Monday, January 06, 2014

A Double Life

I got J. Michael Lennon's biography of Norman Mailer for Christmas. In this clip he explains some of Mailer's writing advice that I've been telling writers of academic prose for years. In The Spooky Art, Mailer put it this way: "If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time." As Lennon puts it here, don't leave your troops out in the rain.

Lennon goes on to explain that Mailer worked "two shifts", long days, and this is less exemplary for scholars. Mailer was a novelist, so his entire job, in a sense, consisted of prose composition. Writing and "research" were, properly speaking, the same thing. A novelist is only ever trying to discover what he wants to say. (That's a caricature. Much of Mailer's work, as is the case with many writers, consisted also of research in the more traditional sense. He spent a long time learning about ancient Egypt for one novel, for example, and engaged in the equivalent of "field work" to do his journalism. The point is that in periods when he was working on a novel full time, there was nothing to do all day but write. He had no other responsibilities.) Scholars, by contrast, have many other things to do every day, which is one of the reasons I recommend writing for at most three hours. During intensely intellectual periods, where the scholar has little teaching or administrative work to do, a happy rhythm of a half day of writing and a half day of reading or thinking can set in. Hemingway practiced something similar at times, writing for a half a day and then "living" the rest (nudge, nudge, wink, wink.)

Scholarly writing is also more declarative, less explorative. The rhythm that I suggest, of writing one paragraph every half hour, each of which makes a particular claim that has been decided on the day before, is much more intense than what Mailer did with "the story" every time he sat down to work on it. It is therefore more tiring, or perhaps just tiring in a different way. Scholars are out for a run when they write. Mailer is taking a long hike.

The theme of Lennon's biography is captured in the title, A Double Life. He was not here just referring to Mailer's legendary philandering (a legend that the book confirms in great detail). Mailer believed that everyone, more or less, is composed of opposing forces, that we all live double lives, with inner conflicts. His novels were about this duality. I try to get scholars to recognize, at the very least, the tension between the writers and the researchers they are. It doesn't have to be a great drama, but we have recognize that these parts of us have different and sometimes opposite tendencies. The trick is to establish a relationship of trust between them. As Steve Fuller once said to me in a different context, there will always be a duality, but perhaps we can do away with the duplicity.

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