Five pages by 3pm. Six hours on Tuesday. Half a section before lunch. These are proclamations towards progress, strategies to start and finish, ways to get it, writing, done.
I remember when I first used these heuristics. In graduate school, one of my friends (seventeen years and counting) used to monitor her dissertation progress in number of hours spent sitting down, facing the computer, hands on keyboard. She distinguished the real state of work from engaging in activities that resembled working, even resided near it, but did not, actually qualify as work. Top three of these activities: needing to “check” something (even before smart phones, there were things to check), confirming with calendar that today was indeed on the schedule, and eating.
Writing begets writing, writing wrestles out a topic, a topic terminates the torture of writing under physical, psychological, or temporal constraint. Or so we believed. I’ve been using versions of these techniques for two decades.
Now these tactics for writing are returning as a kind of topic about the relationship between beginnings and endings, about firsts and finishing and torture. Or, if not torture, then the tricks we play to goad us into a good day’s end. And, also, I’m considering those brief interludes of pleasure that peek into the push to progress. So I’m going on record: I was looking forward to sitting down to write this. It never occurred to me that the week’s musings and ideas, phrases and fleeting sentences would not yield up a topic. For this entry or for…what’s coming.
(Clearly we have moved out of the pleasure paragraph.)
The search for a subject has been the lingering concern of every utterance spoken or scribed over the last few months. When do you declare direction and when do you go on…forward, anyway? I know I describe familiar composing dilemmas–product and process, thesis-driven essay, open-ended thought paper, intention and invention.
But none of these is my topic.
I am, however, interested in, if only distracted by, the sets of threes that hover over the topic quest. Threes I think are essential to any list that is also describing a condition, a potential coming into view. Threes dominate rhetoric, are the key components of persuasion, Aristotle tells us.
Threes also pervade the modern systems of power as Foucault described them, the set of relations that mediate our every day lives. It’s worth quoting a bit at length from an interview (conducted by then graduate student, now History professor Michael Bess) where Foucault calls on threes to declare a position on morality:
Question: Are there positive themes in your concept of what is good? In practice, what are the moral elements on which you base your actions toward others?
Foucault: I’ve already told you: refusal, curiosity, innovation.
Question: But aren’t these all rather negative in content?
Foucault: The only ethics you can have, with regard to the exercise of power, is the freedom of others. I don’t tell people, “Make love in this way, have children, go to work.”
Question: I have to admit, I find myself a bit lost, without points of orientation, in your world—because there’s too much openness.
Foucault: Listen, listen . . . How difficult it is! I’m not a prophet; I’m not an organizer; I don’t want to tell people what they should do. I’m not going to tell them, “This is good for you, this is bad for you!” I try to analyze a real situation in its various complexities, with the goal of allowing refusal, and curiosity, and innovation. History of the Present 4 (Spring 1988), 1-2, 11:
We are conditioned by power, by pedagogy, by rhetoric, to think of what’s first and last, what’s above and below, what’s higher and lower, what’s opening and closing, the beginning and the end. Technology, perhaps, changes this vertical perspective, (thank you apple lion for horizontal desktops). Maybe search engines reorient us towards an between. Foucault’s “refusal, and curiosity, and innovation” certainly moves me to a middle. These heuristics take topics out of the next step, past the temporal.
And at least for now, that’s where I sit.