Learning from/about writing groups

In the past year, I’ve been in my RL group at school, Another Damned Notorious Writing Group, the Mayhew group, and the Winter Writing Workshop with the Dame. Here are some things I have observed, with the caveat that YMMV and different things work differently for different personality types:

1. Clear stopping and starting dates are helpful. Even if you don’t take a long break, people seem to be more engaged and enthusiastic if they know they’re signing on for 6, 10, 12 or 15 weeks, rather than committing to report weekly for an indeterminate amount of time.

2. The personality and engagement of the leader(s) are important. It’s almost ridiculous how encouraging it feels to have a group leader comment positively or sympathetically on one’s progress.

3. That’s the drawback with being a leader: who nurtures the group leader? It’s nice when people say thank you, of course, but that’s not the same as being encouraged.

4. Having a weekly theme for people to comment on facilitates discussion, which means participants get to know each other a bit better, which makes their comments on other people’s progress more meaningful, and so everything seems to go better.

5. Structure and trust are so important that I’m going to repeat the point, even though I’ve really made it already. In my RL group, where we actually read each other’s work, discussion always begins with clarification questions from readers (if there’s anything that just didn’t make sense), followed by a “positive comment round” and then by discussion of questions that the writer posed to the group. Only after that can readers raise other issues.

6. I think it’s useful for participants to commit to a single project for the duration of a . . . what shall we call it? A sprint? A workshop? It keeps the individual focused; it also helps other participants keep track, and therefore feel more invested, and therefore foster that sense of trust and community that is so encouraging.

7. As Contingent Cassandra suggested in the comments to last Monday’s post, putting together the roll is the most time-consuming part of running a group. If I do this again, and I’m quite willing to do so, I think I will insist that comments come in a 4-paragraph format: 1. Last week’s goal. 2. What was achieved toward that goal. 3. Comments/analysis of what worked or what went wrong. 4. Goal for next week. Then it’s easy to cut and paste the next goal. This is also why ADM and Notorious imposed the you’ll-be-dropped rule, I suspect. It’s easy to look at a single week’s comments, but less easy to go back through several previous weeks wondering who’s in and who’s out. Personally, I’d rather people commented every week even if the comment is “no progress.”

8. But it’s funny how much professors can be like students and just want to duck and hide when something is coming due that they’re not done with.

9. Putting up posts on Fridays and allowing people to comment over the weekend seems to garner greater detail and involvement than posting on Monday. Friday posting encourages reflection backward, possibly more than planning forward, as well as allowing last-minute weekend work so that there is something to report. (I’m not sure why that doesn’t take effect so you can report progress on Monday; maybe it’s just a matter of what people will admit to doing.) I suspect that it works better for real-life groups to meet on Monday, to plan forward and to know that they’ve already done something about writing for the week, while for virtual groups, the weekend may be the best time to catch up on blogs and get down to work without distractions from e-mail and persons from Porlock.

Altogether I have been very happy with my writing group experiences. The accountability is helpful, the sense of having company in a predominantly solitary activity is great, and I have enjoyed getting to know some bloggers who were new to me. If there’s interest, I’d be up for continuing to run a spring-semester writing group, although I think I’d make it more structured than the Winter Writing Workshop was, and I would also switch to a Friday posting schedule.

One other thing: despite what I said in #6, I’m not in a position to work on one single thing for the next 12 weeks or whatever it will be. I want to work on one thing at a time, and that thing will change depending on the nearest due date. So if I do keep running a group, either it’ll be a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do situation, or we’ll have to allow multiple projects for everyone, which will make it a bit harder to keep track of how things are going for any one person.

So, gentle readers, what do you think? Comments of your own about what you’ve learned? Shall we continue? Or is this a case of “thank you, but we think you’ve done enough”?

People don’t read

Dear people coming to the conference,

I’m glad you want to come. BUT:

Why do I have to keep re-sending the same information to people who can’t be bothered to click on a link (okay, in one case you then have to click on another link from that one, but I’m not the one who designed that page; I wasn’t even consulted about its design) to find out what they need to know?

All you’re getting is the original e-mail with the link. I refuse to look all this stuff up and type it out just so you can not read your e-mail.

