Back in the early 2000s, when I was still struggling to complete my dissertation, I read Eviatar Zerubavel’s The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books. I remember gaining a number of insights about the writing process at the time that I read it, and I continue to recommend it to my Master’s students when they embark on their own theses. Years later, however, the main point I recall from the book is that we must do away with the romantic notion that writers only write when they are feeling inspired, when the Great Muse deigns to visit them.
Instead, successful writers are those who sit down and chip away at their projects (fiction and nonfiction alike) on a daily basis. They set modest and concrete daily goals, whether it’s a number of pages produced daily or the amount of time spent; they track their progress in a visible way (a spreadsheet, a wall chart) and set up rewards systems for themselves; they exercise an incredible amount of self-discipline. In short, they make the writing process a detailed business.
The problem with the “waiting for the muse” approach is that it is incredibly stressful. It turns you into someone like me: a binge-writer. I tend to postpone my writing–whether it’s the current research essay, a grant proposal or even just a department memo–until the last possible minute. Then, the night before the piece is due, I will pull an all-nighter to beat the deadline. This has been my approach since my college days; in fact, during one infamous finals week of my freshman year, I wrote four 6-8 page essays (each for a different course) within twenty-four hours. (Another time, in an effort to get an extension on a due date, I wrapped my hand in a bandage and told my professor I couldn’t type because my hand got slammed in a car door. But that’s a story that deserves its own commemorative post.) I’m not sure if my particular brand of binge-writing is due more to anxiety/perfectionism or laziness, or more likely, a powerful combination of these traits.
In any case, I resorted to this last-minute strategy time and again because I knew I was a strong writer who could a decent grade with a minimum of effort. Thus, my binge writing persisted throughout my graduate coursework and even into my dissertation. In fact, when I met with one of of my professors to hear his final feedback, he expressed amazement at my writing, as I’d shared with him what a difficult process it had been to write the dissertation and how I almost had abandoned ship. Flipping through the pages of my draft, he said, “Well, you really don’t write like someone who ‘hates’ writing. That kind of work is usually very painful to read, but your writing is quite engaging.”
Now, to the present-day: I am making a concerted effort to eschew my poor writing habits. As I mention on my resources page, I have read a host of writing self-help books (primarily guides intended for scholars) that have helped me better understand the contours of a productive, daily writing practice. Now, when I am seeking inspiration, I try not to wait for the Muse to come to me (because she rarely does) or for the deadline pressure to build up to an extent where I’m speed writing in fear, just to get the job done. Rather, I crack open one of these books and reread their advice, reminding myself that it’s never too late to begin afresh and renew my writing commitment. (It’s something that applied when I was on Weight Watchers in grad school: you don’t need to wait until the first of any year, month or day of the week to start integrating better eating habits–all you have to do is start today).
At the end the day, my biggest inspiration is my love of teaching. Publishing my work is something I must do in order to earn tenure and be in a position to continue doing the teaching that I love. I am passionate about working with my students and look forward to the daily challenge of getting them interested in the topics that interest me and, more importantly, trying to help them find their own critical questions and assert their scholarly voices. To be an instructor at the top of my game, I must necessarily know the latest trends and research in my field…which I means that I must be contributing to that conversation. I try to let my students be my ultimate motivation, as I do not want to lose the privilege of teaching them.
Some final thoughts for today come from Write to the Top!, by W. Brad Johnson and Carol Mullen. Here is what a glimpse into what they have to say about the writing/teaching connection:
The prolific professor frames the expectation for scholarship as a privilege that accompanies the status of college professor. . . . [P]rofessors are expected to be learned, invested in their students, unequivocally fair, and active contributors to the reservoir of knowledge through original research and writing. . . . When academics view themselves as fortunate participants in this time-honored and, quite frankly, privileged society of scholars, they are more likely to see sacred tradition and rich opportunity in the call to create in and contribute to their field. (61)
So…keeping these words in mind, tomorrow I will stay off fb and attempt once more to take up the sacred calling!