Implies Clear Thought

Jonathan Bellman

[Postcard from the guestroom, which is doubling this semester as my study: laptop set up, chaotic piles of books and papers, etc.]

Here is a beautiful essay on writing.

Never is the old English Teachers’ adage “clear writing implies clear thought” more relevant than when one is writing an academic book. No matter how clear your outline, how deeply you believe what you wish to say or how certain you are that a major part of it is absolutely new, much of your time is spent beneath the surface, not writing but outlining and re-outlining and re-outlining: fixing this, changing your mind where to put that, then there was the whole argument about the other. Maybe I can just slip that in at the beginning of chapter X, where it will set up the main argument.

Good! That seemed to work. Got a lot done today! I’ll look it over tomorrow before I start the new chapter. Rollin’ along!

[Interlude: The Sleep of the Just.]

[Then, with a paltry cup of coffee for my sole company:]  Please tell me I didn’t write this. Not only is it the wrong place for that argument, it was written long ago and thrown in a file for future use—and the way it reads is sub-high school: imprecise, overheated and accusatory (Bellman, was X ever rude to you? Step ahead of you in line? Why are you being this way about his work, fool? Is disagreement without confrontation not in your life experience? [Well, not until I left home, really, that’s still no excuse…]) Start a new chapter? Not today, Jack. We’re not talking first aid, but major reconstructive surgery.

Several re-writes and re-reads later: well, better now, and I can go on. Except for wondering where I should put Z argument/subject…maybe if I start the chapter with it…

* * * * * * * * * * * *

It is hard, for me at least (it’s not just the cobwebs of age; this was true in my mid-30s when I was writing my first book), to keep everything straight, mentally, and all the building blocks in order. My work tends to bring in a lot of different stuff from all directions—different musical traditions, past history (both music history and our recension of it), cultural and historical stuff, obscure quotes and facts and references…and so whatever I’m trying to say depends on the coherent presentation of bushels of stuff, making a pretty complex picture. [Funny; I never noted until just this minute what this book has in common with my first one, though the musical subject is completely different.]

I’m sure that all academic authors think, perhaps regularly, “Am I really smart enough for this?” OK, maybe all except Richard Taruskin. But you have the contract already, and the ideas won’t go away, so… On to chapter four, of seven. If you’re not smart enough, act like you are. If you diligently practice those octaves, repeated notes, or (thinking about my favorite trumpet player and his Haydn concerto) those high notes, they come eventually, and then they’re yours. Just fix today’s chapter, or small part of one. Just (to quote a favorite Sprichwort) do the little things well; then will come the great things begging to be done.

A sabbatical to write a book is a gift, the most wonderful opportunity imaginable. Like practicing the piano, though, the process constitutes an agonizing and ongoing stare-down in the mirror of one’s bad habits, procrastinations, methodological insufficiencies, and various sorts of laziness. Too late to turn back, though—“Sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,” said Gimli the Dwarf—so the only way is forward.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to Implies Clear Thought

  1. Yes! This is exactly what Miss Mussel is experiencing at present. Writing is the easy part. It’s the organising, the finding a coherent framework that stays that way as you lay on the content, that is the challenge.
    Also, the transformative power of a good night’s sleep never ceases to amaze. Previously crap paragraphs are suddenly inspired but more often, really clever prose seems contrived and irrelevant.
    Thank the Lord for word processors. The thought of doing this all on a typewriter is enough to give Miss Mussel a serious case of the vapours.

  2. Gabriel says:

    Man, that was lovely. I just accidentally confided to a near-stranger today about how genuinely difficult writing the second book is. The first one was comparatively easy–at every turn ther was some compulsory deadline, and without it there would be no tenure. The edited collection was also farily straight-forward. And articles are still pretty do-able, since the idea can be chewed on in one mental mouthful, basically. But that second book…in spite of having great ideas (I think, and people tell me) and a couple of interested presses. Truly, one ends up staring into the abyss and seeing one’s bad habits, fears, and genuine limitations. Hopefully one also sees, clinging to the edges and trying to get through the cracks, one’s strengths, courage, and belief in oneself and, by god, the topic at hand.
    Anyway, thanks.

  3. Jonathan says:

    Hang tight, both of you. I appreciate the fellowship (IN THE NONRELIGIOUS SENSE GODDAMMIT), and the support-group aspect of what is, after all, a solitary activity requiring HOURS.
    Like practicing.
    Gabriel’s situation sounds like mine without the intervening textbook, which came after my First Research Book and The Anthology. I suspect it will be research from pretty much here on in, though that’s probably as good as all my other predictions.
    Remember: it’s about the *Sitzfleisch*.

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