Huffily yours,

Some random links

I found that blog (I love people who don’t update their blog rolls. Seriously): http://professorme.blogspot.com/

A big thank you to the Grumpies for introducing the Hull family to Gunnerkrigg! Sir John stayed up till the small hours were no longer so very small, reading it. I’m still going through the archives very, very slowly because I don’t want it ever to end.

Leonard Cohen is bringing out a new album. And he’s releasing it on vinyl as well as on CD. I’m not actually such a geek as to get the vinyl version, but I love that there are such geeks and that Leonard is catering to them.

Someone left a link to Apartment Therapy in the comments to New Kid’s decorating post. Cool stuff. Only I think you’d really have to get rid of a lot of stuff before their ideas would work, and that is precisely the hard part. I also read with great interest the post on how to pack lightly for a trip, as I always enjoy such advice, but, again as usual, I found that I actually pack lighter than the advisors do. That is, when I’m flying I pack that lightly. Driving to Kalamazoo? You’d think I was moving in.

Late papers?

Are there any survivors of the Winter Writing Group who want to report on progress at this point? Leave a comment!

On my other online writing group, the Stupid Motivational Writing group run by Jonathan Mayhew (private blog, invitation only), someone asked a question about the MMP that forced me to articulate exactly what I’m doing and why. That is, not what I’m arguing but why the project needs all this non-writing activity. That was amazingly helpful. After explaining, I said, “I get a certain amount of other people encouraging me to do what I consider would be a crappy job (‘you don’t have to have the last word, just start the conversation’), which makes me doubt my approach. But basically I want to do what I think is right, good, and thorough, and it’s less wearing in the long run to do the job right in the first place than it is to try to do the rush job and then feel unhappy about it.”

Actually, and this is one of the things that was slowing me down, this is now the second place, since I’ve already given two conference papers on this material and thought at first that all I had to do was blend them together. But they were both based on a preliminary survey of the data; they were the fast-and-dirty version, long though I struggled over them.

I don’t want to be a conversation-starting scholar. There are plenty of people who do and are; they are happy being talked about and cited, even when their work is getting corrected, even when it’s being repeated as if it were Gospel although at some point some more obscure scholar who isn’t part of the fan group has shown them to be wrong. That’s neither my style nor my training. I don’t imagine there will be a huge conversation about the MMP. I don’t have the writing-personality to start one, and the skills required to do this kind of work are too rare to get a lot of followers. What I can do is take the time necessary to make my article solid, accurate, and reliable. So it’s already taken more than two years. If I do it right, it will still be useful in 50.

And that’s the kind of scholar I want to be.

Winter Writing Workshop report

I am disappointed with my progress. Despite fairly steady work, including some 3000 new words, the MMP is not done. It’s finicky work. I’m not satisfied with my original classification of the marginalia, done a couple of years ago, and I keep dithering about how many hands comment. For the last week or two, I’ve been working on ways to attack the problem: not even doing the analysis I think I need to do, but setting up materials so that I can do it. And I’m discouraged that I am still working on this project, because it has dragged on for a long time and I would like to be done with it.

What’s more, I’m getting anxious about this spring’s conference papers, and though I have carried on with the MMP, I’m not sure it’s the best use of my time. Sir John thinks I should be working on the Unexpected Book, because it’s a project that has got a lot of good feedback from the people who know about it, because it’s a book and he recognizes the importance of books for literature scholars, and because it was going so well through the summer and fall. I think he has a point (several points); but I also feel a bit sick about the idea of putting the MMP aside yet again.

Multi-tasking is really not my thing. It took me most of my life to figure this out, because academia encourages juggling projects: you start by taking several different courses at a time in college; later, you teach however many different preps you have, plus try to keep a research program going, plus attending to your service commitments. And I have to admit that I keep getting attracted by new ideas and want to wander off to play with the new shiny thing instead of concentrating on finishing the old drab one. I want, have been trying, to stop doing that, to put new ideas on a list and try to finish the old ones, but I still feel tangled up in unfinished work.

At any rate, the discouragement is a bigger problem than the work itself. I put off revising a syllabus and putting together my documents for annual review so I could concentrate on the MMP, and now those things are past due and I regret not having just done them sooner.

Oh well. Time to dig in and do those things I ought to have done, and get back to working on a set schedule, because that was incredibly helpful. I’m going to spend till the end of January fussing with the MMP to see if I can either get it done or at least leave it with a clear sense of what will have to be done when I come back to it.

