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”?

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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.

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.

Digger:

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.

Profacero:

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.

Theologoumenathon:

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:

Transitions

Most people think of the new year as a beginning, but for northern-hemisphere academics it’s the middle of the year, which really begins in September (Zcat, of course, gets to have all the new beginnings at once). Similarly, this first meeting of the Winter Writing Workshop in 2012 is also our mid-point, or at least my mid-point, though for some of you it’s the point at which you can finally get down to something, and for others, you’re about to be back in the classroom.

My plan to work 9-1 last week worked out very well, except on Friday, when the Shakespearean Heroine had an early vet appointment that couldn’t be switched around; after that, I didn’t settle into a proper work routine, but I did read a whole Renaissance play that had to be read, so that was something. As for writing, my focused free-writing on topics I hope will lead to a good, big-picture framework for the MMP is up to about 3500 words. I really need to produce an outline. I have plenty of words, but they need to be in the right order. I also need to re-analyze some of my manuscript data, and to do this, at least to do it really comfortably, I’d like to acquire a larger monitor instead of squinting at my laptop. So, goals for this week: outline, continue scheduled routine, invest in a monitor, outline, fiddle with data. Outline. And try to do some other work, like write up the syllabus for my spring classes, without letting that distract me from outlining the MMP.

Last week, Contingent Cassandra wrote, “I’m not as good as I need to be at switching from writing and research early in the morning (6/7-9 a.m.) to other work for the rest of the morning (9-12/1).” This sort of transition is hard for me, too, especially if I’m not going elsewhere (say, to campus) to do whatever the next thing is. Once I get settled in with a task, I like to keep at it. It can help to move around, to break the attachment to the desk and the particular task: walk around the block, or just make a cup of tea. But really, if you have the discipline to get up and do either of those things, then you don’t have a big problem with transitions.

So far, I haven’t worried too much about this. On some days, I set a timer for 25-minute stretches, and if I feel like continuing rather than taking a break, I just re-set it at once. Other days, I forget about the timer and submerge myself in work till I have to come up for air. If I feel stuck on a task, I look at my list (my hideously long list) of things that need to get done and just do something, anything, because they all need to get done so anything I feel like is fine.

But with two weeks till classes start, I feel like I should get a bit more methodical, and that is going to mean more attention to breaks and transitions, to doing a certain amount on one thing and then moving to another. So that’s the topic for the week: how are you with shifting focus? If it’s easy, why is that, and what do you do that other people might copy? If it’s hard, what have you tried, and how has that worked for you?

And, of course, what are your writing goals for this week?

Big changes or small ones?

Time for another Monday check-in and goal-setting. I’m not going to call roll; we’ll take care of attendance via in-class writing. If you’re here, leave a comment.

The usual advice about making changes in one’s life is to start small and be specific. Rather than saying “get healthy” or “lose 50 pounds,” you’re supposed to to say “I will walk for 10 minutes a day” or “when I want a cookie, I will eat a piece of fruit first.” Small changes add up, and little shifts like more exercise and more fruit can lead to larger lifestyle differences. Some of you are thinking along these lines, like Z’s resolve to work 25 minutes a day for three days.

I have myself found that these small changes can be helpful and long-lasting. That said, sometimes it’s more helpful to make one single big decision rather than trying to work out a lot of small stuff. For instance, if you’re capable of quitting something cold turkey, well, that’s a decision made that you never have to revisit. You’ll never again smoke a cigarette, have a drink, eat meat, whatever. When you’re tempted, you say you’ve made that decision, it’s not negotiable, you’re not revisiting it.

This does not work for everyone, or in all circumstances.

Possibly it’s not going to work for me this time, either, but I’m going to give it a shot this week. This is my big change: I’m going to work from 9-1, Monday to Friday. Everything else has to get done before or after that. Exercise, cat wrangling, phone calls, blogs, paying bills, novel reading, sorting closets, meals, shopping, cooking, if it’s not work, it has to happen before 9:00 a.m. or after 1:00 p.m. What’s more, I’m not going to do work outside of those four hours, either (that’s the part that really freaks me out, actually). Afternoons and evenings will go to fun stuff or at least life-maintenance stuff.

I’m tired of trying to work out the optimum schedule, of trying to figure out whether, when I get up, I should first write, go for a walk, do yoga, feed cats, or hit the gym. Since fall classes ended, what happens first generally depends on what time I wake up and whether or not it’s sunny. Clearly I’m capable of sticking to a schedule when I have to, because I always show up on time for my classes. I have written before about enjoying the flexibility of academic life, but I think I should give inflexibility a chance, for once. Nine-to-one, some translation, the MMP, some class planning, some other academic work, and then I’m done. We’ll see how it goes for a week.

So what are you going to do this week? Make a small change? Try a bigger one? Keep doing something that has been working? Sometimes it’s good to stick to what works, and sometimes it’s good just to change things up so you don’t get stale.

Our strengths are our weaknesses

I believe this is true in all areas of life. The key is to find a way to make your weaknesses serve you. Jonathan Mayhew has a number of posts about taking inventory, establishing your scholarly base, and so on; if you’re not familiar with the concept, maybe you’d like to check out some of his ideas this week, and think about what your strengths and weaknesses as a writer are.

