Thursday, August 18, 2011

Habit, Routine, Writing and Creating

by J J Cohen

I've been thinking about the process of writing, especially when deadlines loom and there is Too Much To Do. On Tuesday I'd had a conversation and then a Twitter exchange about strategies for getting work done, especially in the face of anxiety, and so found myself reflecting on my own methods and routines. I've been hard at work on my Speculative Medievalisms piece, a talk that gives me apprehension as well as one that has taken me down some welcome and unexpected roads. I have a draft of the thing accomplished, a difficult eleven pages to craft (partly because I feel out of my depth speaking with any authority about object oriented ontology, as interested as I am in the philosophy).

I thought I'd share some of my own writing strategies here in the hope that others might find them useful. I would be very pleased if you would return the favor by posting your own techniques in the comments to this post.

Two versions of the same aphorism seem to me equally true: "Habit and routine are the nemeses of innovation" and "Habit and routine are the precondition of innovation." When it comes to writing, I need a familiar time, place, schedule and space ... and I need to break out of this regularity sometimes since it offers the ingredients not only for accomplishment but boredom. I finished my PhD program from start to finish in a fairly quick five years (having entered directly from undergraduate) in part because I did not stall out at the writing stage. Funding and being miserable helped, of course, but so did my writing routine during the summer and my semester of teaching release. Each morning I would hop on my bike and trace a wide circuit through Cambridge, along the Charles River via the Esplanade, and over to Newbury Street. There I'd lock my bike to a parking meter and sit with my books at a local coffee shop. I'd order a refillable mug and marble pound cake. As I ate breakfast I would pour over whatever writing I'd accomplished the previous day, filling the printout with marginalia (this was long before laptops were affordable). I'd then add as much writing as possible to what I had, attempting to extend the project as far as I could. When fatigue eventually set in, I'd then turn to a book or essay I'd brought with me and read that. Back on my bike around lunch time, home to eat quickly, and then at my computer, typing in whatever changes I'd made to earlier writing and adding to it whatever else I'd penned out afterwards.

This daily routine of bike rides and writing in two locations (coffee shop in the morning, home in the afternoon) sustained me through the most intense period of composing my thesis. Biking was an essential part of my thinking, not a delay of any kind. Most of my research was already done, so I didn't need to visit the library often. I also had drafted some thorough outlines of how I expected my chapters to unwind. Though each was in the end disobedient to its outline, possessing that road map was essential to being able to sit and write without agonizing over what comes next. The next semester, though -- my final one in graduate school -- I was assigned to be a TA in both a Shakespeare and a History of the English Language course. Time for bike rides evaporated, but the reshuffling of my schedule wasn't a catastrophe: I learned new routines, and carved out new spaces within which write (and found an especially welcoming space in the Cafe Pamplona, where I also taught a fellow graduate student conversational English in exchange for her helping me with my spoken French). The novelty of coping with the workload was in some ways a catalyst to getting more things done. Perverse, I know.

I don't want to idealize this period, even though I do look back upon it rather fondly. Its downside was that days tended to be solitary. Sometimes I would have to throw away what I had written as a false start or a dead end, some days I felt more creative and "on" than others. But I kept at it. Throughout graduate school I also always lived with at least one person, and found a powerful motivation in knowing that if I worked as hard as I could during the day I would be able to socialize in the evening rather than spend a lonely night locked in my room with a computer and a hundred open books. And I suppose that also shows another reason I could get the writing done: I am rewards-driven (I have written here before about gifts to your future self) as well as generally too impatient to procrastinate. But I am also certain that a good routine helped me to meet my real as well as self-imposed deadlines (another thing I'm pretty good at: I hate having my post-deadline time robbed by not making a deadline and having a project overspill its allotted frame).

I no longer divide workdays like I did in graduate school, mainly because ever since children entered the picture my days are significantly shorter and every moment I have to work more precious. Another way of saying this is that when Katherine and Alex are home, I don't want to be cloistered in the study: I try to end my day when they arrive, except for email and odds and ends. It doesn't always work but I try. It is still essential for me to have a comfortable space dedicated to writing. Nowdays that's the former nursery of our house, a room about the size of a walk-in closet into which I've somehow managed to fit all my important books, along with a comfortable desk and chair. I typically work on our porch in the morning when it's cool, then move to the study (where I am typing this right now) in the afternoon.

