Why We Write

I’m a big admirer of Montaigne’s Essays. My admiration is as much for the work as a project as it is admiration for the specifics of his thought, although that has some merit too.

Montaigne benefited from the kind of privileged life that lends itself to an extended period of time doing nothing but writing to figure out what you’re thinking. But as projects go, his Essays are a noble one, and it is one that we all can learn from.

It’s far too easy to go through life working with a bunch of half-arsed assumptions without realising it. The process of writing can be used to interrogate those assumptions to figure out which ones hold up, and to learn where your limitations of knowledge and understanding lie.

The legendary theoretical physicist Richard Feynman used this process to further his profoundly deep learning, and Cal Newport gives a great outline of that in this link. In short, he’d create a notebook titled, Notebook Of Things I Don’t Know About and then populate it with his work spent learning those topics in great depth. He used the notebook method to prompt himself to tackle the hardest concepts he faced, so that he could develop successfully. I’ve linked to Cal Newport’s site because he writes a lot about this kind of thing, and his blog is well worth reading if you like this kind of thing.

I did a similar thing myself during university. Specifically, my Comparative Government tutorials covered a bunch of topics but we didn’t have time to include a tutorial on Electoral Systems. We did, however, cover Political Parties, The Executive, and The Legislature. It isn’t possible to tackle those topics without understanding electoral systems, and I’d discuss electoral systems with friends a lot. But, to make sure I knew everything I needed to, I spent a Michaelmas Break researching and writing a paper on the topic of Constitutional Reform for the United Kingdom, that included the issue of whether House of Lords should be elected or not (and if so, how this should happen). By the time I’d finished that work, electoral systems felt like my strongest topic in this course, and when I sent the document to Professor Vernon Bogdanor (a legend in British Constitutional Affairs) he wrote back approvingly, suggesting I seek to have it published in an academic journal. No mean feat for an undergraduate’s fun holiday project. For transparency, I should note that my conclusions were in disagreement with his views – his support for my work wasn’t a matter of responding to someone who shared his beliefs about how reform should happen.

That’s why I write. That’s why I publish to this site.

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