Saturday, July 04, 2015

Creativity, Routine, Writing Lockdowns, and the Necessity of Ignoring Those Who Offer Themselves as Example

by J J Cohen

This humane, truthful, useful post on How Do We Write? by Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Alexandra Gillespie has already been read more that 7000 times ... and it was published only a little more than a month ago. A larger project has been inspired by the post (I won't scoop the authors or publisher by speaking about the details ... but it does look to be fantastic: stay tuned!). I'm contributing a piece that brings together a blog post from 2011 (edited and condensed), a selection from a series of Facebook updates I disseminated during what I called my Writing Lockdown in 2013 (lightly edited), and a short reflection on both.

Long story short, looking back on what I wrote I find myself to be incredibly annoying and don't understand why anyone reads anything I blog or place on Facebook. But I think there are some useful lessons that emerged from my documenting my writing process, especially about the utility of social media. Indeed, the archive exists only because of social media.

Let me know what you think: there is still time to revise.

Creativity, Routine, Writing Lockdowns, and the Necessity of Ignoring Those Who Offer Themselves as Examples

Habit and Routine (A Blog Post, 2011)

Two versions of the same aphorism seem 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, 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 doctoral program from start to finish in a fairly quick five years (having entered directly from undergraduate) in part because I did not stall at the writing stage. Funding and being miserable helped, but so did routine and a semester of teaching release. Each morning I would bike a wide circuit through Cambridge, along the Charles River via the Esplanade, and over to Newbury Street. There I'd sit with my books at a coffee shop. With a refillable mug and a slice of marble pound cake, 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 as possible to what I had just revised, attempting to extend the chapter as far as I could. When fatigue eventually set in, I'd turn to a book or essay I'd brought along. Back on my bike around lunch time, home to eat quickly (yogurt, banana, granola), and then at my computer, typing in whatever changes I'd made and transcribing the new paragraphs I'd penned.

This daily routine of bike rides and writing in two locations sustained me through the most intense period of composing my thesis. Biking was an essential part of my thinking, not a delay. Most of my research was already done, so I didn't need to visit the library often. I also had drafted thorough outlines of how I expected chapters to unwind. Even if each was in the end disobedient to its draft, possessing a road map for each was essential to writing without agonizing over what comes next. During my final semester in graduate school, I was assigned to TA two different classes, Shakespeare and History of English. Time for bike rides evaporated, but the reshuffling of my schedule wasn't a complete catastrophe. I invented some new routines, and managed to carve smaller spaces within which to write intensely, helped along by a firm deadline for submission and a passion to be done. Work, I learned, has a way of filling all available space.

I don't want to idealize this period. Days were solitary to the point (at times) of sadness. Often I’d throw away what I had written as a false start or a dead end. But I kept at it. Throughout graduate school I also 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 might not have to spend a 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 as well as generally too impatient to procrastinate. I hate having my post-deadline time robbed by a project that overspills its allotted frame, even when the deadline is self-imposed.

Ever since children entered the picture my working days are significantly shorter than those I describe above. When Katherine and Alex are home, I don't want to be cloistered in the study. I try to end my writing just before they arrive, except for email and odds and ends. It doesn't always work and chaos (in the form of sick days and snow days) enters the equation frequently. Possessing a comfortable space dedicated to writing is essential: 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.

Other strategies that I use, with varying degrees of success:
  • Every day I wake up at 5 AM and (on most of them) run. That seems crazy, I know, but holds many rewards. The world is more vivid at that liminal hour. Running provides me with solitude and reflection to start the day, and I feel better afterwards. 
  • I try to write or revise something every morning. My mind shuts off late in the afternoon so I cannot do much more than email. 
  • Sometimes I simply can't get the words out of me. I fiddle with what I've written, I surf the internet, I go back and try again. But if writing 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. 
  • I reward myself with small amounts of social media after writing for a bit. Reading blogs or Facebook doesn't necessarily distract from getting work accomplished; sometimes it is the small break needed to return with more focus. 
  • I use an outline not only for my writing, but for my time. 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 Apple Reminders to keep track of approaching deadlines and portion out my time. I try not to miss these deadlines because then I screw up the work schedule. I have too much travel and too many essays due to allow that happen without triggering panic. 
  • In writing all this down I realize that one of the reasons these strategies work for me is that I'm disciplined -- as well as, I admit, relentless to the point of being annoying, even to myself. I’ve sometimes not been a good collaborator because of my calendaring and my drive. These strategies likely won't work for many because they would be oppressive rather than liberating. 
  • 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. I have to tell myself these things repeatedly. 
  • Writing can be immensely pleasurable. I love it when I get a sentence right, or when a text opens as it never has before, or the argument I am formulating suddenly seems to work. But writing can also be agony, or just tedious. The only way out is a focus on a long view and small joys, because that is what will carries through. 

