Writer’s Diary #41: Tinderbox’s Steady Improvements

I’ve been a long-time user of Eastgate Systems’ Tinderbox. At least since 2010, when I first bought a copy to do fieldwork. It’s a tool that I keep coming back to, even if I leave from time to time. Every time I come back, I am impressed, once again, by its steady, evolutionary, sometimes revolutionary improvements. Mark Bernstein has created a brilliant, powerful piece of software for knowledge workers. I think it’s criminally underused by anthropologists. But, that’s for another post. I’ve long thought of it as a Swiss army knife for notes. But that doesn’t really do justice to the software. Do check [Tinderbox] out.

For now, I just wanted to call attention to one of the little changes made over time that Mark has worked into Tinderbox, which make things just nicer.

Between the version I was using, and what I upgraded to yesterday, a small change, is that it is now possible to make the left-hand pane (map/outline/etc any arbitrary width. Before, there was a minimum size. It’s a change that perhaps most users will probably never notice.

But, I write books. And, often, when I am in the thick of writing, I want to make the text pane on the right as big as possible, and make the left hand pane as narrow as possible. This wasn’t possible to do to quite as narrow as I wanted before. It now is. Thank you, Mark. Just one more of the steady refinements that makes Tinderbox indispensable.

Screenshot of narrow left hand side map pane in Tinderbox.

Writer’s Diary #41: Rules, for a Month’s Writing

Here I am, once again, with my rules. Rules for writing. Temporary ones, mind. They never last more than a month. But, that’s good enough. Good enough to get some momentum. I know the book’s structure. I know the argument. With a little effort, I could make headway. My sabbatical is coming to an end, so why not finish on a high? So I’ve turned to rules.

I wrote them.

I have had some success with rules in the past.

To start my first book, I had a writing challenge with a colleague. To finish it, I did a writing challenge with other colleagues. Both worked. I have tried this other times, and it has not worked. No matter.

This time, the rules are my own. Just me, this time. The rules I will adopt for the next month, starting now.

The rules? The rules are not just about writing this time. Writing is part of it, but writing is an embodied activity. It is a thing we do in the world. Therefore, the rules are for writing and to be in a good place for writing.

  • Run for 20 minutes a day, perhaps longer, and cool down and stretch for ten minutes.
  • Take 20,000 steps.
  • Eat whole food, plant-based.
  • No caffeine after the first coffee.
  • No news, social media, or podcasts.
  • Write (or revise from notes) 1,500 new, good words into the manuscript.
  • Write a post about the day, with a photograph.
  • Stop.

Writer’s Diary #40: Makeshift Writing

Writing is often seen as a pursuit of perfection—the perfect sentence, paragraph, or article. But perfection is the result, not the method. Perfectionism tells us little about the process of writing. Instead, the secret is to embrace imperfection, and approach writing as a makeshift endeavour. It is something cobbled together. Words and ideas are improvised. Perfection, if it is to come, emerges out of an iterative imperfect process. This is the essence of what I think of as makeshift writing. A mode that is temporary, contingent, ever good enough. The point is not to achieve premature perfection, but to work into the words and let the ideas develop, on the page.

Too often, as writers, planning becomes paralyzing. What is the argument? What is the outline? What is the conceptual insight? Research becomes endless. So much so, that it impedes writing. To write this way, is to fall into a trap. The trap is the idea that a piece of writing comes out perfect, and that it must follow a strict, logical series of steps. The goal might be such a piece of writing. But, the getting there is far messier.

The makeshift writing I have in mind is a practical, embodied labor. It happens not in the realm of the perfect analytical structure and theoretical contribution. But in the countless moments of revisions on the page. To write through makeshift is to embrace messiness. A call for makeshift writing is a call to write, to get the words down on the page, and then to improve on them. To iterate. Makeshift is a riposte against the idea that words emerge perfect.

