[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Barak Kalir as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Barak is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. He is the author of Latino Migrants in the Jewish State: Undocumented Lives in Israel (Indiana University Press, 2010), and co-editor with Malini Sur of Transnational Flows and Permissive Policies: Ethnographies of Human Mobilities in Asia (University of Chicago Press, 2013). Currently he is working on an ERC funded research project on The Social Life of State Deportation Refugees.]
I will only know what I precisely want to say in this piece once I finish writing it.
This enigmatic sentence is not meant as an alluring opening statement, nor is it a sign for an experimental literary method that I will be employing in this blog. For what it’s worth, this sentence captures my principal insight into the process of writing. It is an insight that I gained after years of experiencing much frustration with writing, after producing endless drafts of the same text, after nights and days spent on trying ‘to get it right’, after struggling not to lose my focus, not to get lost in the texts I tried so hard to write.
Luckily, I do not feel like that any more. But it has been a long ride.
Initially, facing my frustration with writing – when I was struggling with chapters in my doctoral dissertation, or with my first attempt at publishing an article in a peer-review journal – I was inclined, and even determined, to attribute my pains to the fact that the ideas in my head were not sharp enough at the point of writing. I repeatedly told myself as a beaten mantra: ‘You need to be very clear about what you want to say, before you sit down and start writing’. I felt angrily vindicated after every article or book that I read, thinking it was so obvious that the authors knew exactly what they wanted to argue and illustrate.
I started to draw my arguments on a blank sheet in preparation for writing. I made tentative tables of content before I had written even one chapter. I sketched road maps for the order of sections in an article, I decided on the data to be included, and on the theories to be used. Notwithstanding my best efforts at having clarity in my head and being well prepared for the writing phase, it always ended up pretty much the same. Once the words began to accumulate on the screen in front of me, the text seemed to take on its own direction, leaving me halfway, confused about my main argument, about the debates in which I intervene, about the subtleties I try to get across. Why can I not control my text? Why does it take on a different form from the one I had in mind? After all the preparation I invested in having a clear focus, why can I not stick to it?
Sharing my writing frustrations with peers at the department and in meetings with colleagues at conferences, I quickly discovered that my predicament was nothing special. It seemed everyone was suffering from the excruciating process of writing. I must admit it made me feel better. It was a relief to realize that it wasn’t only my shortcomings as a writer that turned this endeavor into a permanent struggle. There appeared to be something about the essence of writing that challenged anyone who attempted it.
My breakthrough came one day while talking with the late Gerd Baumann, a wonderful anthropologist and a gifted writer. For many years, Gerd Baumann thought me various ‘tricks of the trade’ for good writing. Helpful as these tricks were, they never really succeeded to elevate, not even to decently mitigate, my writing struggles. One day, complaining to him for the nth time about my latest struggle with an unyielding text, Gerd grinned at me and emitted a rhetorical question that would change my idea about writing forever: ‘When will you realize that writing is a second cognitive process?’
I’m sure that for many people this sentence is an obvious one; perhaps even banal or cliché. For me, however, it served as a crucial eye opener. Not because I could never before think or feel that this was the case about writing, but because there are things that you need to hear from someone in order for their full meaning to dawn on you.
Writing is not about putting in words the mental ideas you have in your head. Writing is a process in which you digest, make sense and form your mental ideas, in ways that are inevitably different from toying with ideas in your head, or talking them over with colleagues, or presenting them in a conference. There is something about the externalization of ideas in a textual form that activates and brings with it a particular cognitive process. This is why writing is by definition a puzzling and creative process. It is not about transforming thoughts into words; it is about transforming thoughts. Period.
It is after we have written about something that we should do our best to make sure that the text we produce captures the thoughts that evolved out of the very writing process.
I hope I managed that much in this short piece. If not, I will give it another writing. And then produce some more text. Some text that brings to light thoughts I didn’t know I had.