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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Why I Write. (No, Really, Remind Me Again -- Why Do I Write?)

In keeping with the ongoing peek behind the veil of law school teaching on this blog (or blawg, or...[sigh]), I want to ask the question: why do we write?  This is a surprisingly difficult question on which I'd be curious to hear from my fellow bloggers (or blawgers, or...forget it).  Let me limit it to the question, why do we write legal scholarship?  Why do we blog can be left for another time, or perhaps for a discussion between us and our respective deans.

There have been some interesting exchanges on this question from time to time, and I recommend the articles in the Fall 2004 issue of the San Diego Law Review.  I attended the AALS session at which these papers were delivered, and I think the question has remained with me ever since.  One thing that particularly struck me was Kimberly Yuracko's statement that she wrote legal scholarship "to change the world."  She may have spoken these words, or I may have misremembered: the article refers to writing as "a political world . . . . to advocate for social changes that will make society more just and encourage people to live more satisfying and rewarding lives." 

She is suitably realistic about the actual prospects of achieving this goal in her paper; but I remember hearing the words and having a strong negative reaction.  I think writing legal scholarship (or most other kinds of scholarship in the humanities) to change the world is generally a mug's game.  If that were truly the goal, why don't more legal scholars write basic empirical or doctrinal work that might actually achieve marginal change?  Why, in particular, do so many people who do want to "change the world" write precisely the kinds of pieces -- heavy on the theory and systematizing -- that is least likely to do so?  If the goal is actually to change the world in some practical utilitarian sense, why not stay in practice?  I don't want to be too critical.  Surely it's a noble goal, if it's actually sincere and not just self-serving.  And it is possible; I happen to think Dan's writing has a fair chance of doing so, although it is highly theoretical, because it narrows in on specific issues and because he practices what he preaches.  (I should say that I have no idea why he writes.)  But most people who write to change the world know they won't do so; yet they keep writing. 

Why else, then?  Well, "for tenure" is always a good reason, and both Yuracko and Yale Kamisar mention it.  "For fun" would be another reason, but Kamisar is rightly skeptical of it.  Legal scholarship is fairly hard work, especially because in our precedent-oriented field, there is very little free and easy movement of pen across paper and a great deal of collation and cross-referencing.  "For money" would work in many fields -- and don't forget what Samuel Johnson had to say on the subject.  I assume I am not the only legal scholar who is invariably asked by his parents, upon announcing that some journal or other is about to publish my work, "And how much will they pay?"  Um....  "For tenure" is the closest we generally come to this reason, or "for promotion," etc.

For me -- and this may be a way of dodging the question rather than answering it, exactly -- it's utils all the way down.  I write because I more or less like writing, and am more or less compelled to do it.  I write because I love finishing writing: the most enjoyable part of a piece of writing is often the accomplishment one gets in typing the words "the end."  I write because I keep thinking of the look of my name and work all neatly typeset and printed -- although, when my work finally comes out, I am always struck by the sense that it's not real, that the other journals mean something but in my case someone just set the thing in type as a favor.  I write for my own ego; because I want to enhance my reputation; because I want to be cited, and invited to nifty symposia, and all the rest of it; I write because (and I think this is what most people who say they write to "change the world" really mean) I kind of want to change the world too, but not in any way that would unduly interfere with my other goals or endanger my class status, and writing is a reasonable way to strike that balance.  Not least, I think, I write for fear of death.  The grave beckons, and the cold immortality of being preserved in a library cellar somewhere is better than none at all. 

Why do you write?              

Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 17, 2005 at 03:34 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink

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» Why Write? from madisonian theory: on law, society, and technology
Prawsblawg wonders why we write legal scholarship, and can't come up with a compelling answer. (To change the world? Too broad. To earn tenure? Too pragmatic.) That's not such a difficult question, is it? Unless you take it in a particularly ... [Read More]

Tracked on May 18, 2005 3:35:58 PM

» Why Do You Write? from Is That Legal?
Michael Froomkin points us to a marvelous question over at PrawfsBlawg, and answers it too. I'll post my own answer in the next couple of days, probably. If you're a prof, why not consider posting your own answer?... [Read More]

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» Academic Navel-Gazing, or, Why I Write: from The Volokh Conspiracy
Inspired by a recent symposium published in the San Diego Law Review on why law professors often write much more scholarship than they need for tenure, promotion and the like, a few blogging law profs... [Read More]

Tracked on May 24, 2005 1:59:13 PM

» Why I Write. from Is That Legal?
Why do I write? (Here's why Orin Kerr writes, here's why Michael Froomkin does, and here's why Michael Madison does.) I've been in academia for eleven years now, and today's answer is very different from the answer I would... [Read More]

Tracked on May 28, 2005 10:00:30 PM

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This is a great topic. I think you've hit on just about all the reasons I write, and some that hadn't occurred to me before. I'm awfully conscious of the last one you give -- I'm often struck with the feeling that I write law review articles for some of the same reasons people write in bathroom stalls. There's just this drive to leave a mark. And you have this hope that yours is the pictograph that somehow survives longer than the rest and that many years from now someone will be staring at the cave wall wondering what was going on in your head when you chiseled that turtle into the rock.