Writing Lockdown (Facebook Status Updates, 2013)

Writing Lockdown begins now, fifty days committed to long hours spent on nothing but my the manuscript of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. I watched The Shining last night to prepare.

Made progress reworking introduction to be less chirpy. Started on first chapter, a recursive monster of a thing. First bout of project induced melancholia -- or maybe it's the usual early summer funk. Progress will continue tomorrow at an undisclosed location due to fact son will be home practicing "like a thousand times” the song for his final in his piano class.

Have discovered that revising is as enjoyable as poking sticks in your eye again and again. Imagined I was Bartleby, but the version who can't stop typing away at a book chapter even when his eyes hurt from all the poking. Ate a ginger cookie in Bartleby's honor.

DAY 10
The cashier at the Undisclosed Location where I often do an hour of writing lockdown each morning insisted that my coffee is on the house because I’m now a regular.

DAY 11
Encountered much of my writing at its worst (sentences that run on so long they leave their subjects stranded twenty lines from their verbs, catalogs so lengthy they gesture towards infinity, repetitions that tend towards redundancy), but also accomplished some rigorous thinking about the ultimate shape of the book. I do have confidence that it will come together, in time. I've sketched out three possibilities for its final form and we will see what clarity tomorrow brings. Unlike last Friday, when I was declaring that an untimely death would at least free me of this albatross, today I lack lucidity about the final shape of the thing but it seems OK.

DAY 13
Today did not start well, mostly due to insomnia about Writing Lockdown and the shitty chapter I am faced with revising.

DAY 17
No matter how long I looked at the chapter most words seemed ill chosen and the argument I thought I had nailed down dispersed into chains of associative logic and topical meandering. I have a string of terms I can't make cohere and the whole thing seems a repetitious amalgam that doesn't accomplish much (and yet is the product of a great deal of research and labor). The chapter kicked my butt. I need to, um, sit on a pillow or something so that it doesn't do that to me again.

DAY 19
A half day: Wendy and I will escape to Luray for a long weekend, where exploring some caves and hiking the mountains will keep the geologic real even when lockdown is suspended. I feel OK about departing the hermitage because yesterday's deadlock was broken by an outpouring of helpful FB comments (44!) as I tried to wrap my mind around rocks and terminological failure. All hail the power of social media -- and the generosity of those who use it.

DAY 20
After an awesome Geologic Shenandoah Escape, Writing Lockdown began inauspiciously last night with a massive onset of anxiety matched with the thunderous nearing of a storm: each reverberating boom was a footstep of Day 20 approaching and the topple back into my book. Threaten as it did, however, the storm never arrived, and after a tense hour I fell asleep ... and maybe that is a sign that return to lockdown will be OK.

DAY 21
Still going strong. 12 hours after waking up this morning, chapter now seems vastly improved in a critical section. If, however, I am ever compelled to write anything at any point ever again in my career about medieval carbuncles O FOOL, I SHALL GO MAD.

DAY 24
The turgidity of my prose depresses me enough that today I retrench a bit, pruning and clarifying rather than attempting to finish. Puts me off schedule but I'm thinking of it as a cleaning day, just as sometimes the only way to get work done at your desk is to diminish the clutter.

DAY 26
Book chapter down to 25K words, but an incoherent mess that shows no sign of wanting to organize itself into unity. Not a great day.

DAY 28
My reserves of creativity are tapped out, and my chapter is an embarrassment to rational beings everywhere. AND the copyedited manuscript of Prismatic Ecology just arrived. And Wendy is having surgery on her hand tomorrow.

DAY 29
Rather than post an update that mewls about my insomnia, the flooding storms, the work I have to accomplish, Wendy's surgery and the things to do beforehand, I will simply note that (1) Writing Lockdown Day 29 will be a soporific half day; (2) I know that I am very fortunate to have a life that allows me to devote time to writing and rewards me for what I've undertaken, (3) much of that good life comes about from the support of family, good friends, and you, the person reading this: I'm grateful for your companionship.

