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Saturday, August 20, 2011

A few thoughts on writing and shame

Thanks to someone on FB whose name I can't recall, I came across this essay  about the experience of shame in the process of academic writing. Take a look at it if you've not seen it yet. Once you have, come back to this post and tell me your reactions. My sense is that some people simply sound wonderful on the page from the moment they put fingers to keyboard. (This must be true, for example, of Paul Horwitz, Chad Oldfather, Rick Hills and Dan Kahan, right?). Sadly, those dudes have done comparatively little to open the kimono regarding their creative process. But if they are like most of us mortals, I think it bears mention and reminder upon reminder, especially for all the aspiring prawfs who read this blog and others like it, that the process of producing good academic scholarship in clear prose takes real sustained effort.*  

On that note, I recall with affection the story, perhaps apocryphal, of John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard luminary known for his econ and style. As the tale goes, Galbraith was presiding over a public celebration of his zillionth birthday or book in Cambridge. He was taking questions from the audience. A middle-aged woman asked: Professor Galbraith, how on earth do you get your prose to read so effortlessly? And, in an uncharacteristic flourish of candor and modesty, he said: well, after the 15th draft, I sure hope it looks effortless.

I am no Galbraith. In my own case, I number my drafts beginning 1.0 and they frequently go well past 10.0 (that is 100 or more drafts).  The first fifty drafts or so are typically drenched with shame and marinated in self-disgust. But still I plod on. Gotta feed the boys, right? Anyway, as it is, the project on punishment and democracy that I've been working on since February is now at version 10.4, and it hasn't even begun the editing process from the students.  It took me an unconscionably long time to realize what I wanted to argue but with the help of some good friends (yes, Cahill, it's principally your fault), I'm now more sure I'm saying something quirky and sound enough to lose the self-disgust. It's not yet up on SSRN, however. That's the signal that I'm still surrendering to the shame of the writing process, with a white flag around my neck.

I hope to overcome that particular bout of shame soon. But if it lingers, it may have to do with related anxieties about the connection between style and argument. Because I write principally in the philosophy of crime and punishment, I've frequently tried to strip my scholarship of any baroque tendencies that I would otherwise indulge. The topic itself is already abstruse. So, just the arguments, so much as I can bear. For me, sadly, the arguments take a while to develop and once I get there, I want to protect them from various objections; as a result, I still write really long articles. Thus, insofar as a writerly style has emerged, it's one that involves less verve and splash than I might otherwise prefer.

Because I want the arguments and not the art to perform their coercive task, I often feel my once-creative writing muscles and imagination have atrophied. And so the real shame I experience with my writing is

a fear that my beloved vocation has flattened, if not quite deadened, my soul.  Law school may be to blame: as the trope goes, it sharpens but narrows the mind. If what I read is any gauge, when I was in college, I was more of a fox than a hedgehog. Now, I think I'm a hedgehog with much less tolerance for reading or listening to foxes. And so I wonder: can hedgehogs still be interesting? Can they write coercively and creatively?

If the examples I mentioned at the outset are any indicator, the answer is clearly yes. So what is to be done? I'm curious to hear what others have done to retain or recover the palette of language or to overcome the various experiences of shame and the writing process.

 *That's partly a word of caution to the folks in the sheets who are practicing and who think they can just gin up a job talk paper in a couple months or less. In most cases, good prawfs will sniff out mediocrity or worse within a few pages of reading.

Posted by Administrators on August 20, 2011 at 03:05 PM in Article Spotlight, Blogging, Dan Markel, Getting a Job on the Law Teaching Market, Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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What I wanna know, Dan, is how you manage to get through 104 drafts of something between February and August. That's like terrifying Posner-speed, just with drafts.

(In other thoughts... it is possible to write beautiful prose while still having analytic force -- Nozick himself did it on occasion, and David Lewis did it pretty constantly. Sadly, they were in the overwhelming minority; if you find out how to bottle whatever they had, please share!)

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Aug 20, 2011 5:37:42 PM

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