Summer writing is something special for the academic who fails or succeeds but struggles to write year-round. For me, finally free of the clutter and demands of the semester, summer writing is when I remember what it’s like (and how much I love) to write. A seal is broken. One at a time, and occasionally in a great fizz, the ideas bubble up. I let myself indulge in what seem like wild goose chases and crazy maybes because sometimes they lead to incredible little eurekas. Some days I write like the wind. Most days it’s just dribs and drabs. But I’m thinking and discovering. I’m exploring places I never knew existed. That is summer writing, and that’s where I’m at. I’m indulging. I’m writing my book. But it’s not all fun and games.
This summer, it didn’t come easily (it rarely does). During the semesters, I was writing, but to keep up with deadlines: conference papers and grant proposals. My approach was practical and urgent: How can I get this done? What’s next? And I had terrible, gnawing anxiety and guilt: I need to write my book. I want to write my book. How will I ever write my book?!? Actually, I’ve already written a few chapters of the book. But that was just chapter-writing. Now the time had come to write the book.
In April, jet-lagged from a conference on another continent, in the midst of Easter, and with spring in the air at that clearing between midterms and finals, I decided I was ready to start. I’d have a chapter done by June 1st. And hopefully two more chapters over the summer. At this rate, I’d have at least half the book done by September!
Well that June 1st ‘deadline’ totally psyched me out. When the week arrived with no semblance of a chapter in sight, I made sure I was too busy to write. I was disappointed, mad at myself, completely panicked. No chapter by June 1st meant that not only had I failed to write this chapter, but I was most certainly failing to write my book. Of course it was lunacy to expect to write a chapter, from scratch, with new research, in six weeks, while being pummeled with the usual end-of-the-academic-year hailstorm.
The next Monday, I cleaned my house. Tuesday, I scratched that stupid fake deadline off my calendar, and I finally started to write. To help myself now and to give me something to look back on, I’m sharing my Summer Writing 2019 process here, week by week. I hope this might also help other writers, as a reminder that we have good days and bad days, good weeks and bad ones. That writing can be hard, and starting to write can be even harder. Sticking with writing might be harder yet. But we are doing it. And we will keep doing it. And I’ve got to believe that we will get it done.
My personal reality is: I can’t quite keep a full-time schedule. And I still have other work to do. But I’m trying to write at least five days a week. So far I’ve been writing in 30-minute timed stints (inspired by the Pomomdoro method). Sounds rigid, but it keeps me from getting distracted with the celebrities on Yahoo! News. I try to end my day’s writing with a very specific plan for where to pick up. I’ve read that I should read more fiction (maybe I should ditch David McCollough for some Agatha Christie?). I’m signed up for daily writing prompts: https://www.writerswrite.com/. But what is helping me most is tracking my progress. It’s pretty darn motivating to look back and see how far I’ve come. Otherwise, it’s pretty darn scary to look ahead at far I have to go. I also use my weekly progress tracking as a place to set goals, log otherwise invisible accomplishments (got a new idea! found some important evidence!), and do a bit of journaling.
Here’s an abridged version, updated weekly, of my summer writing, though I’ll probably keep making updates til I finish this chapter (and I’m not sure it will still be summer by then!).
WEEK 16 July 29-Aug 4 This is my last full week of summer writing!!
Goal: My goal is to make consistent progress this week and get myself set up to be able to keep moving ahead in the limited hours I’ll have for the rest of the year. (I am taking one week’s vacation now, after which other heavy commitments editing/teaching/conferences and lecturing) will kick in. I will probably have only 2-5 hours per week to work on my book from Aug into December. Very upsetting, actually… I just got a hive typing this.
Work Time (TOTAL 10.5 hours)
Accomplished: Inter-library loan research ; found some new theories to pursue but they led to a dead end. I did not finish my chapter. I am not really close to finishing my chapter. But at least I know what I want to write, need to do, and how to do it. And I have about 20,000 words/80 pages of writing as a huge foundation.
Notes: I was very anxious all this week, knowing it was my last ‘writing week,’ and at the end of the week I didn’t get as much accomplished as I’d hoped. I am trying to have a ‘cup is half-full’ perspective!
WEEK 15 July 22-28
Goal: Begin turning my big mess into a proper chapter. Try to work 15 hours minimum!
Work Time (TOTAL 13.5 hours)
Accomplished: Began massaging and reconstituting ‘mess’ into a chapter. This is gratifying and reassuring.
Began to explore more theory, and found some very relevant material.
