What works in writing (continuously becoming a writer)?

Again we hit November and it’s writing month. Whether you are a [aspiring] novelist (#NaNoWriMo) or academic writer (#AcWriMo) there are social media activities which we can engage with to keep us on track and committed to writing. The idea is to develop good habits and keeping our writing focused. These good habits usually relate to having a writing routine where we commit to writing regularly [most] every day. There are various goals to reach in pages, word counts and time. I’m going to argue later in this blog that these “tips” need to be problematised, but bear with me while I tell my story.

Recently, I read a book by John Birmingham called How to Be a Writer. It’s not a book about how to write, but rather in insight into the industry of writing and how to navigate it. It also has some great tips about the physical aspects of writing like exercise and desk set up. The title suggests he promises an ability to live in a solid gold hovercraft if you follow his tips, but Birmingham’s caveat is that the reader needs to be dead set serious about writing. I find it an excellent motivator. Birmingham writes in his typical derisive style and makes the reader feel like they are a real writer and others are amateurs. The text invites us into the in-crowd of famous writers. It is very seductive. The voice actually prompted me to walk past the How to Write book Stephen King has released. I usually can’t resist these types of volumes.

Birmingham also ascribes to the “write every day” crowd. He says serious writers need to be selfish and set aside time for their projects. That simply setting a time limit with a few hundred words is for the amateurs. REAL writers hit around 500words per 30 minutes, so in 4 hours writing per day (which is how long these real writers work for) we’re talking 4000 words. I actually get this approach. It’s about prioritising what you want to do before what every one else demands of you, whether work or family. Not enough of us do this. Jo Van Every suggests blocking out time in our calendars to *meet with our writing*. I think this is a good practice, and when I am working on campus it is what I do. I never make meetings in the morning because the morning is when I write best.

What I want to pick up on in this blog is the phrase I used above “when I’m on campus”. You see, I’m a casual academic. The rest of the time I am looking after two (often three) girls and I also have limited choice in the times I teach. I am beholden to the timetable. I cannot commit to being a serious writer in Birmingham’s terms. Does that mean I’m not?

Joanne Harris recently wrote a Twitter essay about the problem with “tips” in writing. Tips set up an expectation that everyone is capable of engaging with them, that they are the only way. “Tips” use performative language to suggest that they work; if you follow them your writing will transform. What I want to problematise about this tips oriented approach to writing is that it is 100% dependent on stability of time. What that means is that the system of writing that is being set up through “tips” is not considering the needs of flexibility of some people who are dead set serious about writing (and this is where this blog becomes a mummy blog).

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Sprung! I try and write my thesis for a few hours and Madam finds something creative to do

I am serious about writing. Why else would I write an 80,000+ word thesis? What’s the point in writing academic papers? I do this writing in the small amounts of time I have available to me when and where I can. Sometimes I don’t write for weeks (or months). Many women I have engaged with both on and offline speak about how they also fit writing in around their family and work duties (see Deb Netolicky on writing and birthday cakes).

I’m not saying that being a serious writer does not require commitment. It does. But is the physical act of writing all that goes into writing? While I’m pushing my daughter on a swing I am turning ideas over in my head. When I am watching TV or chatting with friends, I am thinking about how what we are saying fits with what I want to write about. When I get a chance to write, I get all those ideas down.

My message in this blog is not to bash the writing “tips” system which flies around social media in November but rather to encourage those women out there who are serious writers.

Do NOT be mummy guilted by the writing tip system.  You are a serious writer.

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14 thoughts on “What works in writing (continuously becoming a writer)?

  1. Great post Naomi. I find I have more time after the birth of our two children because I manage to find the time. I build posts and pieces continually. I think that it drives some mad, especially my wife. This year with our second child I have really refined writing on my phone as I am right now, with our daughter asleep in my arms. My only point of concern is that it is not just women …

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  2. This is great, balancing teaching, small children, administrative meetings doesn’t leave very much time for writing but that doesn’t mean I don’t take it seriously. Feeling bad about not being able to do what tips suggest doesn’t help! Some tips are good and helpful but everything has to be in context, and for me, that context is messy and complicated!

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  3. I love this. ANd I wholeheartedly agree that everyone has to find what works for them. However, it feels a bit like you are saying that what I mean by meeting with your writing is 3 hours a day and 500 words an hour, which is not true at all. In fact, I think NO academic finds 3 hours a day during term time. Because even permanent academic jobs have a LOT of other stuff going on.

    So here’s my take on some of what you said:

    You already are a real writer. You are a real writer because writing is how you process your ideas. ANd when something bothers you (like this particular thing), you write about it and publish it. I suspect you ARE writing every day and just calling a whole lot of writing “not really writing”.

