Academic Writing as a ‘Desire to Relate’

A couple of days ago, Nancy White posted this video on Facebook (thank you for sharing it Nancy)

David Gregson : A Desire To Relate from Creative Matters on Vimeo.

The video, of the western Australian artist, David Gregson, tries to capture how he uses his art to communicate and his desire to relate. Quoting from the text under the video:

In the year 2000, the late Western Australian artist, David Gregson (1934 – 2002) allowed students from Curtin University of Technology (Perth, Australia) to access his Kellerberrin studio to film him as he worked. David, still recovering from recent surgery, completed the painting ‘Provence Window’ over a period of four days.

A highly prodigious visual artist, whose career spanned over 50 years, David Gregson is one of Western Australia’s most highly regarded figurative painters. His dedication to opening our eyes to the communicative power of art, and his virtuosic talent with a paintbrush, strongly informed his art and continues to influence many an aspiring and established artist.

At the same time as being introduced to this video and David Gregson’s work, I have been following Pat Thomson’s blog in which she is sharing how she is running her 8-day writing course in Iceland . Patter is a wonderful blog and I always look forward to Pat’s posts. I like the initial questions that Pat posed:

  • What is the contribution your paper will make?
  • Why is this important?
  • What will connect your readers with this topic?
  • How will you create the niche for your work?

These are questions that I have been asking myself in some recent writing I have been doing, although they have been implicit concerns rather than articulated. Pat’s next post was all about the writing the Introduction for a paper – and again, all very good advice. Since then she has written about the Literature  and Methods sections of a thesis or paper.

How does all this relate to the David Gregson video? Well, when I watched the David Gregson video I immediately recognised the way of working, whereas when reading Pat’s posts, I had to admit to myself that that is not the way I work. For example, in the most recent writing I have been doing, the introduction was the last section I wrote, I only had a very vague idea of where I was going at the start and I was waiting for ideas to emerge, for ‘Ah Ha’ moments.

On watching the video some of the things that David Gregson said resonated very strongly with me. On starting his painting he says:

‘You may think that I am dithering. I am not really. I am trying to get into character of what it is that I am going to paint’.

Gregson painted his picture ‘Provence Window’ over four days. The video doesn’t tell us how long he ‘dithered’ for, but in my most recent writing that I have been doing with Frances Bell about the rhizome as a metaphor for teaching and learning, I dithered for weeks and weeks. It has taken almost a year to get to the final draft.

Gregson says that in your work you are the performer, but you have to remember that standing behind you, looking over your shoulder, is the past, the present, the critic and the director. In other words, the act of painting, or in my case writing, is a multi-faceted conversation and you have to prepare yourself in your daily work by first calming down. He talks of becoming re-familiar with your materials each day in this calming preparation phase, saying ‘hello’ again, cruising around the painting surface, becoming as one with it – ‘there’s a little courtship about it’.

This is not dithering. This is becoming immersed in the process. It is not following a plan. It is allowing the process to ‘speak to you’. I find it comforting to think that what might be perceived as dithering is actually a necessary part of the process.

Gregson then talks of introducing the characters and says that it is worthwhile introducing some extremes initially so that you have an intuitive scale from which to work. ‘If you kick off on a high key it will keep you there’, but if you introduce a major dark area you get a tangible meaningful contrast to the light. That makes sense to me. As he says, you can always rub out ‘the bum notes’. If you are immersed in the process, sensitive to the areas which need attention and let the process (writing or painting) speak to you, you will know what you’ve got to get rid of, although in my own case, I have to say that this can take months rather than days.

I agree with Gregson when he says that we need to sustain a mood and be open to ‘happy accidents’. The beginning and the middle of the process can all be very suggestive and vague, but the sense, the meaning, slowly emerges. I can recognise this too. I have to consciously be ‘open’ and patient, because at times, it can all feel so extraordinarily messy.

Gregson’s commentary on his painting relates closely to my recent thinking and reading around Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome and the nomad. Nomadic thought encourages an avoidance of boundaries and free wandering. Rhizomatic thought encourages taking lines of flight and breaking free of traditional, hierarchical thinking – a deterritorialisation of thought. Ultimately though, there is reterritorialisation such that in the case of David Gregson he finally produced his painting ‘Provence Window’. That was a reified outcome, which satisfied the requirements of the art world. Similarly, academic writers ultimately reify their written communications in the format required to satisfy the requirements of the audience for which the writing is intended. Currently many journals, if not most, require authors to write in very traditional ways, almost to a template. This is difficult to escape, for academics who want to be published – but perhaps the process of writing, before the final drafts, can benefit from lines of flight and deterritorialisation – a bit of free wandering rather than following a plan. Does this lead to more creative, communicative academic writing that fulfils a desire to relate, or does it just lead to a messy incoherence?