Warning: Ideas in Head Are Smaller Than They Appear

Phil Ford

A 2004 cartoon from James Kochalka’s wonderful sketchbook diary American Elf:

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Kochalka is a cartoonist, rock musician, astronaut, and race car driver.* So he’s in the business of having ideas, which he can execute in a number of different media. And re-reading the second anthology of American  Elf this morning with my coffee, I happened upon this cartoon and, not for the first time, felt a certain connection with Mr. Kochalka, despite the differences in our chosen media. We all need our big ideas, of course, but it’s a mistake to think that they always come to us at full size. As J.R.R. Tolkien once said of The Lord of the Rings, sometimes the little tales grow in the telling.

I’m now at a point where I’m advising doctoral students in their dissertations, and I seem to keep coming back to this point. You start with a presentment of some large idea that will turn into a dissertation, but in a sense you don’t totally know what the idea is until it’s written down. (I don’t think you ever really know what you think about something until you’ve given it some verbal shape, either written or spoken.) But then how do you start writing it down if you don’t exactly know what it is? It’s a conundrum sort of like the old hermeneutic circle thing: you can’t understand the parts without a sense of the whole, but you can’t grasp the whole without knowing its parts. I’ve always told myself a version of my Mom’s line about thrift: watch the pennies and the dollars look after themselves. Start writing little ideas down and let the larger connections between them, the architecture of the Big Idea you’re chasing, develop organically from the accumulation of details. And, first of all, have a place to write them down. I have a number of daybooks on my computer because I’m most comfortable sketching things in a word processor program, but everyone is different. There are still a lot of longhand diehards out there. (I suspect that there’s some connection between thinking and the physical act of writing. I just like the feel of typing.) For that matter, one of the reasons I like blogging is that it gives me a low-hassle way of firing off little ideas, some of which become surprisingly valuable to me. And the funny thing is, I never have any way of telling whether a blog post will be valuable when I start writing it down. (This is why outlines never work for me, though I imagine I’m in the minority on this.)

Of course, there’s a downside to the start-small-and-work-your-way-up strategy of dissertation writing, which is that you might end up with a bunch of short pieces on different sub-topics which add up to a shambling incoherent Frankenstein’s Monster dissertation. And this, I will admit, is exactly what happened to my dissertation, which I now hate and wish would just disappear off the face of the planet. There are some decent ideas in it, and indeed a few ideas I’ve been tinkering with since I graduated, but while at the time I could see ways all these ideas connected into some larger totality, I didn’t have enough of a grasp of the whole to find a good structure for those connections. As a result the thing reads like a huge desperate improvisation, which is basically what it was. At the time, though, I wasn’t smart enough to figure out what to do about it.

*OK, no, only the first two, but it’s always seemed to me so improbably cool that anyone could be both a rock star and a cartoonist that it seems as if he might also be a few more cool things as well. Those of you unfamiliar with Kochalka’s music should immediately head on over to the Youtube and watch “Britney’s Silver Can,” a Hey-Jude-like anthem to Britney’s one true love. The Sabbath-like rawk of “Wash Your Ass” is also an awe-inspiring thing to behold.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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3 Responses to Warning: Ideas in Head Are Smaller Than They Appear

  1. Michael says:

    The phrase “lady friend” never sounded so cool! Totally Sabbath.
    I maintain a couple daybooks, some are e-books, some are old-fashioned sketch pads. I’m staring down the barrel of the diss right now, and this post was very timely. Thanks.

  2. Wrongshore says:

    I haven’t done any sustained intellectual work since my ten-years-past senior college thesis, but it benefited and suffered from this quality. It was creative but not, in the end, very well argued. It was also quite a bit of fun, which probably matters more in the senior-thesis department.
    I was infatuated intellectually with Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, which had evolved from “that book with the hot picture of Emmy Hennings” to something of a touchstone. I wonder what you think of that book.

  3. Alison says:

    Thanks for writing this. My thesis looks rather as you describe – thousands of ideas in search of a through-line. Nice to know it isn’t just me.

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