Monthly Archives: March 2019

The Workshop and the Garden

for Susan D. Blum

I introduced my lectures earlier this year by invoking the wisdom of two favorite “how to” books: Oliver Senior’s How to Draw Hands and André Voisin’s Rational Grazing. As reading matter, both books are remarkable to me because they draw on many years of expert experience, on observation and experiment within the relevant practical art. This produces a distinctive style that I enjoy for its own sake. But, just now, while reading Friedrich Hayek’s 1974 Nobel lecture, I was reminded of an important difference between the subjects they are writing about. He ends it with the following observation:

If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants.

This, in turn, reminded me of one of my favorite poets, Ezra Pound, who used the imagery of both the workshop and the garden to talk about literature.

We live in an age of science and abundance. The care and reverence for books as such, proper to an age when no book was duplicated until someone took the pains to copy it out by hand, is obviously no longer suited to ‘the needs of society’, or to the conservation of learning. The weeder is supremely needed if the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a garden.” (ABC of Reading, 1934, p. 1)

Some Huxley or Haldane has remarked that in inventing the telescope Galileo had to commit a definite technical victory over materials. (Guide to Kulchur, 1938, p. 50)

This tension between the sorts of “victory” or “mastery” that the craftsman accomplishes and the “cultivation” that a gardener demonstrates is useful to remember. But it must be noted that a gardener, too, has a very definite set of craft skills. Even weeding, as anyone who has tried it knows, can be done effectively or haplessly, efficiently or ineffectually, and ability here shows, not just in the results that it produces (the persistence of the garden as a garden), but in the pleasure the gardener can take in the work itself (as opposed to suffering back pain and cramped hands). But there is that important difference between standing back and being satisfied with the “work” (a teapot, or a table, or a telescope) and having to wait for the garden to grow before the effort finally bears its literal fruit.

Writing good prose seems, at first pass, to belong more to the workshop than the garden. Like Senior’s draftsman, the writer’s knowledge could make, as Hayek puts it, “mastery of events possible”. That is, the writer is in complete control of the material, enjoying full freedom to choose whatever words are needed in whatever order they are required, just as drawing a hand means arranging a set of lines into shapes on a two-dimensional surface to suggest a three dimensional object. But on closer inspection, and when working on larger texts, we see that the process must be managed to “cultivate growth”. The writer must return to the work again and again, day after day, drawing nourishment from the soil of an ongoing inquiry, and making sure not to exhaust the store of ideas before it can be replenished. To control the growth of ideas while writing, certainly a weeder is needed. Writing well requires the competence of a craftsman, but it also requires the patience of a gardener. We must both shape our ideas and let them grow.

The great learning, said Confucius, comes from “watching with affection how people grow”. I want to follow this line of argument out to a somewhat unfortunate metaphor (or at least I think my students will think it’s a little bit off). We must imagine that we are not just imparting skills to our students; rather, part of our work involves treating our students like Voisin treated his cows. He saw grazing as “the meeting of cow and grass” and it must be remembered that he took very seriously the needs of both the grass and the cow. In addition to encouraging our students to hone their craft through practice and “workshopping” their results in our master classes, we must remember to move them from one text to another, one learning experience to another, before they have exhausted completely the matter they are digesting. Let new ideas grow naturally while they are thinking about things, and then move them back to that paddock of learning later — next week, for example. Of course, we do this traditionally simply by designing a curriculum and scheduling their classes. This is not merely an “academic” affectation. It is grounded in a genuine affection for our students.

Good Writing

The word “writing” is famously ambiguous. It can name a product, as in “I like his writing,” or a process, as in “She likes writing.” When we speak of “good writing” or “writing well” we can likewise mean either a readable product or a bearable process. To say that someone is a “good” writer often means they have a strong prose style, but it could also mean that they have healthy work habits. It’s a difference that is worth keeping in mind when you’re thinking about your own writing.

Good writing should of course be visible on the surface of the text. If what you have written doesn’t finally get your ideas across, it’s hard to consider it a success. And whether your writing succeeds in this sense is something you really only discover when you hear from your readers. (When you do get feedback, remember to distinguish between your reader’s reaction to your ideas and their reaction to your writing. If they don’t like what you think, but it is actually what you think, then there may not be anything wrong with your style.) But even before your readers see your text, I would suggest you learn to evaluate your own product. Develop an eye for grammatical errors and stylistic gaffes. Read yourself out loud. And do please learn to see that your writing is improving. As scholars, we write a lot, and this should be as obvious in our prose as the regular practice of athletes is apparent in their moves.

But what is it that you are actually good at? What is it that you are getting better at through practice? This is where I encourage you to take a moment to observe your process, indeed, I challenge you to take a series of moments. The basic idea is to decide what you want to say at the end of one day and then sit down the next day at a particular time to write a good, clear paragraph that says it. Spend 18 or 27 minutes doing some very deliberate writing — writing that has a well-defined end and makes use of predetermined means. You are trying to support, elaborate or defend a single idea in at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. This is as easy (and as hard) to be “good at” as running 5 kilometers over varied terrain in 25 minutes. There’s no mystery about whether you’re succeeding or how much effort it takes. Most importantly, there’s no mystery about your progress.

In my book, a “good” writer is someone who can make effective use of 20 or 30 minutes (including a short break) to produce a “unit of composition”. A good writer is therefore someone who is able to choose what to write about; there is, after all, no skill that can be applied generally to everything. A good athlete knows what field to step onto and what ring not to get into. A good musician knows what stage to perform on. A good surgeon doesn’t make an incision into just any part of any body. Likewise, a good writer knows what subjects to write about, and who their reader is, and what subjects to leave to other writers for other readers. The standard, I suggest, is whether you’re able to produce a workable prose paragraph in under half an hour. Within your discipline, that is a skill that is very much worth having.

And that means that it is worth investing the effort it takes to develop it. I don’t need to tell you what the effort looks like. At the end of every day, five days a week, over eight weeks, let’s say, pick something you know and write a good clear sentence expressing it. The next morning, sit down to compose a paragraph in 18 or 27 minutes. Take a two or three minute break and get on with your day. Don’t think too much more about it. Just do it and then do all the other things you have to do that day. Experience yourself writing. Experience yourself getting better. In an important sense, “good writing” just is that experience.