Monday, September 8, 2014

On Writing and Paying Attention

After a break--summer or otherwise--from the jam-packed schedule of teaching-meetings-tasks-grading-life I am reminded not only that I need a routine, but also that the routine needs to be refined and to evolve pretty much every time I have a substantial break. As I move into what is the most unstructured stretch of time I have had since writing my dissertation I have realized I need to think again about what kind of writer I am and what kind of writer I would like to become. In previous years I have taught three or four courses per term. This year, while I am only teaching one full-year team taught course, I am Chairing the Board of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts, the Contract Academic Faculty representative for the ACCUTE executive, co-organizer for Discourse & Dynamics: Canadian Women as Public Intellectuals, presenting at three conferences (so far), editing a collection of poetry, writing a book, applying for jobs, and of course, writing for Hook & Eye. Its not as though I am not busy, but as much as I feel sheepish to admit it, without the constraints of classes I'm struggling to organize my work days, especially when it comes to my own writing.

Here's the truth: I have a really hard time sitting down and writing. Despite the fact that I have had periods of genuine rhythm and productivity the fact of the matter is that I have a bit of a magpie mind. In the best moments this means finding connections between surprising things and, if I'm really lucky, getting them down on paper to share with other readers. Usually, though, it means that I leap from one shiny idea to another...and get lost along the way. What I mean, of course, is that mostly I get distracted by the internet, find I've been on social media or following news stories from one site to another for longer that I like to admit. I've lost the thread, I'm tired from looking at the screen, and it is easier to turn my attention to the more definitive writing tasks: email and lecture writing.* Responding to emails, writing emails with  specific requests or communication, writing a fifty or ninety minute lecture--these are all writing tasks that, for me, are definitive and thus easier to complete in a reasonable amount of time. And, like the actual classroom lecture, there is a real sense of accomplishment when I finish writing a week's lecture or respond to fifteen emails. Work has been accomplished.

But writing is also work I want to do, and now that I am comfortable with writing lectures, writing is the work that keeps me up at night thinking about doing it, and fretting that I'm not doing it enough/at all. That's the research writing that Aimée talked about last week. Its not as though I can't write. After all, I completed a MA thesis, a Phd dissertation, and I have written articles, blog posts, and book reviews. So what's the issue? How do I settle my attention and sit down to write for myself? That's the question that was in the back of my mind as I was rereading Eileen Myles's Inferno (A Poet's Novel) for inspiration. Have you read it? It is a portrait of a person becoming a poet, becoming, as Myles says in one chapter, a human. The prose is lilting, jarring, and utterly poetic. It is, on the one hand, a portrait of the artist becoming, and on the other a lesson in attention. Take this paragraph:

Performance has always been at the heart of my work. I went to Milton, New York in 1975 to acquire the first six pages of what you are reading....No one asked me to have a life like this, to be a poet. It was my idea. I mean and I would definitely say poetry is a very roundabout way to unite both work and time. A poet is a person with a very short attention span who actually decides to study it. To look at it. To draw that short thing out....I'm going to talk a little about theatre and performance now, but the subject of [this book] is really just all that time. How this poet spent it. Performance is spending. And it's always a huge loss. One good heartbreak can speed the whole thing up. Most of us have plenty of that. But we don't even really need it. Just look at the day. Going, going, going. Nothing but loss. That's life, and obviously that's performance.

To read this paragraph and stay with Myles you have to pay readerly attention--to the wordplay, to the tone of voice, to the tongue-in-cheek intertextuality. Performance is living is art is practice is production is the work. Get it? Every sentence in this paragraph looks at the question "what is poetry" and "what is a poet" from a different angle. But if we were to read without attention we might miss it. The book would still be good, it would still be a fast talking romp through New York in a particular moment. But without paying a particular attention we might miss the poetic structure of the thing.

What does this have to do with writing? Maybe nothing for you, but for me it is a reminder of two crucial things: I need to pay attention, and paying attention costs. "To draw the short thing out," as Myles writes, requires shelling out time, energy, and intellect. Refining and redefining a writing routine is part of the work. For Aimée that routine requires very early mornings. Melissa has found that stealing what is often thought of as wasted time can actually be incredibly productive time. As for me, I think I am going to need to impose those structural constraints that I realize class times had previously provided. I'm thinking that I will implement sacrosanct writing hours (thanks, Aimée!) and that when I am writing the phone and the wifi will both be turned off. I will also be looking for writing dates to keep myself on track. More than anything, I'll be working to pay attention. Whatever the cost, I think it will be worth it.

What about you? When you sit down to write, or refine your writing practices, what are some of your techniques for focussing your attention?

There's Inferno (A Poet's Novel) on the right. Angela Carr's incredible Here in There (BookThug, 2014) is a collection of poetry all about paying attention. 

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*When I first started teaching lecture writing was not an easy task. I would spend hours preparing for a single class, and much of that prep time wasn't useful. Like many Phd students I received little pedagogical training. I did take a course on pedagogy from the teaching and learning centre where I was studying, but the bulk of my fledgling knowledge about classroom management and lecture writing came from the one-on-one conversations I had with my mentors. Next week I will talk about some of that advice as well as show you how I write lectures.

3 comments:

  1. Something I'm struggling to do now that I am post-dissertation is redefine my writing practice for this new phase of academia. Because I was one of those lucky PhD students who doesn't have to work throughout the dissertation-writing process, I was able to foster a writing practice that involved -- even relied on -- huge periods of free time. In an eight hour day I might do only 1-2 hours of actual writing, separated by huge gaps of procrastination, but I could still hit my daily writing goals easily.

    That approach is no longer feasible. With teaching and article revisions and job applications and organizational work, I can't carve out an entire day for writing, let alone whole weeks at a time. So as you say, those sustained and difficult writing tasks fall easily by the wayside in favour of tasks that can be completed in short bursts of productivity. This post is a wonderful call to bring more intentionality to the practice of being a writer while also being all these other things at the same time.

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  2. Hannah--when you have a chance read Boyda's new post that's just up. I found myself getting really excited about a daily research journal. I'm imagining it being different than the running list of All The Things.

    Also, if you want an accountability/distance writing pal I'm your gal.

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  3. Erin, I'm really looking forward to reading about how you plan your lectures. From your previous posts, it sounds like you are far more efficient at this than I am. I want to know your secrets!

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