How do you work?

Hannah-ArendtLast night I went to the Women in Cinema presentation of Hannah Arendt, a film by Margarethe von Trotta. (Click on the link to see the trailer.) The main story — well, that’s the reason to see the film. But there’s another story that unfolds, which is about how one writes. Lots of cigarettes. Lying down and closing one’s eyes. Hannah Arendt was also a professor, and she kept a pretty busy social calendar (friends with both W.H. Auden and Mary McCarthy!).

On our way home, my friend asked me how I write. She wanted to know, specifically, how it is that 15 minutes is all I can manage. “I know you read lots of books. You watch TV with your girls. Couldn’t you write more than 15 minutes a day?”

You’d think so. I didn’t know quite what to say. Don’t I love to write? Why don’t I write all the time, every spare minute? What exactly is my work habit?

I scribble more than I write. Writing the blog is a kind of scribbling, or just one step up from it. I can sit with a journal and fill page after page — when I allow myself to.

Sometimes I write in my journal about my writing. I write about how reading Frankenstein or The Witch of Blackbird Pond gave me an idea for a scene in my novel. Sometimes I’ll ask myself a question about what a character should do, or what outlandish event — that I haven’t yet thought of — I could put in. 

My fifteen minute practice has been purely to do actual writing, notebook open on my lap, pen in hand, scene underway. For some reason, this invention has always been the hardest part of my process and I almost have to trick myself to get it done. Once it’s down on the page, then I have a great time fussing over it and making it better.

Oh, getting it typed up is the intermediate step, and that gives me trouble, too.

greenchairWhat I find with the 15 minutes of “live” writing every morning is that I tend to be more concrete in my daydreaming about the novel throughout the rest of the day. That’s my goal right now. At some point, my time will break wide open and I’ll get four or five hours and make huge progress getting clean pages typed up and printed.

I will not compare myself to Hannah Arendt, one of the great minds of the twentieth century. I can’t claim to be a great thinker (though I’d like to think I’m a good one). And I don’t  smoke. But writing is one of those human activities that seems to require one to spend time doing something else — as if in a deliberate attempt to catch the mind off guard. That’s what I’m doing when I’m not doing my 15 minutes.

0 replies
  1. Janet Leslie Blumberg
    Janet Leslie Blumberg says:

    You said: “But writing is one of those human activities that seems to require one to spend time doing something else — as if in a deliberate attempt to catch the mind off guard.”

    Yes. That has an eery ring of truth to it!

  2. awritersalchemy
    awritersalchemy says:

    I know…for some reason I’m remember an assignment from a friend who teaches high school, asking students to write a paper about THE SCARLET LETTER with 26 sentences, each beginning with a letter (in order) of the alphabet. The papers were amazing. Hannah Arendt is, of course, all about THINKING, so this feels a bit counter-intuitive.

    • Janet Leslie Blumberg
      Janet Leslie Blumberg says:

      But her understanding of thinking was (from Heidegger) “aporetic.” It focused upon a problem, a sticking point — like the realization that Eichmann wasn’t a Macbeth or an Iago — and moves that problem into a cogent context or onto a different level (or takes it to a deeper level) in order to “resolve” it. But by then the resolution has raised its own problems and sticking places. From aporia to aporia…. It seems “random” but it isn’t.

      So she isn’t doing the “logical,” Cartesian, Enlightenment “reasoning” from step to step, from initial premisses to a necessary conclusion….

      Maybe this is why I can’t ever feel “done” at any point in my own thinking/writing but just keep wanting to press on into the next, richer problem that comes into view — or that keeps on emerging into better views or focuses…. My trying to “catch my mind off guard” involves trying to surprise myself with a “stop” or a “place of halting” that “accidentally” works as a whole, so that I can FINISH at least one facet of this project — at least enough to send it out!

      And the alphabet strategy also works in another way that I have been puzzling out — the way we are able to make progress into understanding something by bringing a wholly “other” kind of language to the modeling of it, an organized medium that has “nothing to do” with the initial subject matter, such as a given human language, or pigments on canvass, or geometry or algebra — all alien “languages” with their own coherences that somehow manage to bring out, in unpredictable and surprising ways, the being of the to-be-known. This is the singularity of human knowing: that it is never “direct,” never “unmediated,” but is always by means of setting up some fascinating medium “parallel” to the various facets of the world that we seek to know and understand. The very fact that an alphabetical ordering would seem unrelated to THE SCARLET LETTER (but it is the scarlet LETTER) is what “catches the mind off-guard” and makes a new apprehension and a fresh knowing of the to-be-known available.

      But we are always reifying the results of those strategies so that the to-be-known slips back out of view behind what can be regarded now as just “our” knowledge (which thus becomes merely a facade or surface knowing) instead of a genuine revelatory (and unpredictable) interaction with the to-be-knowns themselves, which are actually inexhaustibly fascinating because of their inexhaustible otherness. Their hiddenness, even in their being revealed (“re-veiled”), is one of Heidegger’s great insistences. I think Eichmann is even more of a riddle to me now, than he ever was before I started to grapple with Hannah Arendt’s challenging “resolutions” of the “problem” of his “banality” . . . .

  3. awritersalchemy
    awritersalchemy says:

    Your explanation of the Scarlet Letter writing exercise just made my brain do cartwheels. I was talking about aporia only today, in Writing Lab, and now here you are discussing Hannah Arendt’s aporetic thinking — I’m amazed at how these things work, as you know. I want to see the film again. I have this growing sense that it was a work of art and wonder what your take is…

  4. Janet Leslie Blumberg
    Janet Leslie Blumberg says:

    Yes. That actor who played Hannah was a force to be reckoned with. I just keep seeing her face. There’s something visual going on. Her face, her wools-clad physicality, and that visual display of the forests that keep on re-appearing as her natural backdrop — something great cinematically there I suspect. That living force one felt of her concentrated substantiality and its ability to act courageously in the face of a wall of rejection and hatred…. I’ve read that the director and the actor are a potent partnership. I’d like to hear what Jelena, in Croatia, knows about that.


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