Monday, May 7, 2012

Prof. Roger Rothman on Fluxus, the creative excitement of starting a new project, and the need to rewrite.

Roger Rothman, Associate Professor of Art History

What writing project(s) are you working on right now?

I am writing a book on Fluxus. Fluxus was (and still is) a loose group of artists (Yoko Ono is perhaps the most famous) from around the globe (most from the US, Germany, France, and Japan) who sought to blur the boundary between art and life. Much of what they did was simple and silly, and I’m especially interested in exploring the complex and serious ideas that were hidden underneath. The book will focus on the American artists in the group and will examine the connections between their work and the ideas that drove the various social and cultural upheavals of the sixties. My argument is that the political dimension of Fluxus is far more significant than people have thought. At this point, I am still early in the writing process. I have been on sabbatical this year and have been collecting information on different artists as well as historical accounts of the sixties. I’ve also taken a few trips into New York to look through the archives at MOMA and meet with individuals who were (and still are) involved in Fluxus.

What do you love about it?

My favorite part of the writing process is the beginning, when new ideas hit me and the shape of things changes suddenly. As I take notes and concoct arguments and theories, the writing I do causes the various artists, artworks, and movements to rearrange themselves in my mind. Obscure events and concepts move into focus while other things and ideas that I had taken as central move to the periphery. It’s a period of creativity in which it feels like I am both the one who is moving the different parts and, at the same time, a passive witness to parts moving themselves. It’s very exciting and I think it’s this that keeps me hooked to writing because I have to admit that almost all of the rest of it is hard and painful and unpleasant.

What about it (if anything) is driving you nuts?

Indeed much of it drives me nuts. The first frustration comes when my words hit the page; they almost always lack the eloquence and clarity and conviction that they (seem to) have in my mind. As a result, it takes a long time for me to turn the mess of the first draft into something I can say I’m happy with. It’s also the case that my revision process is far from linear. My second draft is never a simply refinement of the first. It’s almost always a complete rewrite (and often that’s the case with the third and fourth drafts). In light of the messiness and non-linearity of my process, I’ve gradually come to recognize that I need to have huge chunks of uninterrupted time to focus on writing  (anything less than three hours is too short): it takes me at least an hour to clear my head and get to a place where the words will come out in anything resembling a coherent fashion. I suppose it’s a consequence of my monomaniacal personality. Doing more than one thing at a time is almost impossible.

How would you describe your writing process?

I begin by taking tons of notes—both data that I’ve collected and ideas I’ve come up with. Over time, I watch as the ideas shift and expand and contract and mutate. When I feel that the process has slowed down to a point where things seem settled and my time yields diminishing returns, I make a very simple outline. In fact, it’s really just a list. Each idea that I think is needed gets a single line. I’ll then move the individual idea-lines up or down the list so that they fall into an order that seems to make sense. Sometimes I’ll make a powerpoint to arrange the works of art that I plan to discuss so that I get a sense of how the text might flow. Then I start turning these idea-lines into paragraphs. Sometimes a few idea-lines will be clustered to make a single paragraph; sometimes a single one will grow into a handful of paragraphs. This part can be fun because it often yields up some interesting surprises. I’ll usually need to go back to do more research and will find that some of the ideas I thought were central should really be pushed to the background while others should be moved to the fore. As each idea-line is replaced by full paragraphs the writing mutates bit by bit into full draft. Then the rewriting begins. Things will be taken apart and new paragraphs added. New research will be done to supplement an idea that hadn’t occurred to me earlier. When it seems like everything that needs to be there has found its proper place, I play around with the sentences and individual words. I try not to over-polish, partly because I’ve seen how easily the shine of vibrant sentence can be scrubbed out of existence, but also because I just get tired and want to stop. The process ends when I can’t stand to look at it anymore. Then I send it to friend and hope I get a positive response. If I don’t get a positive response I usually cry a little, wait a little, and then start tearing it apart yet again.

What kind of feedback on your writing do you find most helpful?

The most helpful feedback I get on my writing comes in the early stages: I like to hear how a reader responds to the main argument and evidence. Often I learn that I’ve incorrectly predicted some key suppositions that a reader brings to the text or the sorts of questions that the reader is most interested in having me answer. Feedback at this point has a huge effect on how the draft develops. Since the text is still in its infancy, hearing that I should cut it up and move stuff around is not nearly as frustrating as it is after I’ve worked to get it into what I think is its final shape.

What would you like students to know about you as a writer?

I am not a natural writer. When I was a kid I was a poor and disengaged writer (and reader, too). It’s only after many years that I have become comfortable with a keyboard beneath my fingers; so I suppose I am a good example of how it’s possible to become an effective writer through nothing more than persistence.

1 comment:

  1. This was a fabulous post. Prof. Rothman was my favorite art history professor at Bucknell and he helped me a lot with my writing while I was there. I have a very similar writing process and having just struggled through completing my Master's in decorative arts, it's nice to see that there are others who do this for a living that have the same struggles. It makes me rethink my possible career choices, in a good way. Thank you so much for posting this!