Friday, April 7, 2017
Writing Happens Step by Step, Day by Day
“So…how’s that writing coming along?” It seems the longer you’re engaged in your project, the more often this question—or one like it—finds a way into conversations with colleagues, friends, and family. For insights on writing progress and occasional writing delays, below we share a few sources of wisdom from a little beyond the well-traveled paths.
Writers sometimes hit snags. Perhaps you find yourself lingering over getting a part of your project started—or, even after starting on it, getting stuck and staying that way for a noticeable while. Are you avoiding pressing tasks at hand? Maybe. But not all writing delays simply boil down to avoidance. Writing can slow or come to a stop due to multiple factors, some beyond the writer’s control. Yet if you experience a lengthy writing block that feels closely bound to thoughts of dodging criticism or rejection of your work, perhaps you’re flirting with what some call The Avoidant Syndrome.
I’m adapting the above terms and ideas, by the way, not so much from experience as from information about writing stoppage found on the detailed Website of A.R.T.S. Anonymous, an organization I hadn’t heard of until very recently. As you might guess from their name, they’re a support group for creative people modeled on organizations that guide members as they follow a twelve-step program to recovery—the acronym in their name stands for Artists Recovering through the Twelve Steps. OK, quick disclaimer. My aim here is not to promote or question A.R.T.S. Anonymous (or any similar twelve-step programs). Instead, I want to point out some of the principles that inform the way this support group treats the creative process and creative blocks, which share a few things in common with the writing process and writing blocks. These principles can be of some use to anyone working toward completing a thesis or dissertation, perhaps the longest and most vexing writing project a grad student may ever face.
Process, Not Product: A.R.T.S. Anonymous outlines a path toward creative success in their list of Twelve Talents for a Good Life. Item 11 in the list stresses that the creative process itself—rather than the product eventually created—is the artist’s (or writer’s) most valuable reward. Useful for writers of all stripes, this principle is especially helpful for writers in the final composing phases of a master’s or doctoral program. One of the biggest reasons such writers sometimes experience stoppages may be that the aimed-for product is so highly esteemed. The thesis or dissertation is a mark of academic distinction that propels its author (you) through the beginning stages of the post-degree career. It’s hard not to contemplate that weighty fact as you work on your project. But heeding the principle of process over product healthily encourages you to defer such reflection until the most appropriate moments, which likely come after, not before, the process of writing the whole thing is complete.
Setting Goals: In guidelines they provide for their initial meetings, A.R.T.S. Anonymous suggests that participating creators draw up a simple plan of tasks with projected completion dates. The list they have in mind should be structured something like this:
Task 1 ______________ To be completed by ______________
Task 2 _____________ To be completed by ______________, etc.
Such a scheme is commonsensical and calls to mind the project-based angle on completing the thesis or dissertation, which this blog touched on last November in a review of the book Writing the Dissertation: A Systematic Approach. Yet two bits of advice stand out in the A.R.T.S. Anonymous view on goal-setting: (1) you do need to jot down a projected completion date, but then (2) you shouldn’t feel pressure to complete the tasks in the order you list them or on the exact date you set. At first glance, these tips seem contradictory, but they mesh with their process-over-product principle. The essential message of A.R.T.S. Anonymous, once again, is that you must constantly engage in your creative endeavor. Process is primary. Time taken and final product are secondary concerns. It’s a message that can certainly be of help to some of you in the thick of writing a thesis or dissertation.
Daily Five Minutes: A.R.T.S. Anonymous calls this 5 Alive, and it’s fundamental to their program. The idea behind this potentially transforming practice is simple: devote five full minutes each day to your project. Consider how just five minutes per day gradually adds up: after one week, you’ve put in 35 minutes, and after one month, nearly 2 1/2 hours. Yet surely that short daily session can easily turn into a longer one, leading to more productive weeks and months. And that’s the idea. If you commit to a firm but manageable daily schedule, you’ll not only stay productive but often find yourself exceeding original expectations for your progress. Writers sometimes employ similar schemes for individual composing sessions. For example, the ten-minute freewrite: put pen to paper or hands on keyboard and write anything and everything that comes to mind, nonstop, for ten minutes. No matter how unrefined or choppy, the text you compose in a freewriting session nearly always yields a phrase, sentence, group of thoughts, or some combination of these that you can build on as you work toward shaping your ideas in writing. And last December, this blog detailed ways to organize a chunk of writing into four 25-minute sessions, a so-called Pomodoro. But setting aside five solid minutes each day to your project is by far the simplest and most achievable benchmark we’ve come across.
Routine is Key
In summary, several ideas from A.R.T.S. Anonymous deserve consideration as you keep your writing going. Most important is to make time for focused engagement with the writing process every day. One last bit of related wisdom, which eloquently stresses some of the points raised above, especially the importance of daily writing: a short but powerful piece penned by detective and mystery novelist Walter Mosley, which appeared in The New York Times. Happy Daily Writing!
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons