James Baldwin is a wonderful writer. I’m working my way slowly through The Fire Next Time, and the following passage just punched me in the chest:

Here was the South Side – a million in captivity – stretching from this doorstep as far as the eye could see. Ands they didn’t even read; depressed populations don’t have the time or energy to spare. The affluent populations, which should have been their help, didn’t, as far as could be discovered, read, either – they merely bought books and devoured them, but not in order to learn: in order to learn new attitudes. (Baldwin, 1993 p. 61)

Never have I ever felt so nailed by a critique. Have I ever really read to learn? Or has it always been to learn new attitudes? What’s the difference between learning [x] and learning a new attitude? What sorts of books is Baldwin talking about? And how does Baldwin distinguish between learning and learning new attitudes?

This last question seems to me to be a consequential one, and I would love to know how Baldwin makes the distinction (and if he is on record explaining it anywhere, I would love to read/watch.. so please leave a comment if you know).

I quoted from the First Vintage International Edition of the book, published in 1993.

Stranger Doppelgänger

Today was day one of my narrative theory and inquiry class, and it looks like it’s going to be a winning semester. One of the in-class activities had us writing a brief narrative about a stranger we’d encountered. Recent encounters were preferable, and after an abbreviated memory search I wrote the following:

Traveling to Chicago last weekend, I found myself stopping at an ATM in Merrillville, Indiana, which abuts Interstate 65 in the Northwest corner of the state. The clouds from an impending thunderstorm were hanging low in the sky and just as I pulled away from the ATM I caught a figure out of the corner of my eye. It wore a loose grey sweatshirt, which surprised me given the hot weather. One weathered hand gripped a length of wood atop which sat a sign “Puppy sale. The Pet Store.” The Pet Store is exactly what its name implies, and it’s located in the strip mall adjacent to the bank. His other free hand sort of hung frozen in the air. But as the car rolled by I noticed there was the slightest movement to it. He was waving. Waving to who? Pondering the question gave me time to take in the rest of the costume. Worn jeans with a few tears in the front. Frayed near the bottom. And a red baseball cap relaxing on his head—not really doing the work a baseball cap should. Pulling out into the street, I could see his wrinkled brow, furrowed by the sun. Perpetually furrowed by many suns, perhaps. I wondered how many times he has stood by the road holding signs and waving. How many times holding signs but not waving? What does he think about standing by the road? And who does he stand there for? Is he standing there for himself? For a family? Driving past on our way to the highway, having just put a few crisp bills in my wallet, I tried to see his eyes. I’m not sure why. I couldn’t see them, though, because he wasn’t looking up.

After the exercise, we were prompted to read the narrative to a neighbor and dig a little deeper and consider what the narrative reveals about the author. We had to introduce ourselves as these strangers. These stranger doppelgängers. So, for the above story, I had to think about what it reveals about me. Why did I choose to write about this man? I’ve encountered many strangers during the last few days. Why did I remember (and include) the details that I did? Why did I omit others? What of myself did I see in him? What of not-myself did I see? How did I relate to him? How did I distance myself? These are some really fun, provocative questions to think about, especially considering I thought the exercise was going to culminate in a class-wide sharing of stories to open a discussion about the variety of perspectives and approaches we all adopt and take when telling stories. Moreover, what a great way to illustrate natural proclivities for storytelling. Even without having shared with everyone in the room, I know we all wrote something down. And I know everything everyone wrote down would have been recognizable as a story. Cool stuff.

Writing | Quality as a Function of Utility

Everybody writes. Emails, blogs, papers, journal articles, book chapters, theses, dissertations, books… So at the draft stage of writing, how do you know enough is enough? This question popped into my head today as I was sending a draft of a section of a paper to my co-author. I wrote to him via email something along the lines of, “… I’m glad that I wrote something; that I gave us material to work with. but i also don’t know if what i wrote gives us enough.”

I regret having wrote that because all I was doing was qualifying the quality of the writing. In other words, “This draft sucks, so prepare thyself for a slog…” This is a crumby way to frame any writing.

Stuff just “is” for better or worse no matter how you choose to measure it. Would it be better if I got closer to “final draft” quality the first time around? Maybe. But, among other things, that assumes the goodness of badness of writing is a function of quality and speed.

See any standardized test for examples of how this assumption surfaces in reality. “Write 500-700 words in 25 minutes… etc.” Don’t mistake this as a criticism of touting speed as a key factor in the quality of writing. It may very well be important.

I want to put forth a different assumption about writing, which, in and of itself, is not incommensurable with speed as a component of quality, but which emphasizes another aspect of writing. The goodness or badness of writing is a function of its utility and its utility is inextricably linked with its context. 

I’ll try and explain with a design analogy.

We talk about iteration a lot in design. Sketch quickly. Sketch often. And always be in dialogue with and about your sketches. The same principle can be applied to writing. Write quickly. Write often. And always be in dialogue with your writing. A designer doesn’t have to be great at sketching. They don’t even need to be good at it, whatever “good” might mean to you. They need to be an adequate sketch artist, meaning that when someone else looks at their sketch they need to be able to be able to converse with it (even if the designer-creator of the sketch isn’t there). In other words, their sketches need to be useful given their spatio-temporally constrained role. Sketches need to be different things at different times in the design process. And maybe the same is true with writing.

I’ve read some pretty bad writing and been able to converse with it, and at the early stages of writing perhaps we all need to relax the “selection criteria” for what gets out of the brain and onto the page. You’ll write something useful. Guaranteed.

If you sketch a lot, you’re going to get better because you’ll (hopefully) come to understand at a deeper level (1) what it means for a sketch to be good and (2) how you can improve as a sketch artist. I think the same is probably true of writing.

If you write a lot, you’re going to get better because, through your own dialogue with your writing and through your dialogue with others about your writing, you’ll (hopefully) come to understand at a deeper level what it means, to you and to others, (1) for writing to be good, and (2) how to get from where you are to where you want to be (as a writer).

On Writing Papers

In the interest of writing more posts, I’m going to try constraining myself to just a few hundred words or less for each entry. We’re talking 250-ish words. I need to get better at jamming lots of meaning into a few words instead of saying a lot without actually saying much. This came into sharp focus tonight as I chipped away at the first draft of one of my final papers. It’s a 10-pager exploring a common thread of computational thinking in the works of Kuhn, Popper, and some third guy who isn’t a philosopher of science.

While working, I had the realization that I’m going to be writing papers more or less for the rest of my days (unless my career path veers out of academia and into the private sector). And if that’s going to be the case, I should probably develop some kind of system for writing so that I don’t reinvent my writing process with every paper… which is kind of what I’m doing now. I wrote a lengthy piece last semester critiquing the design of interactive learning applications by doing a close reading of Khan Academy, and that writing process broke down as follows:

  1. Start early… and by start early I mean gather a metric ton of papers (i.e. 30-40 papers)
  2. Create an annotated bibliography that includes: citation, summary, and relevance of each source to my purpose
  3. Engage in a lot of exploratory brainstorming
    1. Stream-of-consciousness writing
    2. Affinity diagramming
    3. Sketching
  4. Skip the outline. Write the first draft.
  5. Revise thrice and send the draft to the Professor for feedback
  6. Write final draft

But different classes necessitate different processes. I haven’t followed the same process for this most current work-in-progress. I suppose, ultimately, the nature of my research will dictate the nature of my writing process. For now, it remains in flux…