Today I facilitated a workshop for faculty called “Writing for Busy People,” otherwise known as the “Professional Writing Institute.” We had ten participants: three people from the library, one from kineseology, one from computer science, one from education, one linguist, two engineers, and the Director of the Faculty Center. It turns out that we all have the same problems. We all have a need and/or a desire to write, but not enough time.
We started by reading a piece by Kim Stafford, Director of the Northwest Writing Institute in Oregon. Stafford describes adjusting the spark plug gap on the Chevy Malibu he owned in the 80s, the “hot, perfect blue” spark representing the leap of creative insight or inspiration. He then describes his father’s practice of getting up at 3:00 or 4:00 every morning to fill a blank page with writing, starting with prose and then leaping into poetry. From 1950-1993, Stafford’s father generated 20,000 pages following this routine.
The routine is the key. A writer needs a routine that makes a place for writing in daily life. Otherwise, other tasks, responsibilities and activities will fill the time. Our families, jobs and friendships have an almost irresistible pull. Now that the computer is our writing tool, we even struggle against the myriad distractions that it provides–email, texting, chat, websurfing–all displayed in the margins of the writing surface. The page is never quite blank.
The routine is not the same for every writer. Nick Schenk, an unknown writer who wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, wrote after work in a bar called “Grumpy’s” in Minneapolis. Haruki Murakami suddenly thought of writing a novel one afternoon at a baseball game, wrote the novel and sent the only copy of the manuscript off to a writing contest, which he won. He also wrote in a bar, a jazz bar he happened to own. When he decided to write full time, he sold the bar, but needed another routine, so he started running.
Anthony Trollope, author of Barchester Towers and 47 other novels, wrote on the train on his way to work at the post office. He kept close track of how many words he wrote every day, and one morning when he finished a novel, he still had some time left so he started another one. When Hemingway was in Cuba, he wrote standing on the skin of an antelope with the paper on top of a book case, from the early morning until noon, whereupon he went fishing.
However, the fishing was undoubtedly part of the writing. Even for academic writers writing journal articles, reading, thinking, teaching, talking, researching, and even driving on the freeway are all part of the writing process. We must not mistake the act of inscription for writing, as if we could sit down and have words pour out of us on command. Our insights come from living in a way open to learning and discovery, and our disciplines help us focus and communicate those insights in meaningful ways. Our lives don’t get in the way of writing. They are the substance and purpose of our writing.
Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing, which we gave to the participants, basically takes the Trollope approach. Boice recommends making writing a regular, habitual activity, and motivating oneself by setting writing goals, tracking progress, and employing devices such as writing a check to an organization one hates, to be sent if the goals are not met. This works for many people.
Jack Fong, a sociology professor with a recently published book who came to speak to our group, reported a process very different from that recommended by Boice. Fong thinks deeply about the material for a period of weeks, and then writes in marathon sessions. What is important is finding a process that works for the writer.
For academic writers, there are so many potential pitfalls. There is always one more book or article to read. When does one know enough to have authority on this topic? How does one write in the appropriate style for a particular journal when one is more comfortable in another style? How does one deal with harsh criticism from reviewers? What does one do if one knows that the reviewers are wrong?
For writers in technical fields, does the data speak for itself? Do I need anecdotes and examples to make the concepts clear? Will that seem unscientific? What if my readers are a little out of my specific field? Will they understand?
These last questions are about audience. Developing a good sense of audience is perhaps the most important and difficult aspect of writing. Knowing one’s readers is crucial to knowing what one needs to say and do to help them understand. Writing is more about communicating ideas than expressing one’s self. Writing is a social process. And that is where workshops like this one come into play. We all need to share our writing and get constructive feedback from people we respect. We all have similar difficulties. We can help each other.