Other strategies that I use, with varying degrees of success:
  • Every other day I wake up at 5 AM and run. That seems crazy, I know, but holds so many rewards: the world is more vivid at that liminal hour, it provides me with solitude and reflection to start the day, and in general I feel better afterwards and can write more. On the days when I don't run I will often break up the morning with a bike ride, sometimes working in some time in a cafĂ© or a stop at the market to get ingredients for dinner.
  • I keep a regular schedule. For me, some late nights and some early mornings and some afternoons of writing mixed with some ten hour days just wouldn't work. I get enough sleep, I get up early every day, and I write. It seems more in tune with what my body wants.
  • There are some days when I simply can't get the words out of me. I try for as long as I can: I fiddle with what I've written, I surf the internet, I go back and try again. But if it doesn't come it doesn't come. I let myself off the hook rather than allow self-recrimination to snowball. Sometimes you need a fallow day to obtain a fertile one. There is no use being anxious or feeling guilty about it.
  • I reward myself with small amounts of social media after I've been writing for a bit. Contrary to popular belief, reading blogs or Facebook doesn't necessarily distract from getting work accomplished; sometimes it is the small break needed to return with more focus.
  • In use an outline not only for my writing, but for my time. I don't work in set blocks ("Today I will work for seven hours"); instead, I focus on getting a semi-discrete task accomplished within a time period -- a particular section of an essay written, a certain book read. I use Google Calendar and Tasks to keep track of deadlines. I indicate on the calendar which weeks are dedicated to which projects. I try not to miss these deadlines because then I screw up the work schedule I've composed ... and given what the last two years have held (as well as what the crazy year ahead portends), I have too much travel and too many essays due to allow that happen.
  • In writing all this down I realize that one of the reasons these strategies work well for me is that I'm disciplined -- as well as, I admit, relentless to the point of being annoying. These strategies likely won't work for some because they would seem oppressive rather than liberating. For me, they open up the maximum amount of time by managing what I have with care.
  • Conference papers (and other public talks) are great motivators because, well, who wants to commit an Epic Fail for an audience?
  • Running, practicing guitar, swimming with the kids, cooking dinner, having lunch with a friend and off-topic reading are not distractions from my writing. They are what enable me to approach it with freshness and, when it is working well, without resentment -- maybe even, some days, a sense of calm. Good writing is enabled by activities like these; they aren't procrastination.
  • Writing can be immensely pleasurable for me. I love it when I get a sentence just right, or when all of a sudden a text opens as it never has before, or the argument I am formulating just seems to work. But writing can also be agony: boring, tiring, something I'd rather not do. It's a lot like practicing guitar or running that way: good and bad bits, with the only sane way out a focus on a long view and the small joys, because that is what will carry you through.
So what about you? How do you get work done?


Anonymous said...

A post-doc I know once shared his method: pick a set number of words to type every day, and stick to that, even if the word limit falls in the middle of a sentence. That way writing becomes much more defined, and seems less unapproachable. Works well for me.
Also, I find that sticking to a completely different routine than normal works well. For example, I write best in a space I don't normally work in. The novelty helps me focus.

All Is Telling said...

An interesting and helpful post. Going to share it with my postdoc writing group in Atlanta. Thanks for being so thorough in you describing your process. Would be interesting to read reflections of this length or shorter from a variety of scholarly disciplines.

All Is Telling said...

I am going to share this with my writing group of early career/postdocs in Atlanta. Thank you for describing your process so thoroughly. Would be interesting to read pieces this length on process from scholars in a variety of disciplines.

Stuart Elden said...

Thanks for this Jeffrey - really good and inspiring. I've been posting a few things on writing myself - and, for example - though I may write a little more on this in the future inspired by your post.

This old world is a new world said...

Someone asked me recently whether I was a morning person or a night person, in terms of working. I replied that I had made so many accommodations to family life that I couldn't remember.

I used to have writing rituals and good habits, and will sometimes make myself write 500 words a day when I am starting to draft, just so I have something to work from.

But mostly, these days, I surround myself with distractions, take on too many large and ambitious projects, and just muddle on through. I honestly don't think I have a system any more.

The only thing that saves me from total chaos is my love of syntax. I do like a nicely-turned sentence and it's the rhythms and tensions of prose that keep pulling me back to my work.

I would like to be more disciplined about making a regular time for reading, but I usually end up going to bed too late to do it then; and the days are constantly invaded by urgent demands of one kind or another.

This all sounds a bit gloomy, but the good side to all this chaos is that I now recognise it as *my* chaos. This pattern of irregularity and frustration is hardly a model to be recommended to anyone, but it's the way things are for me, and over the years I've learnt that recognising the habits of one's own mind can be quite reassuring. So even when engaged in futile-seeming displacement activity, I can often recognise the familiar rhythms by which, somehow, by hook or by crook, work gets done. It's a mystery, really.

Anonymous said...

I am pretty much the antithesis of your healthy schedule. I keep a ridiculous obsessive-compulsive list of things that need doing and try to progress through them in an orderly fashion – this is meant to ensure that I don't let any important plates stop spinning. But when, as is ineluctable, the deadlines inch closer than the system can cope with I have to break programming, identify an upcoming window to apply rear to chair and just sit and type. I seem to need a faint pressure of urgency (and the possibility of Epic Fail) to produce my best, because, you know, thinking is hard, and I have to be pitched up to do it at any kind of high level. This may be why I get far more small stuff done than progress on big things. But when one knows one works this way, one can game one's own system by describing goals appropriately....

