Notorious asked what we learned about writing, this summer. I missed this when I added my comment about progress, and I could use a topic for a post, so I’m just going to answer this here.
1. I learned how useful it is to think about interim lengths of time. Not a whole year, not even a whole semester. And not this week, or this month. Twelve weeks is an interesting amount of time. Maybe if you’re on the quarter system, it seems more natural. But except for two-three years long ago, I’ve spent my life on fifteen-weeks-plus-finals semesters. Twelve weeks out of the summer makes it clear there is some time off. Twelve weeks out of a semester leaves some time to deal with end-of-term grading.
I think I might actually like to think in ten-week increments. Maybe I’m just being contrary. But a few years ago, when visiting family, I met a woman who had a “focus group” that met regularly: it was about 10 women, who would meet to set goals that they would try to accomplish over 10 weeks. There were, I think, intermediate check-ins (I’m not sure if these were in-person, via e-mail or phone, or in small groups), and at the end of the ten weeks there would be a party where everyone brought food and they celebrated what they had achieved. They did three or four ten-week attacks on goals over the course of a calendar year, with time off around holidays and in the summer, when people were likely to be busy or travelling.
My first thought about this was how strange it seemed, since I was so used to dividing my life into these 16-week segments, two semesters, and the summer. But then I started thinking about the usefulness of having an alternate rhythm, a counterpoint to the academic calendar. I think it could be very helpful to have such a group. I’ve thought about trying to set one up IRL, but haven’t got around to it. Even without the actual group meeting in real time, though, some shorter (but not too short) time divisions in my life could be helpful.
2. Other people in the writing group said it, too: it’s very helpful to have to check in, and to know that other people are struggling with similar problems: how to get down to work, whether it’s okay to count organizing time as contributing to writing, recovering from the problems of OBE. I like to think of myself as an introvert, and it’s pretty plain that I’m not gregarious, but I’ve done as much as I have this summer (about 10K words toward a book, and a conference paper, and some translation), because of the support of two online writing groups and one real-life one. I love feeling that I have company. Partly it’s that the company replaces the discouraging voices in my head. And it is wonderful to get encouragement from other writers. (This is also making me think I have to do more to encourage my students with their writing. I try to do this, of course; but it’s so easy to point out problems, and harder to cheer them on, especially when cheering results in questions like “if I’m doing so well, why is this a C?” How do you come up with encouraging comments that don’t imply you give A’s for effort?)
3. I was reminded of how much gets done in regular work sessions. I know this, of course. But knowing it is one thing, and seeing it happen day after day is something else.
4. I learned that it really does pay off to work on outlining, focus, thesis, and topic sentences. Writing is easy, for me. If you give me a topic and half an hour, I’ll give you 500 words on the topic. They may include some plot summary; they may not be well-organized; but I can most certainly deliver 500 words. This is both good and bad. The good is probably obvious. The downside is that I am often tempted just to keep producing words on related topics, without figuring out what I’m doing. Then at some point I’m struggling to find the pony in a vast heap of manure, juggling pages of printout and crossing out whole paragraphs, underlining the few bits that look like argument, turning (where possible) to a trusted friend who is brilliant at figuring out what I really ought to be saying. This friend’s complicated life means I’m having to think for myself quite a lot more, which is a good thing. Apparently I can come up with an argument when I’m forced to (and after a certain amount of pre/free-writing). The topic sentences I came up with for my summer article are working as thesis statements for chapters. They will undoubtedly undergo revision as the project develops, but they are very, very, very helpful, as are the other entries in the outline I devised for this project. With these, I can sit down and give you 500 useful words.
So despite the pressure I feel to “keep writing,” sometimes the most important thing is to stop writing and start thinking. Z of course said this long ago. (I can’t find the exact post: it was about planning her dissertation carefully, then writing one page a day, and being done in a year. But here and here are related and interesting posts.)
5. (added as an update) I am motivated to do things early. Way early. The closer a deadline comes, the more I panic and struggle. If I ever knew this about myself, I forgot, because of living a life in which deadlines cascaded. But I found this summer that I love getting things done early. Back in July, I turned in a manuscript review a month early, and now I am thanking my Earlier Self for getting that done. It was rather fun at the time; it would be a drag now. There are other things I wish I had done earlier in the summer (syllabi!), and a thing I did just this morning that was due today; but at least, keeping in mind the deadline, I got it in by noon instead of close of business, and it’s off my plate. I expect there will still be problems with deadlines in my life, but I am going to try to apply this discovery in as many ways as I can, and hope that with time, I will clear out all the past-due stuff and move to doing as much as possible well in advance, like Jonathan. Of course this will not stop me having to read committee documents at the last minute, because other people will still turn things in as late as possible; but at least I will not be reading committee homework at the last minute when I meant to be using the same minute for other work.
Yes, I can tell the semester hasn’t started yet, because I am full of good intentions.