WTF AFFECT: Describe briefly the space where you most usually write. How is it arranged? What must you have close at hand as you write? Any special or unusual features to your arrangement or deployment of writing space?
DONOVAN SCHAEFER: Best for me is a café, ideally in an armchair or couch rather than at a table. Slouching is essential. Herbal tea and some sort of sugar stream are my allies, and I’ll usually be listening to music on my headphones if I’m writing something I want to be writing. The best café, for me, is one where there are people circulating but not interacting with me.
WTF: Before starting to write, how do you know when you have done enough research
DS: I’ve done enough research when I absolutely can’t wait any longer before I start writing because a deadline looms over yonder. There’s always more to read.
WTF: When in full writing mode, generally how many hours per day are dedicated to the task? Are they consecutive hours or split up with breaks in-between, etc?
DS: Standard is probably writing for about 2 hours in the morning, taking a long lunch break, then writing another 3-4 hours in the afternoon into the early evening.
WTF: Do you proceed from an outline or some other pre-set framework/roadmap as you write?
DS: A loose outline is really helpful to me, but I keep that flexible and let it change shape—sometimes rapidly—while I write. Writing is essentially problem-solving, and your macro-level intuitions about where your writing will go will be fleshed out with micro-level problem-solving that builds the intellectual ligatures linking your ideas and gives your writing texture. Outlines help me organize the macro-level intuitions but then I expect the depth of focus they offer to expand while I write. Sometimes that will involve macro-level reorganization—shifting paragraphs or sections around or redirecting my argument.
WTF: Do you keep notes before you write? As you write? Do you have any sort of system for keeping track of inspiration and insight as it arrives alongside or prior to writing?
DS: Yes, I’m obsessed with writing things down on little pieces of paper and then arranging them physically. I had a wall covered with multicolored scraps in my office while writing Religious Affects. It made me look like a serial killer but I didn’t care. Even if it’s not for a current project, I write every idea I have down and then type them up in a permanent draft email in Outlook so I always have access to it.
WTF: Who are some of the writers that you most admire? Is there something that they share in common/something that links them? Or do they each provide different aspects or features that you take as important?
DS: Michel Foucault, Donna Haraway, Eve Sedgwick, and Sara Ahmed are major touchstones for me. Their writerly intuitions always seem oriented toward making the conceptual cinematic. Foucault is the academic writer par excellence. He sees ideas and information in a way that few other writers do. Nietzsche is a vivid writer, but he’s ultimately a bit too operatic, too self-indulgent, to be a role model.
WTF: How does the eventual audience for your writing figure in to how you address the task itself?
DS: Not knowing exactly who your audience is (even if you were just writing for one person and it was your best friend, you wouldn’t know exactly who they were) is the constitutive challenge of all writing. You don’t know what their training is, what they’ve already read, what words they know, what strikes them as stylistically austere/dry and what they find drippingly indulgent. I try to rotate through specific writers or people I’ve been in conversation with as I write, how the ideas would strike them, what sort of questions would be prompted by things I’ve said. The hard part is imagining them all in the gallery at the same time. It brings you face to face with the finitude of writing, the way each book is fused to your perspective and a particular set of conversations with specific bodies and communities.
WTF: What kind of role do affect and theory (separate or intertwined) play in relation to your writing practice? How do you conceive of the place of theory (as detour, as something to apply, as immanent, as relay, etc) in regard to the other subject matter of your writing? Where or how does affect appear in the space-time of the writing process?
DS: To different degrees, writing is always affective. Writing absorbs affects as you think—micrological streams of excitement, grief, anger, hope—but those affects change their tincture for you as you rewrite and edit. The 20th time you read something you’ve written, it feels very different to you than it will for someone encountering it for the first time—which is how it will actually be read and felt. Keeping that in mind and not letting it demolish your confidence is, for me, the hardest parts of writing.
WTF: When has a piece of writing – yours or anyone else’s – “succeeded?”
DS: When someone sees something in a new way that clicks for them, when a problem they have gets solved. That doesn’t mean things become simple. Very often problems get “solved” when we open a window onto the complex dynamic that undergirds the visible. Good scholarship increases texture. That helps us calibrate a more thoughtful response, even if that response can’t be captured in language.
WTF: Walter Benjamin once wrote (of ‘writing technique’) that there are three “[s]tages of composition: idea – style – writing. . . . The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, and writing pays off style.” It’s that intermediary term that we were wondering about: what, if anything, does some notion of ‘style’ have to do with your writing?
DS: I don’t understand that quotation or how Benjamin is using the word “style” but style is inescapable. Even the most devoutly mathematical attitude to philosophy is stylized: it’s designed to configure a particular formation of knowledge-affect, to make information feel a certain way, to increase sensitivity to certain registers of complexity and numb us to others. Pretending that’s not a style is isomorphic with the claim that philosophical reason is universal rather than configured by local embodied regimes of understanding.
WTF: Any pithy (as short as a single sentence) advice to give to an early career writer/essayist?
DS: Write everything down. No matter how staggeringly obvious or inevitable an idea seems at 3:00 AM or in the middle of washing dishes or exercising, get up and write it down.