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Gieddj: a set number of words or pages wouldn't work for me, personally, though I know that when composing my dissertation I always aimed for three pages in the morning, two in the afternoon.

Stuart, I've very much enjoyed your writing about writing on Progressive Geographies and that (along with Graham's recent pieces) is partly what inspired my own post.

Stephanie, I think you've hit upon something important here. The process of learning to be the best writer you can be is identical to the process of understanding yourself intimately -- your rhythms, motivations, limits. That's why it can be uncomfortable, as well as rewarding.

Jonathan, thinking is VERY hard -- and that's why I'm not necessarily very good at doing it when sitting in a chair in front of a computer. I keep notebooks handy for scribbling down what pops into my head in the shower or when I wake up; SOMETIMES my brain has carried on thinking about a subject long after my body is out of the chair. Also, running and biking are modes of thinking for me, at least when I do them alone.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

From Progressive Geographies:

I write, knowing that nothing I write is final. I don’t agonize over words, I try to get the gist of what I am thinking, saying, arguing down, and go back over it again and again. Several times. Writing and overwriting. Texts emerge – I rarely sit down and begin writing ‘a paper’ from scratch.

I would add that this openness and idea of being ever in process is essential: I am forever revising my writing, and knowing that writing is a living thing inclines me to share what is raw (why not?) and not to worry too much audience as I compose. Believing that what you type is your final version is the best way to inhibit any writing at all. So is worrying about what your audience will think: you have to suspend judgment (your own, that of imagined others) for a while and surrender to process.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Don't you mean you would pore over your printouts? Or did the coffee go all over?

A regular schedule helps me a great deal. Sadly, though I am a morning person, I am required to teach night classes. Hence during the semester, there is no way around "some late nights and some early mornings and some afternoons of writing mixed with some ten hour days" whether that works or not.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

DE: I would pour the coffee over the printouts, and then pore over the poor results -- mostly correcting all my errors of spelling, it seems.

Heide Estes said...

This is a great post -- much food for thought. I'm going to recommend it to my students. Thanks!

Lucia said...

My dissertation-writing process (which I am still in, sadly) is basically the opposite of JJC's. I have spent the entire time trying to figure out what works for me, and I'm still not sure I have it right. Partly, this is due to the unhappy coincidence of falling into Depression right after I passed comps (the Depression happened for non-dissertation-related reasons, but it has had a huge impact on the dissertation process). All of my previous work habits (and the productivity that came with them) crumbled away, and nothing seemed to work. I have tried everything to get back to my former self, but she's gone for good, it seems. My brain is foggy, and some days are clearer than others, but even on my best days, there's still enough fog hanging around to impair visibility. I write all of this not to hijack the thread and turn this into a discussion on Depression and distractions, but as a preface to my current routine. Right now I have absolutely nothing to do but dissertate (which is good, because I need to submit in less than a month), so every weekday I get up around 7am and catch the bus to the nearby Barnes & Noble, where I sit in the cafe attempting to work until I can no longer function. Some days, I am here from open to close (12 hours). And weekends are difficult, because this place is too crowded and I have to find somewhere else to work. But the weekday routine seems to work better than anything else I have tried. I spend the first hour or so checking email and having breakfast here, and then I spend a few hours reading and making notes and making notes on my notes, and then I start writing and I keep going until I collapse. Basically, it's as if my dissertation is behind a locked door (a new one every day, of course), and I have to spend all that time reading and making notes just to find my way in. Hopefully it will get easier once I start doing minor last-minute revisions (as opposed to thoroughly revising a crucial section of the diss, as I am now). And obviously, I have no idea what will happen once I finish and have to teach again ... but that doesn't really matter now. I am curious, though, if anyone else has problems with locked (mental) doors and having to read every day in order to write. In a sense, the research is a way of tapping into my internal motivation (i.e., the love I have for my research, which still exists, thankfully, despite my lack of interest in anything else). External motivation can make me clear my schedule and sit in this chair every day, but it can't give me the focus necessary to write.
(Sorry that was so long!)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

An excellent example of being blind to what is most visible: in my list of routines and techniques I omitted regular blogging.

Very often my posts at ITM are intended to be or afterwards become the drafts for lectures and essays. Knowing that I can get immediate response is a tremendous motivator for publishing the posts: with conventional scholarly publishing, you are lucky if you get some reaction two or five years later, so that it often feels like writing to the invisible.

