Monday, June 13, 2016

Sandpits. Why some papers write quicker than others.

I had an interesting experience over the last 48 hours. Back in October, I submitted two conference paper proposals (250 word abstracts) to International Association of Mission Studies (IAMS) Korea conference. Both were accepted.

One was based on a film, Silence, which was at that time pegged for release in November, 2015. My proposal read as follows:

Title: “regard as valuable”: Missiological approaches to the “Silence” of religious change

Accounts of conversion and transformation within the Christian tradition are often linked to narratives of success and expansion. Yet a truthful missiology needs to engage the entirety of the Christian story. Silence: A Novel (Picador Modern Classics) is a historical novel that offers an absorbing, albeit bleak, meditation on the inability of the seventeenth century Jesuit mission to establish religious change on Japanese soil.

The book is currently being made into a movie. Directed by Martin Scorsese and due for release in 2016, it will undoubtedly rekindle debate regarding conversion and transformation, including how to understand the mission in the gaps and silences of history.

This paper will examine three missiological approaches.

First, the work of Donald McGavran who has argued that lack of success in conversion and transformation is due to the strategies being deployed, particularly a lack of resources focused on evangelism.

Second, the work of David Bosch who has argued that suffering is at the core of Christian mission and that silence can be an evangelistic action.

Third, the work of Philip Jenkins who has argued that the Christian understanding of Easter, in both death and resurrection, is a more Christian paradigm for understanding religious change than that of progress.

Each of these missiological approaches to religious change will be applied to Silence, both the novel and movie (if released in time). The argument is that missiological approaches that speak of silence are consistent with the Apostle Paul, who asks the church in Philippi to “regard as valuable” the story of Epaphroditus.

Following acceptance of abstracts, IAMS then required 2000 word papers to be submitted by the end of May, 2016. By the end of May, Silence the movie had not been released! I had already written one paper for IAMS. So I wrote to the conference organisors, advising I was unable to provide a second paper, on Silence, due to the film not as yet having been released. They replied, indicating how keen they were to have the paper. They suggested I complete a draft, based on the book, which I could change if and when the movie appeared. They also offered a 12 day extension, to Sunday 12 June.

I had two other talks to give between the end of May and the 12th of June, both of which required significant preparation. I relayed this to IAMS. However, flying back on Saturday having completed the two presentations, I realised I had 90 minutes in the air. Often being locked in a plane can be highly productive. So I decided I’d spend the time writing and see what happened.

90 minutes later, as the plane began to descend and the call came to turn off all electronic devices, I did a word count. 1750 words!

Wow. Another few hours the next evening, and I found myself with a complete draft. An edit from a competent, understanding academic colleague this morning, and I have just sent a 2,000 word paper, written in the space of 6 hours, over a 48 hour period.

Some papers write quicker than others. Why?

Location – as I said above, I often find myself highly productive when airborne at 30,000 feet. It means no email, office interruptions or phone calls. In addition, looking down provides a different sort of perspective. This becomes a gift, which becomes productive.

Limitation – Given the unavailability of the film, the conference organisers had suggested I provide a draft. This did something mentally. Instead of looking forward, wondering what else I needed to read, and in this case, what else I needed watch, I found myself looking back. What did I already have that I could make use of? Locked in a metal tube, with no new books to distract me, all I had was previous scraps of writing and my head. Searching my hard drive, I found a theoretical frame that I had used in a 2008 conference presentation on female Christ figures in film and realised it could be helpfully used. I remembered I had written in 2010 a film review, in my role as Touchstone film reviewer, that dealt with similar themes. Both opened up some helpful theorisation. Suddenly I had the basis for two sections. The initial work I had done in preparing the abstract became a useful third section. Limitation got me looking within.

Clarity of task – Hemingway said write drunk, edit sober. The argument is that we use different parts of our brain to create than we do to correct. We need to play, and then, separately, to evaluate. We should never do these two tasks together. On Saturday, when I began to write, it was playful. “What the heck,” I thought as the plane took off, “I have 90 minutes, so let’s see what happens.” I doubted I would come up with anything, so there was certainly a risk free environment.

Surprised by my output on Saturday, I decided to have a second play on Sunday. “What the heck, I have a few evening hours free, I wonder if I can land this, write a complete draft before 10 pm tonight?” If I did, I could then sleep on it (sleep-in Monday actually), and then turn from play to edit, reading critically what I had playfully produced.

Sandpits – In a recent post on writing (from binge to snack: why Parking 60 has changed my writing life), I reflected on the difference between binge writing and snack writing. I talked about how the discipline of sixty minutes a day had enhanced my writing.

Reflecting on this past weekend, I did not feel like I was either snacking or binging. I wrote for two sessions, one 90 minutes, then other 150. Then it was an edit, once on the screen in response to feedback, the second on paper as a final edit.

sandpit A more helpful image for what I have experienced would be neither snacking, nor binging but sandpitting. Sandpits are places to play. Play happens because of structure – the physical structure of a bounded space, the social structure of watching parents. In the sandpit, results and outcomes are not the issue. Play is.

Location and limitation and clarity of task had produced a sandpit. A “no-outcomes-expected, have-a-go, draw-together-what-you-already-know” play. My play was further supported by that helpful colleague, able to offer quick, objective, time-bound advice. They knew I had time pressures and were able to feedback within those realities.

What I have written will undoubtedly need more work, including wider reading and a reconsideration when (if) the film appears. But I now have words. And some satisfaction, at producing a 2,000 word conference paper in 48 hour period. And respect for the possibilities and potential of being placed in a sandpit!

Posted by steve at 08:49 PM

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