As an anthropologist, maybe one way to approach writing as craftwork is to approach it as an ethnographer might. To think about writing is to embrace an autoethnographic observation of ones practice. It is to consider writing as a process. As a labor practice. To think of writing as labor is to think of it less as intellectual labor, but as a practical, embodied labor of the countless steps and interventions made as a writer. Could focusing on this labor, on the actual practice of writing and fixing verbs and revising tens and making small changes and looking for repeated words and all the other little tricks of a writer’s toolbox help demystify the process?

This process of writing is, for me, ever makeshift. The trick is to begin then to make changes. To be being willing to cobble something imperfect and then improvise and iterate to improve it. To bring together ideas in unexpected ways, and then to work and rework them until they make sense. Makeshift is about approaching the words not as if they were the pursuit of perfection, but to do so as a practical kind of craft work that can be honed through imperfect, iterative hard work. Makeshift writing is a way to get the words on the page, to keep working with them, to keep moving, even in the face of imperfection. It’s about embracing the process, the labor, the craft of writing itself, and it is about how, through this embrace, that something good enough begins to emerge. Something that is meaningful and true, and just maybe, near perfect.

Writer’s Diary #39 – Small Victories

Today was my second day running. Today’s lesson? Take it slow. Appreciate the small victories. Not every day running needs to be your best effort.

Writing is the same. Not every session should be hard, or the fastest, or done at full tilt at hundred percent. Instead, it is in steady rhythm that the words emerge. Words come out of the accumulation of practice. It is through steady practice that, over time, leads to a certain sort of skill. There is no need for every piece of writing or day of work to be perfect and completed under duress. The challenge is to resist the urge to complete it big and fast. Resist. This takes effort. It leaves us exhausted and unable to contemplate doing anything like it again. The lesson? Start, but don’t rush. Be gentle. Don’t finish on full. Let the words come easy. Let them be.

Savour the minor wins.

Writer’s Diary #38 – Don’t Forget to Breathe

This morning, with the mist over the hills, I went for a run for the first time in a few months. Last night, I started in on Lindsay A. Freeman’s lovely little book Running, from Duke’s series on Practices. Since I’ve not run in a few months, I decided to follow a training app and start at the beginning with the first one. It was a recovery session. I went slow. Easy. I was able to hold conversation. I held a lot back.

As I ran, for not a very long time, it struck me writing can be the same.

Too often, we write ourselves spent. We write ourselves to excess and exhaustion. Then, we stop for days on end. What if the way to approach words has more in common with running than it is usually given credit for? Haruki Murakami, of course, thinks about the connection between words and steps his memoir. It’s not a new connection. But, it is worth repeating. Not every sessions on a computer should be a mad sprint to the end. Maybe nothing should a mad sprint.

Go steady. Go slow. Don’t forget to breathe.

Writer’s Diary #37 – Writing is Hard: Develop a Writing Practice

Graduate students often want to get into the field as quickly as possible. Getting ready can require a proposal, an ethics application, a presentation, and, for doctoral students, a comprehensive exam. (All, after a year of coursework and learning to read deeply). Preparing these documents takes time. It is in their writing that one becomes ready for research. This is the challenge. Graduate students (and the faculty who support them) often lament the travails of writing. In fact, writing a thesis, proposal, comprehensive exam, or an essay, blog post, book chapter, or anything, really, is daunting. Exceedingly so. The challenge? Not just what to put down, but how, and why, and how to revise, and what to change, and what to work on next, and, and, and so much more. So many big and little tasks to get done. To write, as a verb, at first blush, seems to encompass mere inscription with a pencil, pen, typewriter, keyboard, or whatever. Yet, writing is never mere inscription. When a writer says they are working on a proposal or a book, they are doing many quite disparate, yet interrelated, tasks. To write is to plan, research, draft, reread, revise, shorten, think, fiddle, adjust, fix grammar, change punctation, reorder paragraphs, check citations, reread aloud for rhythm, revise for consistency, retype to get in to the flow, rewrite to shorten, and more. All of this is hard work. Writing is just about the most difficult thing I regularly do.

