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I am posting this as a benchmark, not because I think I'm playing very well yet.  The idea would be post a video every month for a ye...

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Fragmentation [or segmentation?] of Time

The bad news about time management in the academic setting is that it is very fragmented, broken up by interruptions of classes and meetings, emails and grading. Many people don't have four or five straight hours each day in which there is nothing else scheduled.

The good news is that you only need 1-3 hours a day for your writing. You can schedule writing the same way as anything else. Instead of seeing time as fragmented, broken up into unusable shards, take control yourself and break it into usable segments. One of the worst excuses is that "I only have 15 minutes, so I can't get any writing done." 15 minutes is long enough to run a spell check, to look over a few sentences, and to maintain continuity on a project.

I am proctoring the PhD exam tomorrow. That will let me get three hours of my own writing done.


By ruthlessness I do not mean an attitude of cruelty or hostility to the world or toward other people. You need only be ruthless toward your typical excuses, or the typical non-productive habits that you let yourself fall into. Be unsparing with your self-justifications. Call bullshit on yourself.

*I can't write today because I'm tired / sick / burnt out.

*because it's a teaching day.

*because I got so much done yesterday.

*because I'm not inspired.

*because I have to save up energy for tomorrow.

*because it's not close enough to the deadline for me to feel any sense of urgency.

You see, I already know all your excuses. My Stupid Tricks have a lethal effect on them. You only have your had habits to lose so what are you afraid of?

Grasshoppers and Ants

This article talks about the two styles of writing, one the steady plugging away of the ant, and the other the last minute before the deadline cramming of the grasshopper.

The author of the article is almost apologetic about being the ant. I have a bit of different perspective on this, as you might imagine.

I don't see these as two personal styles, suited to two classes of individuals. I am going to be extremely dogmatic here and say that the grasshopper model is vastly inferior, and inferior for every single individual. You can get away with meeting deadlines at the last minute for a while. You might even meet all your deadlines, but you will still a slave to deadlines and will only get a minimal amount done. For example, you might get all your book reviews done, all your conference papers prepared, but what about the long-term projects? How do those get written? The ant is going to outproduce the grasshopper 100% of the time, because it is not going to let external deadlines be the driving force for productivity. That is about the worst fucking thing you can do.

Even a Bad Writing Session Is Good

The other day I was writing in the morning, as is my custom. I had a cold and wasn't concentrating very well and I am sure I was only a shadow of my usually brilliant self.

Yet this "bad" writing session was still a good one. My manuscript grew by three or four hundred words. I generated some ideas I could develop later. Moreover, I maintained my continuity in working on the project.

One of the most amazing things I have learned from my own Stupid Motivational Tricks is that there is no such thing as a bad writing session. The writing does not care how you are feeling, it just needs to keep on getting written. The "bad" sessions just get averaged in with all the mediocre, so-so, pretty good, not bad, and kick-ass sessions, with the overall result being a wonderfully productive week or month or year of writing.

So if you don't feel so hot. If you feel uninspired and mediocre, that is an excellent time to not skip your writing. It might be even more important to write on those days than on the days when conditions are propitious.

Monday, January 30, 2012

In Which I Kick Ass

I've decided to go back to one of my best and most ruthless techniques, the Seinfeld Chain, in which I write on the calendar every day the number of consecutive days I have been writing. I am just going to write every day, with no more excuses. Already, on the second day, I had an extraordinarily productive session.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Where I Draw Creativity From

Tanya has some keen remarks about creative energy. Scholarship is a creative enterprise, it calls into existence ideas that never existed before, or at least new configurations of ideas. (I don't mean, here, scholarship that tries too hard to be "creative." Or that thinks of creativity in terms of over-clever gimmicks. That rarely works.)

So then I asked myself, where do I draw my creativity from?

1. In the first place, from primary texts of literature that I have close at hand. I want my literary criticism to be up to the level of those works themselves, or at least to be creatively engaged with them. The creative energy should flow from the poetry itself into the criticism of poetry.

2. Secondly, from the practice of memorizing and reciting texts. This allows poetry to flow through me as I speak. I become a kind of medium.

3. Music.

4. Art.

5. Nature.

6. Exercise and meditation.

7. Smart friends with whom I can talk about my research interests. The company of people who esteem me.

8. The practice of writing everyday (or almost), which allows the creativity to happen in a confined space and time.

I don't tend to derive creative energy from other people's scholarship. It could happen, but often reading academic writing drains me of energy rather than inspiring me. I still have to do it. I don't derive a lot of energy from teaching, though I enjoy it. Once again, that tends to drain me.

I think if you can figure out what gives you energy and what tends to diminish it, for you personally, you will be able to figure out what you need to do to continue to harness that creative energy.

Friday, January 27, 2012


Today we have 8 people in the writing group here at the aptly named Mirth café. I added more than 1,000 words to my project ADLB. (Another damned Lorca book), also known as Lorca: modelo para armar, in 2 1/2 hours. The place is loud and the chairs uncomfortable. We hardly speak to one another. Yet it is a great way to write.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Write on Site

I'm here at Mirth Café in Lawrence, KS, writing along with four other people, including Tanya of Get a Life PhD. The idea is to do your solitary writing in company. We'll be meeting Wed and Fri in the a.m.

