Note to self: do this after watching tv tonight

Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street
Post No Bills

The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses

I. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.

II. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.

III. In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.

IV. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.

V. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.

VI. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.

VII. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.

VIII. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.

IX. Nulla dies sine linea * — but there may well be weeks.

X. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.

XI. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.

XII. Stages of composition: idea — style — writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, writing pays off style.

XIII. The work is the death mask of its conception.

* “Not a day without a line,” i.e., writing a line — variously attributed to Horace, Cicero, Pliny, and a mess of other dead guidos.

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7 thoughts on “Note to self: do this after watching tv tonight

  1. The work is the death mask of its conception.

    This has always been my favourite from this collection – if “favourite” is the right word to use. It captures something about those final moments in writing, when the drive to understand something – or even, sometimes, how to figure out how to express something you’ve understood – is exhausted in the writing process. It seems to capture, somehow, why I can find it difficult to engage with something I’ve written for some time after it’s done. It’s only when I’ve forgotten it a bit – when it can strike me fresh, like something someone else had written, that it loses this death mask aspect…

  2. Yes, Benjy was one smart dood. It’s weird reading his essay on Experience in light of how he killed himself. Or is it the one I’m thinking of, where he’s writing as a youth decrying the cynicism of his elders? Dang, I shouldn’t have returned the book yet.

    As for me, I’ve often wished for a forgetting machine to wipe out specific memories. I know that in reality most people would probably delete their unpleasant remembrances or mindwipe their enemies, but I would use it to erase all knowledge of creating something. That way, I’d be able to view it as others do.

    I first had this wish when I was on the road to art school and wanted to to see my work from other perspectives, but I think the machine would also be good for evaluating your own research papers. Actually, I would dearly love to be able to read my finished thesis that way. I would also use the forgetting machine to be able to experience favourite movies for the first time over and over (or books, tv shows, whatever). I suppose there should also be a way to re-insert your original memories otherwise you’d lose the experience you gained in the act of creation or be unable to appreciate the nuances available upon repeated viewings, but I think the forgetting machine would still be a handy device to have.

  3. I find that I do lose my memory of creating things reasonably quickly – within a couple of years, I can read my things from a reasonably external point of view: I get startled by realising that I used to have a store of factual knowledge that I didn’t remember ever acquiring; I’ll sometimes think that a particular mode of expression is something I’ve come up with only recently, only to run across it in an older work (or find that I actually said something better in an older work than I’ve been doing recently…).

    The skills acquired do seem to sink in, though – at least, I’m having a helluvan easier time writing a thesis this time around, than in my previous attempts (of course, some of this probably relates to having massively better supervision – also it’s a much longer-term project, so I may just be procrastinating on that moment when I’ll bog down… ;-P)

  4. You know, everyone I know who’s in academia claims to be a procrastinator. Statistically, you’d think at least one person would be on top of things, but no, whenever the subject of procrastination comes up there inevitably follows anecdotes of oneupmanship: “You played video games all weekend even though the paper you haven’t started is due on Monday? Well I broke into my professor’s house and slipped my paper into his marking pile even though it was two days late.”

    Surely somehow, somewhere, there has existed at least one academic who has never felt the guilt of procrastination?

  5. Pingback: Roughtheory.org » Itinerant Conversations on Dissertation Writing

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