Saturday, February 19, 2011

my writing life

First things first: when it comes to writing tips, from the very basic hints as to how to get started up to how to organize one's work on a major book-length project, there's still no blog out there I've encountered to compare with Jonathan Mayhew's Stupid Motivational Tricks. However, if you're looking for something just a skoshe more basic, I've just stumbled on – well, Jonathan pointed me there – a ├╝ber-clearly written and extremely sensible newish blog, Get a Life, PhD. This one strikes me as especially useful for grad student types; I wish it had been around when I was in that particular purgatory.
I'm taking a deep breath right now – not that I really have time to – before tackling the next round of writing projects. (Well, before I tackle them I've got a stack of Iliad tests to mark, & a conference paper to lick into shape, so I'm not exactly lounging in the sun...) Those should be relatively easy: a set of four successive book reviews, all of books that I'm interested in & keen to write on. Indeed, I've already finished one of the books & have started drafting a 1st paragraph of the review, so I feel for once that I'm ahead of the game.

This has been in some ways a very busy year for writing, but gratifying in surprising ways. That is, about 18 months ago, I started getting solicited for book chapters. Lots of book chapters: four, in fact, all of them in the sort of highly prestigious projects that I would have killed to be in ten or 15 years ago. On top of that, I was committed to writing a big career-retrospective essay on Guy Davenport for Parnassus, whose editor essentially told me to take as much space as I wanted to – yes, a dangerous thing to tell a writer. The book chapters ranged between 6 thousand and 9 thousand words – between twenty-odd and thirty pages apiece, & needed to be highly polished, smart, and all that.

I took a leaf from Mayhew's book, & decided to keep pretty close records of my writing progress in tackling each of these. And now that the last of them has been sent off, here's what I've noted:
•The Davenport essay, the longest of them (some 40-odd pages) took me precisely 15 working days; the others took between 10 and 17 working days. More or less, that is, three working weeks for each essay.

•I revise pretty continually as I work, so that when I come to the final sentence of a piece, what leads up to it has usually been worked over several times. When I begin the day's writing, I usually go back over what I've already written and make changes before I begin new sentences. And when I finish an essay, I typically spend a single writing session on final revisions – but no more than that. (That's what editors are for, after all.)

•I do my citations in as close to final form as I write; if I'm writing in MLA style, I start building the Works Cited with my first quotation, if some variant of Chicago, I start making footnotes as soon as I quote something. That way, I entirely avoid the pit I've seen colleagues (mostly in grad school, but once in a while in academic positions) fall into of spending half a day or more at the end of their writing cycle running down the sources of their quotations.
Now here's the surprising & gratifying part. In case you haven't figured it out, I feel a great kinship with Samuel Johnson, who notes that he wrote his Lives of the Poets "in my usual way, dilatorily and hastily, unwilling to work, and working with vigour and haste." But I don't have Johnson's serene self-confidence in my own abilities, and to be perfectly honest, I didn't feel entirely "up" to any of these assignments – one in particular felt like it was pressing the limits of my knowledge. And I felt more than a little uneasy about the pace at which I dispatched these pieces.

But mirabile dictu, once the essays went one after another into the mail (well, the e-mail) and I'd done my best to repress the memory of the "dilatory haste" with which I'd written them, the editors' responses started coming back – and they were all astonishingly positive. Believe it or not. Time and again, I'd open an e-mail expecting to read Sir, we have read your essay, and it will not do, and I'd find a note saying Golly, thanks! this is great, this is just what we wanted!

I must be doing something right. I'm not quite sure precisely what, but something. So forgive the momentary laurel-resting and gloating; after all, right now I'm foreseeing five new shiny publications over the next year (well, six, since there was another essay out there before this batch). Now to write some poems.


Archambeau said...

Hey Scroggins,

Thinking of writing projects in terms of the number of work days (or even hours) they'll take is probably the best writing tip of all.

I mean, too many of us chalk-dusted and ill-shaven academics seem to think of writing as an ontological state rather than an actual action ("I'm writing a study of Ashbery's ellipses," we'll say, when we're manifestly not writing, but sitting across from a colleague at lunch twirling our linguine on a fork).

Or we'll have a very vague sense of the time it might actually take to write something I remember looking at a sabbatical proposal in which the writing project was to be a proposal for a book, based on an already written dissertation. I kind of wondered what the guy would do on the afternoon of the first day of sabbatical, after a busy morning of writing the proposal.

Anyway, off to twirl linguine.


Jonathan said...

Thanks, Mark. I'm blushing.

I just met the author of "get a life PhD" last night at the local faculty bar though some other sociology / American studies colleagues. It turned out we both had similar blogs. I guess KU is the place to go for writing advice.

E. M. Selinger said...

You wrote that Davenport piece in 15 days? Damn. That's impressive--my piece on Shapiro & Moss & Heller, which is about the same length, took something like 6 weeks.

I keep running away from Stupid Motivational Tricks (and my own blog), whimpering about how much I have to do that's NOT my own writing. Clearly I need to buckle down and take another look.

Anonymous said...

my last book took me 70 years to write

and 10 + (included in the 70) years to get it on paper.


Mark Scroggins said...

Special circumstances, EMS -- we were on Fire Island with no distractions (no TV, no movies, no videos to speak of), the girls in camp for much of the day. Nothing I had to do during the days except read & write.

Oh yeah, & I'd been thinking the piece out for maybe 10 years. That helps.

Tanya Golash-Boza said...

I have yet to tabulate how long projects ACTUALLY take. I do keep tabs on how long I work on them, but never go back and add them up. I'll think about doing this: it'd be great to know before starting what I am actually getting into...