“[W]riting is nearly always the hardest part of the deal,” observes Michael Taussig, the US-based Australian anthropologist who, late in his career, seems to publish a book a year, in a essay collection on writing.1 “Anyone who tries to write—a letter, a novel, a dissertation, a poem, or an ethnography—knows that it is a skill to be cultivated and learned through sheer doing,” observes Michael Lambek in an edited volume on writing ethnography.2 John McPhee, the father long form-creative non-fiction, describes, in his book on writing craft, lying down on a picnic table for two weeks fighting fear and anxiety with no idea how to begin a piece for the New Yorker.3 If writing is hard, and if it is much more than mere inscription, what does it mean to write? How is it a skill that is best learned and cultivated through the sheer doing? How to make it easier and less stressful? More to the point, when writing is required, what to do?

For many, the writing work, for it is work, takes time. A thesis proposal or ethics application might take a month, it might take six, it might take more. A thesis can take half a year, or much longer. A dissertations can take eight months, sometimes far longer. Books gestate over years, even decades. My book on writing has been gestating for six. Whenever I’ve written, with serious intent, and successfully, I’ve had time and the privilege to take breaks and to walk and to relax, when not writing. But, even then, writing has been the hardest, sustained challenge I have faced. Through a lot of practice, I have become a better writer. But, even still the task of doing the work with some seriousness demands as much mental energy, and a surprising amount of good old-fashioned manual labor, as ever. Writing is work; it is labour. For scholars (and others writers), it is the distilled form of this labor, the proposals and the thesis and the articles and the job applications and the grants and the books—that builds careers. To succeed as a scholar cum writer requires creating a practice of coming back to this repeated, regular work.

What follows are some reflections on this becoming a writer both in the preliminary moments of preparing for fieldwork and in the sustained practice of writing up. My concern is the process, not the result. This is my attempt to articulate not what a good piece of writing is, but to help develop a writing practice. It’s about the craft of work. While students and researchers are often eager to get into the “field,” and the field holds a special romance for ethnographers, I want to turn to the work that goes into the preparation for fieldwork and the work that goes into the writing-up. Over the following few posts, I suggest, with gentleness, that much of this happens in the writing, and in all of the messy tasks beyond mere inscription. It is through here that thinking happens. T is in the writing that thinking takes place. Which means, most importantly, it is in your writing that you develop your research

A proposal, like any scholarly output, is yours. Your thesis is, often, the first major independent project you will undertake. Joanne Bolker points this out in her excellent book on dissertation writing, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis,4 Her point is that the project, and by extension, the proposal, presentation, schedule, and progress, are yours. You have the greatest stake in their outcome. You are the one who moves things forward. You have the agency and control and reasonability make it happen. Preparing a dissertation is hard work; it is your work; and to do the works requires understanding how you work. Your advisors and mentors and peers and readers are there to help and offer guidance and sometimes be available to discuss progress and make sure you are ready for the next step, but actually moving a project forward in a sustained way is on your shoulders. It’s daunting, but many people have succeeded. How daunting, depends, in part, on your own style of work. If you’re like me, you are still figuring this out. Everyone works differently, and has different commitments and availabilities and responsibilities and challenge. To help you find your rhythm as a writer, I want to offer some suggestions.

I begin with caveat. The open secret is that everyone writes differently. What works for one person may not work for another. The ideas in the following posts may work for you, they may not. My advice? Work, and as you work, reflect on what is going well and on what is not working. Take the advice that is helpful; ignore the rest. Take the time to observe yourself as you work and as you write and as you revise and as you read and as you think and use those observations to understand your own ways of working. Be gentle. Be kind. Be calm. Accept your process of becoming a writer. Develop a practice of observation.

