Friday, October 14, 2011

The more she sleeps, the more she sleeps

When my daughter was an infant she and I both often sported the wild looks, red eyes, flailing movements, and terrible mood swings associated with chronic lack of sleep. Every day was a battle, both of us to try to stay awake, only one of us with reason. Sometimes, of an afternoon, I wandered glassy-eyed through the local grocery store with her staring glassy-eyed out of the sling. No morning nap, no afternoon nap, and oh dear lord the colic hours approaching. Well-meaning friends, strangers, and cashiers of all sorts would cluck and say, to comfort me, "Well, at least she'll sleep tonight for sure!"

But here's the thing: her worst nights for sleep were the ones that followed the days that she didn't nap. And, those weird days where she'd get 2 hours of day-time sleep? She'd conk out at 7pm for 12 hours.

My husband and I developed a saying, repeated like a mantra to everyone who completely misunderstood her sleep cycle. The saying is this: The more she sleeps, the more she sleeps. And it was absolutely true.

Writing is like that, too, I've been recently thinking. Looking around at my friends and colleagues online and off, the conclusion I've come to is this:

The more you write, the more you write.

I'm thinking particularly about the relationship of informal, lower- or different-stakes writing to the much higher-stakes academic writing, the peer-reviewed articles, the dissertations, and the books. Extra-particularly, I'm thinking about the role that blogging plays in my practices and productivity as a writer.

I have written a ton more, in a ton more venues, and a ton more easily* since I began blogging. That's the truth!

In the early days of academics blogging, many in the professoriate espoused the belief that time spent blogging was time away from research. It seemed to me that the view of "writing" was very narrow and very parsimonious. Certainly, blogs (and op-eds, and public talks) were held in much lower esteem than the gold standard represented by the peer-reviewed article. And that's fine, as it goes. But there was something else, too, almost as though many in the academy believed that we had each only a finite lifetime allotment of usable words, and that it was a terrible waste to let these spill out onto the screens over the internet rather than pages through the library.

[You may develop your own quasi-religious metaphor involving masturbation and spilled seed here, if you wish. I'm not going to go there.]

But in my experience, words don't work like that. Words are more like kittens: the more you have of them, the more you're likely to get. If you nurture a couple of them, they'll soon start to produce more and more of them without much conscious effort on your part to increase their number. And so it is with my words: I nurture a couple of small ones, and suddenly every computer I have has open documents full of jottings for a book project or an article or a syllabus or a blog post or an op-ed, a crazy crowded mishmash of self-multiplying words and ideas.

Why?

For me, first, blogging has developed the writing habit. I carry that mental pencil and pad with me all the time, always busy trying to convert my experience into blog bait. I'm pre-writing, that is, all the time. And this habit spills over to my research: I'm always busy trying to convert my reading into article-bait. This is a habit I did not have before blogging.

Second, the feedback I receive from blogging (and media appearances, and public talks) offers nearly immediate positive reinforcement, and that makes me write more. When people tell me they think an idea is great, I'm more likely to push harder to write something more substantial about it; when people tell me the like reading my writing, I know that the work is not solitary or without a point or audience. Writing starts to feel good.

Third, informal writing has clarified my voice and made me a more confident (and, I hope, effective) communicator. Blogging (etc.) does not tie me in compositional knots relating to disciplinary jargon (or, worse, interdisciplinary jargon). There's no onerous citation requirement. I don't have to tone down my metaphors for an imaginary international audience. I write to please myself, largely, and as a result the writing process is pleasant, and the results are more conversational. For high-stakes professional writing, jargon is necessary, adherence to strict rules of citation is necessary, and (I think) some of the enforced clunkiness of writing style is a historical artifact that I can only chip away at one little piece at a time. But that's all very tiring. High-stakes writing is an 800m butterfly swim in a tech-suit at the Olympics; low-stakes writing is skinny dipping from the paddle-boat at 11pm at the cottage. It's fun, but I'm probably still building muscle and endurance.

I know that many of you have digital lives or write in public as well. I would be very, very interested to hear how you think your own "low-stakes**" writing has an impact on your "high-stakes" work. We could maybe change the prevailing narrative!

Maybe we'll start worrying about the productivity of people who don't fart around writing stuff on teh intertubes ;-)

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* "easily" is relative. I still really hate writing. It's just that the hating part is so much less debilitating than it was before.


** the degree of stakeness is relative to your perspective, of course: in my JOB, articles count more than blogging or public appearances, but this month I've had a) an article appear in a big journal and b) a five minute appearance on national radio and I leave it to you to guess which of these events prompted more hallway talk and productive debate about digital culture, more emails from friends and relatives, more phone calls, more Facebook posts, more debates, more Twitter RTs, and more "Wow, I'm impressed."

4 comments:

  1. Re: **. I just listened to your interview. I was about to tweet how great it was but will say so here instead. :)

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  2. A danger. I'll describe the version that applies in my life, but I'm sure there are corresponding worries for people who spend time blogging, etc., too ... If you are identified by people with whom you share political/social/charitable goals as someone who can write, then they will start asking you to write, basically, everything. Particularly dangerous is being identified as someone who can write proposals that cause organizations to give you money. But basic propaganda docs that might impress someone (a government official of high level bureaucrat, say), are also highly prized. Individually those might be easy writing tasks, but when demand for that sort of writing grows exponentially while the increase in writing capacity you identify in your post is arithmetic, trouble ensues ... Something has to give. What gives? The most gut wrenching, and least read, academic stuff.

    But lots of really nice people do pat you on the hand and say "I always say, if you want something done give it to the busiest person." And sorry for sounding self-pitying. It's the rain outside that's doing it.

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  3. Oh, thanks, @Pantagruelle! That's so kind of you. I LOVE being on the radio! So fun!

    @ddvd: excellent point. When I was writing this post, I was only thinking about the kinds of low-stakes writing that *I* choose for myself, not the kinds imposed on me by others. I will say I get tapped to do a lot of ... public-facing work, which is kinda similar. The burden of competence, I think they call it ....

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  4. On @dvdd's point: If you are going to be competent, you need to learn to say no. (I'm going to get that printed on a tshirt or something.)

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