Friday, 27 August 2010

Rowan Williams: writing as discovery

Rowan Williams, discussing the process of writing:

"Something which will be familiar to anybody who has ever tried to do serious writing ... is the sense in which you only discover what you have to say in the doing of it. Saunders Lewis, the Welsh poet, used to quote somebody saying – a child saying – 'How do I know what I think until I see what I say?' and I have always resonated rather with that. And that means that for me in writing even a straight forward prose essay or a short book or a lecture, there is that awkward moment when ... the engine is turning over a bit and you are wondering exactly at what point you are going to discover what the argument is. That's a warning really about the first four pages of everything I have ever written!

"Writing isn't translating something in here onto the page. Writing is an act. If it were just transference, no doubt you could plug in the electrodes and something would neatly type up what was going on inside your head.... Writing is an act, it is an action of self-discovery and an action of trying to put something into being."

20 Comments:

Dan Reid said...

Precisely! And as John Goldingay commented to me when I was looking over his shelf of books he'd written, "I keep those so I can remind myself what I think about things."

Brian said...

Donald Bloesch died on Tuesday.

kim fabricius said...

Characteristically Wittgensteinian. That's certainly the way it works with me: writing as heuristics. Hauerwas adds a nice theological twist when he says, "By writing I learn to believe" - and he doesn't mean just what to believe.

Btw, the "somebody" Saunders Lewis used to quote was E.M. Forster.

Daniel Camacho said...

Good quote from the Archbishop. I now know that the excruciating pain I feel in the writing process is me not knowing what to say

brainofdtrain said...

Thanks for this Ben. This most nearly represents my own experience of trying to write. Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

Have to confess: as much as I respect the Archbishop and love reading him, I would not characterize any of his essays as "straight forward," and his description of his writing process often fits my experience in reading him: "there is that awkward moment when ... the engine is turning over a bit and you are wondering exactly at what point you are going to discover what the argument is"!

Kampen said...

A quote that has stayed with me from some theological reflections of an artist was "one does not draw because one can see, but in order to see." And as I just noticed, like the Hauerwas quote in Kim Fabricius' comment above "One does not write because one believes, but in order to believe."

big_M said...

In case anyone is interested. What Williams is heading towards is something referred to in the philosophical literature as the 'extended mind hypothesis.' The thought is that as opposed to the classical account of mind, whereby 'processing'(thinking) happens internally merely to be communicated to the outside world via text or speech, the extended mind names the way in which our tools and environments form real parts of our thinking apparatus. That is, transference (as mentioned by Williams) could never exist. Writing is a cognitive process in which pencil and paper allow us to extend the space in which our mind performs cognitive activity. Forming physical symbols allows us to bring un-concluded cognitive processes to a fixed place, perceive the implications of a particular symbol, evaluate it's inherent consequences and continue, or return to a previous step. Some would say that writing, or use of physical symbols of any kind allow us to do cognitive activity that would otherwise not be possible. One contemporary philosopher of mind in this area likes to use the anecdote, reminiscent of Williams here, where an observer of a philosopher's messy writing table asks to look at the record of the philosopher's thinking, i.e. his scattered pages. The philosopher responds by saying that these are not the records of his thinking; this is his thinking.

I know this is a lengthy comment on a minor point, but I read here frequently and being a philosopher of mind usually have so little add to the discussions of eminent theologians.

Anonymous said...

Perfect nonsense. Writing is not discovery, except for those who have not yet discovered. The act of writing should be reserved for communicating discoveries in nonexpressive areas of life. Williams' books read like thought experiments because that's all they are. Christian theologians should "discover" the truth in Christian life and communicate it, not burden us with stream of consciousness word play.

Anonymous said...

Anna Kamienska (a Polish poet, d. 1986) said this
in her "Notebooks" (included in "Astonishments"):
I like Simone Weil’s idea that writing is actually the translation of
a text we already carry within us. That notion makes a heavy task
lighter.
In fact, though, writing is the backbreaking work of hacking a
footpath, as in a coal mine; in total darkness, beneath the earth. In
poetry there are moments of illumination. A streak of light falls in
the dark corridor, then the darkness slams shut overhead once more.
In prose the darknesses are even thicker, the black clods even
harder.

John Hartley said...

I resonate both with Williams and with "Anonymous" (two up from here) who said "What nonsense". May I perhaps suggest the synthesis of Rowan's thesis and Anon's antithesis? It is the rewriting which is the crucial step in the communicating of what you have to say.

Anonymous said...

Can I throw in Kleist, please.
His "On the Gradual Formation of Thoughts While Speaking" is in a similar vein. And he is also a masterful writer.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me this is at least a somewhat risky approach. Even if we accept on some level that writing is discovery are we left to assume that what we discover will always or even often be good/helpful/truthful? I would have thought Barth's revision of his view on homosexuality mentioned in previous posts was enough evidence that writing is always a fraught business over which we should take as much care as possible.

Mike E

Peter Carey+ said...

Lots of food for thought, especially the "both/and" of Williams and Anon, mentioned by John Hartley...thank you!

The Charismanglican said...

Did anonymous already know how insufferably pompous he could be before he wrote that comment, or did s/he only discover how insufferably pompous s/he could be while writing it? THAT is the question.

I wish I could ask. But, alas, s/he is anonymous. So I will have to ask really dumb theologians like the Archbishop of Freaking Canterbury.

Jim said...

Anonymous, please never write anything. I might be condemned to read it. If one does not understand that the process of writing shapes the thinking and therefore writing, one should be prohibited from using keyboards. Even in technical writing (specifications especially) the process of writing helps shape the product. Writing is not taking dictation.

FWIW
jimB

Anonymous said...

With the danger of being called "pompous" again -- by unpompous charismanglicans humbled by the infallible writing experts of Lambeth palce -- I will observe that Jim's comment is absolute nonsense too.

Willaims did not claim that the process of writing shapes thinking, the position Jim accuses me of ignoring; he claimed it was an act of true "self-discovery;" he denied that the argument preceded the expression. I need not deny that the writing process affects thinking to know what nonsense this is.

Gorazd Andrejč said...

Yes, synthesis between Archbishop and Anon. Of course Williams is not suggesting one simply makes up as one goes along, and of course one is reshaping and developing one's thought as one writes.

Daniel Camacho said...

Good quote from the Archbishop. I now know that the excruciating pain I feel in the writing process is me not knowing what to say

Dan Reid said...

Precisely! And as John Goldingay commented to me when I was looking over his shelf of books he'd written, "I keep those so I can remind myself what I think about things."

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