References

Bolker, Joan. Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. Holt Paperbacks, 1998.
Lambek, Michael. “Slow Reading.” In Writing Anthropology: Essays on Craft and Commitment, edited by Carole McGranahan, 65–65. Duke University Press, 2020.
McPhee, John. Draft No. 4. Farrar, Straus; Giroux, 2017.
Taussig, Michael. The Corn Wolf. University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Notes


  1. Taussig, The Corn Wolf.↩︎
  2. Lambek, “Slow Reading.”↩︎
  3. McPhee, Draft No. 4.↩︎
  4. Bolker, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, Introduction.↩︎

Writer’s Diary #36 – Deep Writing

In a first-year anthropology course, it’s still common to mention Clifford Geertz’s venerable classic on thick description.1 But it seems to me that, for some, the luster of Geertz’s insight has faded. I’m still partial to his work, but the idea of interpreting cultures as texts seems outdated as anthropologists work to decolonize the discipline. People have long since taken on the task of interpreting their own cultures, for example. So the idea of the anthropologist as interpreter-the idea of the anthropologist as author2—seems out dated.

Yet, I think Geertz’s point remains, for those who try to write—which remains a lot of students, scholars, and researchers.

But what does it mean to think about interpreting and thick description. In part, its a process of writing?

Here, I think Geertz’s insight into thick description is worth considering. His point is not just that the goal is a complex and nuanced understanding, e. g. one that distinguishes between a burlesque wink and an eye twitch, or a friendly wink, a flirtatious wink, an involuntary blink, or whatever. His point is that the trick is to tease apart the layers of cultural meaning in certain actions.

How to get at the meaning of something. How do to make meaning? What’s the process? The secret code? Writing, is his answer.

Why? This takes time. Might thick description then require deep writing.

Here I find Maryanne Wolf’s work on deep reading useful. In her books Reader, Come Home3 and Proust and the Squid4 are important. I recently listened to Wolf on the Ezra Klein Show5 where Wolf discusses the literature in neuroscience about the difference between how we read in the digital age, in the context of social media and doom scrolling and vast amounts of news and ever-present screens, and how we read when we are deeply immersed in a physical, paper, book. They’re different. Which is a development of Nicholas Carr’s insight into deep reading6

The Internet has changed the way we read. Wolf’s points, for my purposes, are threefold.

1. Reading is not one task. It’s many tasks. There is no one activity that we can call reading that evolved in the human brain. Rather, reading is something we have learned to do. That is, when we learn to read, we rewire our brains. It is the medium that shapes how the rewiring takes place. (Here Wolf draws on Marshall McLuhan’s famous The Medium is the Message7 and his students).

Plasticity means that the way we read will reflect the affordances of the medium. This was the point that McLuhan was making, his student Walter Ong was making, certainly Postman was making, as you [Klein] alluded to in your August essay. All of these people were on to the basic principle that how we read on a medium changes what we perceive, what we understand.

So the medium changes the way we read. It changes the kinds of connections we make. It changes the way we engage with a text.

The point? Reading digitally, on screens, on social media, is different from immersing yourself in a book. It’s the difference between skimming an email or doom-scrolling on Twitter/X and getting sucked into a novel, and really being immersed. It’s the kind of reading I might have done as a student, but increasingly do less of.

I can, however, vividly remember moments of deep reading. The first time I read Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects8. I read it in one sitting, on a flight home from a conference, and the book stayed with me. So much so that I’m working on a book of fragments inspired by it. Or when I read Michael Taussig’s Law in a Lawless Land9 as a student, which shaped my own travel to Colombia. But, when I tried to read them recently, I was so distracted, I couldn’t get into them. I think it was screen versus paper, planes versus offices. But, when I read deeply, that’s where ideas came from.

2. It’s the time spent. The time spent reading! We often confuse this with, for example, the information, the fact, and the learning process. As Wolf and Ezra Klein point out in their conversation, our digital age has forgotten this key message.

Sam Bankman-Fried, yes, that one, the disgraced former media darling and head of a defunct crypto-trading firm now under investigation, said he didn’t like books because a lot of books should be six-paragraph blog posts. He’s wrong. Ezra Klein, who’s written a lot of books and a lot of six-paragraph blog posts, points out here that they’re quite different. The key is that the book allows the reader to spend a lot of time with an idea. It’s the time spent reading that really starts to rewire the brain—the plastic mind.

3. Habits matter. Klein and Wolf point out that over the past decade, habits have changed, replacing our ability to read deeply. Few of us have the experience Klein describes of reading for hours on end, our synapses firing and insights and epiphanies emerging. In part, we went digital. In part, we got busy.

