On a weekend trip to Lake Erie, my friend enlisted me to build a sandcastle with him. He had a great sand castle building secret. The trick, he revealed, was to build a large pile of sand, regularly dumping water on the growing, solid mound. This, he promised, could be the basis for a sandcastle unlike any one I'd made before.
Skeptically, I consented to help. As he piled the sand, I dumped the water. Soon the mound was ready. We divided the tools, pink plastic trowels, a purple shovel, an orange bucket. We each took a side and began to make a sandcastle.
I sat with my tools and stared at my side of the mound. I pushed the sand around. I sighed and began to fill the orange bucket with sand and a little lake water. I tipped the mixture, making a sad, imperfect tower against the side of the mound. I made two more of these. I was frustrated. This did not look like a castle. It looked like nothing.
I peered over to my friend's side of the mound. He was busy constructing a wonder of the world, a more complex version of a Babylonian temple! There were in-set doors and perfectly straight platforms, deep windows and geometrical crevices, even trees! I complained like a child. He tricked me into making a sandcastle when he knew his sandcastling skills far outperformed my own. As I complained, he insisted I could make just like he was...
You just have to think subtractively, my friend said.
I thought about this idea, as I took my beach chair. Think subtractively. I stared at my meager, sad towers and saw them as perfect products of thinking additionally. I failed to realize there could be something in the mound already, failed to see what's could be in there, failed to see what I could get if I took something away.
As I'm spending time today, on a tired, caffeine-seeking rainy day, trying to get back to my dissertation, I'm thinking about my friend's sandcastle creed in relation to the process of dissertation writing. On one hand, a dissertation could be the ultimate act of thinking additionally---what other towers can I add to that big mound of thinking and writing that's preceded me? What is that one thing I can add on to what is already been said on this topic? As my castle would demonstrate, rarely though does this way of thinking about this task result in any elegant architecture. Just some ill-fitting towers.
Instead, today, though I wasn't able to think about my castle subtractively, I'm thinking about my dissertation as such. Something that I've relished doing during my dissertation writing is regular interludes of just reading. Rather willy-nil-ily, I decide to start a writing session by reading something that seems interesting. Today, I read a study focused on the material practices writers use to write from source material. The study, using a distributed cognition model, described how the writer's cognitive practices were externalized across their movements, arrangements and annotation practices with source material. I realized, with these researchers focus on the materiality of cognition, that though I too am interested in how writer's structure their environments and use their physical bodies, I'm actually less interested in their thinking experiences than their feeling one.
Ostensibly, I selected to read this study because it seemed to have the same interests and framework as mine. It could be the solid base to my tower. But what it became instead was a way to think subtractively about my ideas about the physicality of writing and what compels me about this idea. The study became the sand I can take away from that big dissertation whole, hiding somewhere in the unassuming mound.
Dr. Hannah J. Rule