Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Why I Fail To Write

I'm not an academic, but I play one on the Internet. A large number of my friends are professors and doctoral students. I try to write and read, mainly out of enjoyment. The other reason is a nagging feeling of obligation born out of a kind of intellectual "keeping up with the Joneses." It's stupid, it's probably unhealthy, and it makes no sense. But it is what it is. I sometimes tell myself that I'm more in the mold of management thinker Peter Drucker, who was described by one biographer as being "raised a thinker, not an academic."[1] That works for a few seconds until I remember that he was the Clarke Professor of Social Science and Management at Claremont Graduate School, lectured on Oriental art at Pomona College, sat on the Board of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, has a graduate school named after him, and is considered the father of modern management. My consistent sense of inadequacy and "falling behind" produces a fair amount of anxiety. This means that the things that inspire me also remind me of my shortcomings (and not in a humility-inducing way). It's a double-edged sword. Which is why I both hate and love the quote below from John Durham Peters' recent interview:

It would take a lot of thought to detail my research techniques but they include the following imperatives: write early in the morning, cultivate memory, reread core books, take detailed reading notes, work on several projects at once, maintain a thick archive, rotate crops, take a weekly Sabbath, go to bed at the same time, exercise so hard you can’t think during it, talk to different kinds of people including the very young and very old, take words and their histories seriously (i.e., read dictionaries), step outside of the empire of the English language regularly, look for vocabulary from other fields, love the basic, keep your antennae tuned, and seek out contexts of understanding quickly (i.e., use guides, encyclopedias, and Wikipedia without guilt)...I write on a desktop that is not connected to the internet, and generally do not go online (on a separate computer) before noon or later, if I can help it. I am still largely paper-dependent for any serious reading. I do not have a smartphone, and have an ancient TV set with the most minimal cable package.

Let's breakdown this incredible model to emphasize my utter failure as a wannabe academic:

  • Write early in the morning - I'm commuting around 6am and at work by 7am. On my days off, I set my alarm to 8 or 9am and end up waking up around 11am.
  • Cultivate memory - My wife tells me I have very good memory, though I find myself struggling to remember something I've just read. I've taken up a form of journal writing in hopes of improving memory. I say "a form of" because it's really half-assed.
  • Reread core books - I'm drowning in the unread books on my shelves and my Kindle. I feel guilty when I reread. That or I feel like I'm wasting time because I could be reading something new.
  • Take detailed reading notes - My journal writing was an attempt at this as well, but as I said before, "half-assed." It kills me to think how much I can't remember because I failed to take notes on the books I've read.
  • Work on several projects at once - Check (I think).
  • Maintain a thick archive - ...of books and journal articles? If so, definite check.
  • Rotate crops - Assuming he means this metaphorically (I have no idea if he literally grows vegetation) in connection with "work on several projects at once" above, I would say 'yes'. However, I sometimes spread myself thin to the point of stagnation.
  • Take a weekly Sabbath - Not really. I work every other weekend and the fact that I'm in graduate school typically means I'm working on homework after church (not always).
  • Go to bed at the same time - Ha. No.
When someone asks me if I go to bed the same time every night.
  • Exercise so hard you can't think during it - That's when I get a lot of thinking done, which is probably why both my ideas and workouts suffer...
  • Talk to different kinds of people... - I don't really talk to anyone.



  • Take words and their histories seriously (i.e., read dictionaries) - Kinda. I used to be into etymology more when I was delving into Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. I sometimes jot down words I'm not familiar with when I read. I often second guess my use of words and check their definitions just to be sure. I aspire to be a wordsmith like David Bentley Hart (impossible, I know).
  • Step outside of the empire of the English language regularly - See above, though I'm still trying to master English.
  • Look for vocabulary from other fields - Yes. 
  • Love the basic - Yes and no. If by "basic" he means "simplify," then I'm rather terrible at it. But if he means study the basics and be grounded in them, then I think I do a fair job.
  • Keep your antennae tuned - Definitely try to.
  • Seek out contexts of understanding quickly (i.e., use guides, encyclopedias, and Wikipedia without guilt) - I could really work on this. I definitely suffer from guilt when it comes to using guides. I feel like I have to read a book or journal article (i.e., something I can cite) in order have a proper understanding. 
  • Generally do not go online (on a separate computer) before noon or later - I'm writing this online...in the morning...after checking my Facebook and browsing the Internet for an hour. I numb myself for several hours on a regular basis via Facebook and YouTube.


  • Largely paper-dependent for any serious reading - My Kindle is stuffed with plenty of books I haven't read yet, but so is my bookshelf. 
  • I do not have a smartphone, and have an ancient TV set with the most minimal cable package - Well, I had a Nokia until this last year. The thing was a tank. But now I'm looking at my phone just as much as everyone else. We don't have cable, but I do binge shows on Netflix. 

There is a lot of wisdom in Peters' brilliantly messy model. I hope to have mastered at least some of these in future.


NOTES

1. Jack Beatty, The World According to Peter Drucker (New York: Free Press, 1998), 7.

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