Some of my recently completed Abecedarium comes from blog posts, as did a considerable portion of my "Feeling Stone" talk in Melbourne and my Speculative Medievalisms piece as well. Having those posts on the web to re-examine and re-acquaint myself with has been invaluable, even when I end up reinventing the piece to use it.

Eileen Joy said...

Stephanie just articulated my life, especially this:

"But mostly, these days, I surround myself with distractions, take on too many large and ambitious projects, and just muddle on through. I honestly don't think I have a system any more."

My to-do list is so scary that--no lie--sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat just from the GUILT of knowing I can't possibly do [write] everything I have promised to other people. Other times, I feel angry that I never have enough long stretches of time for my own writing, partly because I have so many other pressing chores to attend to [like editing articles for "postmedieval" or sorting through abstracts for a conference, etc.]. I don't have a routine any more except to say that, mornings are the best time for writing for me. SO: I try to rise as early as possible and write, or do other work, until about 5 or 6 each day, at which point I pour a glass of wine and try to have some fun with my family. I also realized this summer that I have been spending so much time at my desk [but not always writing, mind you--often just doing a crap-load of busy chores related to "postmedieval," BABEL, punctum books, and the like] that I was becoming seriously out of shape. I am a workaholic, but that is not the same thing as saying: I get a lot of writing done. So I resolved about 1 month ago to go to the gym every morning, at least 5 days a week, and spend about 1-1/2 hours working out. So far, I've stuck to this routine and I feel a lot better physically, which I hope will improve my concentration and stamina as a writer.

I've noticed that, over the past 4 or so years, my attention span is not what it used to be--is this because of social media and spending so much time in front of a computer in general? I'm not sure, but I think/worry about it a lot. Like Jeffrey, I treat myself to visiting Facebook and the like, while working, several times a day, just to give my mind some "breaks" while writing and doing other chores. I have found it harder to read for long stretches of time, and that worries me a bit as deep reading in the past has led me down new avenues of thought I otherwise would not have discovered. I see myself as more of a scavenger now, picking up bits and pieces of other people's writings here and there, and like Stephanie [again], I sometimes convince myself I will read certain books in the evenings, but this never happens [I'm too tired and also have a "after sundown, no work" rule.

As to afarber's thoughts on depression and work--I think this is something many of us have struggled with at one point or another. There are times when I think really large writing projects might even *trigger* depression, and my only advice, like Dante's, is to say: keep wandering through the darkness visible--the path seems rough and dark in places [closed doors, as afarber says], but persistence almost always pays off when it comes to writing which, we have to remember, is also a form of thinking. We don't write down what we already know, but write in order to *think through* certain problems [which is why we re-write constantly, and yes, afarber, we also read to discover what it is we are going to write]. Take heart.

dtkline said...

Another helpful, compassionate post, Jeffrey, particularly: "I let myself off the hook rather than allow self-recrimination to snowball. Sometimes you need a fallow day to obtain a fertile one. There is no use being anxious or feeling guilty about it."

I wonder if anyone else has experienced the paradox of "getting more done when I'm the most pressed"? There's something about that pressure, especially external pressure, that seems to focus my attention more productively. Having more unstructured time - now, for example, that my kids are leaving the home - has left me somewhat adrift in terms of Getting Work Done. It's weird, and it's also a matter of becoming familiar with and more importantly comfortable with your own patterns of chaos, as Stephanie and Eileen have said.

What I think I appreciate most about ITM is the chance to think about - and feel - these professional difficulties, challenges, and joys *together.*

E. R. Truitt said...

Thanks for this, Jeffrey. I am just now contemplating getting back to the classroom after my first leave, and I'm anxious about how I'll manage to continue the momentum I've gained over the past months. As you and others have said, learning how I work best has been a process of self-discovery. I need regularity to built momentum. I can't work on a writing project in fits and starts; I need to do a little each day. Working on my blog writing has been enormously fruitful in giving me an outlet for writing that is not academic, but still lets me practice my skills. Moving to a task-based philosophy is difficult for me, but it seems it will be crucial for my self-esteem and sanity. I use treats as motivations ("If I get this done, I can watch a movie") and if I'm on a roll with writing/reading/thinking then I am unapologetic about keeping it going. Part of this is that I'm trying to finish my first book; I do wonder how my habits will change afterwards. Right now, it seems like my lizard brain is running the show, as fear and pleasure are my chief goads.

Anonymous said...

How goes the guitar-playing, by the way, Jeffrey? Got some songs down yet?


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks everyone for these great comments!

As to guitar Jeremy: I am still plugging away, mostly at the Phrygian scale and a Dylan song. Because of travel August was terrible for progress, but I am hoping that changes.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

It's interesting to revisit this post five years later and see the only thing that has changed very much is that (1) I get up and run at 5 AM five days a week now and (2) I work on the weekends more than I should and I don't like that at all.