Intro: this is the second of a series of posts exploring some common themes in three books: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, and Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story. The first post focused on getting started with a new writing project, rough drafts, and the pleasures of writing. This post focuses on social aspects of writing.
Writing is inherently social – at a minimum, your article is read by reviewers and, of course, we write hoping that colleagues will read and understand (and maybe even like!) our article once it comes out. But the process of actually doing the writing can sometimes feel very isolated. Certainly my general approach is to hole up in my office and try to crank out some text. I get feedback from coauthors, but that’s done at a distance and with little interaction outside Word.
So, I was interested to see that Helen Sword has social habits as one of the four components of a strong writing practice. She devotes a chapter specifically to writing among others, talking about writing groups, write-on-site boot camps and retreats, and online writing forums. Each chapter of Sword’s book ends with a “Things to Try” section; for the chapter on writing among others, it includes “start a writing group” and “retreat in the company of others” as two of the four suggestions.
Right after reading that section of Sword’s book, I read a Monday Motivator email from NCFDD (written by Kerry Ann Rockquemore) that also emphasized the social aspects of writing. That email also focused on social aspects of writing, including traditional writing groups, writing accountability groups, write-on-site groups, and boot camps.
Reading those back-to-back made me realize that I severely lacked social components in my writing. I have gotten very used to setting my own goals and not sharing them with anyone else, and to holing up in my office to write. But I also don’t feel like writing is generally a problem for me, so wasn’t sure if I really needed to address the lack of social habits. If there isn’t a problem, why try to fix it?
But then, on a solo morning run, I thought about how much further and faster and more enjoyably I can run on the days where I go with a friend. And I thought about how, when I first got into distance running, I would tell some friends and family members about my race plans, which made me more committed to sticking with my training runs. And I’m much less likely to skip a run if I am meeting a running buddy, which explains why I ended up running in a downpour recently. Could these same social habits help with writing?
Anne Lamott and Rocket both seem to agree that the answer is “yes”. Lamott talks about how:
an occupational hazard of writing is that you’ll have bad days. You feel not only totally alone but also that everyone else is at a party. But if you talk to other people who write, you remember that this feeling is part of the process, that it’s inevitable.
– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
On a bad day you also don’t need a lot of advice. You just need a little empathy and affirmation. You need to feel once again that other people have confidence in you. The members of your writing group can offer just that.
– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
This definitely fits with Sword’s take on things – there will be bad days, but social habits can help.
And, while Rocket doesn’t have a formal writing accountability group as far as I know, he tells all his friends about his new writing project:
and he checks in with his new owl friend regularly, reading her drafts.
(Maybe Rocket Forms a Writing Accountability Group is coming up in the series?)
I decided to check with a few friends to see if they wanted to set up a writing accountability group and write-on-site sessions. Some of these were friends who were already informally a social support group for writing, providing encouragement and commiserating via texts while I was holed up in my office writing or afterwards on a run. All of the people I asked signed on enthusiastically, and the group has already grown as others have heard about it.*
We check in at the beginning of the week, using the format suggested in Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s email – 1) these were my writing goals for last week; 2) I did/did not meet them; 3) if I didn’t meet them, here’s why; 4) here are my writing goals for this week – plus an additional item I felt was important to add – 5) other things that will take up time this week.
We also have a room reserved for Tuesday mornings where we all bring our laptops and sit and write. Knowing that other people will be there makes me much less likely to take my “writing” block on my calendar and bump it for something else. It’s become an appointment with others, and I don’t want to bail on them.
I’ve been surprised to find the writing accountability group check-ins helpful, too. Following other advice from Monday Motivator emails, I’ve been taking some time on Sundays to come up with my plan for the week, writing it out on a large-ish pink post-it note that I then put into my notebook. I don’t feel like I have a hard time with planning, and feel like I’m generally pretty productive, so wasn’t sure this would be worth the time. But I’ve found that, at times when I’ve just finished one task and need to move on to another or when I have a motivation lull during the day, it helps to consult my list. I suspect this is especially true because it’s summer (and the start of my sabbatical!), when I have many fewer things clogging up my calendar each day. And, of course, another benefit of having my weekly plan in list form is that checking off items as they get accomplished feels pretty good!
I didn’t feel like I was struggling with writing before, but paying attention to social aspects of writing has helped me prioritize my writing and get more writing done. I actually have somewhat mixed feelings about this, since there can be downsides to pushing oneself further and harder, which I’ll explore in a subsequent post. But, as Rocket shows us, it can feel really good to get writing done!:
It’s only a matter of time before I make a Daphnia logo for our group!