Book writing: a week in the life of meeting my #WritingGoals

At the beginning of this week I tweeted that I was going to double the word count on my current book chapter. I started the week at 2503 words, which meant getting my writing going in a big way to get up over 5000 words. Overall, I need about 8500 to finish this beast, so ideally, I wanted to overshoot the goal (as always), but I would have also been quite happy with just achieving it. In addition to all this writing, I had to travel to another part of the country, spend two full days teaching, and prepare for a writing retreat I am co-facilitating. Plus all the usual parenting and house management and all that stuff.

Alongside all my writing at the moment, I have been reading Light and Air and Time and Space. How successful academics write by Helen Sword. It is so inspiring and helpful in many ways, but I do find myself wondering at some of the details that the stories of successful writers gloss over, like bad writing days when the kids are sick, or the childcare arrangements fail, or the car breaks down, and so on. What do you do with the bad days you can’t plan for and still manage your #WritingGoals? I did actually make my goal, this week, but not in the way I thought I would. So, to fill in a few of the often-glossed over gaps, this post is a ‘week in the life’ of an ordinary working parent-writer-teacher-etc..

Monday, Day 1: Tweeted that I wanted to double my word count, and tagged a few writing buddies who have been reading my drafts and encouraging me so far. The thinking was that I would be less likely to not write if Twitterland was following this, and would be expecting a post saying ‘Goal achieved’ at the end of the week. Even if this is only true in my head, it helps to spur me on. I planned to start writing at around 7am, once the kids were off to school. I woke up, had coffee, and then spent two hours doing laundry, cleaning the kitchen and making more coffee. I answered a few emails, and them gave myself a stern pep-talk, and sat down to write at about 9.30. By 11 or so I had managed 609 words. Yes, I counted them. I then spent the rest of the day doing more cleaning, and pottering around on email and Facebook. But, #WritingGoal for the day done.

Tuesday, Day 2: I had to take my son down to Fish Hoek to sit his learner’s license test at about 8.30, so I took my charged laptop with me, and while he was writing his test, I sat on a rather uncomfortable chair and worked on my chapter. I was really productive and wrote 1401 words. Helped that there was no internet and nothing else to really do. Caveat: I am working on the easiest part of the chapter – explaining and exemplifying the theory – but still, Achievement! Once we had processed his learner’s permit – he passed! – and I had taken him up to school and gotten home, via the pharmacy because I have lost my voice, it was after 11. Spent the rest of the day prepping for teaching, and making beds and answering email.

Wednesday, Day 2: Woke up with even less voice than Tuesday, and with blocked ears and a bad headache. Husband now also ill, so I had to get up extra early and do the school run, which he usually does in our parental division of labour. Got home around 7.30, feeling pretty grim, and got back into bed. Taught my class online later in the day, before Ubering to the airport, flying to another province, and driving 1.5 hours to the university town in which I am working for the next week. Exhausted. No brain or mojo for writing. And, I did write many words yesterday, so I can have a break, right? Yes, I can. But, no words today.

Thursday, Day 4: Started teaching at 9am, with a very hoarse voice. No time for writing as the course is intensive on the first day, and it’s about my writers’ work, not mine. I planned, though, to write in the late afternoon, once I was done with teaching. Not sure who I was kidding with that plan. By 4pm I was so tired, and my throat felt swollen. I bought take-out, climbed into bed, and fell into a Netflix hole to unwind. No words today.

Friday, Day 5: There were two pomodoros for the writers in the short course today, so in pomodoro one, I worked in my research journal on the next chapter’s basic outline, because I needed to leave the slide up on screen, on my laptop, for the writing exercise. In pomodoro 2, I could unplug, so I sat with the group and we all worked on our writing. Managed to get the chapter up to 5241 words, including two diagrams. Super chuffed. #WritingGoal achieved. Big plans for a long, silent Saturday writing in the library. At least another 1000 words, on the back of this week’s momentum.

Saturday, Day 6: Woke up late after staying up late binge-watching Youtube crap I will not confess to. Tired. My throat still hurts, my voice is sore, and I just want to hide. No library, but maybe still some writing. By 1pm, I have managed to make a cup of tea and eat breakfast. I feel allergic to my laptop. I don’t want to open it. I haven’t even gotten out of my pyjamas, and I am tired. So, I take a nap. 3pm, I wake up and eat a snack, and then decide to watch a few more hours of stuff on my tablet. No laptop, no writing. I just cannot. But, it’s fine, because I have reached my goal at least, and I can rest today and then write tomorrow.

Sunday, Last day: Much better morning – I am actually awake and showered and dressed by 9.30am. But, I do have to drive back to the airport to fetch my co-facilitator, so I have to be up. Instead of writing a bit before I leave, I play Words with Friends, and potter on Twitter and Facebook. Sigh. It’s now nearly 4pm. I have not done any more work on the chapter today, although I really really wanted to. But, I have written this, and it’s not the end of the day yet. Hmm, sure, but in my head it kind of is, and Netflix is calling…

#WritingGoals for next week? Well, I am facilitating a writing retreat with a new colleague, and we have a big group coming. Lots of one-on-one time talking through their research and writing, which is mentally tiring, and I am still hoarse. Odds are I will be pretty tired by 5pm. But, I have someone with me who also has writing to do, so odds are I will get some writing done each day. Finishing the chapter is the ideal, but I will settle for getting at least a pomodoro in each day, and that’s usually about 400 words. That’ll do. I’ll still be behind on the big 4-chapters-to-series-editor goal, which is not far off, and this is the 3rd of the 4 I need to send. But, I’ll be closer.

Lessons learned (again, and again, and again):

  1. Be kind to myself – who knew I was going to get sick, and my housekeeper would be ill, and my husband would get sick, and all of that would slow me down?
  2. Small, achieveable goals are so much better all round than large, somewhat ridiculous goals (i.e. Write The Whole Thing).
  3. Taking too long a break does make going back harder – keeping in touch, even a little every day or every other day is critical for progress.
  4. A goal shared is a less daunting thing, and being accountable, whether to an imaginary or real community of fellow writers is helpful, too.
Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Fairy castles, ramshackle cottages and writing in the real world

I have this problem: I am not always a huge fan of reality. It’s often far less interesting and well-ordered than the world I can create in my head. For example, it can take 2 years to publish a paper – writing, revising, reviews, more (crushing at times) feedback, more revising, and this goes on and on, paper after paper. It’s tiring, and hard. But, in my head, I write a paper that is erudite and important, and journal editors and reviewers like it a lot, and it gets published within a year, and cited a lot. This sounds silly, right? It is, kind of.

I wrote ages ago about PhD fantasies, and why you should have them. In that post I argue that, while they can be distracting and even perhaps paralysing if you indulge in them too often, and for too long, fantasies can be useful motivation tools. Imagining the eventual future, as a place where we are successful, and have achieved something we are currently struggling with can push us towards that goal.  I think we need fantasy – what I call my ‘fairy castles’ – because fantasies are, at their core, creative acts. I could imagine a fairy castle of writing that goes well, is invigorating and stimulating, and that makes me feel clever, accomplished and productive. In reality, right now, I’m more like in a ramshackle cottage in the woods just trying to get the fire going with damp wood. (I have also been watching too much Once Upon a Time). The reality and the fantasy in my writing life do not align often enough.

fairy castle 2

But, they do align. And I believe that my fairy castle papers -and Book Manuscript, and the New Project I Will Start Planning – are a vital part of creating a reality that will actually be productive, and result in written work that will eventually be published.

The fairy castle and the ramshackle cottage can be part of the same ‘writing realm’ that all writers inhabit. There are always good writing days, where you can concentrate, and make sense, and feel like progress is really being made with the piece you are working on. And there are bad days, where none of the words see  to come out right, or at all. I am starting to really get that these two kinds of days go together – they have to. It can’t all be fairy castles and magical days of erudite brilliance, but by the same token, it can’t all be days of smoky damp fires and frustration. You have to learn from the bad days, to make the good days more frequent, and useful.

The work, to follow the metaphor, is to bring the cottage closer to the castle; to bring it into the walls of the city, like one of those small houses in the shadow of the queen’s castle in medieval time.

fairy castle

I have a plan I am going to try to follow to start inching my writing fantasies and writing reality closer to one another. Firstly, I am going to write down the fantasy in my research journal: finished book chapter by February, and a book proposal and draft chapter by March. Let’s start small, so we don’t crush the whole enterprise at the outset. I am going to outline the steps I need to take to actually get there – how many words, what do I have, what do I need to read, write, do. Then, I am going to stop thinking about it all, and spend an hour a day – two pomodoros – writing. It will be awful at first. I will feel stuck, and frustrated, and cross with myself. The ramshackle cottage will feel like it is falling apart. But, if I keep slogging away at this, the cottage walls will get a bit stronger, maybe the fire will get going at last, and the fantasy of the finished work will start to become more attainable. (And I will probably feel much better about indulging in my binges of Once Upon A Time if I use them as rewards for actually writing, rather than as ways to escape writing!)

The cottage will always be a cottage – it will never turn into the fairy castle up on the hill. I am not sure it should. I think we need the struggles and frustrations to push us across important thresholds in our learning and thinking – about theory, methodology, the nature of our research, the process of actually writing, and so on. The struggles do make the victories that much sweeter, I must say, and they help me to appreciate that this is a real job. Being an active writer and researcher is work, hard work most days, and it is valuable work. To me, and hopefully to others in my field too.

So, my plan for this year is both simple, and really hard: to strive to create a writing realm for myself where the cottage I really live in is closer to the castle I admire, and often wish I lived in, so that they co-exist in a mutually beneficial space, where the fantasy feeds the reality, rather than keeping me from it. Or, where the words become sentences, the sentences become paragraphs, and the paragraphs become my published work.