Tell me something good! How are you doing with your writing projects? Feel free to post your achievements and goals even if you’re not on the list here.

Another Damned Medievalist: I am madly trying to get my classes together. And I have to write that book review.

Contingent Cassandra: the goal for the week is to complete a full, condensed draft of the article-in-revision, and also to complete some related correspondence (e.g. permissions letters). I think I’ll also have time for one session with the article-in-progress this week, just to stay acquainted.

Elizabeth Anne Mitchell: I think my goal this spring semester is to triage the dissertation: contact my readers, send them some chapters. Oh, and move mid-semester.

Good Enough Woman: By next Monday, I hope to have the 12 pages I promised.

Ink: If I can make it through this new chapter before Monday, I will have met my goals for break. . . .I have planned for this term to keep one scheduled block a week for this project.

Lost in Academe: the goal is 15-60 minutes of writing 4-5 times a week.

Matilda: Goal for next week: finishing the half of the rest of the encyclopaedia work; having at least two hours a day for my own research; writing at least 15 minutes a day.

Naked Philologist: still FINISH THE SECTION. I’m also going to try my hardest to do readings in the mornings and write in the afternoon.

Rented Life: I also added several more pages of notes to my journal so I’m in a bit of a loop. Type notes, cross of to-do list, write more notes, need to type said notes, it’s back on list.

Sapience: I don’t expect to be done by next week, but I might be close.

Sitzfleisch: My goal: again, to meet my 14.5 hours. With the long holiday weekend, I will have even more time, and I plan to have a complete draft of my proposal letter and my introduction done by next Tuesday evening.

Trapped in Canadia: This week’s goal – 500 words and writing for one hour a day

Zcat abroad: write at least 500 words a day.

In the eye of the beholder

Comrade Physioprof opines, in the comments to my last, that I have “an illness.”

Oh, yes, I do, but it’s not what he thinks.

Organizing one’s books in LC order is a minor eccentricity for an English professor (and visit the Little Professor’s blog, say here, for an example of someone who has more books than I do); among librarians, I’m sure it’s considered a professional hazard at worst, and probably a sign that you really love your job.

However, staying up three hours past bedtime to pore over snippets of excruciatingly illegible secretary hand (see here for an example) in an effort to decide whether any of them were written by the same chap who signed his name on a flyleaf, and if so how many, and whether the marginalia with very similar letter forms but with a different slant should be assigned to the same chap or assumed to be from a different writer . . . that’s sick.

I can grant that, but I still think people with food blogs are weird.


The Great Book Re-Shelving of 2012 is . . . well, okay, maybe not done-done, but I have declared victory!

The sorting is rough. I did say that. I figure fine-tuning will make a good activity in ten-minute grading breaks. But at least all the right letters are together, and I discovered that some things I had with PRs are really DAs (the book of my best friend, who is not a historian, is a DA—who knew?), and others are BJ or BV, and oh man do I have a lot of HQs, more than I realized. It’s a good thing that I deliberately left gaps as I worked, because I wound up filling them as I worked around to Z. There was almost a gap between HQ and PA, and then I discovered the art history books, which of course were with the Zs (because my interest in art history is only in manuscripts, so they are books about books), so now that gap is filled in with Ns.

Those books I wanted to leave out-of-place are now where the Library of Congress dictates that they should be, partly because I found another S and more bibliographies to keep them company, and mostly because it dawned on me that whatever the state of my own personal booklist (often somewhat in arrears) once the books are in LC order I have only to get online and check with a real library to figure out where they ought to be.

I should feel accomplished, I suppose. But I feel tired and stuffy (dust allergy), and still dissatisfied—yes, even though my desk top is mostly clear and there is now a second surface I can use for grading, and although all my work books are now in orderly ranks and all clean. And even though my admiration for Squadratomagico has grown by leaps and bounds and even though my dread of moving has increased by an order of magnitude.

It doesn’t seem like enough.

I could clean the closet. I’d like to do that. Then there might be space in there for some odds and ends. I could go through boxes of papers and see if there’s more stuff I could get rid of there. I could buy matching shoeboxes to store the stuff that’s now on the tops of the bookcases, in actual cardboard shoeboxes; at least then all the boxes on the tops of the shelves would match. I could have all my books covered in matching bindings, as in a nineteenth-century gentleman’s library.

