Last week, a very great musician and writer of my acquaintance, who is an outstanding musician, teacher, and, of course, writer, said that while she struggled mightily to sit down and write things, she had just discovered that she had to ‘pretend convincingly enough to myself that I don’t care if I’m a bad writer, and then this sense of freedom comes over me’, and then she can write. This, essentially, is why today I made most of dinner before 11am, and did a lot of laundry, because I hadn’t quite convinced myself that I had cast aside self-consciousness. And, how silly, because on Saturday I went to a morning workshop run by my university, which was all about writing. One of the exercises we did (the most useful, to my mind) was in free writing.
Free writing was something I had previously associated, shuddering, with people who blog and tweet about something horrible called ‘#AcWri’, that is to say ‘Academic Writing’. I can’t stand this abbreviation: it makes me squirm, as it seems to me to be a fetishization (to use a another squirm-inducing word) of something which is an intrinsic and unavoidable part of any academic undertaking. Of course, very often writing is a hideous business, requiring great mental effort, a lot of time, and generally one must reach a state of terrible and crushing despair before achieving anything at all. And, added to that, the internet is full of blogs about how some people promote all manner of ingenious (and squirm-inducing) methods to ease the process. More fetishization. And, what’s worse, they never get to the nub of what stops me (and a number of other people I know) from putting words onto the page: huge self-consciousness, rather than practice or process or praxis or some of the other distasteful words associated with #AcrWri and its fetishizations.
Self-consciousness. Not only do I quake with trepidation about what people will think of my research, it’s equally alarming to wonder how they’ll respond to the way I’ve written about it. Will they think that the modes of expression are affected, pretetentious, too restrained, too expressive, evasively indirect, or far too strong? It almost, almost feels as if being read is a sort of invasion of privacy. In fact, if anybody asks me, ‘Oooh, what are you reading?’ I feel somewhat violated (it was a relief to discover other people are like this too), and perhaps the same fear of self-exposure is at the root of the ‘writing problem’, insofar as I could be said to have one.
Do I have a ‘problem’? Well, Saturday’s exercise suggests not. At the workshop, each participant had to take a sheet of coloured A4 paper, and a felt-tip pen (I chose a pleasing yellow shade of paper, and a brown felt-tip, as these colours seemed harmonious, autumnal, and conducive to profound thought. Also, I knew that this particular brown pen didn’t have a squashy tip, so would work well). Then, we had to write for 10 minutes on the topic of ‘Writing’. The idea was just to write, with no premeditation, for the time allowed. Stream-of-consciousness, non-stop. If nothing was ‘coming through’, then it was fine just to writing ‘Writing’ or something like that, over and over again. Our fearless instructor said ‘GO!’ and off we went. Because of the presence of other people, I had to keep writing about Writing. In an act of extreme self-exposure, verging on bravado, I shall record here what I wrote (unedited):
Write about writing means thinking about how and what and why we writ. It is a good exercise because this way I can see that writing is primarily an expressive activity, but one that is governed by some rules. When we write for somebody else, we (I) think about what the reader ants, not what I want: in a programme note what does the reader want? To understand and to learn, or to be entertained? I want to reader to learn, so I tell them what I think they should learn. I decide what is most important about a piece and I tell them that, dressed up a bit so it seems objective – but it isn’t. But, ultimately, do I care what the reader thinks? Well, not really, because I am the ‘authority’ in this case? But there ARE doubts, because what if a great expert is there too? What if they see there’s an error? Hopefully there won’t be any actual errors because I check, check, check; BUT my interpretation could be wrong. That doesn’t stop me though, because why shouldn’t I interpret how I like? But in academic writing (there are a lot of buts here, I am very contrary maybe?) I always think that the readers know better, and I should please them, or impress them, or show them I’m totally in control or the topic with proper arguments and watertight evidence that cannot be unpicked! BUT (again), everything can be unpicked! So, why worry about that while writing. Write with feeling and strength, to show I’m in control of the material, and believe in it. Of course I must be flexible, but that comes later. Be certain first.
On re-reading, it’s surprisingly coherent, and without any planning, it revealed something that troubles me: how come I can sit down and write 2,000 words of programme notes easily in a day, with no self-consciousness, and with great authority? I can assimilate a host of other people’s research with my own analysis of the music, highlighting interesting harmonic or motivic material, and (hopefully) helping the audience think about a piece (and especially about very well-known pieces) in a new way. Then I send it off to the commissioner, and fear no more. But, it’s not just strangers who read these things: at some of the concerts for which I write notes, my friends and colleagues read my notes, as do people who are much more expert about aspects of this particular repertoire than I am. But I really don’t worry. Why is this? For me, programme notes are not ‘journalism’, they are an academic activity, which incorporate aspects of original research: certainly, I bristle or bridle or blench if somebody suggests the notes are journalism (not that I have anything against journalism, please be assured). But I can write these easily and with a confidence that leaves me when I have to produce an essay or chapter.
Re-reading my free writing (and coming back to this post after dealing with some laundry) I wondered too about the self-exposure aspect. There is another contradiction here, as I’m no stranger to the self-exposure of getting up on a stage and playing an instrument. Doing a solo recital at a large and prestigious London concert venue is something that, as Alan Bennett might say, I take in my stride. I’m not immune to performance nerves but they certainly don’t immobilise me: when the occasion has required it, I’ve filled in for other people and sight-read complex music in a concert with at least outward composure. Sometimes one thinks ‘Oh help, So-and-So [illustrious artist of international reputation] is sitting there in Row D’, but one can’t think about that for more than a few seconds, as it seriously detracts from concentration. However, when I tried to do some ‘free writing’ here this morning, my own self-consciousness presented itself, and I flailed about without really doing anything, and felt very, very foolish. Also, I realised I could go on until the cows come home, but it won’t help with my chapter, because that requires the incorporation of primary and secondary sources alongside my lofty notions.
So, what can be deduced? Or to make that active, what can one deduce from all this? What works best? Not caring what other people think?Or perhaps relinquishing caring about criticism (but this is difficult in itself – if you’re full of conviction, criticism is harder to withstand)? Forgetting that there are ‘other people’?