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On Writing, An Interview with Martin Krygier.

20 Dec 2017 11:18 | Izabela Zonato Villas Boas

Interview by: Izabela Zonato

Edited by: Emma Hyndman

Martin Krygier is Gordon Samuels Professor of Law and Social Theory at the University of New South Wales, the co-director of its Network for Interdisciplinary Studies of Law, an Adjunct Professor at the Regulatory Institutions Network, Australian National University, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences. His most recent book is Philip Selznick: Ideals in the World, (Stanford U P 2012). He has written extensively on the rule of law: its nature, conditions, and challenges. Below is an excerpt from an interview I conducted with Professor Krygier in December while he was in Oñati teaching his course “Rule of Law: Law, Philosophy, Sociology, Politics, and Reality.”

Do you have a writing process? Could you talk about this? How it works? Do you need to do something specific to write?

I think a quiet place is important. I think don’t drink alcohol while you’re writing…but there is no general recipe, you find what works for you in writing, there’s no general message. I’m a messy writer, some people make a detailed plan that works for them, but that never works for me, but that’s just a matter of what you prefer. But you should try to keep at it. Writing accumulates. If you do it regularly, you become used to your ways of working, and what works for you, and it also adds up. If you do it sporadically, every now and then, at least this used to be my experience when I wrote less, you frighten yourself by each day discovering anew all the ways of wasting time a writer finds, and that can be paralyzing. Now I know that my writing involves taking walks, cleaning the kitchen, attending to emails, etc., but I also know that so long as this is in my writing time something will keep ticking away in the background and jump out eventually. But all this is individual and variable. What is probably less so is the need to keep at it.

Do you write every day?

That would be ideal. I don’t. That’s what novelists often do, they write every day. Philip Selznick used to write every day. Since he wrote for about 70 years, that’s a lot.

I do try to write every day now, or at least I think about writing every day now, because I’m not teaching undergraduates. When I did I was distracted, I had things going on. So yes, it’s an ambition. But then most of my ambitions are only partially fulfilled.

When is the best time for writing?

There is no time that suits everyone. Writers find what suits them. For me, I mess around a bit in the morning, and I have to sort of build-up and then it all comes out in a burst for a little while, and then I have to mess around again, comes out in another burst. The way I write, every day when I’m writing, I first of all read what I’ve written and edit what I’ve written, so the absurd thing about my articles is the first parts have been read fifty times and edited, but the last part I’ve read very few times, but I sort of need to get a run-on. So, I need to internalize what I have said, then push it on a bit further. So I often start in the morning with the reading and editing, which is relatively easy but can take time, and then wait for the painful part – writing something new – to come on me. That happens in a burst, sometimes long, sometimes short. I do that for as long as takes, until it runs out. Then I have a drink. And the next day, same story.

Do you have a recommendation for a person who wants to be a teacher and a writer too?

Well, it’s a very general question, since both teaching and writing at their best are intensely personal, not at all mechanical, activities. In both, a key is to find your own voice as a teacher and a scholar, and that often takes time and confidence.

Teaching is an individual, personal, thing, at least in key parts. Some parts of teaching can be taught, but others are picked up in more indirect ways – having had good teachers, listening to students, and so on. Sometimes the best things you can teach a student are that you are and why you are engaged with a subject, rather than the content of the subject. That’s something I fear will be lost as teaching comes to be thought of as pure transmission of information, which could be done by a robot, and is increasingly done by a computer.

I fortunately stopped regular teaching before it became electronified, so I never had to mess with powerpoints and other thought-and-expreessiveness numbing devices. For me undergraduate teaching at its best was intellectual engagement and thinking aloud with an audience you hoped you could spark, interest and influence. With higher level students the interest and influence became more reciprocal, and that is a special joy. My allergy in both domains is to homogenizing the process – making everyone’s teaching and writing conform to tight ‘educational’ or ‘disciplinary’ templates and/or methods. It’s hard to avoid that these days, but I would encourage people who have a vocation for teaching, research and writing, to seek to find their own ways of doing things, rather than to start talking and writing like everyone else.

As for the writing stick to it, write hard, read widely. If you can be better disciplined than I was when I taught regularly, find a block of time you keep for writing, and stick to it. I was rarely able to do that, but it’s obviously a good approach.

Pay attention in what you write to the shape of it, whether an article or a book. Apart from substance, everything should have a place and be in that place and not another. Often I read drafts of doctoral theses that throw stuff in because the writer had had to work hard to find it, thought it intrinsically interesting and/or important, thinks it’s a sharp or original point, thinks the reader needs to know it, etc. These are all good things, but a key test is: does what you say in one place fit in with the shape of what you are trying to say in the piece as a whole, and with what you say in other places, and should it fit in this place, rather than some other. If not, keep it for another day or move it.

Another key issue for young writers is distinguishing background and foreground. You read a lot as a scholar, and sometimes you need to know a ton to say a word; but never make the mistake of thinking that what took you months to master has to find a place, commensurate to the time it took you to learn it, in what you write. Again think of what it is doing for the piece you are writing as a whole. It is important to get background straight, but it is equally important to decide what place it should have in a piece you are writing, that is of one particular sort and not some other. 


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