I’m reporting in from one of my favorite academic conferences, the Modernist Studies Association. This year, I had the great pleasure of collaborating with Elisabeth Joyce on a workshop focused on overcoming writing obstacles.
In our workshop, we discussed the many obstacles that get in the way of creativity/productivity/writing. What became clear across the course of the conversation is that writing obstacles are a little like Tolstoy’s unhappy families; each writing difficulty is difficult in its own prickly way.
That’s actually good news as well as bad news. As we brainstormed types of obstacles, discussed sample scenarios, and produced possible solutions, it was refreshing to think about the fact that writing problems come and go, many are time-bound (writing with an infant at home) or otherwise based in temporal stages of life (whether that’s stage in career, family life, or simple the moment in the writing process). As a result, there are LOTS of possible strategies. If you’re curious about seeing how this might apply to your own creative/writing life, I’m reproducing our list of obstacles, scenarios, and solutions here:
Transition from grad school
Types of obstacles change over time
Writing Obstacle Case Studies
I was disappointed in the election result. More than disappointed, heartbroken, angry, scared. Like many, I felt blindsided by what happened.
I cast my vote early in the state of Nevada, but I still felt the excitement all day of having a woman president. Thoughts of future conversations with my daughter were on my mind, and every time I read about or saw pictures of a woman born before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment casting her ballot, I would start crying for joy.
Wednesday, then, was a hard day. Thankfully, it was a teaching day and so I was able to acknowledge to my students that the election results were in and that they likely felt very differently about those results, but then I was able to throw myself into the business of planning classes, lecturing, and talking with students.
It’s been harder to do writing this week. Having the discipline to sustain thought on the page without going over to social media or a news site has been incredibly difficult. The thoughts wander. The hard revision project stays neatly tucked into its folder.
But I’ve been able to do a little work, and I must admit that it’s a comfort. Yesterday, I found myself thinking about two things: a very sad conversation with a student and a tremendously optimistic description of what it means to write.
I start with the sad (and I’m speaking in generalities here, because it’s not fully my story to tell). On Wednesday, a student saddened and frightened by the election came by to talk. He was seeking advice about how to continue on in what appear to him to be very dark days to come and in a nation that appeared to have rejected him and the one that he loves.
To this student I offered the advice that has sometimes sounded frivolous but seems increasingly important. “You’ve heard of radical self-care?,” I asked. “You must take care of yourself and the one that you love. You must go forward and continue to be. You’re being here and doing work is political.”
While there are ways to challenge energies that are overtly political, and I think these are important, there’s also value to staying the course and staying voices in the public realm (here is my own account of being shamed for writing earlier this year: http://www.katherinefusco.com/yoga-and-academe/so-ive-been-publicly-shamed-on-writing-and-resilience ), especially at the very moment we feel our voices (or our persons) being pushed out. What I hope for this student and his loved ones is that he/they carry on in writing, in sounding voices, in making themselves heard.
And this is where I turn to the optimistic side of a writing life. If, on the one hand, writing matters because it is a way of insisting, “here I am, I exist,” it also matters because it posits a reader.
There’s a moment in Stephen King’s On Writing in which he describes writing as a magic trick. The writer imagines something in his mind (I believe it’s a tiger with a number on its back), and then through these squiggles on a page, BAM, seconds later, that same something appears in the reader’s mind. Magic!
To me, this is writing as utopian project. It is future looking and it suggests a connection, a coming together. It suggests a continuance not just of the author’s voice but also of an author and a reader going along together into a future time.
Sometimes the companionship we seek is that of our compatriots, but sometimes it must also be that of the people we feel ourselves fighting. Yesterday, I wrote a brief note to a relative who voted differently than I had. I wanted to meet her in that magic space of potential. I wanted to say, I am trying to understand what has happened and what you think and I am trying to ask you to understand the way I am feeling about what has happened. I don’t know that the exchange was perfect, but it was an attempt to explore this time and to see how we will meet in the future.
At the same time that writing is a way to be strong and hold ground, to say, “I’m still here, whether anyone likes it or not,” it’s also a meeting ground. It is vastly flexible and remains worth doing.
This is just a short little post because I have work to do!
In general, I’d never advise a writing binge. Like most lifestyles, a writing life is built gradually, a day at a time. When my students ask me about whether they should be writing or doing something else, I will usually tell them that the answer is both, even if only a little bit. What makes a writer is writing, I tell them. Writers write.
And while I am generally a fan of the incremental, the tortoise-like slow and steady, it’s also the case that the controlled binge can have its purpose. In a workshop about writing productivity led by Helen Sword (http://www.helensword.com/), I recall Professor Sword discussing the judicious balance writers might achieve between “snack” and “binge” writing.
So, while the advice that I and others offer here—that a lot can be done in incremental, daily practice (30 minutes of writing; 10 sun salutations; a 20 minute run; 15 minutes with an artist’s journal)—that kind of incremental work can sometimes leave the writer/artist/creator with a hunger for a more sustained period of work. As a new mom, for example, the idea of doing anything for more than 30 minutes at a time seems an unimaginable luxury.
On the other hands, sometimes there are creative tasks that are either so daunting or so tedious that we cannot bear to approach them unless we know that they will be quarantined in our schedule, like some nasty virus, limited in its capacity to spread.
In either case, the controlled binge can be useful. This month, I’ll be doing two versions of the controlled binge.
First, I’m headed to a conference this month. In addition to attending interesting sessions and meeting up with old friends, I’ll use this special time in which I am freed from the little but time-consuming tasks of daily life (student appointments, laundry, cooking dinner, committee meetings, dog walking, etc.) to have some sustained writing time. I love going to airports early for this reason—a good airport bar or coffee shop, followed by time in the suspended world of the airplane, can be a mini writing retreat. A place and a time to put away all but the pages at hand. For me, I’m hoping to make the revision of a particularly ornery article the focus of my off hours during the conference. It’ll be what I’m mulling over on my runs, what you’ll see me annotating over breakfast, and so on.
On the other hand, I’ll also be working on a scary, big task during a longer, but still controlled period. It’s currently NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. And while I’m not writing my great unsung novelistic work, I’m using the inspiration provided by all the would-be novelists at work this month to launch my own, slight less-sexy challenge NoBoProMo: November Book Proposal Month.
I find writing book proposals horrible—simultaneously boring and hard, the worst of both worlds! And yet the documents are crucial, for practical reasons (presses need to see them) and for writerly purposes (they are super-clarifying). So, I am giving myself both the permission slip and the assignment to devote (only) November to banging out a rough draft of my proposal. It’s a task of every day writing I’ve set for myself, but it’s limited. Given that I hate this particular genre of writing, it’s nice to know there’s an end date—the quarantined binge makes the writing possible.
And that’s it—back to work!
Get a Life, PhD
The Professor is In
The Thesis Whisperer
Tenure, She Wrote