Is writing composition or improvisation?

In my corner of the academy, one isn’t really taught much about writing.

One is taught constantly to produce texts and to judge texts, but that isn’t the same thing, because writing is a process, and the text is merely the product. A theory of a product isn’t a theory of its production.

There is of course a cottage industry of advice, guidelines, tips, “rules for writing,” writing strategies, and so on. Generally this advice is instrumentalist. It tells you, “Picture your reader!” “Write short sentences!” “Always revise!” “Have modest goals!” It tells you, in sum, “Write like this if you want to succeed.”

The problem with this sort of writing advice is that it isn’t really about writing. It is about career success, behavioral self-optimization, and complying with norms.

The second problem with writing advice is that it constantly equates writing with composition. But composition is only one metaphor for writing. Perhaps improvisation (to borrow a sibling musical category) is another possible metaphor for writing. Maybe it’s even a good one?

In jazz improvisation, for example, there’s a form that you’re expected to know, and a set of standardized scales and harmonies, but through some curious real-time alchemy (which I imagine musicologists have written about in great detail), each phrase is supposed to come out as something singular. “Fresh,” perhaps. New, even. Somehow unpredictable, but still communicative — “having something to say,” as a former housemate of mine used to put it. Otherwise you’re just ringing the changes and it’s automatically boring.

A lot of academic writing is like this kind of bad jazz improvisation, the kind where the musician is palpably avoiding taking any risks. Too predictable. You can already guess what’s going to be said before you read it. If you write from an outline, this sort of text tends to come out. The overall form is respected. An argument gets made. But in stolidly composed writing, you don’t necessarily get that feeling that good essays are supposed to convey: the feeling of a live intelligence darting from one turn to the next, surprising you or taking you places. Totally composed writing never gets close to the unconscious. But the unconscious is where good thoughts come from.

I’ve been working on my book about Paris 8’s Philosophy Department, and I find that I just don’t get far without making space to improvise. By improvise, I mean: trying to take in everything I know about my object of inquiry, and then letting the thoughts come out in words through some sort of loose process where I stare at the page and see what comes out, more like free-association. (Improvised music is also a form of free association.)

This improvising moment is only one of the many moments in a writing process. Another, the more obvious part, is the long revising cycle. Just to be autobiographical: once I have some sort of rough draft, often full of notes to myself like “cite XYZ here” or “say ABC here,” I re-read it and edit until I’m happy. I used to print everything out to read it on paper; now sometimes I re-read on the screen.(Weirdly, if I make a PDF of my own writing, it feels more like reading a piece of paper than if I read the text in my text editor.) Maybe I’ll re-read and edit once or twice as I’m writing, just to get the text presentable, and then again after a few days or weeks to get a better overall perspective, and then a few times in response to feedback from my friends or colleagues. (Not counting peer review-type revisions.) There are lots of versions.

I’m not claiming to be at all original; I was taught to do all this revising work. “All writing is rewriting,” my graduate school teacher Susan Gal used to say. Writing groups used to be all the rage back in Chicago. There were whole infrastructures for supporting revisions.

But the process of producing the first draft: that’s the part that still feels like improvisation to me. The blank page is rather like a long silence waiting for you to play some notes. Sometimes when you sit down to write, you manage to get in contact with something that’s not rote or frilled. Other times the words come out drab or blurry, but then you can try to fix them in revisions, a completely different activity. I try not to compose, in the sense of trying to be sure what I want to say before I say it. You just don’t know how it has to sound until you’re there in the right context.

I’m curious if this makes sense to anyone else out there?

I’d like to have more ways of talking about writing as a praxis. This is a first stab.