Monday, July 13, 2020

Creating Context: Sociality vs Bad Feelings, part II

I wrote in my last post about needing intellectual community. As I mentioned at the end of that post, one important source of intellectual community in my writing life has been the writing group I co-convene at Drake where I work. In what follows, I’m going to talk a little about our writing group. As I’ll discuss a little below, ASLH-provided intellectual community has been very important to me as well. That reflects a real strength of legal history as a subfield, in my view. I also get into how how I’ve organized my own writing life - mostly focusing on what I try for in my daily(ish) writing routine, in order to keep active as a scholar given everything else I have on my plate. I want to stress again that I don’t intend any of this prescriptively. If you haven’t tried what I’ve tried, you might and see what happens, but your mileage may vary. Likewise, if you’re doing things as a writer that I’m not, please share that so I can try it out.

As I mentioned, I co-facilitate and co-organize a campus writing group with my colleague, Professor En Li. Our writing group meets approximately monthly during the semester. At each meeting we write for about half an hour together, first thing. The first meeting of the semester is dedicated to briefly introducing the plan for the writing group, then involves check-ins and getting to know each other. Everyone introduces themselves and then we talk about how the last semester or “break” between semesters went (do we ever really get breaks?) in terms of writing, and what our plans, goals, and anticipated challenges are for the current semester or summer. In the remaining meetings, after a short session spent writing quietly and a short session for check-in and logistical questions (such as “how do I approach editors to ask if I can send them my book proposal?”) and writing-life management (“how do you manage to get work done? How do you organize your writing week?”) the rest of the time is dedicated to one or two people workshopping work-in-progress. (If anyone's interested in trying to set up a writing group, we found Jensen's advice in her book helpful. Some of that advice is in this Chronicle essay. We differ from Jensen, though, in our emphasis on work-in-progress workshopping.)

Our group uses a workshop format we found on the Purdue University writing group web site. This is a little more formal and defined of a process than the workshop culture I experienced at University of Minnesota, but we’ve found that it works well for our group. Participants in our group have ranged from kinesiology to neuroscience to English to communications studies and political science, and people's experiences with writing have varied a lot by field. Because people have different degrees of experience with commenting on work in progress and with workshop styles, we also ask participants to read Barbara Welke’s Perspectives article on manuscript reviewing and Linda Kerber’s Chronicle article on being a conference panel commenter. Both of those pieces emphasize being sure to frame comments as thing that help the author do their work, as opposed to either criticism or appreciation that doesn’t have practical application for the author’s writing and revision. Sometimes we read a book together on writing life as well, such as Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers and Joli Jensen’s Write No Matter What. In my experience, a lot of faculty who feel pressed for time (and who doesn't?) hesitate to read a book on writing because it feels like a loss of already scarce hours. For me, reading about writing has been a time savings because I work better, but in our group we don't push the issue; we encourage people to try out resources and decide for themselves what works.

Our writing group offers participants a group of people we trust, people to hold each other accountable, to commiserate with, and to share successes with (whenever someone reports that they published something, we make a point to clap). At a teaching-centered university it is also especially nice to know my colleagues specifically as scholars. That reminds me that I am a scholar myself, and so helps me to maintain doing scholarship as one of the areas of focus in my life. (I want to say, not least because some of my students might read these posts: I enjoy teaching and find it tremendously rewarding and intellectually stimulating, especially in an interdisciplinary legal studies department. It’s just that teaching well with the number of courses I teach involves a big time and energy commitment and it’s challenging to have time and energy left for anything else.)

From reading Boice’s book together with our group, Professor Li and I found the term ‘sociality’ to describe the collective social context that at least some of us need in order to support writing. In a way it’s a synonym for ‘intellectual community.’ I like the term sociality for helping to emphasize that intellectual community has to be carefully built and maintained, and for underlining that writing is ultimately a social activity that requires interpersonal relationships. This is becoming an emerging research interest of mine. Professor Li and I have begun to read in the faculty development literature on writing groups, network with people doing similar writing groups at other institutions, and aspire to eventually contribute to the literature on writing groups by writing more formally about our writing group experience. If you're in a faculty or graduate student writing group, I'd love to hear about it and I encourage you to write about it. I think sharing best practices on this kind of thing is really valuable.

In my view, the ASLH has major strengths in providing for the sociality of scholarship, through programs including the Student Research Colloquium, the Hurst Institute, and the Wallace Johnson Program for First Book Authors. These efforts build on each other, I think, in that they create cohorts and networks as well as a culture of mutual support and reading work-in-progress. In my experience the ASLH also has a collegial atmosphere and culture of commenter and audience engagement with conference panels, which I suspect is related to the ASLH programs I mentioned. I will add that I think someone should write something on these initiatives (and on departments with best practices, like Minnesota’s workshop culture) for faculty development journals, in order to help us explain the value of these institutions to our respective administrations, and to identify and spread best practices. I think of these activities as providing the sociality of scholarship. More specifically, they consist of a collective practice of academic coaching and developmental editing. There is a wealth of these practices often hidden and insufficiently recognized in universities and academic associations.