Notes: Returning to work on Tuesday after 3 days away, I felt refreshed but nervous that I’d lost my groove. However, it was good: I jumped out of the gates on Tuesday and made major progress writing- and thinking-wise. 3-day breaks can be good for a project!
WEEK 14 July 15-21
Goal: Complete current research. Go set up to return to writing via editing/streamlining/filling in biblio+text references/populating empty sections.
Work-time: (TOTAL 18 hours!!! This is a record!!)
Accomplished: Current research is complete. No writing — this was all research!! Found some very useful stuff!
Had an epiphany, re new title for book! The new title will reference this chapter I’m writing (which I didn’t originally plan to write, and which therefore I was beginning to worry did not even fit this book). Good news: this chapter literally sits at and will function as the is the heart of the book, a vital organ that will bring the whole thing alive.
Notes: I feel guilty and wasteful of my time that I didn’t actually ‘write’ or add any new paragraphs to my chapter. But next week I hope to return to writing, with a fire under my seat! I think the research I accomplished is for the better and will help me move forward with much surer footing.
WEEK 13 July 8-14
Goal: Fill in empty sections in roughed-out chapter.
Work-time: (TOTAL 15 hours), about half these hours were research vs writing
Accomplished: Realized I needed to add another new section (but now I know where to ‘put’ stuff that’s been nagging me! Definitely settled on a final outline for chapter now.
Did a bunch of new research, and it was very worthwhile!
I’m at 20,000 words!!! That’s about 80 pages double spaced (and I haven’t filled in most of the footnotes yet and still have empty sections. This could be a 100-pager. But that’s about twice as long as it should be for this book. Must boil down and hold back.
Notes: Considering how much I’ve written so far, and that I must drastically reduce for the purposes of my book, I’m thinking of writing a new book as an offshoot of this chapter when this book is done. How crazy that a chapter that started out as a few paragraphs in another chapter has not only hijacked my whole summer but it’s now trying to take over my future!
WEEK 12 July 1-7
Goal: Fill in at least two empty sections in roughed-out chapter.
Work-time: (TOTAL 14 hours)
Accomplished: Added even more new sections. Now I’m pretty sure now that the whole chapter is mapped out, but it’s going to be much longer than I thought it would be. I did not meet my goal, but my goal was not realistic.
-new and improved chapter title!
Notes: Feeling worried about how/when I will finish this chapter. I’ve created a monster!
WEEK 11 June 24-30
Goal: Fill in empty sections in roughed out chapter. Be set up with full draft to begin editing and footnotes in July.
Work-time: (TOTAL 14.5 hours)
Accomplished: Couldn’t finish filling in the holes. Instead I added new sections, which created more holes! Wrote about 4000 words this week. I’m pleased with my word count.
Notes: I think I’ll make a blog post about writing this chapter.
WEEK 10 June 17-23
Goal: Rough out full ch.; begin filling in footnotes
Work-time: (TOTAL 13 hours)
Accomplished: Met goal of rough ch.; did not begin footnotes. Roughed out whole chapter though it still has some empty sections. Chapter is ~10,000 words — whoa, wow, how did that happen?!? This is a real chapter! There’s an intro, conclusion, and real narrative in between.
Notes: I’m realizing that this is a really important chapter, both for the operation of the book and as its own contribution to the field. I really want/need do it right. I should run it by as many people as possible, maybe present it at a conference or two. I need to talk to philologists and anthropologists.
-sent out more consultation emails
WEEK 9 June 10-16
Goal: Begin writing my newly discovered chapter!
Work-time (TOTAL 9 hours)
Accomplished: Met goal. As much as I could ask for. Refocused as writing a new chapter. Nailed an Intro. Roughed out a conclusion. Trying to tease out a structure for body.
Notes: sent out some consultation emails
WEEK 8 June 3-9
Goal: Get back into writing groove. Set up a standard writing-regimen.
Work-time (TOTAL 4.5 hours writing + untimed reading and research)
Accomplished: Met goal. Figured out that what I thought was part of one chapter, is actually it’s own chapter. I must accept this, even though it adds to my to-do list, instead of gives me something to cross off. Instead of writing a Chapter 3 that is a merge of Chs. 3+4, I’m extracting what I’ve written for that and germinating a completely new chapter. That will be new (newly discovered) Chapter 3. Then my Ch 3+4 merge will be my new Chapter 4.
Notes: I can only hope that after a week off I am in a better place. Maybe I needed that.
-Thinking about spin-off articles I might write after this book is done. For one, I have more to say than fits or suits this book chapter.
