Wednesday, 9 January 2013
Writing and art
I'd mentioned that I want to start blogging again this year. I've felt that ever since I began my PhD I just haven't had any ideas to express here. All of my intellectual energies have gone into my studies. This isn't a bad thing, because this is perhaps the most crucial point when I should try to focus, and after which I can begin to relax a bit (ha! I know that isn't true). But it has left me feeling rather two-dimensional and wondering what happened to all my other interests outside Judaism. I can't even find the time to read my weekly New Scientist anymore, and the pile of waiting-to-be-read books grows daily. So, I wanted to share this post from the excellent artist Bryan Christie. He discusses his past as a musician and the feeling of uselessness at being an anachronism, playing jazz in 90s New York, and then the revelation at becoming art editor at a scientific magazine where the passion of the writers made him feel like he was "surrounded by artists and musicians". This reminded me of the sense of liberation I had when I finally abandoned music and turned instead to academia (five years ago now). There are some things I miss about being a musician, but mostly I think I've found the drives that brought me to music have been fulfilled more completely here. I often reflect that academic study - or more precisely, academic writing - is for me an artistic pursuit. I have the same feeling from honing a mass of information into a coherent, developing "argument" with momentum as I did from making music. Because music-making was always more a matter of composition than playing for me, the careful and intricate refinement, and the attempt to "show" a complex notion over the course of a piece that could not be said in a single melody, are recalled to me now when I attempt to express very abstract, intangible and complex theories over ten thousand words that couldn't be adequately stated in twenty. Both processes, it occurs to me now, were mostly carried out infront of computer screens. The process of writing - and I've found this to be true in my PhD as well as in my MA and earlier essays - is roughly analogous to sculpture. The first step is to form your lump of clay. This is the research phase, taking notes and editorialising; effectively throwing words at the screen until you have a good solid mass to start working with. Next you can start honing: chipping away at the block until you can feel the shape emerging, rearranging paragraphs and aligning topics so that the argument takes shape. Finally you can start adding in more ideas and text to highlight or accentuate areas. But crucially I think, it never feels like the argument is something I'm creating; it's present in the initial body of text, I am just turning it around and trying to find how to reorder it so that the argument becomes obvious. Although I've occasionally been surprised, mostly I have a vague awareness of my conclusions even before I've started that process. But I think the crucial aspect for me, what drove me both as a musician and as an academic, is the sense of discovery - the sense of curiously placing things together, taking ideas from different fields/styles, mashing them all together and making something new, but also the ability to (forgive my Wittgensteinian fascination) show what cannot be said, to somehow express a concept that goes beyond words.