I feel guilty about it. Like the time I got on the elevator with a slender young doctor who lives on my floor. It was 6:45 in the evening and she was “trying to squeeze in a run” before dinner. I was trying to squeeze in a run too…to Chipotle and back before my 7 o’clock phone date with my parents. I pondered how pathetic I was in every possible way as I walked to the Chipotle. Then, I deepened my despair by adding a side of chips and guac to my order at the last minute. The chips were really good, but I felt like shit the whole time I was eating them.
But still. I didn’t go running the next morning.
Despite all the ways not-running makes me suffer, I just can’t quite bring myself to do anything about it. It all seems a bit…too much. It’s cold outside, I think to myself. And my only pair of tights is still wet from the wash. Besides, I’m short on time so I can’t stretch afterward, and how can I run if I can’t stretch? And anyway, it’s been so long since the last time I ran, I’ll be lucky if I can last 15 minutes, so what’s the point? The too much-ness varies, but it all gets in the way of my running. (I used to think that if I lived in a building with a gym, all my troubles would be over. But then I moved to a building with a gym in it, and guess what? I still didn’t run).
I don’t run because I know that there will be this magical moment when my crankiness and my excuses and even my guilt just fall away. That’s the day I toss on my gear, lace up my shoes, and I’m out. I don’t know when that moment will come, but I know it will arrive. So I wait for it.
As a result, I don’t get much running done.
Waiting for inspiration is a pretty poor strategy if you want to be regular about anything, whether it’s your running or your writing. Neither, at their core, is a discreet act, a singular deed that you do every now and then. Rather, each is a practice, a work you do consistently, not because you’re dripping with desire to do it, or because it feels especially good to do it, but because it’s time to do it. And because the things we want from our practice—book contracts, tenure, a body like Serena Williams—these things aren’t the result of an occasional quick sprint or a few pages of notes. They only come from a relentless commitment to showing up, each day. Even though you didn’t get quite through all the reading for today’s class. Even though, every time you sit down to work, someone pops their head into your office; or worse yet, you sit down to work and another to-do pops into your head. Even though, even though, even though.
You know this. I know this. That damn doctor in the elevator knows this. So why do we still have a hard time getting our writing done?
Scholars who study writing process tell us that what causes us trouble when we’re trying to write isn’t just that we’re trying to express ourselves on paper. Instead, the problem is that we’re trying to express ourselves on paper under conditions of constraint. In other words, we want to write down our thoughts and we want to do so in a way that meets certain standards, certain criteria. It’s those criteria that get in our way.
If I asked you to write down what groceries you need for tonight’s dinner, for example, you’d probably have no problem, because it’s “just” a list. Writing is pretty easy to do as long as you know what you want to say, have a clear idea of how to write it down so it makes sense, and aren’t much worried about the consequences if it’s not perfect.
The problem, of course, is that those conditions rarely exist with the kind of writing academics do. And once the constraints start to get a little tougher, then writing gets harder too. So, if I ask you to craft an email to your department chair explaining why you don’t want to serve on the search committee for a hire in your subfield, you could do it, but it’d be a little harder than the grocery list. The constraint is that you don’t want to seem like a slacker, but you also don't want to be a pushover. So you’ve got to strike a balance between the two. That piece of writing will take longer than the grocery list, but chances are after you’ve figured out your strategy, you can polish it off in minutes.
If I ask you, however, to write in two sentences what your book is really about, well, now we’re talking serious constraint. First, I’m asking for an economy of words that you can only achieve if you know exactly what your argument is. But when you’re writing, it’s both appropriate and possible that you’ll have no idea what your argument is. Or maybe you do have an idea, but every time you try to get it out, it gets all twisted up in your head, and you end up feeling more scared and confused and frustrated than before you began. And let me tell you something else: you’re not alone if you know exactly what you want to say, but are terrified by the thought of putting it on a piece of paper, where someone might actually see it...and figure everything that’s wrong with it.
Wanting to produce writing that is clear, well organized, unassailably argued, and finely wrought—this is what I mean by serious constraint. Even if you know that your writing won’t look like this when you first get started, the effort to create work like this, and to do so quickly, creates a set of constraints that makes it both difficult to write, and absolutely reasonable that you’d want to avoid doing so.
If you find yourself operating under this level of constraint, the solution, the research says, is to remove it. There are tons of ways to do it: one way classic is to break the work down into something entirely manageable: either a small amount of time or a totally doable task. Virginia Valian’s article “Learning to Work” is the most honest, comforting, masterful description of an academic writer removing constraint that I have ever encountered, and if you haven’t read it, you should stop reading this essay right now and read hers instead. What’s so beautiful about this piece is that Valian lets us witness her painful realization of how she gets in her own way. More importantly, she also shows us the slow, trembling path she takes to moving out of her own way—by reducing her writing down to something she can manage. Just five minutes. Each day.
If you’re like me you might be rolling your eyes and thinking “Yeah that’s great. But I’ll never finish my dissertation/article/book working five minutes a day.” And you’re right. You won’t. But removing constraint isn’t about what you’re going to be doing next week or the week after or three months from now when you get the “so…how’s it going?” email from the press or your advisor. Removing constraint is about what you’re doing right now: which, if you’re writing the way I was running, is not much at all.
Removing constraint clears the way for you to do one small thing, so that the next day you can do that one small thing plus a little bit more. I know it’s hard to believe. It may be even harder to admit to yourself that you can’t power through. And worse yet, you might be so busy berating yourself for not having gotten anything done before now that whatever you do now will seem that much more inadequate.
But here's the thing: if your battery’s dead and your neighbor offers you a jump, you don’t refuse it because you shouldn’t have left the lights on to begin with. You don't refuse it because you don’t want to have to get a jump every morning. You take the damn jump. And you’re grateful for it. So grateful that once you’ve worked out whatever was wrong with the battery, you take the neighbor a sweetie from that overpriced bakery around the corner. In other words, you start with whatever you need to get yourself going. And you work with that until you get to where you need to go. To do anything else—to refuse to do the minimum because you’re pining for the maximum—well, that’s a recipe for not getting your writing done.
You might be thinking fine, fine. I’ll try it. But I’m not telling anybody. I don’t recommend it. The research on changing our habits says that the support of your community is key to making any kind of sustained shift. I’ve read that several times, but I’m still surprised by how much relief and hope come from sharing your struggles with people who love you.
Like when I went running that day and had to stop after just 17 minutes. I posted about it on FB the next day: “#17minutesislame” I wrote at first. Then, trying to make myself feel better, “#17minutesisbetterthan0minutes.” I wasn’t expecting much of a response, but a bunch of my people liked the post and commented, including my friend and colleague Katrine, who’d attended one of the first retreats I ever coached. When I met her, she’d been stuck for months, had a kid and a job, and told me flat out, “I’m never gonna finish this dissertation.” The next year? She was done. When she read about my 17 minutes, she wrote something that made me lace up my shoes two days later and head on out the door. “Next time you’ll do 18,” she said.
And she was right.
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