Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Writing on Research Leave

For scholars who want or need to publish their research findings, no question produces more opinions, self-doubts, and superstitions than this: given the demands of full-time teaching and personal or family life, how do you get the writing done? I imagine the same kind of question applies to anyone who tries to get long-term projects done when those projects compete for time with smaller, deadline-driven tasks.

Most commentary on this question runs along the lines of Tara Gray’s findings in Publish & Flourish: write daily for 15 to 30 minutes and share your progress with someone, says Gray. Her research (and other similar research) backs up the idea that writing a little at a time consistently will produce more than writing in isolated big blocks of time. In a non-academic context, Jeff Covey’s idea of the Progressive Dash relies on many of the same principles. Start the day with a minute or two of attention to all your priorities, says Covey, and then allocate more and more time to them as the day goes along. Both Gray and Covey depend on the notion that simply keeping some kind of momentum is more than half the battle of completing projects. My experience certainly confirms those conclusions, though I have not always been able to live out my convictions and write during heavy teaching semesters.

Right now, however, I want to answer a different question that grows out of the luxury of having a year to write without teaching: given the demonstrated effectiveness of doing a little research work every day, how can we apply the same ideas to making the most of a dedicated stretch of research time?

Early in my year of leave, I’m trying to learn from my experiences as they come to maximize my writing during the rest of my leave. The past two weeks really set me thinking. In the first, I got some work done, but my baby got sick in the middle of the week, and a few other complications (logistical and psychological) clearly set me back, and I didn’t do as much as I wanted to. In the second, I had perhaps the most productive week I’ve ever had in the U.S., working through and taking the notes I needed on about 5,000 pages of commentary. (As any researcher will understand, that doesn’t mean I read 5,000 pages carefully. I went through a stack of material, found what I needed, and paid close attention to those sections.) The work happened as I was taking care of my baby son—while he was sleeping, sometimes while he was playing happily in front of me, and while he was at day care for three or four hours a day.

I’ve worked that well in London before, spending long days at the British Library. Other researchers tell me of similar experiences, where going to a new place for a research trip allows them to overcome their usual limits. So why did the home routine suddenly become as effective as a remote archive for me last week?

My guess, oddly, is that the baby—crucially, during a relatively happy and healthful week—substituted for the plane trip to London. Archival trips work so well, I propose, because they give a scholar a sense of time being both abundant and scarce: abundant in that days are set aside entirely for research, scarce in that the scholar knows that the demands of daily life will wake from their sleep in a few days or weeks. The same combination of abundance and scarcity could explain the effectiveness of the day-by-day approaches I cited above: writing 15-30 minutes a day takes the pressure off any given writing session, since writing days become abundant when one writes every day, but the brevity of each session enforces scarcity—at the end of such a short session, a writer almost always wants to say more.

A research leave provides a sense of abundant, unbroken time for writing. That’s a luxury but a frequently overwhelming one because of the tendency to write to exhaustion. It’s easy to write until you’re sick of writing—and therefore to feel sick of writing most of the time you’re not doing it. The baby takes care of that problem by providing major and largely unpredictable interruptions to my day. When I stop writing, I stop because I have to, and I generally want to do more. I keep thinking about the work, sometimes scribbling an idea with one hand while holding the baby in the other. Even though I can end up spending 6-10 hours on my work, the baby ensures that time feels scarce anyway.

I don’t recommend baby care as a productivity enhancer, but I do think some of what happened in that exceptionally smooth week might carry over into a more general approach. Keeping a sense of other priorities, writing in short sessions, having expected but somewhat unpredictable interruptions, and generally avoiding the feeling of quitting from exhaustion might contribute to maintaining the productivity of short writing blocks in the more open-ended context of research leave. I’ll be thinking about this more as the year progresses.

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