WEEK 7 May 27-June 2
Finish full draft! [Well that was a dumb idea.]
Work-time (TOTAL hours): 0.
Accomplished: Nada. Met goal? Nope.
Notes: Don’t want to talk about it.
WEEK 6 May 20-26
Goal: Same as last week. Stop reading about what other people think. Figure out what I think. Find a path and just write!
Work-time (TOTAL 9 hours)
Accomplished: Haven’t found my path yet but seeing a glimmer of light
Notes: I’m stuck on a topic that I can’t resolve here. Maybe it’s not the topic of my book or chapter. Why is it overtaking/dominating/distracting me and my chapter.
-Changed writing stints to 30 min from 25. 25 doesn’t add up as nicely at the end of the week.
-writing is physical, emotional, mental — need to keep all three in working order. Don’t forget to stand up and stretch!
WEEK 5 May 13-19 (last week of teaching) (away at a conference for 3 days)
Goal: Stop reading what other people think. Figure out what I think. Find a path and just write!
Work-time (did not log hours. Did not write. Read and and wrote out copious notes, longhand with biblio, lists, and crazy diagrams)
Accomplished: Did not meet goal. Stuck on one topic, and can’t stop reading about it.
Notes: Not sure if I need to do all the reading I’m doing. Am I procrastinating, or is this necessary part of my writing process?
WEEK 4 May 6-12
Goal: Begin actively writing my chapter. Try to write 10 hours/1000 words
Work-time (TOTAL 7 hours)
Accomplished: Didn’t quite meet goal, but 7 hours (vs 10) is not too bad. Noticed that I spend a lot of time-in-the-chair not actually writing. Need to work on maximizing active writing during writing time.
Notes: Thinking about making a blog post about this writing experience
-Not sure if I should measure progress by hours of active writing, pages, or word count.
-I know I need to do some serious research on this topic. Why am I avoiding it? Because what if it tells me all my crazy ideas are actually crazy. And everything I’ve written so far should be deleted
-At conferences I sometimes listen but instead of taking notes on what the speaker is saying I start writing notes about my own ideas/work. Now I’m doing that with reading. I’m reading an article, but instead of taking notes I’m writing my own raw text on a slightly different topic. Maybe it’s like how people playing music in the background while they write. Or maybe this is a sign of insanity.
WEEK 3 April 29-May 5
Goal: Move into section writing for Ch 3
Work-time (TOTAL hours: 2 hours + untimed reading, note-taking, meeting, idea-mapping)
Accomplished: Did not meet goal of doing any writing directly into chapter. But generated lots of ideas.
-Had a daunting but vital consultation-tea with famous scholar. It went just fine. But it didn’t help me figure out what I’m actually going to write for this chapter.
Notes: Placed a ton of Inter-library loans, but they are for a topic in my Intro. That’s not the chapter I’m writing. Why did I do that?? Because last week I thought I might want to work on the Intro and I made a list of books to order for it. But why couldn’t I let that list sit? I need to learn to leave unrelated tasks for later. Not every little thing needs to be done right now. That’s called procrastinating.
-I need to be more focused. I think I’ve been going through mental adjustment to writing, trying to conceptualize chapter as part of whole book, and also getting my brain trained to write and concentrate on writing again. My attention span has not been good.
-Decided to use the Pomomdoro method
WEEK 2 April 22-28
Goal: Start writing a chapter, have first draft by June 1.
Work-time (TOTAL 3 hours active writing + thinking and reading)
Accomplished: Wrote about 600 words.
-Broke the ice. Decided what to write (I’m now working on Ch. 3, which will be a merge of my original ideas for chapters 3 and 4. I am not working on the Intro. I will save that for next-to-last/before Conclusion).
-Unexpected: I came up with a new title for the book – yay!!!
Notes: Mental adjustment. I’ve told people I’m ‘back to’ writing my book. I’ve read some writing blogs.
-I need some sort of a writing schedule. Should I try to write in more intense condensed shifts? Do I need long stretches of time to think? I need to set daily goals (start low, at 500 words?). I need to figure out how to maximize my time.
WEEK 1 April 15-21 [EASTER-days off ]
Goal: Decide what to start writing!
Work-time (TOTAL 2.5 hours)
Accomplished: Brainstorming, free-writing. Not sure what I’m doing!! What am I even going to write!? A very slow and murky start here!
Notes: just got back from conference in Europe, very tired and brain-fried. Very anxious.
-Set up this writing log. Hope it will become more useful in a few weeks.