As I mentioned recently, I'm part of a mutual mentoring team with a grant, and the main thing that we're spending money on is a writing coach. We all have second books that we'd like to see through to completion, but, like everyone, we're afraid of getting sucked into the vortex of service, teaching, family obligations, and simple procrastination.
We've met with our coach twice, and she's already changed my thinking about writing in profound ways.
What I've found so stunningly helpful, despite (or because of) its simplicity, is the need to break things down into manageable, visible tasks.
Obviously, a lot of writing work is unmanageable and invisible--at least, as tasks. Coming up with an interesting argument. Providing sophisticated analysis. Thinking original thoughts. Etc.
But, when planning your writing time, you can't have on your to-do list, "Come up with an interesting argument about X." (I know; I've tried.) Instead, you need to think about what you do to get there.
Painfully obvious, maybe. Yet to me, spelling this out was somehow revolutionary.
Now, a part of me (a small part, because I do love me some lists) rebels against this way of thinking. "Writing isn't just performing a series of discrete tasks!" I complain. "I need freedom! I need to think!"
Sure, of course. But here's an example.
I just got an R&R on an Article That Will Not Go Away. One of the things that I need to do is think through some tricky conceptual stuff in the introduction. So, as my writing task for Monday, I had, "Think about conceptual problems."
"Hm..." said the writing coach. "How will you do that?"
"I don't know."--the honest answer. "Maybe I should read some things first? Or make the easy corrections?"
"Could you do some generative freewriting on one of the problems for 15 minutes?" she asked.
Just like that: it became a task that I was likely to do, instead of one that would wind up on the semester-long to-do list and gradually get kicked over to next year's day planner! And freewriting works well for me. Doing it is likely to help me think more clearly about the essay as a whole.
Last night, it occurred to me that this is exactly like what we do when we're doing our best at dealing with Bonaventure: we provide clear, recognizable parameters.
At dinner, for example, if we say, "Eat some more of your green beans," he needs to know exactly how many bites or else it turns into an endless back-and-forth ("I did eat more!" "No, more than that." "But I did!"). If he's watching a show, we're able to get him to stop watching if we tell him in advance how much longer he can watch. If we don't, there's chaos. If we do, compliance.
I really think that my own brain is exactly like this. I need to know what the limits are, what the next activity is, and when I'll know that I've done enough in order to stay happy and compliant. When I don't, I get anxious, unsettled, stalled--in short, writing becomes impossible.
So, in sum, when you're planning your next writing project, remember that you're actually three years old. It really helps.