Sunday, December 20, 2015

Writing by appointment

It's surprising how much I'm still learning about my writing process, ten years past degree and sixteen years into my regular production of academic prose.

Through all those years, I've been a dedicated writer-at-home. I go through periods where I enjoy revising in coffee shops, and I can read and take notes almost anywhere, but I've never composed anything of any length outside of my own home (or a proxy for my own home, such as a boyfriend's apartment or my parents' house). Half my dissertation was written on the bed that amounted to the primary piece of furniture in my studio apartment.

So over the summer, when a friend mentioned that she'd found tandem-writing dates really helpful--afternoons where she met a colleague at a coffee shop to write together for a few hours--and asked whether I'd ever done that, I said no. It had never occurred to me that this was a thing that people did, and I couldn't see what it might add to my writing life.

Unlike my friend, I don't have small children, and I've never experienced the downsides of working at home that some people do. Sure, I can fall prey to procrastination and avoidance, but that doesn't seem affected by location; in fact, for me, getting out the door to a library or coffee shop is often a bigger hurdle than sitting down to write at home, and more subject to deferral (because I haven't yet eaten, or the place is closing soon, or it gets too crowded around this time, or hosts an open-mic night, or whatever).

And as the semester started, I was indeed writing very well at home--carving out a few afternoons a week and making steady progress. But it turned out that two of my local friends were doing the tandem-writing thing; both on leave and both trying to finish up their first books, they'd gotten into the habit of meeting once a week for five or six hours.

They invited me to join them, and I did, mostly to be sociable. We'd meet in the airy, calm library at the art museum, write for an hour or two, have lunch in the museum cafe, and then write for another two or three hours. It was a nice routine, and I was getting good work done--not always the solid five hours I'd intended, but usually at least three. I didn't consider the work I did there superior to the work I was doing at home, but I enjoyed both the location and the company.

But as the semester wore on, that thing happened that always happens, where suddenly I was no longer able to find time to write at home. Around the middle of October the grading started to pile up, as did the letters of recommendation--and then I had a conference or two to attend, not to mention committee work and life outside of work.

Still, most Wednesdays I managed to meet my friends to write at the museum. Sometimes it felt frivolous or irresponsible to block out a whole day for writing smack in the middle of a week of student conferences and essays and books I'd never taught before--but it was an appointment, so I kept it, and I kept writing.

Three to five hours of writing per week isn't an impressive amount, but I have to admit it's probably more than I've ever managed in the second half of a teaching semester. And doing any writing meant my head remained in the project. So when the fog of the semester finally lifted last week--grades submitted, Christmas cards out, house cleaned--it was easy to jump right back into the chapter. I hope to use winter break to get it in good enough shape that I can start drafting a new chapter in January.

Which I'll do, of course, with the aid of a weekly writing date.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

This is a great idea! I think I should start my own group!

Historiann said...

There's lots of cognitive science about how varying the environment/setting in which we read affects our comprehension and recall of information. By extension, I think finding new writing environments and routines, as you describe, are important, too. (Maybe the most important thing is "routine" combined with some novelty; your museum library/lunch cafe weekly date sounds heavenly.)

I wrote last year about how my clean, fresh office at the Huntington last year was a big boon to my writing: Maybe inevitably, my productivity declined as I checked out more books and accumulated more papers and obligations in that office! Ah, well: my book is done, I got a contract, and just finished doing the copy-edits (two passes) last week. Merry Christmas to me!

Flavia said...


I admit that I'm a creature of routine--my spouse will tell you that, left to my own devices, I'll happily eat the same breakfast, the same lunch, and the same dinner for days on end! But sometimes even I need *new* routines.

Here's to a 2016 of happy productivity for all of us--

undine said...

I wish had a group like this here in Northern Clime. The surroundings make a huge difference, and meeting with a group sounds like a great idea. I was doing pretty well with the routine and then October hit, with grading, reports, and grant deadlines, so everything flew out the window and I had to start over.

Anonymous said...

I meet with people to write twice a week and they have truly kept my writing on track. I didn't believe in the value of writing with people before I tried it. For me, the other people provide the accountability for me not to procrastinate. I just assume that if they're doing work (even if they aren't) then I should be doing work too. The thought alone of me goofing off while they're working is enough to keep me on track.

Contingent Cassandra said...

This does, indeed, sound like an excellent way of making progress even when it seems like one is too busy to make progress. There's actually something similar available on Fridays at my school. I don't think the venue is quite as pleasant, but other, similar features are in place. Of course, it's also part of an official attempt to get junior faculty ready for tenure, which combines support with a certain amount of possibly-counterproductive pressure, and it's run by someone who is a firm (doctrinaire, in fact) believer in the write-every-day philosophy (a major reason I don't participate; I absolutely recognize the value of doing something with a project several times a week, or at least once a week, for all the reasons you name above, but writing every day, or even five days a week, is not a useful or realistic goal given my teaching load, and I'm not going to benefit from an accountability system that insists that every day is the only way. I'm pretty sure the reason behind the inflexibility is anxiety on the organizer's part about hir own writing, but as long as ze is in charge, that inflexibility seems unlikely to change.)