definition or example or a explication. I poke my head up at the end of a paragraph and survey my surrounds, checking my location against my thesis and then, go back to winding my way. While it sounds like a good way to keep track of the project and the objective, its pleasures are few and I am left with no real encounter with the landscape other than that soil beneath my feet.
Drafts. Every piece of writing advice tells me about drafts and the value of letting writing “cool off.” Yet, for whatever reason—be it that I took my writing process queues from parents who rushed through big plans at the last minute, or that I was affirmed early and often in school—I often wrote one version from a careful outline and could only make minor spelling/grammar changes to my writing. This practice of the Final Draft survived through high school, college, and my master’s program. Hitting my PhD program, I started to run into the practical conflicts of this style. And I encountered the psychic fallout of the Final Draft.
In writing the Final Draft, I edited every sentence as I went and followed a carefully mapped outline of quotations and major ideas. I wrote in large chunks of time, always near the deadline, and frequently was printing at the time the office doors were closing. Many Final Drafts did not get proofread for spelling or grammar. The results were mixed, as you can imagine. Yes, there was a paper. Yes, it had some great ideas and a lot of beautiful sentences and organization. But it showed its flaws in distinctive ways, exposing its author as both bright and ambitious, but also strangely terrified. The Final Draft marked me as one who dived deep, read closely, and argued systematically. But it also tripped over some of its metaphoric language or its bewildering prepositional phrases. It choose words that carried lots of weight and signaled other texts, but then would not reference them or would not unpack them. It would leave these words precariously about. And then the spelling and grammar issues that an equally bright reader would have caught. The Final Draft seemed, unlike other papers, to show symptoms of sickness and not just weaknesses.
This, of course, has been humiliating. No one wants their writing to reflect themselves in such painful, hard-to-diagnose detail (I think here of readers scanning their favorite authors’ works for signs of mental illness, like reading David Foster Wallace to learn about his depression). I started to pull away from writing because of this shame and the process that produced it. I did not want to be read; I did not want the world to see my flaws, my flawed process, or my lack of solution to it. I had developed a pattern of using intelligence to vault over my inability to plan and to ingratiate me into an approving authority. Those First Drafts won praise, and around them, I molded my sense of worth, fusing my voice, my identity, and my purpose with writing. As the First Draft crumbled, so did I.
Without a substitute for the First Draft, I started to write fragments and notes, resisting all forms of writing as I had done it. Yet, the identity with writing remained. I kept writing Me. The timeline for all of this crumbling and reconstituting self has been about 10 years now, and there are no magic bullets out of this quagmire—to mix a metaphor.
But Plato, via my friend Ashley over coffee recently, had a way of explaining this. Writing is NOT the same as the speaking person. How I understand this now is that, what is written is, by its medium of letters and paragraph structure, reflects just as much about the medium as it does about its author. It has its formal limitations and opportunities, just like other artistic mediums such as painting, drawing, television, film, sculpture, ceramics, or sidewalk chalk. A piece of writing stands on its own because of the material nature of language. Plato said that writing is always removed from its pure idea: a simulacrum of those ideas. Let me remind you, dear reader, of the Allegory of the Cave and Plato’s preoccupation with the original ideas, the Pure Forms, from which all of reality derive. Speech brings about insight into those forms that we grasp with our finely-trained human minds. Writing is a shadow on a wall of that pure light. “Don’t be confused by the shadows,” Plato advised.
I am not here to explain or defend Plato, but to highlight that behind the recommendation of drafts is a philosophical insight: writing cannot represent all that can be said or thought. The self cannot fit into a piece of writing and efforts to do so will cause all manner of confusion. To honor these formal constraints, Ashley advocates writing quickly. And then go read for a week. Come back to what you write and, with the new insights, the forest will show itself.
This may be common sense to most of my readers, practices that you heartily engage and readily recommend to your students. But maybe there is another person out there who once was seen and heard using the technologies of writing, homework, or beautiful semester-end projects. Maybe another person got really strong, positive feedback from really kind, well-meaning teachers who praised her work but who inadvertently glued together procrastination, writing, and identity.
I take from this: I am not my writing. I write, but it gets away from me. It is a limited form of communication and of representation. I can continue this insight by writing a draft, sitting while it cools, and noticing that while I wrote it, it is barely “mine” anymore and hardly “me.”
What is a crucial part of your writing process? Does it echo, either favorably or discomfortingly, a moment in your past?