… originally posted at The Reading Chair
I went to a Dissertation Writing Workshop a couple weeks ago. I’m not writing a dissertation, I don’t know when I will, where I’ll write it, or even what discipline I’ll be writing it for. But I knew from the workshop’s description that it would not really be about the content of writing per se but about the process – which can be applied to anything. Also, I wanted to meet people who were writing their dissertations and find out what they were talking about, worried about, stressed about, happy about.

The workshop satisfied all of those expectations. It left me with plenty to think about in terms of my own writing habits. I was reminded of it again this morning while listening to NPR’s Weekend Edition – there was an interview with Frieda Lee Mock who just made the documentary about Tony Kushner, Wrestling with Angels. There’s a clip in the trailer of Kushner talking with high school students, one of them asks him if ever gets bored with writing. He answers, no, he doesn’t get bored, but he does hate writing: “my hand hurts, my back hurts, I get a headache…” and yet there he is in the next clip “The Playwright”, bent over a notebook scribbling his next play/screenplay across pages and pages. A crazy-lookin’ mug on one side and an artist’s roll filled with pens on the other. Writing, writing, writing.

And I thought to myself, Tony Kushner must follow all those guidelines that workshop guy told us about… he must keep a writing schedule, must have that desk set aside solely for writing, must ignore all phone calls, emails, etc. while he’s in his writing hours. That must be how he does it. (But, of course, I haven’t seen the movie. I have no idea how he does it.)

Then I start to examine my writing habits… again. You see, I keep re-examining them, because I haven’t really developed any, so every week I have a different writing place/time/method. I need some writing habits – good ones – I’m sure that would help. This weekend I was going to try the “reward yourself” tactic. After getting a few hours of work done, I would reward myself with a walk down to a great little organic cafe downtown where I would still be productive, technically, because I would be bringing articles with me to read there.

But is that really wise? It would take me over half an hour to walk there, so over an hour round trip. Then there’d be the time to get settled, get a drink, get focused. Wouldn’t it be better if I just stayed here in the office at home where my stuff is already set up and ready to go, I just have to do the focusing part?

And that’s the hard part. I tell myself that home is where the distractions are – the cookbooks to browse through for dinner, the photos to organize, the CDs to burn, the papers to file, blah, blah. I tell myself that getting away from home and home’s distractions will make everything better, make writing easier. My inner gagged-and-bound common sense tells me that distractions can be found anywhere when you’re looking for them. And yes, I’ve been looking for them. I’m not happy with my seminar paper’s topic anymore, but we’re halfway through the semester so I don’t feel like I can change it. And I think the biggest reason I’m unhappy with it is simply that I don’t know how to structure the paper, otherwise it would be fine. There isn’t really a literature review of previous studies for this topic, and I’m so used to using that kind of thing as the opening foundation that I don’t know where to start without it. I’m such a Westerner. Get creative, Scholar, jeesh. Just write a paper already.

Update:  Shortly after writing this post, I was sidetracked again with  yet another project that wasn’t really necessary but seemed like a really good idea at the time (see “inner gagged-and-bound common sense” from above).  So I printed off the articles I needed, left the goshdarn computer at home and went for a lovely, absolutely lovely, walk downtown.  Results: articles read, can’t use ’em for the paper.  But the walk was well worth it.