Breaking the (Writer’s) Block: Working & Writing to Schedule

Previously I summed up (from other summaries, mind you!) one of the latest in a long line of “productivity tips from writers/thinkers/doers” books, and left it hanging with the advice to “stick to a schedule”.

Paul Silvia wrote a nice, short book a few years back about this very thing, called How to Write a Lot. So far as I can tell, it has become somewhat of a cult classic, and for good reason. The book begins with an assault on various forms of what is essentially “excuse making” about not writing, or what Silvia calls “specious barriers to writing a lot”. Silvia isn’t particularly normative here though, and he does an admirable job of stripping so much of the moralizing and tsk-tsk’ing from the “why don’t you write?” question. It also helps that Silvia himself at least claims to not particularly enjoy writing. Intrinsically satisfying or not, Silvia tells us, writing is just part of the job; so get down to work, then get on with your life.

Silvia frames this mainly around the fundamental divide between “binge” writing and writing to schedule. The latter is good, the former to be avoided. So, “binge” writers tend to hold off writing until they can “find the time” to do it, or until they “get inspired” or “feel like it”. Nonsense to both, sez Silvia: “Instead of finding time to write, allot time to write. Prolific writers make a schedule and stick to it. It’s that simple.”(Kindle Locations 126-127). I could go on here, and Silvia has certainly got some other good nuggets here, but you should just buy the (cheap) book. [That’s not an affiliate link, by the way!]

From my vantage as a so-called mid-career person with school-age kids and a working spouse, the real problem with binge writing – putting aside the broader question of whether it is ever an effective long-run strategy – is that it simply isn’t feasible. Binges require time, and that time is increasingly allotted to me in what feel like zero-sum chunks: my binge time comes at the “expense” of someone else covering for me. However, as a so-called mid-career person with school-age kids and a working spouse, I do have some time during the working day to get scholarly work and writing done in smaller chunks….but that doesn’t seem to be happening unless I get it planned for and scheduled.

How do you shift from binge to scheduled writing? The mechanics are pretty easy, actually:

  • Set Goals and Prioritize Them
  • Make a Schedule
  • Track Your Progress [update: and report it!]
  • Reward Yourself (Treat Yo Self?)

Goals for me are fairly easy, in that I’ve got a backlog of material I constantly feel guilty about not having written or finished, but Silvia is keen on actionable and concrete goals (as are most people who talk about goals). Rather than “finally finish that dreaded dissertation-summary general-interest article that has been the monkey on your back for years”, why not: “complete the two paragraphs in the lit review that will bring your theoretical argument up-to-date with a couple of major articles in your area”? You make a list, rank it and then get down to knocking things off.

That’s the easy part. What about a schedule? How do you stay flexible week-to-week with shifting meetings and other obligations? And what do you work on once you’ve got that schedule? Good questions, I say, and precisely the ones I will turn to next! For now, though, I’m a bit over 500 words, and my goal (aha!) today was to get that done and hit publish.

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The Cure for Writer’s Block Is Writing

Writing is, and should be, a major part of what I do as an academic. But much/most of what I write is not “consumed” nor seen by a general audience, this being comments, class blog posts and emails to students or colleagues. There is also a lot of reading that goes into the job as well, but that’s a discussion for another time (and also discussed a couple of years ago). Also lots of “thinking”…but you only really get “credit” for thinking when it results in something tangible, which usually means written.

So, my basic problem is that I haven’t been doing a sufficient amount of visible-to-the-world writing to feel good about myself as an academic/scholar/writer for the past few years. This “problem” can be dealt with in a number of different ways – for instance, by changing one’s expectations for what a “reasonable” level of output might be through a realistic assessment of one’s priorities and the external demands on one’s time – but it seems obvious that one way out of the situation is to, you know, just write more!

The cure for writer’s block, in other words, is writing.

The core problem with not writing is that, for me, it begets more not writing. I guess this is what gets called writer’s block. Or, more precisely, perhaps this is how writer’s block manifests itself as an actual mechanism for me. It is a self-reinforcing cycle whereby not “publishing” in a public place (or, a place that could be publicly accessed, even if most of the public doesn’t see or care to see) creates more internal resistance to/fear of working toward that goal. Even on this blog I run into it: I don’t post for a long time and this, in my mind, raises the “stakes” for the next post (e.g. “he doesn’t touch BB for a year and he comes back with this shit?”). Sitting for too long on my dissertation research, to take another example, without publishing directly from it only raises – in my own mind – the stakes for how “good” it must be when I, in theory, finally do publish from that research (e.g. “this crappy article is what he waited eight years to publish?!”).

From the perspective of just getting stuff written and out there, regardless of quality, this is obviously a dead end.

There is a nearly infinite amount of talk out there about writing, and I will no doubt write a bit about that here on BB (meta!). For now I’d like to bring up the classic notion of the “three drafts”, the first of which is most germane. The first draft – or, the “shitty” first draft as I have often heard it – is crucial if, for no other reason, one can’t take the other steps without it! This is, essentially, what I will try to use Bliggity Blog for in the coming year: a publicly visible, shitty first draft on many of the things occupying my mind during the day. Hopefully it won’t be too shitty (so maybe it’s like the 1.5 draft, given how much real-time editing goes on when I’m typing things up) and hopefully it will cover some issues of interest to my various constituencies.

But, behind that manifest, obvious function is a more powerful latent one as well: forcing me to just get words out there.

If writer’s block is cured by writing, I will proceed as if all writing is writing. Blogging “counts” just as much as writing emails to friends, which counts just as much as drafting an academic article, grant proposal or scholarly correspondence. My hunch(hope?) is that the not writing begets more not writing cycle can be run in reverse: writing begets writing. Putting more words down, wherever they may be put, makes it easier to put even more down, so that, up to a point, writing frequently may merely make it easier to write more! That’s the hope at least.

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Tenure & Procrastination

As you might guess, the veritable eruption of silly, trivial and generally useless talk of bike crap here on BB can only mean one thing: there is much more important work to be done. The important work – at least for those relying on my paycheck for food and shelter – is tenure and promotion, or T&P as we “in the biz” call it.

T&P time is, obviously, stressful. It’s the rare line of work where you are pretty much guaranteed employment by an institution for the rest of your career, provided you keep doing your job and do not do illegal things. But it’s also the rare line of work where you spend 7 or more years of post-grad work in training for a job in which you often stand no better than a .0075 chance of getting a position. And that buys you a ticket for 5 years on the tenure track. In your 6th year you are reviewed and tenured or denied. For most people, it is the former. However, there is just enough of the latter to keep everything stressed out of their minds. I’m looking forward to the former…but, now back to work!

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