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 café 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.