DAY 32
The end of Writing Lockdown Day 32 witnesses my body rebelling against this regime. My shoulders smart, my right wrist is sore from the edge of the laptop pressing into it, the arch of my left foot aches from the crazy position I place it when I'm not paying attention.

DAY 35
Blue clouds against black sky, and the radiant Thunder Moon behind. A good omen from this morning's run for Writing Lockdown.

DAY 40
40 days and 40 nights of Writing Lockdown either means I'm Noah sailing in an ark full of chapters which are in turn crammed with horrendously strained metaphors OR that I have only two weeks of Writing Lockdown remaining before departure for Maine.

DAY 41
Writing Lockdown Day 41 ends with the drawing of a necessary line. I could read endlessly and add infinite amounts of material to this book but I need to stop somewhere ... and this is my somewhere. Now I start the process of going through the book slowly and carefully to ensure the writing is up to snuff, the argument fully coheres, the footnotes are worked out, and everything is mechanically perfect.

DAY 42
I wish Douglas Adams were still alive so that he could tell me what Writing Lockdown Day 42 means.

DAY 46
Frustrating day. Tried so hard to complete revision of chapter; failed. Discovered that closing section also appears verbatim in last chapter. Overall structure not gelling. Too many quotes, too much digression. Tomorrow had better yield an epiphany or I will complain or Facebook or something.

DAY 48
A reminder of the affective roller coaster intense writing projects produce. After the happiness of yesterday's small achievement, a night of a single, short, dull and infinitely looping dream that kept waking me up -- agitated by its inane repetition, and angry enough at my brain that I'd stay awake for an hour. Reset. Repeat. Anxiety, because Writing Lockdown is nearly over.

DAY 49
Thinking about the health costs of this long regimen. Losing the 75 lbs might be possible but the curvature of my spine and the heroin addiction are going to be more difficult to address.

DAY 50
Writing Lockdown began on June 3 and has repeated intensely fifty times. I've been working like a dog. But even summer dog days come to their close, and mine terminate now. Writing Lockdown ends NOW with a Dark n Stormy.

Backwards Glance (written on a holiday when I got up early due to stress over having too much writing to do: 2015)

I composed the words that appear above on social media, the blog In the Middle ( and Facebook ( The blog post records a time in my life when I was good at getting things done. I wish that time had lasted longer. By the summer of 2013 I had taken on so many projects – and had a book due to press – that I was plagued by insomnia and constantly anxious that I would not be able to complete all that loomed. I used fifty nonsequential days that summer as a Writing Lockdown, working harder than ever so that I could get Stone to UMP. My plan was to have the manuscript almost there by the second week of August so that I could enjoy a family vacation hiking in Acadia without bringing books or thinking academic thoughts. I posted about the Lockdown every day on Facebook as a way of being accountable to the world outside my mind. Reading through these posts now I can see that there will come day when my relentless drive will cause me harm.

Well, honestly, it did cause me harm: I was something of a wreck by the end of the process, emotionally and physically. I injured my shoulder badly enough that it took several months of physical therapy to restore full function. People think the life of the mind is not dangerous, but it will kill you, if you let it. If I could travel back in time I would tell the Jeffrey Cohen of graduate school, 2011, and 2013 to chill the hell out. I offer these words and reflections here knowing full well that underneath the processes I describe run currents of apprehensiveness, fear, self-punishing discipline, and relentless drive that I do not think is healthy and is certainly not offered for emulation. What I want to say in closing is that no one can tell you how to write, only how she or he writes. That process changes as life proceeds: writing is a mode of living, and must therefore be adaptable. Possibilities exist within every model. And so do perils.


Becky Pratt-Sturges said...

Thank you for sharing your reflections on the writing process. I am in full swing writing my dissertation and trying to figure out my path to finishing so it is reassuring to hear from other scholars on what has worked and what has not.

Irina said...

Thank you for this. While it's interesting to see what works, it's just as valuable to see what doesn't work, or what the costs of success are.

I think many of us brought up in the North American system feel we have to justify our leisure time: that if we take vacation or spend time on hobbies or with our children, we somehow earned it. Or that the creative aspects of our hobbies help us be more "productive" in our work.

I'm trying very hard to learn that it's okay to take vacation or evenings or weekends off or spend an hour in the dance studio, not just because it makes me a better worker when I return to my office, but because it's good for me. Because it's pleasurable. Because it helps me stay sane and healthy. Because I have one life to live, and as much as I love my work, I deserve to have other beautiful things in my life as well.