Monday, May 13, 2013

In Praise of the Writing Binge

When I got my first job, I also got a book of advice for new professors. It gave me some sensible-sounding advice about writing. Avoid binge writing, it said. Write at regularly scheduled hours and keep each session brief. Too many graduate students are used to writing in crazy binges, the authors said, rather than developing steady writing habits. Faculty had to learn to write all the time, and also had to learn to STOP writing even if things were going well. And I tried to take that advice seriously. I have always believed in good writing habits and deplored the way graduate school undermines those habits. I drank the no-binge Kool-Aid with a smile, in an appropriately moderate serving. But that advice is fundamentally wrong. If I had kept following it, my career would now be a smoking ruin.

Writing binges are things of wondrous beauty. I can't do without them, and all the work of which I'm most proud was done in flagrant violation of the no-binge rule. Part of that is simply who I am as a writer. I will never be a 45-minute-a-day writer, just as I will never be an early-morning writer no matter how much I would like to be. (I am a nocturnal writer, and that's that. Every attempt to become a virtuous early-bird ends up wasting a morning and leaving me too sleepy to work later when I'm feeling productive.) But more importantly, some things cannot be written at all without some form of binge. You cannot build them out of six hundred brief sessions, any more than you can train for a marathon by running two miles a day. Some pieces of writing demand the writer's full attention in a way that cannot be kept up forever. They require weeks or months of intense focus to complete, after which the writer goes through a rest period, working at a more relaxed pace and paying more attention to tasks that have been put off during the most strenuous writing.

Now, the book that advised me to write in brief, regular sessions could itself have been written in a number of brief, regular sessions. Its structure was simple, its prose was not complicated, and neither really were its ideas. Likewise, those books that tell you how to write your novel in one hour a day could have been written in one hour a day. But you can't actually write a good novel in one hour a day any more than you can drive from Boston to Los Angeles in one hour a day. Doing it that way is not efficient. Neither can you write a book of complicated or original scholarship in nothing but short sessions without losing the thread. To sustain a complicated argument over hundreds of pages requires sustained focus.

Obviously, you cannot write anything so complicated in a single sitting. This part of the no-binge rule makes sense. Procrastinating until the deadline arrives (or passes) and pulling an all-nighter is obviously counter-productive. So is banging out three 25-page term papers over a week and a half, as the semester system requires many graduate students to do. That is not a writer sustaining focus. You need to give a project your attention for the full time it needs. Otherwise, it's like trying to drive from Boston to Los Angeles in a single go without stopping.

I spent six weeks in the middle of this spring semester on a writing binge. It wasn't a frantic graduate-school-style binge, and it couldn't have been. I can't drop everything else and hole up in my study for days. I continued teaching and grading and going to meetings. I continued my weekly multi-state  commute to see my spouse, and continued paying attention to my spouse. I continued cooking the meals. But I arranged things during those six weeks to clear all the time that I could for writing. I set aside that time in large blocks. And I made getting my writing done during those six weeks my priority. There were no deadlines but the ones I set for myself, and the recognition that I could only keep my window of time open for so long. The results were excellent; I completed a few projects that had been almost-but-not-quite finished for seemingly forever, and then finished a monster article that I had been wrestling with for over a year. Working on that article in short, manageable stints had inched along like a glacier, taking a step back for every two steps forward, and every time I was forced to set it aside and deal with something else I would lose the thread. (Of course, spreading out the work on the articles over such a long period ensured that work on it would be interrupted repeatedly, that I would have to work on something else or have a week with almost no writing time.) In fact, the fragmentation of the writing process was damaging the piece, fragmenting its structure as the months went by. But a sustained six-week march made it into a unified whole for the first time, and got it out the door.

In the six weeks since that binge, I haven't been nearly as productive. I've had to pay the committee-work bills I'd deferred during the binge, and a bunch of new ones that have come due. One reason that I set my private deadline when I did was that I knew that the end of the semester would bring demands that would leave little time for sustained writing. Oh, I've written a lot over the last six weeks: memos, e-mails, reports, an application form, a questionnaire for a survey, even a form rejection letter. All of those writing tasks fit easily into routine, manageable sessions. And for the last six weeks, my scholarly writing has mostly happened in sessions of an hour or so at a time, which means not much gets done. But I'm less frustrated than I would be if I had hoped, unrealistically, to set aside the same amount of time or produce the same number of pages every week. Instead, I experience this crush of busy-work as simply a fallow period between one season of strenuous writing and the next. I have another week or two of grading and bureaucratic reporting, and then summer will have come in and it will be time to write hard again. When that new season starts, I have to be ready.

cross-posted from Dagblog


profacero said...

Great post. The advice against "binge writing" is directed at the beginning writer or at the people who don't like to write. Of course one should not put things off until one has nothing else to do, etc., etc., but this insistence on small blocs of time really is for people in fields where writing is not #1.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Thanks a lot, profacero. I appreciate it.

I agree that most of this writing advice is aimed at novices. But one of the rhetorical problems of writing advice for beginners that no one ever says, "This is advice for beginners." It's always presented as universal principle. (I'm thinking of Syd Field and all those other guides to writing a screenplay, for example.)

I presume that if people did label their advice as aimed at beginners, most actual beginners would ignore it because they wanted to skip directly to the advanced stage.