November 20, 2012

#AcWriMo 3: Permission to write: reflections on Shut up and AcWri!

The Wolfson Research Exchange recently hosted "Shut up and AcWri!" - an AcWriMo (academic writing month) special of "shut up and study". Sherah Wells was one of the attendees, and writes here about how she found the experience.

I recently heard that Picasso once said, when inspiration comes, I want it to find me at work, and for me, this sums up the recent Shut up and AcWri! AcWriMo session. The day was divided into three 90 minute sessions; I was able to attend the first and third with a session of teaching in the middle. At first I was disappointed not to be able to attend the whole day, but I realize now that I never (yes, I’ll go ahead and say it) have a full day to devote to writing so only attending 2 of the sessions, one before and after teaching, really helped me to focus.

I finished my PhD a few years ago, and I struggle on a daily basis to balance the day to day jobs that pay my bills and the CV building activities which I know I need to get the job I want one day. Much of what I do is deadline-based. I won’t list those for you; I’m sure you’re all too aware yourself of the niggly items that pull you this way and that. Unfortunately my writing and publishing commitments don’t have deadlines associated with them currently. Obviously, I’m not labouring under a book contract (trying to get one!) or even article publication deadline at the moment. I do ok with those when they come along.

So for me, the day wasn’t about having a quiet, peaceful place to work, although this certainly was. In a way, it was about giving myself the permission to write, to put aside those other tasks that often take priority because they directly result in a paycheck or because someone is standing behind me asking me when I’m going to respond to that email or send in that form. And once I had given myself the permission, it was also about accountability. I had signed up to be there, and Charlotte was expecting me. This also in a way gave me permission to set aside anything that came up.

Charlotte asked each of us what we hoped to accomplish during the day or during individual sessions. I’m writing up a conference paper to submit to a journal, and I realized I wasn’t immediately able to get beyond the thought of ‘write, I want to write!’ which was quickly followed by the daydream of ‘wouldn’t it be nice if I could finish the entire draft today?’ In the end, I met myself somewhere in the middle. I was able to write 1,000 words which for me was an incredibly productive three hours.

I’m intrigued as to why this was such a productive experience for me, and I think it was due at least in part to the fact that I had been collecting so many bits in my head for such a long time that this gave me the opportunity to sort them and organize them on paper. I realize that might not happen on every day at every session, particularly if I get into the habit of doing this on a regular basis.

The Shut up and AcWri! session prompted my productivity because it provided me with a space just for writing. There were no other work materials in sight, not even the temptations of books, which I struggle with as much in the library as I do in my office and at home. There were other people around me at approximately my same career stage also writing. That element was much more powerful than I had imagined. I also found the breaks useful. I don’t often sit and talk with people about writing, both the good and bad aspects, and I found it invigorating to have a space to articulate my engagement with the writing process, as well as teaching, careers, etc.

I hope there are more Shut up and AcWri! sessions, but this particular session has taught me about how I approach writing, and how I can be more productive. I make lists, primarily for the joy of ticking items off said list, and I think I sabotage my own potential writing sessions by not being able to articulate small achievable goals. ‘Write paper’ can’t be ticked off the list in 30 minutes so I tend to dismiss that time as writing time. I’m working toward not only giving myself permission to spend time writing but also toward being able to break my work into small achievable goals. I suspect this will also strengthen the structure and argument of my writing, but that’s just a bonus for now.

Sherah Wells completed her PhD in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies. She researches the engagement between literature, mental health, and space and teaches in the English and Sociology Depts. Please visit her webpage for more details.

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