Leave the poop deck unswabbed, matey… just write!

The beginning of the academic year is always a crazybusy time. If you work at a teaching-intensive institution, the start of the year often feels like a time of mournful separation — with the end of summer comes the end of our scholarship productivity for the year. That’s because finding time during the term to get any writing done can feel like Popeye trying to get Poopdeck Pappy to sleep when he’d rather go out and start a bar fight.

The problem with “finding time” to write is that the enterprise is often impossible — there are always other things to fill our time. However, Joli Jensen from the University of Tulsa, a writing columnist for Vitae, reminds us that while the decks will never be sufficiently swabbed, we can still proceed to sail the scholar-ship (see what I did there?) with a little shifting of perspective and the application of a few easily implemented productivity tips (which she writes about in a separate piece that I recommend highly).

So put away the mop and weigh anchor, matey!  Arrrrr!!!

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Image: Richard Dorgan, from ‘Biltmore Oswald’ (Project Gutenberg E-Book)

August 29, 2014

 

One of the most widespread myths in academic writing is that you can, and should, try to “clear the decks”—that is, finish all of your other obligations before you can focus on your scholarship.

In a recent faculty workshop on “stalled projects,” six colleagues committed to try, for two weeks, a few of the writing approaches I’ve been recommending. No pressure, I told them. This wasn’t a permanent commitment. It was just a way to explore why these projects weren’t moving forward.

The day before our second meeting, one colleague emailed to say that she couldn’t start using the techniques because she was overwhelmed. There was just too much going on, it wasn’t an opportune time for writing, and now grading had to take precedence. She couldn’t make the meeting, and she would be out of town the following week, but hoped she could continue with the group once things settled down.

Obviously the “cleared decks” delusion had her in its grip. Even though she said she wanted to reconnect with her project, had been confident she could find 10 minutes a day to write, and had had a week free of teaching, she still hadn’t been able to get started. We had discussed specific ways for her to make better use of her time, such as doing scholarly writing before her grading. In spite of those suggestions, she still felt obligated to put her research project on hold until “things cleared up.”

The other members of the writing group understood, of course, but this time they had been able to make different choices. They, too, felt overwhelmed by other obligations. They, too, felt that this wasn’t the best time to be writing, and were tempted, each day, to put off even their brief 10-minute commitment. But somehow they were still able to try at least some of the techniques. And once they experienced even a little progress, they felt better about the project, and about themselves, and were eager to keep going. They were no longer stalled.

The reality is: Things never clear up. They don’t even reliably settle down. Your in box is always full. The decks are always crowded.  There is always more going on than you want or expect. Nonetheless, you can find ways to put your writing first, and make sure that it gets done. Otherwise, everything but your writing will get done.

In my column on time management, I suggested filling out a “reverse day planner” (instead of writing down events on the horizon, document what you did each day in detail) because it gives you a clear sense of how you are spending your time. For me it was a revelation: I was indeed too busy to write. Most academics have jam-packed lives, and it is never easy to find uninterrupted time to write. But the reverse day planner shows exactly what you are making time for. In my case it was course preparation, email, grading, and service work—all of which were taking precedence over my own scholarship.

In order to write consistently and productively, you need to value your writing enough to put it first. If you are just beginning to connect with a project, then start by writing 10 minutes a day, every day. If you are already moving forward on the work, you probably need a few hours a day, at least three days a week, no matter what comes up. That time won’t just magically appear—it needs to be protected against encroachments.

Why is protecting our daily writing time so hard?

In part, it’s because of the nature of academic life, with its flexible schedule and illusory “free time” that will appear “later on”—on weekends, between semesters, or in the summer. We think, “I’ll have plenty of time then,” forgetting that writing isn’t the only thing we’ve put off until things settled down. Another reason is that being “too busy” is an acceptable way to avoid the fears and frustrations that always accompany writing projects. Rather than face those feelings and work through them, we focus on all the other things we have going on, and blame them for keeping us from writing.

Instead of trying to clear the decks, acknowledge the reality of your life: It will always be demanding. Over just the past six months, among the five members of my writing group, we have had a daughter’s serious illness; the death of a department chair; elderly parents in crises; an unexpected lawsuit; heirloom furniture smashed by the moving company; major dental work; as well as the usual conferences, public lectures, family trips, and looming deadlines for committee reports, letters of recommendation, and grading. To be a productive scholar, you need to find ways to write anyway.

Letting go of the delusion that things are going to settle down later will free you to figure out how to secure writing time now. If your heart sinks at that prospect, it may be because (like my colleague) you believe you can’t possibly put one more obligation—like writing—into your life right now.

The key is to remember that your scholarly work is not just one more commitment. It is not “one more thing.” It is the main thing in your professional life. It is what you need to do to be happy in your chosen field. And it can be a rewarding thing, once you establish frequent, low-stress, high-reward encounters, in a supportive environment, with a project you care about.

Explore ways to honor your scholarship as a valuable use of your time. This is the life you have worked so hard to be part of. Prioritizing and protecting time for your scholarly work is how you honor your commitment to it.

I’ve written before that writing projects can sometimes feel like wild beasts, lurking in the jungle, ready to pounce. I suggested instead that you think of them as pets, waiting patiently for their daily walk. But even walking the dog can be put off, especially when it feels like one more demanding chore. Too often I forget that I get to walk my dog, Stella—it’s a privilege, not just another obligation. Sometimes I’m halfway through our walk when I remember that I enjoy our time together. I don’t always manage the two-mile ramble I long for, in perfect weather, while thinking great thoughts. Sometimes we just to go around the block. But every day, for at least a few minutes, I can spend a relaxed and happy time with her. It decreases my guilt and feels like the right use of my time, and it’s a welcome respite.

That is how writing can feel, once it has become a valued priority, instead of one more obligation. It is a privilege to be able to do scholarship, even in the midst of all the demands of academic life. When life feels overwhelming, we deserve the solace of regular writing time.

 

 

 

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