The sources of intellectual community I discussed above have provided a collective setting within which I’ve been been able to find a little more mental energy, and a reminder to guard my time, so that I could figure out a writing process that worked for me given the demands of both my job and parenting. In the rest of this post I’m going to briefly run through my process in case it’s any use to anyone. If this interests you, I got this largely from Jensen’s Write No Matter What and Boice’s Professors As Writers. I will add that what I’m describing is the ideal version of my writing process, Monday through Friday. I’ve probably actually practiced what I describe here about eighty percent of the time. That’s what I’ve been able to manage under the circumstances, which was enough for me to write most of my book. I wrote bits of the book over summer and winter "breaks" and I had a semester with a reduction in my teaching down to one class, but mostly I wrote my book in very small increments daily while teaching a lot. (I worry that will sound like bragging; I don't mean it that way. Here's why I mention this. I think a lot of academics get jobs where our time is organized differently than it was organized in graduate school and where it's organized differently than the jobs held by our advisors and mentors. That means we have to figure out how to organize a writing life in a way that is compatible with the jobs we actually have. I'm just trying to lay out one way that people with jobs like mine can organize a writing life - I'm sure there are other possibilities too, and I don't claim to know what other jobs than mine are like.)

Part of my writing routine is to make my writing the first thing I do for my employer and the first thing I do on a device each day. I start with five minutes of writing in a writing diary. My skin crawls to show this to you but mine is online here, if you want to see an example. It’s not always up to date, I write in it off-line and sometimes upload them, for accountability. Lately I’ve been doing them on paper as an experiment. Jensen calls this a ventilation file. John Steinbeck kept one while he was writing The Grapes of Wrath. It's been published under the title Working Days. I occasionally dip into that for reassurance: in it Steinbeck seems like a self-obsessed whiner who is terrified of writing, which makes me feel better about how being the same way sometimes.

In my writing diary basically I write down how I am feeling about writing and what I’m going to write about. I do that for about five minutes, during which I talk myself into feeling better and commit myself to writing regardless of how I feel. Then I write for 15-30 minutes. If I can’t write prose, I free write ideas about whatever I’m working on or could work on. This is a commitment to generating new words of some kind. Sometimes I track the time and word count in a spreadsheet, as I discussed in my last post. I do other scholarly work when I can, like reading and locating sources and so on, but I make writing some new words every work day a base line. I also have some longer writing days, always over the summer and winter non-breaks, and often on one day during the work week.

As I’ve said, I find that regular writing reduces my writing anxiety - the longer the time between writing sessions, the harder it is to begin. I also find that writing frequently means I get freebie ideas, like a thought about my work that comes to me while commuting. I also find that shorter writing sessions check my judgment about my prose. If I write for four hours, I get tired (or I should say say, more tired, because with as many students as I have and with three young kids I am always tired), so that my third hour is only worth, say, 45 minutes and the fourth is only worth 30. Then at the end I see what I’ve done and I think ‘four hours? For THAT?’ If I write for 15 or 20 minutes, I start from the assumption that I won’t create anything worth creating, which makes starting a little harder but I also know I can stop soon so it’s easier to push through that feeling. Then if I write anything even remotely good, I finish pleased with that result, which frequently occurs but always feels unlikely.

The other thing I do is try to always be in the middle. I figured out while dissertating that I liked when I could conclude a writing session by completing an important unit of prose: a paragraph, or better yet a section. Heading home after finishing a chapter feels especially great. But then the next day I face not only a blank page but a whole chapter full of blank pages. Lining up the conclusion of a writing session with the completion of a unit of prose meant that I also lined up the commencement of my next writing session with beginning a new unit of prose. Sitting down to write is hard, and starting a new unit is hard; doing both at the same time is exponentially worse. So now I try to always stop in the middle, so I can start in the middle. In effect, this means there are fewer times where I face a blank page, and those times generally come in the middle of a work session when I am warmed up and have some momentum.

Because I do regular writing I do each work day, even when I don’t know what to say, I end up doing a ton of free writing, which amount to pre-writing for finished prose. I think at this point I am generally at something like a 3 or 4 to one ratio of pre-writing to real prose, at least when I’m early in the process. I know I wrote about 22,000 words one June while I figured out how to write my book proposal, and then wrote what was, for a first draft, a really good draft of the proposal, which I later revised heavily. For me, that works well, in part because if I know I won’t keep a lot of what I write down, I can write down anything. In writing this way - long first drafts that I plan to cut a lot from - I'm following the advice of Anne Lamott and John McPhee. I occasionally reread their essays as well, for a reminder that despite doubts I might feel - as a result of comparing my first drafts to published work - this is a perfectly fine way to work, used by people I think of as Real Writers. McPhee estimates that sometimes his first drafts are four times the length of the final drafts. (In their book Good Prose, Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd relate a story where Kidder wrote a 1200 page draft, cut 800 pages! They then turned the remainders into a prize-winning 200 pages.) Working like this is another way that I try to reduce the time I spend looking at what feel like blank pages, and also to reduce the nervousness I feel before the blankness.

Essentially I think of my first drafts and free writes as fundamentally about un-blanking the page. I often think of that early work as pre-writing and producing a zero draft, as that helps me to shut off judgments about what appears on screen while I type. If the only bar my work at this stage has to meet is 'put words on the page so it is no longer blank so my future self will have something to look over and respond to' then it's much easier to do the work at this early stage. Once I'm past this stage where there are tons of blank pages in a project, then the work enters a new developmental stage.

I’m going to stop here. In this post and my last one I tried to give an overview of my writing process and the collective context - the sociality - that helps me to get the work done. As I’ve said, if you’ve not tried any of this, you might give it a shot, and your mileage may vary. In my next post I’m going to talk about the specific process I used to go from dissertation to book. Thanks again for reading.

- Nate Holdren