OK, maybe the OCD is a little out of control.

(But seriously, wouldn’t matching bindings be awesome?)

I suspect that the real problem is anxiety about classes starting, which triggers a series of thoughts about time passing, the state of the MMP in particular and my research in general (not to mention other work), getting older, mortality, and . . . you know what? A snowy Friday evening in January is not a good time, in the life of a person with SAD, to contemplate such thoughts. I hope to give you a post later this weekend on things to do and the state of various projects in a more rational vein than I’m going to be able to manage just now. I’d be better off going to the gym, if only to sit in the steam room getting hot and imagining that I’m in the tropics.

Insomniac nerd

I did better for a couple of nights, but tonight I’m still up after going out to dinner with friends and drinking more than is good for sleep. This is at least “good” insomnia; eventually I will be ready for bed.

As an aside, I was out with a Scot and a speaker of the Queen’s English (as a second language), and off at another table directly in my line of sight was a woman who looked remarkably like Helen Cooper (at least I thought so; did I mention the drinking?), so I kept wondering where the hell I was and how I had been transported there.

But anyway! So you remember that bookcase-cleaning project. Bookcase #3 is the one that was driving me craziest, because of things stuffed in on top of the shelved books, and assorted non-book objects on the shelves to keep them away from Basement Cat’s paws when he was a kitten. I really wanted to get it sorted before classes start. So, since I’m not yet done with my syllabus, I began work on that today, and have been continuing after dinner tonight.

Now, on the first two bookcases I did not do a lot of rearranging books. In the first place, those two are mainly “reference” books (the 1913 Britannica, for example; foreign language dictionaries; anthologies), and while of course those too have Library of Congress numbers, I don’t feel urgently that I must range those books by LC number. In the second place, the books on those two cases really need to be organized by size as much as anything else, because of space limitations. So I managed to get things better grouped by subject, while still more or less in the configuration in which I’m used to seeing them, and called it a day.

But Bookcase #3 (I wish there were room for busts of Roman emperors on the tops; maybe I should just post photos of my grad school professors instead*), bookcase #3 starts what I think of as my real library. That is, the books that I have grouped by subject, but of which there are now enough that I have trouble remembering what’s there. So (syllabus not being done yet, you recall) this seemed like the perfect time—since I was taking everything off the shelves to clean anyway—to get them sorted into LC order. Roughly! They are only ordered by letters, at this point. Fine-tuning will wait for some other OCD attack. I’ve done three and a third shelves: BR, BV, BX (not many of these); CB; D, DA (lots of these), DC; HN, HQ (quite a lot of these, too), HV.

But there are three books I want to have in with the DAs because I’m used to seeing them there, and because I don’t have that many other books they should go with: SK, U, Z. Well, actually, I have a fair number of Zs, but they’re usually not bibliographies in the sense that this one is. It’s basically a bibliography of DAs. So these are staying where I expect to find them. They’re off at the end of the section, though. I want them there. Really, I do. Only it bothers me a bit, now that I know their real LC identities, that they’re hanging out with the DAs.

This is why I want to stick photographs on the shelves and give my books shelfmarks like Johnson A.15. Except I don’t really, because a large part of the point of having my books in LC order is so I can find them in the same way I find them in the library—especially when I get round to the PRs, my biggest section (and the new contender for messiest case).

Insomniac, OCD, deranged, procrastinatory nerd. I should have been tidying the syllabus and creating my annual review documents. But you would not believe how satisfying it is to have the bookshelves in better order. (You really wouldn’t believe it if you saw my kitchen: it does not suggest an orderly person running it.)

As soon as I find a way to keep Basement Cat from running off with my earrings, I’ll be set.

*This is an English-medievalist-nerd joke. If you are not among our numbers, look up Robert Cotton’s library.

Creative U-Turns

This is the next-to-last “official” WWW post. My classes start next week, and I intend to keep working hard on writing in the first week of classes. Then I’ll do a couple of “late paper” posts on the last two Mondays in January, so we can see who is doing mop-up operations on winter-break projects even after classes get underway.

The beginning of last week went well, for me, and then an insomniac period set in: not the “good” insomnia in which it’s hard to get to sleep but then I can sleep a normal amount, or where I wake up in the middle of the night and get up to read for awhile. No, it’s the really nasty type, in which I sleep lightly, rousing frequently, and don’t get into deep, refreshing sleep. I may be sleeping, but I wake up almost as tired as when I went to bed.

