Thanks for checking back in with this series on writing productivity! These posts are based on the idea that in the vast and endless terrain of writing endeavors, it is not enough to be productive--that is, it's not enough to just get a lot of words/ titles/ projects/ publications out there. If we never give yourself a chance to stop and feel and be mindful of what you've accomplished, we're setting ourselves up for burnout. Allowing ourselves to write in a way that is both productive but also meaningful and tangible to us helps us to stay sane.
Today I'm talking about three metrics of sorts I use to "measure" (in non-quantified ways) the health of my relationship with writing. I should say ahead of time that I gravitate towards two extremes in my writing practices--when left to my own devices, I either write too much or nothing. That is, I tend to write a lot of words that eventually start to go in circles around the thing I actually want to talk about, which eventually leads me to burn out. This is why I don't do things like keep track of my word-count-per-day--my struggle is not putting the words on paper, it's doing so in a way that is authentic and direct, and one that allows me as a whole human person to breathe and not get overwhelmed.
So, when I'm in a writing phase, here are two things I like to ask myself frequently:
#1: Am I interested in my topic?
It's a huge red flag to me if my writing doesn't pique my own interest. Don't get me wrong, you will probably lose your interest for even the most exciting topics by your first (or fourth) round of edits. But if, on the first draft, the topic already seems dull and lifeless, it's time to step back. Call me old fashioned, but I think that writing should produce joy or at least something bordering closely thereupon (that sentence actually brought me tons of joy to put down, even though I'm aware that using the word thereupon makes me sound pretentious.)
Signs of consistent disinterest are often an early precursor to creative burnout or stagnation. More than that, however, it flummoxes our writing because as soon as we lose interest in something, we stop caring--we stop being inquisitive, we stop asking as many questions, we stop choosing our words with zest and precision. In non-fiction writing this can be disastrous, as we may miss crucial lines of reasoning or ignore factors necessary to make our argument plausible. This is the advice I give to myself and clients: if enthusiasm for a specific topic is waning for more than two or three writing sessions, stop and regroup. Don't try to push through the apathy.
#2: Am I taking time out for other things?
Early in the writing phase of my dissertation, a good friend (who happens to be a licensed psychotherapist) was listening to me gripe about my work. At one point, he mentioned that to support good mental health, most folks who write on a regular/ daily basis should avoid going above 2-3 hours of highly creative work per day. At the time, I laughed at his suggestion. A doctoral thesis can't be written in two hours a day! I thought. My life at that time was preoccupied by a nearly frantic insistency that I. Must. Be. Working. Whenever. Possible.
Within a year, I was basically a burned out, not-very-fun version of myself, and my dissertation needed more or less a complete overhaul. Clearly, my 8-10 and sometimes 12-hour writing sessions hadn't paid off. In the meantime, I'd become alienated from other areas of real life--very little meaningful social interaction, recreation time, and exercising???... My apartment was dusty and disorganized, I had no house plants to speak of, and I hadn't made any form of curry (my favorite food) in months.
While remapping my dissertation writing plan, I gave new thought to my friends' words. I subdivided my work into what could be considered "highly creative" (drafting, restructuring) the more mindless work of writing (footnoting, formatting). I started capping off my work days sooner, even when navigating a work-less afternoon felt at first like the Bermuda triangle. When I finally defended, I was in a much better place. The truth is, anything can be written in two and three hour blocks--my writing was clearer, crisper and stronger once I started letting myself live again. To write well, we need to do other things besides write--we need to water house plants, we need to eat well, we need to be part of the world around us.
Speaking of house plants, I haven't watered mine this morning. I'll cap this off. Be sure to check out previous posts in this series here and here. I'll be back next week with two more ways to stay sane while writing!
Writer's Loom Blog
In praise of tight writing in a world of loose ends.