Writing, thinking, daydreaming

by Chris Bertram on September 16, 2003

Musing further on whether technological development has helped or hindered thinking, and especially philosophical thinking, it occurs to me that the ideas of which I’m (rightly or wrongly) most proud have generally started not when I’ve been trying to do philosophy, but when I’ve been daydreaming about it whilst doing something else: travelling on a train, riding a bicycle, swimming or whatever. Purely mechanical and repetitive activities can been good for this too, though it is for good reason that there are a whole range of philosophical stories in which philosophers let cooking pots boil over, poison people or run them down whilst in the middle of their reveries.

Then there’s the business of writing, of trying to turn ideas into publishable prose. I’ve adopted two strategies for getting this done – both of which work very well, but eventually seem to run their course.

Strategy A is the Anthony Burgess method. I read an obituary of Burgess which revealed that he would write 1000 words every day before retiring to the nearest bar to sip a martini. I’m sorry to say that I skipped the martini part, but, for a long time managed the routine of 1000 words. Many of those words, certainly most of those words were garbage and got thrown away, but gradually, like whisking mayonnaise, publishable material started to emerge. Indeed my best ever paper (IMHO) came from following this writing strategy.

Strategy B I think of as the “football method”. Whilst I can spend whole mornings (and afternoons) getting absolutely nothing done, everyone who watches football (soccer) knows just how much can happen even in a few minutes of extra time. (I spend far too much of my life watching football matches.) I’ve found that 45 minutes of intense writing activity, followed by a 15-minute break (half-time) followed by a further 45 minutes, is also very productive (repeat as required).

The two methods are similar in that they allow you to get a lot done (cumulatively) in a little time, though one is like piecework and the other is like payment by the hour. Given I know their effectiveness, I think the complaint academics make that they don’t have enough time for writing and research is probably misconceived. Time, strictly speaking, isn’t the issue. What is a problem — as I know from the fact that I’m having to manage a department for the second time in my life — is that it is far too easy for other matters to colonise your head. To work effectively you need to be able to do a combination of concentration and daydreaming (self-hypnosis is good here!) but that isn’t possible if your thoughts are full of finances, staffing problems and achieving the next government target.



Dismal 09.16.03 at 12:47 pm

Like the analogy for strategy B. Doing a thesis part-time, I feel it is more like the Tour de France. Hours, days, sometimes weeks of pain, yet nothing really changes (the flat stages). One time trial and a couple of mountain stages and it all changes very quickly, for better or worse.


Sven 09.16.03 at 3:12 pm

Your description of methodical work mixed with daydreaming reminds me of Henri Poincare’s prescription for creativity.


carla 09.16.03 at 3:42 pm

Two recommendations, if you don’t have them already: “Writing for Social Scientists” by Howard Becker (it’s aimed at grad students, but has a lot of useful reflections on the writing process), and “Flow” by Mihaly C[lots of consonants here].

I’ve also found something else that helps, too, in addition to doing the not-related stuff: Grab someone who doesn’t know your work and buy him/her a beer and talk about/explain what you’re puzzling through. I always found the effort to explain to someone who didn’t know what I was up to was a useful exercise and often helped me find the important bits.


Michael Blowhard 09.17.03 at 4:00 am

Excellent posting!

Forgive the self-promotion here, but I was tickled to see that we’ve been thinking along similar tracks: http://www.2blowhards.com/archives/001045.html#001045

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