The gates of summer have opened.
In our household, this is a time for vacations, barbecues, birthday dinners, and long weekends (and... apparently long-and-drawn-out soccer tournaments??? #Iwantmyhusbandback).
On the professional side of things, for academics and post-acs, it's also a time to refocus and clarify writing goals. This is particularly true for the many professors across the northern hemisphere who are coming up on semester- or year-long sabbaticals. For them, the start of summer is a time to map out the coming months (and months!) of research and writing.
A number of my friends and clients fall into this category. Over the coming weeks, I'll be starting new programs with some of them, setting up attainable action plans to sustain their writing through the largely unstructured vista of a sabbatical.
So, these first few weeks of summer, I've been revising and reflecting on some of the questions I ask clients who are trying to manage large, long-term writing projects. One thing I've been thinking about is the difference between being productive and feeling productive.
Being productive is important for us writerly folks, especially when our livelihood depends on writing (whether directly by getting paid for our work, or indirectly via tenure and promotion requirements).
As difficult as it is to be a "productive writer" (whatever that is), I think it is even more important--and often more difficult--to feel productive. To have a sense of what one has accomplished each day or working session, and a sense of how all these tiny, daily accomplishments are contributing to the bigger picture. Perhaps a more actionable way of describing this is being mindful of our accomplishments.
In this day and age, it seems counter-intuitive to stress feeling productive over actually being productive.
Isn't the path towards a sense of accomplishment simply doing more, writing more, accomplishing more? My experiences both writing and working with writers suggests it's the exact opposite. To be productive in the long term, we have to feel it--we have to be mindful of our productivity.
Feeling productive fuels more consistent and effectual working habits, which in turn can yield a greater number and quality of finished writing projects.
When our draft writing becomes haunted by aimlessness, purposelessness or a perceived lack of progress, it will eventually grow stale--it's not a matter of if.
It starts to seem like the whole writing process is some intractable conflict against circuitousness, like we are at the mercy of ideas, sources, dialogues that are outside of our control. We forget that we are in charge of our writing and our arguments--not the other way around. We are the ones building them from the ground up.
Being aware of what you have accomplished--whether on an hourly, daily or weekly basis-- trains your mind to think in a nuanced, goal-oriented way about even the smaller and more mundane aspects of your project.
The more these mental muscles are worked, you start to gain a new set of eyes when you look at your material. This kind of vision helps you sit down to a document or MS Word file folder and see meaningful steps and strategies that are adding up to something tangible, rather than the chaos of disconnected thoughts and aimless writing sessions. This increasing ability to see the opportunities to "chunkify" and strategize in turn leads to more efficient project management, and can also help strengthen the conceptual connections between the various arguments and ideas in your writing.
The awareness I'm talking about is hard to cultivate. It involves striking a tricky balance between being mindful of the smaller building blocks of your larger project on the one hand, while also not getting sucked into the details/ minutia/ ennui that tend to accompany a work in progress.
It is most difficult to find this balance in the middle of a project, when we're "on the ground," so to speak. At the beginning or end of long-term projects, by contrast, it is easier to process our project metacognitively--to fly above what we're doing and take a bird's eye inventory of where we're going, what we're aiming at. In the beginning we do this by way of planning and strategizing, and at the end we do this in a reflective, tying-up-loose ends kind of way.
As difficult as it may be to feel productive, we can and should work on it. This is why the start of summer can be such an important juncture. Many of us are stepping out of old loops and into new ones--starting new projects, new routines, new habits. When starting a project, we can intentionally seek to incorporate mindfulness and awareness habits into our work rhythms. Some of these habits can focus on recognizing and reflecting on specific, tangible accomplishments we have already made within that particular writing projects.
Over the next month or so, I'll be posting further thoughts, tips and reflections on how to nourish a sense of accomplishment in writing, and how to channel this into stronger writing habits and outcomes.
And if you are one of those lucky souls and entering your first official weeks/ months of sabbatical, I wish you lots of clear thinking and inspiration!