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October 20th, 2009 / 4:16 pm
Craft Notes

Literature’s Material Circumstances

lego_relativityBlake already posted about &Now, but I want to put up more about one panel titled “Writing’s Dirty Secret: An Investigation of Literature’s Material Circumstances.” This panel was run by Jeremy Davies and AD Jameson and was really interesting because it tried to get at some of the more process-based questions about writing habits. How do we write? What do we use to write? Time of day? And so on. Standard questions really, but questions that might not get the focused treatment they deserve.

The panel led to more discussion between Matt Kirkpatrick, Lily Hoang, and myself later that night. Lily echoed a remark that panelist Vanessa Place made: that to answer these kind of questions was somewhat frustrating because of how predictable our answers are, as the questions and our answers are so bound up in what we think a writer ought to say when asked “how do you write?” Place asked during the panel something like this: how many of our writing habits come not from what works best for us but what we think ought to work best for us based on some idealized notion we have about what it means to be a ‘writer’?

Davies and Jameson handed out a little booklet that I’ll quote from here so you can get a sense of the scope of their project, the sorts of questions they’re asking, and so on.

From the proposal:

The products of writing cannot and should not be separated from the act of writing. We are therefore proposing a book-length series of interviews that focus on what has remained writing’s “dirty secret”: its material circumstances. Our goal is not interpretation or evaluation, but rather an open-ended investigation into writing as both intellectual and physical labor. The results of this project will be of interest to readers, critics, fellow writers, and writing students (who often receive no instruction in the physical aspect of the art form, and are left to discover for themselves what every writer soon discovers for her- or himself).

Then, after the “Methods” and “Rationale” sections, there are two interviews printed in the booklet, in which the authors ask two writers many question, such as

How do you write? That is, do you write in shorthand, longhand, or do you use a typewriter or a computer?

Are materials important to you, or can you use practically anything?

Has your approach to writing changed as new technologies have become available?

And in regard to methods that change: are these structural methods? Or the ways in which you begin a project, or research it?

What do these first drafts look like? How detailed are they? It sounds as though they help you to find the work’s character, so that you can then “saturate” yourself with it — is that a fair way of putting it?

Do you have a set schedule?

What kind of environment do you prefer to work in?

What do you find to be the discomforts of writing? Are there aspects of writing that are unplanned or uncomfortable?

And finally, here is a question that writer Amina Cain answered in the pamphlet, just to give you a sense of the kinds of talk between the researchers and the writers:

Do you see your work as happening in stages? Do you work in clear drafts?

I don’t know how to separate composition from revision. I revise constantly when I write, but not in clear drafts. I never sit down and write a complete first draft of anything. I work very slowly, over days filling up a single page, and also cutting it down. I keep working in that way until there are more pages. It’s more like a balloon that slowly gets bigger and bigger, than it is a text that gets longer and longer. The contents of the balloon keep changing and sometimes it gets smaller for a while. A text feels like a space or a room I move around in, that I spend time in everyday.

I don’t take notes or work from an outline. What becomes a story is always a surprise, though not a huge one, for I find the details that make it into a story have been in my mind even if I didn’t plan to write about them.

In the “Methods” section I counted around thirty writers who have so far responded to the email interviews, some of whom represent other forms of written composition: graphic artists, hybrid text composers, etc. It looks like a really good project, and I’m interested to see the final series of interviews.

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