Writing as Statistics, History as Mathematics

Nothing gets a historian more twisted into knots than statistics. “Take any economics course you can,” Donald Jordan used to tell me in his bamboo garden in Athens, “because history and economics are completely linked, whether you like it or not.”

I maintain an adversarial relationship with economics, and with numbers in general. But there are times when quantification, when statistics, do us well. To honor the numbers is to honor the solidity of fact, though, as Bruce Cumings reminds us in his immortal yet neglected book War and Television, “history as mathematics” isn’t without its problems.

But today, I’m not talking at all about casualty figures for various well-known controversies like the Nanking Atrocity or for inexplicable non-controversies such as the US/UN bombing of North Korea for three years in the mid-1950s. I’m talking about writing.

Jack Kerouac, the incorrigble and lovable lush that laid down the template for the Beat lifestyle which was coming again into vogue when I was entering university in the 1990s, was in fact a numbers man. Sure, he talked a good game about spontaneity — and he could channel the angels when he needed to — but his journals (again, damning, solid evidence rears its head!) speak to his obsession with statistics.

Word counts crowd up again and again in Kerouac’s journals: 750 hard-won words on a mediocre day, 2,500 on a good one.

But attention to word counts alone do not a type-A personality make, and Kerouac went well beyond these simple statistics. To measure is to spark! and to measure his productivity, Kerouac erected a more complex system for himself that he called his “batting average.” He was a bit secretive about it, even in his journal, but I suspect it went like this:

Kerouac’s formula for productivity in writing:

24 hours per day

minus time for sleep/ingestion/digestion/grooming

minus time for income generation

equals time ostensibly available for writing.

Of that time available, Kerouac endeavored to use about 40% of it for writing.

Given that writers have a compulsion to read, and to dream, and to draw, and to play music, and to listen to friends read poetry, and to drink, and to go to art galleries or orchestra concerts, or garden, averaging 40% would be a feat of nature!

And because he was a nut, and because he was attempting to pull this off in that epoch of 1948, Kerouac calculated this number not as a Wall Street-style percentage but as a “batting average,” and paced himself with Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams. Batting .400 thus takes on a whole new meaning for writers.

I am experimenting recently not with batting percentages, but with word counts.

This past week I knocked out two article manuscripts to very good Korean studies journals.

Article A: 11,900 words

Article B: 7,500 words

Total:  19,400 words.

Throw in various little things like cover letters and you’re right at 20,000 words.

So then what?  How, in a Kerouacian way, can you average it out,quantify it further, strain the data, streben nach Gluck?  Can you write songs about it, tattoo the paragraphs on your wall, call a friend, start something new?

All you can do is glue new writings up, afix postage to more letters of time and regret, loosen talk of postpartum losses, imagine that your floor is flooded again with prose-washings that can be bucketed up and frozen-packaged perfectly for delivery to some Chicago press.

Do you 20k pay yourself from some fund you’ve pulled out of your university salary like some parsimonious scribe?  Jive down to downtown to blow it on coffee and Red Bull?  Write new words with Sharpies on red Washington apples and pitch them each into the harbor for YouTube gold and communica with friends across the planet?  Celebrate by beginning a new arc of solitude that results in giant acts of social networking (writing as social networking, indeed!)?

Perhaps one has to find new data-driven models for self-exhortation.

Scholarly statistics, unheralded metrics for my own profession:

classroom hours per week

hours reading student work per week

hours spent corresponding with students per week

hours spent conversing with students per week (somehow I object to that sterile phrase “advising” which somehow seems to assume a one-way stream of communication)

hours spent reading new books

hours spent transcribing marginalia

hours spent managing databases

hours spent in committee

hours spent managing university websites

hours spent handling university paperwork

hours spent engaged with the Chinese language

hours spent engaged with the German/French languages

hours spent blogging

hours spent in orchestra rehearsal

hours spent practicing the cello

hours spent reading the newspaper

hours spent driving to and from Korean/Vietnamese food heavens

hours spent arranging travel

hours spent working on grants

hours spent in the archive

hours spent writing letters of recommendation

hours spent writing new prose in legal pads in random coffee shops

hours spent preparing lectures

hours spent crafting courses

hours spent untethered on the typewriter in your boat

and things of this nature.

Weekly stats, raw numbers. Arc, plummet, plunge, grow, gather up new strength.  Submit it all to the data gods and see what you actually produce.

Or we could get into ratios:

Article acceptance/rejection ratio

Average ranking of journal published in

Average footnotes per page/per article

Average word count

Number of hits on “Google scholar” (21 as of this moment, knowing nothing about the tool until recent enlightenment)

Perfect proportional ratio to reading student work to writing one’s own work (it is not only possible but likely that the more one reads of good student work, the more one is motivated to produce one’s own challenging prose)

But then we get into scary territory:

Unsubmitted work/work in preparation.

This is something about which Kerouac seems to have little advice, other than to trust your self and “blow as hard as you want to blow.”

Getting 20,000 words out in a week is fine; it is good to feel as if one is getting something closer to “done.”  But the ratio of what is done, in comparision of the mountain to come is daunting.

But perhaps one has to find the right attitude toward the hashing out, the backlog, the growing mound of ideas and data that results in one having 17 unpublished and unsubmitted manuscripts plus 12 book chapters left over from graduate school which have been growing in various and sometimes untoward ways.  These all await, they cogitate, but they do not loom!  No, there is nothing sinister about the work which is to come in this next year or two years or the ever after of the future.

It all simply remains to be counted, and written up to a certain steam temperature, and printed on lead, and submitted, and reviewed.  Desk drawers and folders full of archives which remain forever unknown but to everyone but me are of very little use to the world.

Statistics are anything but damn lies.

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