A couple years ago I was researching a topic that took me back to a debate from the mid-'30s, and I found an article making a point very similar to the one I wanted to make. The point was and probably will remain a relatively obscure one despite my best efforts, but it was inexplicably cool to me to come across this piece by an unrenowned scholar (who was on the Michigan faculty if I recall correctly) who had touched on this topic some 70 years prior. Even better was the idea that I could keep his thoughts alive a while longer.

I'd like to change the world, I enjoy writing (at least on those days when it comes easily), and like anyone else I wouldn't mind being thought clever by my peers and invited to participate in symposia and such like all the cool kids. But at bottom I just like the idea that there will be this pile of paper there just in case somebody's interested in knowing what great-great-great grandpa thought about. And maybe 70 years from now someone will pull one of my articles off the shelf (metaphorically, no doubt), think it interesting, and see fit to breathe just a bit more life into its ideas.

Posted by: Chad Oldfather | May 18, 2005 11:03:31 AM

The reason I write is pretty simple -- it's because other people who write are wrong about so much. My frustration with their sheer wrongness, their sloppy reasoning and inattention to consequences, is the biggest spur to action. One could spin this positively, the desire for truth, the good, etc., but it doesn't usually express itself that way -- I read something, disagree with it, and get started. Wanting to convince the author or others is secondary; I just want to register my disagreement and to enter the argument.

Posted by: BuddingProf | May 18, 2005 5:34:37 PM

I just want tenure. No way would I be writing law review articles if I had tenure. It's a crappy genre. I hate writing the nasty things, and presumably no one reads them anyway... except one's tenure committee, and even they probably hate the chore.

Posted by: cynic | May 18, 2005 9:48:40 PM

I am not an academic. I am only a humble practicing lawyer, but I have written previously that the motive for those of us who write is grounded in human nature, specifically in the natural urge to share our knowledge with others, for the good of all and for the survival of our group. Back in the old days - the very old days, long before writing came to be - one's first reaction, on encountering something new, was to call out, "Hey guys, come over here and take a look at this."

Posted by: M. Sean Fosmire | May 19, 2005 7:14:34 AM

At the risk of being lame for simply quoting someone else's words (on the subject of writing, no less), I'll offer as an explanation some thoughts by Anne Lamott, from her wonderful book of advice for writers, Bird By Bird:

"Interviewers ask famous writers why they write, and it was (if I remember correctly) the poet John Ashbery who answered, 'Because I want to.' Flannery O'Connor answered, 'Because I'm good at it,' and when the occasional interviewer asks me, I quote them both. Then I add that other than writing, I am completely unemployable. . . .

"But I try to make sure [my students] understand that writing, and even getting good at it, and having books and stories and articles published, will not open the doors that most of them hope for. It will not make them well. It will not give them the feeling that the world has finally validated their parking tickets, that they have in fact arrived. My writer friends, and they are legion, do not go around beaming with quiet feelings of contentment. Most of them go around with haunted, abused, surprised looks on their faces, like lab dogs on whom very personal deodorant sprays have been tested. . . .

"The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so little."

So there you have it -- insecurity, a conviction that something is true, the desire to share ideas with others, and a fortuitous combination of skills that happens to be responsive to the needs of a particular institution that's willing to pay me.

Posted by: Brad Wendel | May 24, 2005 5:07:56 PM

Someone has to cite to Orwell in a thread like this. Here's his original "Why I Write".

Posted by: Martha Bridegam | May 25, 2005 2:21:17 AM

Legal scholarship is fairly hard work...

(He respectfully asks:) Compared to what?

Posted by: alkali | May 30, 2005 11:52:25 AM

Why we write?

Some times i fell that Jean cocteau was right when he said: '''Picasso dit: «On peut écrire et peindre n'importe quoi puisqu'il y aura
toujours des gens pour le comprendre (pour y trouver un sens).»
but still why i fell that i MUST write!!!!!!!

Posted by: FATHALLY.J | Aug 18, 2005 10:58:34 PM

Why we write?

Some times i fell that Jean cocteau was right when he said: '''Picasso dit: «On peut écrire et peindre n'importe quoi puisqu'il y aura
toujours des gens pour le comprendre (pour y trouver un sens).»
but still why i fell that i MUST write!!!!!!!

Posted by: FATHALLY JABEUR | Aug 18, 2005 11:17:01 PM

Let's say s.thing else
"When I'm trying to control the writing and make it do something, it doesn't work. When I quit trying,when I let the writing tell me what it is, I get to a whole deeper level in my writing. Letting your work do itself this way requires, of course, an extremely intense, alert attitude. It's not passive; it's actively passive, passively active." - Ursula LeGuin

Posted by: Fathally Jabeur | May 27, 2006 1:15:00 PM

hope to get more informations...
thank you!!!

Posted by: jen_sakura14 | Nov 9, 2006 1:40:59 AM

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