Saturday, January 23, 2016

Your Writing Brain is a Three-Year-Old Child

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.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016


I have a new addiction:


Do you see the sidebar over there? The one called "Writing Goal 2016!"? And do you see the two days in which I clocked more than 2000 words apiece? Those were WRITING RETREAT days.

The first--a three-hour deal with three friends, up on the special faculty floor of the library. I had just come up with a whole new framework for my book (one that I'm still excited about, by the way--and at 10 days later, that's probably a record), and in those three hours I drafted a brand new introduction to the beast.

The second--today--an all-day retreat at a Remote Location with about 8-10 folks, two of whom I already knew. Nothing very formal (we brought our lunches and other necessary gear). Somehow, sitting around a table with a bunch of other people--in silence--bending to our tasks--well, it helped me move forward. A lot.

There's no way that I could keep up this pace, even if the semester weren't about to start. For one (very important) thing, I need to do some reading and research in order to have more to write. But I feel great about the start of the year, writing-wise, and I've finally worked through some sticky places in my current chapter.

A tiny, secret part of me thinks that I might, just maybe, be able to finish a complete draft of the book MS in 2016. But don't tell anybody. Resolutions always start to wane in February....

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


What I really want, in how I live my life, is not to miss it. Life, I mean.

I want to live my life, moment to moment. I want to notice it. This is nothing new and nothing deep, but each of us, I imagine, has different barriers to that kind of present relishing of everydayness.

-worry about money (and therefore not enjoying what I inevitably spend it on)
-worry about being late (and therefore feeling rushed, harried, irritable)

I am not going to resolve to not worry about these things, as that seems ridiculous and impracticable. When I do worry, however, I will try to remember that this is my life, and that I don't want to miss it.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Year of Living Perfectly

I'll start by saying that the title of this post is tongue in cheek, of course.

Well, mostly. More or less. Because the fact is that I do fantasize about some sort of perfect, purified living--don't we all? Or rather, don't all of us who can enjoy the luxury of doing so while our day-to-day needs are (mostly) met?

And of course I'm playing with the phenomenon of the my-year-of-Xing blogs/books/movies/money-making machines. Who among you, O Bloggers, has not toyed with the idea of developing your own hook and cashing in on the trend? (Probably many, but surely I'm not the only one who's thought about this, albeit in a vague and totally un-committed way.)

So I'm thinking about the new year, which is something that I annually enjoy, and the fact that this is the year in which I turn 40, and that I would very much like to live life the way that I want to live it (within reasonable parameters, of course--one does have duties and obligations) going into this year. In truth, I'm pretty close already. I like my job and my profession. Since moving to Idyll, I've resumed a yoga practice that I had nearly abandoned during my eight years at Field, and regularly attend two classes a week; that feels like plenty during the school year. I like where I live, finally. I don't have any major dysfunctions to address, at least not that I'm aware of.

But there are always the Things That I Wish I Did Every Day. This year I did start working on Latin translations daily--on the days that I'm in the office, that is. But there are also the following:

  • Reading an awful lot more
  • Art/craft-type endeavors (e.g. book-binding, paper-making, more knitting that I already do, book arts)
  • Meditation
  • Maybe other exercise, although I'm pretty happy with my current schedule
  • Writing a heck of a lot more
  • Writing more interesting stuff in my journal
And I have this idea about just diving in completely, getting up early, scheduling the hell out of myself and doing it all. I know that I would hate that and it wouldn't work (I like sleep). But maybe I'll try...something.

To start, though, I'm going to get organized. I'm part of a group this coming semester that has secured funding for (among other things) a writing coach, and she's already helped me to think more productively about how to plan my research and writing. I love this--I love love love organizing things--and I'm excited to jump in. Our first small-group writing retreat is on Tuesday, and I can't wait to get started.

And I am going to read more. Somehow, somewhere, I will fit that in.

More to come. Accountability is another thing that I love love love.