What do I take away from these points (that reading is not a task, that time matters, and that habits matter)? Well, I think deep reading is a good idea to use to think about deep writing.

If someone were to do the neurological research, and perhaps people have done it, I suspect they would find that writing is similar to reading. Truly immersive writing, writing for a long period, over and over again, is where the synapses are firing and the mind is getting rewired. Writing, like reading, is not something we’ve evolved to do. Writing, like reading, works in part because we rewire our minds through do it. Writing, like reading, requires creating a habit of writing.

I think a lot of the writing that academics do has almost become an exercise not in deep writing or reading, but in a kind of shallowness. Reading becomes looking for references, and publishing one more thing. Writing becomes less deep writing, but a thinner, shallower kind of writing.

This is inevitably truer, a generative text and AI take over the classroom. It does to writing what skimming does to reading? That is? It will inevitably reshape how students think.

How do you write deeply? You do it by doing it. By revising. By writing. By rewriting. I’m thinking here of William Germano’s excellent On Revision,10 in which Germano explores and reflects on revision as the only writing that really matters. Germano is a former editor and now professor, whose book “From Dissertation to Book” gave me workmanlike advice on how to turn my dissertation into a book. In his new book, Germano makes an important point about the fact that we live and work in a world of data and narrative.

He draws a divide between data-driven researchers and narrative-driven researchers. Data-driven researchers are those who work in the sciences, mathematics, engineering, and social sciences, which have adopted quantitative methods. Narrative remains in the humanities and much of the social sciences. I am a narrative anthropologist. My job is to weave narrative together to build and support arguments. It’s about what people do and why, and how they live. Germano’s point, of course, is that there is a commonality in the work we do between the social sciences and the humanities in that we build narratives in different ways. Academic writing, then, is a carefully crafted form of nonfiction. It’s a form of narrative scholarship. But if there’s been a thinning out of scholarship, a reading that has become serial quotation, then the question is what comes next? That’s what my book is about. It’s about how to do deep writing.

Germano’s other point is that writing is thinking, which I think is true and too often mistaken. We use cognitive metaphors when we talk about writing. You analyzed, he thought, he understood. Sure, but they did it on the page. Writing is thinking. So what is deep writing?Well, first of all, I think it comes from spending time on a piece of writing. Just as a short piece of writing might take a short amount of time to really work out what you think about something, the process is as important as the end result. And we miss that.

In this sense, I come back to Geertz’s insight and the hermeneutic argument that what anthropologists do is thick description as a kind of interpretation. But, I think it is crucial, we do on the page, in the text. That is the thinking.

Now, of course, this is culturally specific. Other mediums create other connections. But I know for myself that the culture of writing enables a certain kind of thinking. If superficial writing is done quickly, or by rote, or by AI, then I think it will lead to superficial writing. Shallow writing.

How do you learn to write thick, write deep?

In my case, it’s hard work. You can learn from others, but in the end I keep coming back to a piece of writing. Read it aloud. Listen to it. Print it. Highlight it. Rewrite it. Revise it. Revise it again. This process of a dozen or a hundred is the work of writing. It takes time.

And if Wolf is right that reading creates a plasticity of the mind that creates ways of thinking very different from the surfing and skimming that most of us do, then I think it’s clear that writing is qualitatively different from the alternative. Not least because in writing we spend time working through things, reshaping our minds, refining ideas, working them out, clarifying them, communicating them, explaining information. All of this is generative, creating connections on the page and in the mind. That’s what deep writing can do.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we should give up on shallow reading or shallow writing. There is, of course, a place for both. For scrolling through emails and for responding quickly.

But, deep writing and shallow writing are not the same thing. Both changes how you think.

