Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Writing Practices and Diet Books

I was at a conference recently, and since it was a conference where I know people and go out to dinner (not always the case at conferences), some of us got to talking over dinner about our writing practices.

This topic fascinates me, and apparently it fascinates a lot of us, since it comes up as a blog topic from time to time. I think that writing practices and the books that describe them, like Professors as Writers or How to Write a Lot, are really diet books in disguise. You know how the bottom-line message for diet books is really "eat in moderation + exercise + inspiration + maybe one catchy magic ingredient (like grapefruit) = weight loss"? The bottom-line message for writing books and programs is "write every day + keep writing every day + keep writing every day = productivity."

Yet we're all still looking for the "one catchy magic ingredient" that the weight loss books have trained us to look for, the one that will ensure that we can actually get the writing done. That's the magic ingredient that Boice and company are determined to deprive us of, because it doesn't exist, but that doesn't stop us from seeking it. It's our little talisman, the grapefruit that we think keeps us writing, when actually it's the practice of writing (the "exercise" part) that is responsible for the good result we're seeking.

So here, in no particular order, are some of the writing practices and talismans:
  • The lucky chair. This one speaks for itself, I think: if the beginning of your project goes well when you sit in a particular chair, that's the chair you want for the whole project.
  • Handwritten first drafts. These are very important for some people--and they have to be written with particular tools.
  • The lucky pen or pencil. For the handwritten drafts people, this can be a particular kind of pencil or, if it's a pen, a specific pen.
  • The right kind of paper. "A legal pad." "No, a yellow pad that isn't legal length." "No, a lined pad, but the paper has to be white, not yellow." "A ruled notebook." "A Moleskine--everything goes in here, thoughts and initial drafts included."
  • Atmosphere. "I have to have music on when I write." "I write with the tv on low in the background, or else other thoughts crowd out the thoughts about the project." "No music. No sound at all."
  • Time of day. "I get up and start writing." "I can write during the morning if I've already started a project, but I usually start a new project by writing in the evening." "I can only put in about 4 good hours a day." "I can write all day if I'm really working."
  • Space. "I write in the dining room." "I can't write in my campus office--too many distractions." "I have a room in the library." "I have an office in the research center." "I go to my family's cabin in the woods." [Note: I actually met someone once (not in an MLA field) who wrote all his books on cruise ships. He would gather all the material and go on a longish cruise, and he would have a book when he stepped back on dry land.]
One person at dinner, a highly respected senior scholar, seemed a little bemused by this conversation, as though writing was just something you did, not something that you obsessed about the minutiae of, and we did eventually turn to another topic. But as long as we're all still searching for that magic grapefruit, I think it'll continue to be a fascinating topic.


Ink said...

Nice post! I will have to remember to include "cruise ship" under expenses on my application for sabbatical one day.

undine said...

This person was in a field where authors actually make money with their books (i.e., not an MLA field), so I'll bet that he did put it down under "expenses." In our field, I'm guessing that the legislature would rise up as one and revoke our salaries if we cared to try this.