 

What I learned during #Acwrimo (and what I didn’t)

AcWriMo, for those who are in the dark (as I was before I took part in one) stands for Academic Writing Month, and this month seems to be largely November around the world. A group of colleagues and I signed up for our own AcWriMo as a group, with a commitment to to make and keep to our own chosen writing goals and post updates on our shared FB page about our progress. The idea is to set yourself a goal that is bigger than your usual writing goals in any given month – to be realistically ambitious, if you like. You write as part of a community and share your goal with others, so that you have support and encouragement around you, a sense of shared purpose, and also quite possibly a gentle form of accountability (although you don’t get into trouble or anything if you fail miserably to achieve your goal).

Thank goodness for this last part, because I did fail. Pretty miserably. I wrote about my goals towards the beginning on November here, and I must say, I really did think I had pared back a lot on my overly idealistic goals and was finally being more realistically ambitious. However, I achieved only 1.75 out of 4 written pieces that I set myself as goals. I wrote 3/4 of a paper that I am now ignoring rather pointedly, and a (pleasing) abstract for a book I really want to contribute to. I have not even planned out the 2nd abstract I planned to write (and the deadline has been moved quite a bit back, which doesn’t help with the fear-factor-panic-motivation), and I did not even attempt the other paper for the special issue. I spent one week out of the 4 actually writing and reading every day. One. So, there you go. That’s my AcWriMo confession. I am, to say the least, disappointed with my poor showing, but rather than eat too much chocolate in an attempt to console myself (although I kind of did this too, sadly), I thought I would blog about it in an attempt to reflect on and learn something more about my writing habits, enablers and big brick walls.

Enablers – start with the positives: Even though I did not get to where I wanted to go with my writing this last month, I really loved being part of this big writing community. We all posted quite regularly in the FB group, and sent each other virtual ‘high-5’s’ and encouragement, as well as sympathy and images of Pusheen the Cat. It felt like a warm, encouraging and connected space, and if you’re going to push yourself to reach deadlines and do more than you usually do, that is a good space to be in while doing it.

Habits: I learned that I have to work on my own research reading and writing first thing, before email is opened or the internet is activated. I am too easily distracted, especially towards the end of a long, busy year, by things that are much easier to do than thinking and writing papers, so if I am to focus, it has to be early in the day, and before I engage with the distractions. Another thing I learned was that I need to spend a fair bit of time thinking – percolating – before I can really write. This is a good thing to work out, because I can organise my time and headspace accordingly, but the downside is that my thinking can easily be hijacked by other things, like work. So I have learned that I need to be firmer with myself about making myself sit down and just write, and work on thinking while I write as well as before and after. I think if I could have just made myself get words out every day, even if they were mostly crap, I could have finished the paper. You cannot edit something that does not exist – it’s bringing my ideas into existence on a page that needs some work.

Big brick walls: I have to admit that I was fairly shocked by how easily my mojo shifted to ‘meh’ after a motivated and energetic first week where I got a lot done and felt really accomplished. I let it happen so easily, without much of a fight at all. I let work commitments that could have waited become really urgent; I agreed to do things I could have said ‘no’ to because I just had to do them; I packed up my office, when that could have been done this week; email became the most time-consuming task of the day… Interestingly, I could see this happening at the time – all these distractions and day after day of no writing – but I felt quite helpless to do anything about it. On reflection, I can see that there was a big emotional reason for all this drifting and procrastinating that I did not account for when I signed up with my ambitious plans in October. I am leaving my job this month, after 6 years, and even though I am moving on to something new and exciting next year, this is huge and a bit scary for me. A big part of my identity has been this role I have had for the last 6 years – my first real academic job – and I am finding it hard to let go. I think a lot of the ‘meh’ about writing after week one stemmed from a more emotional fatigue and resistance and I didn’t really make room for that in my plans.

So, what I learned from AcWriMo:

  • I do my best thinking at odd moments, and not always when I am in front of my laptop, but I write most productively in the mornings. I need to learn how to structure my days to take advantage of that time and I also need to keep a notebook with me, to jot down ideas when the muse grabs me.
  • My mental energy and focus is very much affected by other, seemingly unrelated, things that affect my emotional state, and I cannot easily switch the latter off or escape into reading, writing and thinking. I need to learn to be more aware of what else is going on in my life, and account for these potential brick walls when I plan my writing and research, so that I can actually be kind to myself and not feel like a failure.
  • I need to switch off the internet when I am writing. I am too easily distracted and until I have worked on my concentration span and increased it to more than 15 minutes, I need to minimise distractions like Twitter, Facebook and email quite deliberately.
  • Finally, I respond well to bribery, so I need to give myself small rewards, like tea, walks, snacks and chapters of my novel, to get me through as writing and thinking, especially on new work, can be tough, and take a lot out of me. Kindnesses to self are key :-).

I am going to try my own AcWriMo again in February next year, and finish this 3/4-done paper and write the other one that I had planned to write now. I thought January, and then paused and thought about the school holidays and back-to-school shopping and moving house, and stopped. If I am to do better next time, I must put into practice my learning from this time. So, February it is. Watch this space for updates…