    I recommend 15 minutes a day. I’ve done a whole page about it and there is a whole category on my blog (now called a library) about it. But here’s the challenge: http://jovanevery.ca/15-min-writing-challenge/. Even in your circumstances I would be really surprised if you can’t find 15 minutes every day to sit down and focus on your own writing. (And if you want a permission slip for kid’s screen time so you can do it, I’m happy to send you one. A half hour show for your kids so you can write is not going to do anyone any harm.)

    Note my definition of goals on that 15 minute challenge page. I think the goal is to write. You don’t need word counts or anything else. Just connect with your writing. Once a week (maybe) ask yourself how your writing project (s) has (have) moved forward this week. I’ve written several posts about how word counts are unhelpful, how you don’t need deadlines, and whatnot.

    IOW, you don’t have to PROVE to anyone that you are a real writer. You are ALLOWED to give writing priority even if it only gets a small amount of time. I would even go so far as to say, if you have time to read a book about writing (like the Steven King one), you should use that time to write instead.

    Also, if you ever want an academic job that is not patched together bits of short term contracts, you have to write and publish. No matter how hard it is. And even if you don’t want that. I suspect that your own sense of wellbeing relies on writing (and publishing), even if you haven’t quite figured out HOW you want to publish or WHAT you want to write.

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    • I’m glad you liked the blog and thank you for making the clarification, Jo. I didn’t mean to conflate you with the other author. But as a further example of the prioritization of time we should be allowing ourselves. That’s what I get for dashing off a blog. I wholeheartedly love your advice but it’s not your advice I was problematising. My audience is people who I see constantly tweeting and writing in forums about how guilty they feel about writing.

      Some weeks I can write daily like Birmingham suggests. Some days it is absolutely not possible to even open my computer. It’s not because I don’t have the time, it’s because I don’t have the space. My day have sometimes been so exhausting I cannot string two words together. It’s about coming down from a string of massive tantrums or bad days at school. It’s playdates and birthday parties which make me anxious and give me a need for cave time. I have two hours per day I can commit to marking 100s of papers, research assistant work and online tutoring and this is when my littlies get screen time (and when I need them out from under my feet to cook dinner). I write tiny bits and pieces and do a whole lot of reading. My area is theoretical so reading is almost more important than writing. Writing is performative. Fulfilling an agenda where my university gets credit and I don’t get paid because I’m only an adjunct. It’s hard to be motivated for anything but passion projects under those conditions.

      Writing at this stage in my career is in the realm of a hobby, a serious one. But it’s not getting me anything so I can only chip away at it when I get a moment. Frankly, I’m a bit tired of doing things for good will. Casual academics are exploited endlessly on the promise of good will and academic positions. Both Birmingham and Harris say that serious writers don’t do anything for free, so if someone wants a paper written then they need to pay me. I have several commissioned papers in the works. The only thing I will do for free are my passion projects. They are the ones I mull over constantly when doing other things so I am constantly working on them, even if not physically writing them. In fact, the way I tweet and blog is working on them. They are my serious writing, the rest is content for the academic machine.

      I have decided that now it’s children and husband first (includings keeping a roof over our heads), mental health second, writing third. Often I only have time for one priority per day. If that means no academic career then there is no academic career. However, I sincerely doubt that will happen as my papers are slowly and certainly being finished, sent in, under review and revisions. I have 10 at various stages of drafting. This happens because I write a paragraph here and 1000 words there, depending on what I have time for when I get space (not necessarily time). I’m getting there doing it this way and I’m done feeling guilty about it. It’s not about the people who write the advice, its the culture of mummy and procrastination guilt tripping that does no one any favours. And I’ll read Stephen King if I want to without feeling guilty about writing instead (which was the whole point of my blog – performative language that tells me I should be writing instead of reading it). I know what I’m capable of and what the consequences of that are but I’m doing it anyway.

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  4. Great post! I have been fortunate enough to go on 2 x 36 hr writing retreats. A snr guy at uni said that he thought doctoral researchers should just write and not need such fripperies. I pointed out that they were the only times in my life that I got to concentrate for hours at a time without having to play taxi, nurse, teacher, arbitrator and cook. He looked askance and shut up.

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    • I know exactly what you are saying. There is time and there is space as well. I hunt down those opportunities and am very productive during them because they’re so rare. Even writing at home with my husband watching the kids is tough because hearing their tantrums physically does something to my body and I lost concentration. I usually edit and read at home. I need to write elsewhere or they need to go on an outing.

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  5. Great post, about a favourite subject, writing. And I love that couch now. It’s very Miro-esque. Such confident bold lines. I think she is an amazing artist. I hope you keep it in pride of place 🙂

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