Notes

  1. Geertz, “Thick Description.”↩︎
  2. Geertz, Works and Lives.↩︎
  3. Wolf, Reader, Come Home.↩︎
  4. Wolf, Proust and the Squid.↩︎
  5. The Ezra Klein Show, The Ezra Klein Show.↩︎
  6. Carr, The Shallows.↩︎
  7. McLuhan, The Medium Is the Message.↩︎
  8. Stewart, Ordinary Affects.↩︎
  9. Taussig, Law in a Lawless Land.↩︎
  10. Germano, On Revision.↩︎

References

Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. WW Norton & Company, 2020.
Geertz, Clifford. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973.
———. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford University Press, 1988.
Germano, William. On Revision: The Only Writing That Counts. University of Chicago Press, 2021.
McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium Is the Message: An Inventory of Effects. Gingko Press Editions, 2001.
Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary Affects. Duke University Press, 2007.
Taussig, Michael. Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia. University of Chicago Press, 2005.
The Ezra Klein Show. The Ezra Klein Show: Ezra Klein Interviews Maryanne Wolf. The New York Times, 2022.
Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. HarperCollins, 2017.
———. Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. HarperCollins, 2018.

Writer’s Diary #35 – Craft Work, Detail Work, Steady Work

This morning I woke up at 5:45 and worked from 6 until about 8:45.

It was another good morning. I stopped when it got hard. But the work itself was very manual. It was craftsmanship—revising and cutting two sections into something good enough. When I finished the first section, I realized it fit better at the end of the chapter, so I moved it to the unwritten conclusion.

Then I turned to revising the second section, which I’d written three times in four rambling paragraphs. I cut it down to two, half the words, and nothing repeated.

Tomorrow I will move on to the next section of the chapter. Again, I will rewrite, combine, shorten, and polish. Later I’ll worry about its order and structure.

The work felt like knitting sentences or manual labor. I didn’t use tools. Just the keyboard.

Does it work? No. Change it. Is it better? Maybe. Keep going.

Changes so fast they’re almost automatic, made with hands on the keyboard. I write until I’m tired, and a piece feels finished. It is temporarily done, but only until the next time. Tomorrow, I will rework something else.

There was a moment that I felt overwhelmed. I had started a new piece, but didn’t know where it was going. I kept cutting, revising, deleting, adjusting, and fiddling. I fiddled with the text, and as I fiddled, I found my point and finished the edits.

Writing can sometimes just be the accumulation of words and slight changes, repeated, over and over.

If you asked me today and yesterday where I was going, what my point was, I couldn’t tell you. If you asked me today, I still couldn’t. But I know I’m closer. I know that by the end of this morning, I will have arrived somewhere. A place from which I can start again tomorrow.

The work is craft work. Detailed work. Steady work.

Writer’s Diary #34 – Stop while the stopping is good

It is 9:15 in the morning. I started writing at 6. It has been a remarkably pleasant morning of pure craft: writing and rewriting, revising and editing, and knitting together three sections of the first chapter of the makeshift book. Working through about four thousand words.

I could go on.

I feel energized.

But, I’m going to stop.

I know it’s time to stop because I have a lot of other things to do in the afternoon, and I know that if I don’t stop, I’ll get tired, I’ll get worried, and I know that a good day of writing will become the opposite.

So I’m going to practice something I’ve often forgotten—stop while the stopping is good. Stop while I know where I’m going tomorrow.

Stop while it’s still fun.

Writer’s Diary #33 – Emergent structure, or work more; think less

This morning, I did a lot of fiddling and reworking the text of a chapter, looking for it order. I read, printed it out, made tentative edits, and reviewed it. I moved chunks of text around, created an outline, and made changes iteratively. After the morning, I have the beginning of an outline.

I can’t see through the project, but I can begin to feel like I could maybe move through it and begin to make sense of it.

What did I do?

I worked at it from 6:00 am to 9:15 am. I read bits of it but moved them around in an outline. I did some queries and a little programming, but mostly I organized, reorganized, worked, and revised. I had no plan. But I read and edited and outlined and moved and renamed. I had a shower, and remembered a scene, and went and found that, and I started to find some order.

Is it perfect? No. But I can begin to get a sense of the chapter.

Tomorrow, I will keep at it.

Mostly, it feels like a structure is emerging. That’s more than I had on the weekend. It feels great.