Thinking about a writing habitat for learners and teachers
I want to talk about habitat, because, when we think about writing as an activity, as a pursuit with purpose, we need to think about how it comes to be and how it passes beyond.
And thinking about habitat is one step along the path to thinking about writing as an act and not as artefact, as performance not as process.
Writing is what we do to make thinking comprehendible, which means that it’s not what’s on the page that constitutes writing, but the acts that lead to placing it, beginning before inscription and taking shape during.
Because habitat contains habit, and that’s where the genesis of writing lies.
Habitat derives from Latin (12th century) habitāre, a word that introduces a species’ natural occurrence or growth, and roughly translates to it inhabits, a reference to something that occupies or dwells within.
This, in turn, derives from habit, which has a colourful transition from Latin to Old French to English, one stream referencing the externality, or outward appearance, and another referencing a sense of mind, or a way of acting. Most of its sense development was completed in ancient Latin with some extension in Old French before becoming English.
This means that the English version does not split into two streams that are evident in its chronology in French, but remains co-extensive with both, and its main sense remaining with that of habitude: disposition, condition, or appearance.
It is the things of habit that, in the end, define us.
For example, writers of obituary frequently resort to their observations and memories of habit to capture the essence of the person they are memorialising; habit often expressed in terms of ritual behaviours, manners of mind, places and moments of encounter, clothing and domicile; traits that lived within the character.
It is these habits that generate a mental impression shared among mourners, and there is a sense that the life under discussion is both inhabiting the moment, and has inhabited the residual spirit. The memory, born of habit, and fading as habit, leaves a mental impression in place of a physical presence, by which that person is described. Thus habitat gives death its meaning.
A creative writer, much like the deceased, is also described, in a sense, by a mental impression rather than a physical presence. It is the way in which we think about the creative writer, rather than through observation that we determine the species.
Creative writing is not observable, only through its habits can it be arrested, contemplated, charged with meaning. It can be carried in mind as a way of doing, or a way of dealing with matters of mental constitution, the tropes of which are afforded though an assortment of mental and moral qualities that manifest themselves as repeatable performance, but performance that is unique to an individual act of writing.
Even the writer who occupies his desk at the same time of a morning, carrying the ritual beverage, and engaging in the start-up acts of mental apprehension that will turn to inscription, is giving a unique performance.
Any external observation of such customary manner of acting is an observation of a unique small story that will contain that actor, those events, that object in that configuration only once—tomorrow’s version, even for all its outward appearances, will not be the same.
While we ascribe repeated, almost involuntary, behaviour to the definition of habit in its current sense, it has no etymological basis for being and is a latecomer to English.
So the habit to which I refer, is the mental character of creative writing that becomes an activity purposely engage in the pursuit of inscribing thoughts. And we can’t observe that.