Is Writing a Social Activity?

O'Carroll Pic

by Fiona O’Carroll 14C

About a month ago, I handed my advisor the first draft of the first chapter of my U.S. History thesis. As I turned to leave his office, he said, “Oh! One more thing. Have I given you the ‘Writing is a Social Activity’ speech yet?”

I shook my head.

My advisor straightened up and cleared his throat. “Writing,” he began, “is a social activity.” He went on to describe how I should think of writing as an interaction between the writer (me) and the reader (for the time being, him). In an effort to cultivate readability in his students’ writing, he encourages his advisees to keep in frequent contact, sending him drafts in various stages of incompleteness and incorporating his feedback.

His speech got me thinking. To what extent can writing be a social activity? In my experience, historical research and writing tend to get a little lonely. A history thesis requires hours and days of quiet, solitary work. It involves reading whole shelves of books about people who are long dead, written by historians who are often also dead. It pushes a student to delve deeply into a topic that likely holds little interest for the people around her. (At Christmas, my aunt told me that my fascination with the anti-suffrage movement was “cute.”)

But at the Fox Center, I have been pleased to discover that writing actually can be a social activity. I am one of the four thesis-writing undergraduates whose office space is in the house next door to the Fox Center. James, Kurtis, Abby, and I have made the upstairs space our own. We have a snack shelf (for storing wasabi peas and M&Ms) and a communal whiteboard. On the whiteboard, we write notes, quotes, doodles, and riddles for each other to puzzle over. The quotes are of the philosophical kind. One morning, I came into the office to find a quote written in Greek (the English translation politely provided below it) from Heraclitus: “Thinking is the same as being.”

Our corner of the house is a cozy microcosm of humanistic inquiry and interdisciplinarity. Our subjects would not usually find themselves in such close proximity, but they don’t mind. Walter Benjamin meditates on his Jewish identity while, a few feet away, Sir Robert Filmer waxes poetic about the divine right of kings in seventeenth-century Britain. Lost in their own thoughts, Plato and Aristotle hardly notice the fierce debate that is raging between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and anti-suffrage homemakers. As I write about the woman suffrage debate, I find it refreshing to take a break from time to time to hear about a completely different sphere of knowledge.

If there is a downside to this arrangement, it’s that sharing a workspace with friendly, interesting people makes it easier to procrastinate. But isn’t it nicer to procrastinate with friends than to procrastinate alone? Procrastination is part of the writing process. When it comes to writing, “work finally begins,” says Alain de Botton, “when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.” I’m glad that we can face our fears, and celebrate our successes, together.

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