best laid plans · collaboration · writing

Stealing Time: How I am Finally Developing a Sustainable Practice

Writing — and frankly not writing — occupies an incredible amount of my mental and emotional energy. I seem to find time to do almost everything else but write. Direct the Canadian Studies Programme? Check. Teach? Check. Co-host a conference in the first month of term? Check. Supervise honours and graduate students? Check. Walk the dogs? Cook? Go to yoga? Check, check, check. Write a long-form project? Writing regularly? *crickets*

For those of you who have been reading here for awhile it will come as no surprise that I fret about my writing practice. I have written about it — or the lack of it — in terms of DIY Academia, in terms of collaboration and community, and I have written a lot about my anxieties around writing a book. Indeed, writing practice takes up a great deal of mental space here at Hook & Eye. In addition to my fretting, some of Aimée’s posts have addressed strategy (the 30-minute miracle) and reality (how writing can be unnervingly selfish).

It was beginning to seem as though it didn’t matter how much I worried about writing, I simply could not find the time to develop a sustainable practice. Now, this doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. Not at all. This year alone I have written and presented six conference papers and I have written a few things for publication that are under review or in various stages of the broken system that is scholarly publishing. But my writing practice? Well, it looked something like this. Happily, something has changed.

This August I had the distinct privilege to attend the Banff Research in Culture Retreat. In addition to going to seminars, hearing public talks, and meeting amazing people, there was a great deal of time to simply work. We were assigned studios that we could access at any time of the day or night, and there were few expectations on us save for the expectation that we would be spending our time in meaningful ways. One does not waste an opportunity like this, right? In addition to attending the seminars, I was there for two reasons: to work with my collaborator on a writing project, and to write a book proposal of my own. Frankly, I assumed I would get the collaborative project finished (peer pressure!) and work on the solo project on my own time when I returned home. But that isn’t quite how things worked out. Between the complete break from my own life, the stimulating discussions, and the space to take work seriously I managed to leave that time completing both projects and then some. It was exhilarating! I did All of The Things! … and then it was time to go home…

How do you keep up a sustainable writing practice when you return from mountain paradise — replete with your collaborator, a wonderful built-in community, and a buffet where the grapefruit is already peeled — to the many quotidian things that steal time from your already busy day? I was worried. But, I’ve managed to keep up writing on a five-day-a-week basis since I have been home and back to Real Life. Here’s how:

1) Gain momentum: I left the retreat with real, tangible writing momentum. Projects had been completed. That felt amazing … and it made me want more.

2) Make a plan, and make that plan public: I know myself. My best-laid writing plans get thrown down over the puddle so that all the other things that need doing can walk over them and keep their feet dry. I needed help, I needed someone or something to keep me honest. So I asked my collaborator, who is also a trusted friend and colleague for help, and together we came up with a plan. We both have long-term projects that are easily put aside. The deal is this: we write one page of our own projects Monday-Friday. On Saturday we ship the writing off to the other person. See? Proof. I did it! We check in on each other, encourage one another to make the time to write, and we remind each other that it is both important and valuable to take our own work seriously enough to make time for it.

3) Check in: Whether you’re able to find a friend or form a group, if you’re aiming to develop a sustainable writing practice make sure you establish contingency plans. What happens if you miss a day (and you will)? What happens when you need to do more research, or you’re in the editing phase? Things will come up. Knowing how you’re going to deal with blips in the routine means you aren’t as prone to getting derailed and disheartened.

4) Do it: The most sustainable practice I have in my life thus far is my yoga practice. There was a time where the idea of getting out of bed at 5:30am was not only inconceivable to me, it was laughable. Now I do it five days a week because it keeps me level-headed. Sure, it takes sacrifice and dedication from me, and from my partner who has shifted his schedule to match mine a bit more. And it is not always fun. Some mornings I can hardly face the idea of dragging myself out of bed to get to the studio, but when I do it usually feels fantastic. Even when practice is horrible, there is the fact that I’ve done it. Shri K. Pattabhi Jois (the main teacher of the style of yoga I practice) was often quoted saying, “Do your practice, all is coming.” Writing, I am finally learning, is like that too.

7 thoughts on “Stealing Time: How I am Finally Developing a Sustainable Practice

  1. Amazing, Erin: What an inspiring post! It's 5:45am in Ontario, and I've got up super early to see if *I* can squeeze in some writing time. I feel like I've been spinning my wheels for months, no matter how much good advice I give to others, not matter how strong my “desire” to get back to my book …

    Well. I'm turning off the internet now, to build some momentum.

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  2. @ A: The most important part for me — in terms of momentum at least — is the acknowledgement and encouragement my collaborator gives me. So! Here's some for you: you can do it! Indeed, much of my thinking about developing a regular writing practice has come from your encouragements in your posts. Go, Aimee, go! xxoo

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  3. Thanks for this! I am very happy to have found this community and your blog (via Kit on Facebook). I have chronic writing problems to the point where the summer, which should be the productive time (no teaching) ends up being my least productive and most stressful time….I need to find a motivating collaborator but then I will put your plan into action. It is great. thanks.

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  4. What a timely post for me. I am having the same stumbling blocks to writing things I need to be writing. One thing I always find time for, however, is writing my own blog posts about how little writing I do. Thank you for sharing.

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  5. This is a very inspiring post, Erin. I had a very similar experience this summer. I went away on a self-imposed writing retreat with a dear friend and fellow dissertation-writer. We spent a month in blissful semi-isolation, breaking up writing and researching with lake swims, dock yoga, and the preparation of truly epic salads. It was relaxing, rejuvenating, and productive, which are three words that so rarely go together.

    Back in the city, however, I have found it remarkably difficult to maintain that momentum. The siren call of the internet, the newly discovered black-hole of time that is course preparation, all the meetings and emails and stresses that arrive with the new semester, not to mention the time that is lost when your world expands beyond about an acre of lake front. I am encouraged by this post to take a step back and see what of that wondrous time-out-of-time I can bring into my daily life.

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  6. Just. Keep. Writing. I think the idea of a page per day is lovely. Jo VanEvry has her Monday “date with your writing” group, which is another way to structure it.
    I've been reading a works about the writing process from non-academic writers (_Writing Down the Bones_ and _Bird by Bird_ and _On Writing_). I find the advice just to get some sort of crap down on paper and work through it later to be the reminder I need. My thoughts do not have to emerge from my head fully formed, though I think it would be great if they did. We tinker with lesson plans, meeting agendas, even conference papers–but I, at least, struggle with the notion that the writing has to be GOOD to be worth my time. But spending my time is what will make it good.

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  7. Thank you for this, Erin! So inspiring. You are amazing, and I'm still so happy I got to see you after your Banff adventure!

    I love the idea of a “writing practice.” Not just a writing routine. A writing practice.

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