[N.B.: The group was Tanya's idea, not my own.]

Thursday, January 19, 2012


There is a certain satisfaction in checking off items on a list of things to do. I often begin doing things even before I make a list, but then write down and check off things I have already done. I even put things like "drink coffee" on my to-do list.


Here is a well-written post about the question of what audience to address, and how.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

cause / will / strength / means

Hamlet wonders why he has not taken action yet, since he has all the necessary elements in place:

"Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means
To do it."

He is a very analytical person, who loves to break things down like this, and he lists these elements in a logical order.

Cause: you need an ultimate reason for what you are doing, a deep motivation. That is the first one he mentions.

Will: Hamlet himself does not seem to have this quality, despite his claim here. That is the missing link in his chain, perhaps. Will is the quality of persistent effort in any endeavor, or the commitment to take action. In his sonnets the bard often plays with the word will, punning on his own name.

Strength. I could not bench-press 250 lbs, no matter how much will-power I had. Strength is the actual capability needed to take action.

Means. I take means to be the pragmatic set of opportunities and techniques needed in order to carry out an action.

Of course, taking revenge for the murder of one's father is not the same as carrying out a research program. Where is your weakest link in this chain?

Step One

So my core belief is that literature is transformative. It "kicks you in the ass with its transformative power," to quote a phrase that I've used before. Yet my literary pedagogy is fairly conventional in a lot of ways. A student of mine might not suspect that this is what I believe. What I need to do is to let my enthusiasm shine through in a way that it often doesn't. Of course, teaching students who don't like literature is a challenge, but an unenthusiastic approach is no good for them, either.

What is the position of the student here? One view is that literature is a purely or mostly academic pursuit. It is part of school, not life. Literary texts are difficult to read, and the teacher (in high school) or the professor (in college) knows more about the texts than the students. The idea is to teach the code, the formula, for reading a text and coming up with academically acceptable answers. Those are "teachable." I cannot teach the transformation part as easily, but I can suggest that what literature is about is beauty, violence, gratitude and despair.

A student whose main interest is in Spanish (the language) has no necessary interest in Spanish literature. If the student is not already an avid reader, then the difficulty of literature is redoubled. How many times have I heard the statement: "I don't understand poetry in English, how do you expect me to understand it in Spanish?" If I had a million dollars for every time I've heard that, I'd be a multibillionaire.

Monday, January 16, 2012


What I was trying to get at in the last post was my effort to get my work to reflect, in a much stronger way, my values and my vision, to eliminate the dissonance between the two.

In other words, if you asked me why I am in the profession that I am in, what motivates me most deeply, I might have a certain set of answers. Then, if you asked me what I did in my research and teaching, I might have another set of answers. The overlap cannot be complete, of course, but I want to aim for an 80% overlap rather than a 30% overlap between the two.

So to eliminate this discrepancy, what would I have to do? Breaking this down, there are parts of the job that cannot be changed, that reflect institutional realities I cannot alter. For those portions of my work-week, the answer is to perform those duties responsibly and well. For example, if I have to do a peer-review of an article, I could see this as a negative because I am tired of being a gate-keeper. That function is one I perform very well, but it is antithetical in some ways to my core values. If I do it well enough, and make sure I help the scholar being reviewed, then I can recuperate some of my vision even while performing an institutional task.

The second category might be things that I can change. For example, I don't have to do certain things in the classroom whose only function is "academic" in the most formulaic sense. I don't have to do things a certain way because I have always done them that way.

A third category is things that I am not doing now that I can add to my practice as scholar and professor if I am more mindful of what I am doing.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Shifting Interests

My interest has been shifting from the problem of productivity (scholarly writing and how to get it done) to a more holistic view. I realized that my profession is valuable to me because it allows me to pursue my interests. My scholarship and teaching might be of value to others for other reasons, but for me they serve me as a way of allowing me to pursue subjects of deep interest to me. It's all very well to play the scholarship game. I play it very well and am interested in the subjects I write about. The main purpose of the game, however, is to allow me to be fully myself. The profession (and the job I have) gives me enough money to live on, a lot of freedom and autonomy, and some institutional resources. An office and access to the library.

So my focus has shifted from advice about how to play the game, to how to make the game serve the interests that it should be serving. Sorry for the vagueness, but I only arrived at this realization today so I haven't worked out what this will mean in practice.

There is a danger, here, of falling into a kind of naive anti-academy thinking. The formalities of academic life and the arbitrary limits of disciplines do serve vital functions. We might say: "Permission granted, but not to do whatever you want," to quote Cage.

[The paradox here is that the academy wants to give me this freedom and autonomy. It rewards people like me. Now imagine a system in which my research was more tightly defined and I was held "accountable." A Mark Bauerlein world in which the number of articles I wrote was limited by how many society supposedly needed, or that penalized me for working outside my own discipline.]

In the coming weeks I'll be exploring some of these directions. There are also changes taking place in my personal life that I cannot blog about here. I have been through a very difficult period from October of 2011 until now. I hope to come out on the other side of it by the end of April or so. These changes have also provoked me to look at the problem of writing from a larger vantage-point. Once again, I apologize for the vagueness here. I am doing the written equivalent of thinking out loud.