Author: Julia McGaugh

This “Living Deliberately” Thing

As I was poking around on Voyant Tools, I was having trouble coming up with some profound bit of distant reading with which to report back. Yet, I found myself pulled by the question, is Thoreau’s deliberate way of living attainable only by those who live in the woods? Is that what he is suggesting? Or are his insights ones that arose largely from his time spent in nature, but ones that can be appreciated no matter one’s lifestyle?

I latched onto that theme of Thoreau’s critique of society and the ways men live. Using the word frequency chart tool, I came up with some words that usually signal that Thoreau has entered into one of his wiser moods – I chose “human”, “true”, and “right”, since he often comments on the lives of men and distinguishes between good and bad or right and wrong. From the looks of the resulting graph, I gathered that Thoreau concentrates his intuitions at the very beginning, the very end, and about evenly spaced in two main areas in the middle (although, of course, we know that his ideological assertions show their face in almost every chapter). This seemed like a pretty tidy set-up for starters.

I assumed that passages more purely focused on nature and the physical environment of Walden Pond would fill up the gaps between these epiphanies, and I chose the words “animal”, “tree”, and “bird” to pinpoint those sorts of passages.

What I found was not what I predicted, however! I found that in the first half of the text, this sort of alternating appeared quite neatly. Yet, the graph shows that the third concentration of philosophical language coincides with a peak in “outdoorsy” language, too. This did not surprise me too much, though; it makes sense that Thoreau might group his observations of nature with his thoughts on society, since he probably came to many profound conclusions while simply looking out at the water.

I found it very interesting that he chose to weave the topics in this way, though – to introduce nature and society as separate entities at the beginning, and to suggest that there are many similarities and lessons to be learned about society from nature by the end. There are two things we know for sure about Thoreau, although we are assailed by both staunch criticism and utmost praise. These two things are that, one, he is a gifted writer, and two, he lived a truly unique life. This weaving of words and themes is something only a talented writer and unique person such as Thoreau would be able to do.

I haven’t even scratched the surface of the questions that inspired my probing on Voyant Tools. Again I ask, do you have to live in the woods to live deliberately? In a way, the organization of the text does suggest that an understanding like Thoreau’s is only acquired by careful observation of nature and life. This excludes many people who do not have equal opportunities from that sort of wisdom. On the other hand, perhaps Thoreau is speaking to all people and simply encouraging greater appreciation for nature and the wisdom it grants by grouping the two themes together. At the moment, I am leaning toward the latter interpretation. I’d like to believe that Thoreau considered this “living deliberately” thing open to all people of all backgrounds and all lifestyles. However, only further close reading of his texts will answer that question.

Thoughts on Revision

I don’t ever write anything without also revising it. Revision is a vital tool of organization and clarity for me. Even as I write this sentence, I am already planning to return and rethink the previous sentence; so, too, revision happens without my noticing.

As with most tasks, when revising, I work exclusively on my computer. I find that typing, rather than handwriting, is more fit to keep up with my flow of ideas as I write. Revision, in particular, is so much easier on a computer than the alternative of scribbling in margins, making cross-outs, inserting carets, and so on. Specifically, I use Google Docs. To some extent, I rely on the Google Docs versioning feature, but I also create several individual documents during different stages in the process. I find that I very rarely use the feature at all, and I rarely revisit earlier versions to retrieve previous phrases. It is mostly a comfort, that my work will not be entirely lost if disaster strikes.

I often – indeed, always – revise my school work. To do so, I find it very helpful to write a draft of an essay that is just a stream of my rambling thoughts (namely, when I cannot think of a clear argument or direction I want to take the assignment in). I write what I call a “bad essay”, and by simply writing, I start to uncover truth and understand my own beliefs better. For me, writing is thinking. Having to convince yourself of any given side of an argument reveals your true leanings. When my “bad essay” is finished, I know where I stand, and I know the steps in my argumentation that led me there. Then, I start over.

I even revise Instagram captions, Facebook posts, and emails to professors. I guess it’s a way of composing myself before publishing my naked thoughts. I have never been a big fan of first impressions, and revision grants me a do-over, at least in written circumstances.

In addition, I frequently edit other people’s writing. As a member of the TEDx team on campus, I have spent months editing and revising others’ work, which is vastly different from revising your own. In this context, revision focuses on simplification and clarification, while attempting to preserve personality. I am tasked with prioritizing their voices and stories and leaving my syntactical and aesthetic preferences behind.

Revision is an act of humility. It is being able to admit that your past self was ignorant. It is, even, prioritizing coherence over admiration for your own words. It can also be sacrificing your own voice for someone else’s story.

Most of all, it is never finished. I reject the idea that an author’s work is presented to an audience exactly how they wanted the audience to experience it; I don’t think a good author is ever “exactly” satisfied. Elementary school taught me that there is always something to “fix”, yet “fix” isn’t quite right either. It isn’t as though one piece of writing is more right than another (excluding grammatical errors). It is more so about which is more true to you, and only by revision do we come the closest to that truth.

Write Here, Write Now

Never have I ever been morally conflicted about whether to write in a book. I just do – I write. The way I see it is that there are usually thousands of copies of any given book, unscathed by marginalia, and it can do no harm to leave your mark on one of the copies’ pages. I prefer pen (ballpoint to avoid smudging), although pencil will do if that’s what I have. There have also been multiple occasions when I have written in textbooks – even rentals (forgive me). I will say, however, that post-it notes are blasphemous. It pains me to imagine taking the time to read and think and write, yet to write on a frivolous piece of paper that will either be lost or thrown away. Ink on paper is bolder, better.

I began annotating in middle school and I still write in books for class assignments, while jotting down important talking points and questions in a notebook. When I read for fun, however, I write only in the book. After I have finished the entire text, I’ll usually make a note, either in the notes app on my phone or in my journal, about my favorite moments and quotations. Mostly, I do this so I can recommend the book to a friend or just share my favorite parts of it (speaking of which, I highly recommend The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu… one of my favorite lines reads, “To linger in the longing, the loss, the yearning, is a way of feeling the rich and embroidered texture of life, the torn cloth of our world that is endlessly being ripped and rewoven.”).

Some of my favorite texts to annotate are poetry, plays, and passages from the Bible. In all three, a lot of my comments turn into questions, and they often go unanswered. I have a sort of shorthand – hearts near things I either relate to or just find beautiful, a half-moon shape (a circle, half shaded in) to portray a notable juxtaposition or contradiction, far too many arrows connecting ideas with my own thoughts, and a fair share of expletives that I refuse to say out loud. I try to circle words I don’t already know in hopes that I’ll find the energy later to look them up. Oh, and a lot of “lol”-s in moments of irony and “:’)”-s on more profound occasions.

I guess if I ever second guess myself about writing on a page or not, I think of the Half-Blood Prince from the Harry Potter series and think (a bit too optimistically) that maybe my thoughts are the key to someone else’s future success. So, in a way, I am writing for a future audience, although I don’t always realize it. Mostly, though, I’m writing for my future self, and hoping that someday I’ll reread and be able to remember the confusion, laughter, and the rare epiphanies that the first read unveiled.

(An additional thought: While pondering this topic after a rehearsal, I started to think about how much I annotate music as well. It reminded me of the notion of reading in one language and writing in another. Often when I write on my sheet music, I write reminders to myself about what sort of tone should be expressed or how to convey a certain message with my playing or singing. Usually, I write in ways that speak to me more directly, rather than the symbols and Italian that are printed on the score. I write a lot of adjectives to remind me of the mood of whatever story is being told, so that I can easily assume that expressive role.)