Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Patrick Collinson "I had no method"

In the article titled Diary: working methods by Keith Thomas, the author notes in his opening statement that
"it never helps historians to say too much about their working methods. For just as the conjuror’s magic disappears if the audience knows how the trick is done, so the credibility of scholars can be sharply diminished if readers learn everything about how exactly their books came to be written."
As we continue reading we learn that in History of a History Man,  Patrick Collinson reveals that  when asked "what his research method [were], all he could say was that he tried to look at everything which was remotely relevant to his subject: ‘I had no 'method'." As the article continues we read about notes on scrap paper, cutting pages out, turning book page edges down, highlighting text, penciled in notes, and text being underlined.

This article reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert's TED Talk Your elusive creative genius, particularly the part of the article that recalls Hobbes "always [carrying] a note book in his pocket, and as soon as a thought darted, he presently entred it into his book, or otherwise he might have lost it. He had drawn the designe of the book into chapters, etc., so he knew whereabout it would come in.’

In her TED Talk, Gilbert notes that at one point,
"people believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons.The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity "daemons". Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar. The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius."
As time passed we began to internalize the concept, referring to ourselves / the human being as the genius.

Where Hobbes's methods remind me of her talk is where she relates an encounter she had with the American poet Ruth Stone. Stone's account is related by Gilbert as follows:
"She told me that when she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, "run like hell." And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem,and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn't be fast enough, so she'd be running and running and running, and she wouldn't get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it "for another poet." And then there were these times --this is the piece I never forgot --she said that there were moments where she would almost miss it, right? So, she's running to the house and she's looking for the paper and the poem passes through her, and she grabs a pencil just as it's going through her,and then she said, it was like she would reach out with her other hand and she would catch it. She would catch the poem by its tail, and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. And in these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact, but backwards, from the last word to the first."
Gilbert goes on the relate other stories of genius, but what stuck with me most about her talk on the writing process was this, that it's hard work. It reminded me of Luker's advice to break it down into 15 minute segments.  Either way, Gilbert says the when she's feeling dejected and uninspired, she calls on her genius, which she disembodied from her self.  She
"lifts her face up from the manuscript and directs her comments to an empty corner of the room, saying "Listen you, thing, you and I both know that if this book isn't brilliant that is not entirely my fault, right? Because you can see that I am putting everything I have into this, I don't have any more than this. So if you want it to be better, then you've got to show up and do your part of the deal.O.K. But if you don't do that, you know what, the hell with it. I'm going to keep writing anyway because that's my job. And I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job."
It's an absolutely wonderful talk for anyone who hasn't internalized the concept of genius, but may need to call on one from time to time.  Particularly those of us who will be expected to come up with graduate (genius) level prose in the not too distant future. 

Gilbert, E. (2009, February). Elizabeth Gilbert: Your elusive creative genius. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html

Luker, K. (2010). Salsa dancing into the social sciences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Thomas, K. (2010). Diary: working methods. London Review of Books, 32(11), 36-7.

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