Floor-writing

by Paul Maharg on 03/02/2009

When I started as a postgrad student at Edinburgh University English Literature Dept way back in the late 1970s one of the many classes we didn't get and should have had, was on structuring our research projects. I remember at one group meeting being told by a lecturer about his rather complicated boxfile card index system for references that somehow involved knitting needles and punched holes in wee cards — I never quite got the hang of it though no doubt it worked for him.  But nothing on how you get the big picture of what you're doing.  I asked a couple of other PhD students, and their answers didn't inspire confidence.  I'd been used to turning out 2,000 word essays every two weeks as an Honours undergrad; but how did you plan a 120,000-word piece of work?

One day I visited a Brazilian postgrad student in her flat in the New Town.  I'd wondered why she had taken such an enormous bedsit (draughty, expensive), and when I arrived I found out why.  Almost the entire floor of her vast room was taken up with 6 x 4 boxfile  cards, numbered in pencil if I remember aright, each one with one or two paragraphs on them on one side, references on the back.  This wasn't the whole thesis, just a section of it.  She kept it like that until she was ready to type up a draft, but most of her drafting was done on the cards.  

It was like something out of Borges — the topography of the room had become her mental map.  She was living her thesis, day in, day out, with her bedsit floor as her desktop.  She said she'd work on bits of it, in one corner of the room, and having it set out like that helped her remember what was where — sort of like a sense of place attached to meaning, as in memory palaces, and with the same infinite number of entrances and exits to the argument.  You walked around sections on narrow strips of the carpet, like the boardwalks around vegetable beds in an allotment.  She could shift stuff around easily, rewrite, adapt, tear up, think about the argument flexibly.  It was so sorted.  And as a method it just seemed really expansive, as if there were plenty of space, not to write more, but explore her writing in depth, and to be able to move from high-level aims to low-level argument almost instantly in a powerful visual way.   

What did I learn from this?  In the short term, nothing, unfortunately — if I had it would have made the process of writing my own thesis a lot easier.  It was so bizarre a way of writing it just seemed crazy at the time; and I had learned distressingly little about writing process from my undergrad experiences.  But as the years passed I went back to that memory and it seemed increasingly clear-minded, sophisticated and directed as a method of thinking and writing.  When I first encountered a computer 'desktop' in the late eighties I went back to the first time I'd seen another sort of metaphoric desktop as a floor.  And when I read of Ted Nelson's stretchtext, and the concept of the text joystick — pull it back, and you'd hover over the text at high-level, push forward and you'd enter the text in ever more detail [Literary Machines…?] — it seemed another version of that New Town bedsit floor.  

My job at Strathclyde is changing.  At my own behest, I'm stepping down as co-Director of Legal Practice Courses — Karen Barton is taking over that role.  Instead I'll be involved in development of learning & teaching projects at university level (more of that later) and within the Law School's undergrad & postgrad programmes, and a new centre within the Law School.  One project is a review of how we can more effectively help students write and think, how we can talk with students about their developing understanding of law and justice, and all this at a fairly fundamental level — floor-level.    

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