One of my strengths is an ability to write quickly. One of my weaknesses is trouble organizing an argument, or even coming up with an argument in the first place. These may not be exactly the two sides of the same coin, but they are related: I can easily produce a lot of verbiage that doesn’t really go anywhere, although it sounds plausible if I run it by you quickly, as in a conference paper. But coming up with an argument (beyond, “Wow, this is cool!”) and getting it organized, this is hard, slow work for me (not least because I don’t always know a good argument when I have one).

During this intersession, then, I’m trying to harness the strength to make up for the weakness. What the MMP really needs is a strong framework to support all its details: an overview of the fields where this research matters, and a clear statement of how the MMP contributes to these fields. I made a list of the topics the MMP might contribute to, and I’m using the writing-quickly strength to produce around 500 words on each of the topics. Sometimes it turns out that I have more ideas than I thought I did; sometimes I just come up with questions that I can’t answer without doing more research. But if I can identify the questions sooner rather than later, that’s a good thing.

So: can you use the idea of making your strengths serve your weaknesses, or turning a weakness into a strength?

Roll call, based on the latest info I have from you all:

ADM: finish grading, then get Rewrite.

Contingent Cassandra: 3 or so short writing sessions per week.

DEH: Last week’s goals were to work 2 hours a day and do three 500-word directed free-writing sessions.
Achieved: work was intermittent because of illness, but I have done three 500-word directed freewriting sessions (actually 545, 624, and 604 words). They were supposed to be on particular topics, but kept drifting back to my central questions, What can we tell? and Why do we care? I’ve come up with new questions, whose answers (when I find them) may help with the central questions.
New goals: one library day (check out books, consult reference works), another day or half-day if possible before Wednesday (then the library will be closed till January). Read and take notes on at least 3 books/articles. Start working on an outline, using the format that worked for the sections-turned-chapters of the Unexpected Book.

Digger: finish schoolwork by 20 Dec. Then, finish the Why Wheels chapter.

EAM: lit review.

GEW: I’d like to read 30 pages of primary text and and freewrite for 15 minutes at least four times during the rest of the week. In addition, I will decide which texts to take with me on my trip (space is limited!).

Highly Eccentric: at least 1/2 a day every day to finish a chapter by 3 Jan.

Ink: finish grading. Then revise previous novel chapters, write two new chapters, put in two hours a day.

Luo Lin: make plan.

Matilda: finish encyclopedia entries, 2 hours a day.

nicoleandmaggie: finish a draft.

Profacero: at least 25 minutes of work by Monday night.

rented life: finish grading. [For 2-week break: 44 hand-written pages (small journal sized pages) that need to be typed up and then I need to compile it with what I already have written and see where my (fiction) project is going]

Sapience: finish re-reading my primary texts (14 novels total, 10 to go) and outline the rest of my argument.

Sisyphus: find/collect everything I need for the article and pack it. And refresh my article to-do list.

Sitzfleisch: complete academic book proposal due in January.

Theologoumenathon: lit review for my next project.

Trapped in Canadia: read and review one book and finish the book chapter about my mob. My goal is to write two hours a day, but three hours would make me super happy.

Waytogohomesteader: write a page a week.

Zcat: goal for week one is to write 500 words a day.

If you’re writing over break . . .

and if you were starting with the Winter Writing Workshop this week, then it’s Friday already, and that means that in 3 days we’ll be doing the next week’s check-in.

If you’re still grading, GOOD LUCK! Hang in there! It will get done, the students will go away, time to breathe and write and exercise and eat holiday cookies is right around the corner.

Now, I’ve been sick all week, and all I’ve done so far in the way of work is a bunch of conference-related stuff. Well, and about 600 words of notes on a book, plus reading some articles I didn’t take notes on and probably should have. But I haven’t done any actual MMP-writing, not even the directed free-writing I assigned myself, so I’m thinking that it’s time to start.

Right.

Now.

Because though I’m still not all well, at the moment I can breathe, and my eyes don’t burn, and so I am going to do a bit of writing. So I’ll have something to report on Monday.

And so I am posting this not only for my own accountability, but to point out to anyone else in the WWW who might be in the same position that we still have a few days (and anyone who’s buckled down and got way ahead can gloat a little bit—yeah, go ahead, you know you want to).

Winter Writing Workshop with the Dame

In the last ADNWG meeting of the fall term, I proposed a six-week winter intersession group for those of us who are trying to get some writing done over the holidays.

I’m in it because, as long-term readers know, I hate cold, winter, and the December holidays, and since I can’t spend the entire month in Morocco or Malaysia, I’m going to distract myself this year with the Macedonian Marginalia Project, an article I had hoped to finish over a year ago.

It seemed so simple when I started; but this week when I was looking up call numbers for books I need to check out for the MMP, in addition to my usual DA, PR and Z suspects, we also have DF, LC, and Q. This probably says something about the complexity of what I’m trying to do.

So, anyway, this post is the invitation, advance warning, whatever you want to call it. Starting Monday, 12 December, when my grades have to be in, I’m going to post weekly goals and progress reports for myself. LRU starts up again the day after MLK Day, so January 16 will be the official end of the intersession. However, I expect I’ll still be tinkering (how I hope it’s only tinkering) till the end of January, so there will be a couple more “unofficial” Monday posts where late papers can trickle in.

I know we’re not all on the same schedule; some of you may still be teaching. So this workshop will be less structured than ADNWG. You can start late and finish late, or drop in for three weeks and then drop out again.

If you’re interested in taking part in the Winter Writing Workshop, please leave a comment, and I’ll post the starting list of participants and goals on Monday.