Since I stopped composing music in 1984 I have used words incessantly. Apart from delivering hundreds of keynotes to audiences of thousands around the world, my total ouvre from writing now comprises seven books, over 250 major essays, chapters for books other than my own, and a few earlier scholarly items.
Not one day passes without my undertaking some form of writing. It might be just a few random thoughts I need to document for future reference. Or, far more likely, part of a larger piece I have on the go.
Though hardly prodigious, but mostly because of such a respectable output, I am often asked what it feels like to be a writer. It is not an easy occupation to express. Unless you have practiced the authoring of original work on a fairly continuous basis some mysteries are probably inevitable.
For a knowledge designer like myself there can be no preconceived blueprint. No implicit order or neat process. Just the routine of sorting through a jumble of new possibilities each time. I simply set out to write. Every day. Sometimes for minutes and at other times several hours. A few words beget more words. Eventually the words become a corpus, hopefully containing insights of some note, or at least an epistemological archive that speaks with an original voice.
Invention is demanding. And the torment is often deliberately prolonged. But the first ordeal facing any artist is the blank canvas. For the sculptor it is metal or stone. A composer the silence of drawn staves. For me as a writer it is the blank page. But then follows the real intrigue.
In order to overcome the dread of awaking one day as the victim of dementia and incapable of using my computer, or of losing the urge to write, I seize the moment as best I can. Every day is the same. It is unwise to postpone the initial scratches on the slate. So I search for a beginning. Any starting point will do as it can always be changed later on. A single point or a blurred impression perhaps. The shred of an idea that simply compels investigation. The strident distress signals of catastrophe. Or a whispered aside. The tiniest seed is evidence of something potentially novel. All are latent departure points pregnant with possibility floating in the ether.
Then comes the writing itself – work best suited to hermits or heretics and in itself a process of learning and adaptation. Personal rituals assume a significance that may be lost to the casual observer. The imagination must be primed before it can be given free rein. Addictive yet iterative, the meditative task of writing is highly compositional. For me the tones, accents and rhythms of the words are percussive elements, their ordering differs little from the task of composing music. I want the reader to hear the lilt of the melody in my text and appreciate the dance of ideas.
Occasionally, possibly more frequently these days, I strike a glistening lode. Like a shaft of light in the shadows, an unexpected hint of a clue appears, as though out of nowhere. Sometimes it recedes for a few distracting moments – returning in a slightly different guise. It refuses to be cornered in any part of any known realm. Instead is insists on scurrying off so as to follow its own erratic logic. Of necessity I follow. Who knows where it may lead as it twists in unexpected ways, in collision with familiar fragments, or opening entirely new vistas? At this stage the writing becomes a game. I must not lose the thread for one moment even if that means staying at my desk into the early hours.
Mostly I relish the disruptive unfolding of unruly thoughts. It is an exercise in trust and when novelty leads it is inevitable that one must give chase. Sometimes, as they dart into the distance, it becomes nigh impossible to reel in more capricious thoughts. Persistence is needed to deal with such willfulness. Tracking an idea-in-hiding is like tracking a wild animal; one must be prepared to retrace the path in order to pick up the scent again.
Inventing and capturing the startling evolution of pure, original thought, prior to having custody of any wisdom that might arise, is what I find most exciting about working with ideas. I cherished it as a composer in the same way I do today as a philosopher.
Writing is as much a voyage of personal discovery as the creative exploration of a particular domain. I find my own opinions, perspectives and appreciation shifting, sometimes quite radically, as the unfolding dissertation takes me down unfamiliar paths and into uncomfortable spaces, not entirely of my choosing. In the end one always hopes for coherence of course. And, looking back, a certain sense of continuity.
As each essay begins to find its own discursive niche, so too do I find my unique voice with greater precision and confidence. Tripping over a final word or two I can call a halt to this process. But it can only ever be a temporary pause. For each artefact portrays more than just itself. Meaning resides within the text of course. But it also symbolises a distinctly different presence. It has become more than my thinking too. Much more than just my voice. In the end, with every piece, I write myself into existence.