So in the last few days, instead of writing (outlining) the MMP or working on a syllabus, I have been cleaning my study. Two floor-to-ceiling bookcases have been emptied, dusted, and re-filled; a small stack of books will be given away; 4 inches or so of photocopies are set to become scratch paper; four shoeboxes of odds and ends have been reduced to three. This isn’t a serious attempt to purge, just an effort to be tidier, but the experience of having every item on those shelves in my hands makes me realize I can definitely get rid of some stuff.

It also reacquaints me with materials for projects that, one way or another, haven’t come to fruition. The roads not taken, the genuine dead-ends, and the creative U-turns. The phrase is Julia Cameron‘s, referring to self-sabotage that keeps you from finishing a project: you get scared, or you get cocky and try to do too much and then get scared. “Creative U-turns are always born from fear—fear of success or fear of failure. It doesn’t really matter which,” she writes. But recognizing them is hard, and painful; not only that, it has the potential to undermine progress elsewhere.

The MMP has moved along in the last few weeks, but it’s not done. I’ll start teaching soon. I have to finish prepping for spring courses, do some committee work and other service tasks, and then there will be grading and the two conference papers I have to give this spring, and . . this . . . and . . . that . . . . The list starts to look very threatening, and between insomnia and the concrete evidence of past failures-to-complete, I begin to wonder if I will ever finish it.

But, Julia says, you have to keep moving forward and coax yourself along. I have not dropped this project. I’m feeling skittish about it, but a lot of that is the fatigue talking. Once I get back to sleeping properly, the writing will go better. Some parts of the outlining can be done fairly mechanically, as can another task associated with analysis of one part of the project. I can keep working on those things even if I’m a bit brain-dead.

Also, now that I’ve started, I really want to work my way through the other five bookcases.

I’m going to attempt to call roll, but if I’ve left you out, feel free to comment anyway, and blame the omission on my sad brain-state. I’m not sure who’s still hanging around for the Writing Workshop, and I’ve lost track of some people’s goals, but anyway, there is a list, and here are some questions to think about:

Where are you at with your goals? Are you back to teaching, or do you still have some class-free time to work? Do you need to triage your goals, or re-set for the spring semester/winter quarter? Are there fears that need to be faced? Are you tempted to sabotage yourself in some way? How can you protect yourself?

Another Damned Medievalist:

Contingent Cassandra: fully-fleshed-out outline.


Elizabeth Anne Mitchell:

Good Enough Woman: read another chapter from the philosophy text and 30 more pages of primary text, and fill three handwritten pages in my notebook.

Ink: binge-write.

Lost in Academe:

Luo Lin:

Matilda: two hours for my work every day; finish the first part of my encyclopaedia work

Naked Philologist: Check-in/brainstorm with supervisor; finish the section I’ve been slogging away at; make a reading list for filling in gaps in said section.

nicoleandmaggie: do actual work.


Rented Life: type 29 pages of notes.

Sapience: revisions.

Sisyphus: clean up the lit review footnotes; polish the thesis a bit more; deal with Dr. Does Everything’s comments.

Sitzfleisch: stick to the schedule, which includes 14.5 hours of writing.


Trapped in Canadia:

WTG Homesteader: one page per working day.

Writing Triathlete: look through edition materials and size up where I am with the project so I can figure out the next step; write two article abstracts.

Zcat abroad:

Clear space

It’s a sunny Saturday. Yesterday I cleared off my desk, and did other straightening up around my study. I’d like to do more, now that I have started, but it was a good start, and I am inspired by the sight of all this clear space on which I could spread out bits of the MMP.

Only, as it is Saturday, I will be going out to breakfast with Sir John, where we will spend some time with the papers, say hi to the other regulars, and then discover it is much later in the day than we wish it were.

If I were single, I might just get down to work. On the other hand, if I were single, I might feel that I had all day and procrastinate, or I might be feeling depressed because I hadn’t had a date in years.

So I’m going out, but in the meantime, welcome to any new readers who have wandered over from Grumpy Rumblings, and if y’all need something to discuss until the next installment of the WWW meets, consider this: how do the people (or critters) you live with affect your work/writing habits?