Writing all the time, including on the plane

I’ve been telling my grad students that the number one rule of successful conferencing is: don’t write the paper on the plane. Like writing a term paper in the 12 hours before it’s due, when you write the paper on the plane (or some similar frantic timeframe / inappropriate writing location) all you find when you hit the magic right number of words is when you get that sinking feeling in your stomach that you’ve just hit the point where the paper ought to have started?

Yeah. I hate that.

And yet, in the midst of the overbooked semester from hell, I’ve slated myself to deliver two talks on two different coasts of the US two weekends in a row. On two totally different topics. And both times I’ve started the paper two days in advance of flying away, and both times been interrupted by one kind of work crisis or personal crisis (ask me about the bed bug scare of 2014!) and boarded the airplane with the paper uncompleted.

But both papers turned out awesome. It’s not because I’m any better at magicking up 10 pages of new material. It’s because I don’t have to start from zero.

My paper last week was on humour and the representation of trauma in web comics. When I sat down to start writing it, pretty much after I’d already got my suitcase out of the attic, I already had 4700 words of free-writing and textual analysis notes already available to me. So I cut and pasted in a lot of that, then cut out the stuff that wasn’t relevant to the conference theme, and then rewrote it to sound coherent as a paper, and to give the transitions. Then I made the slides at the hotel. I was really, really happy with what I wound up with.

My paper this week is on selfies. I need about 1700 words, and when I left Waterloo this morning, I had a paper that was 400 words long. It had two paragraphs of text and some headings. But I had, again, three different documents full of notes and close readings: on snapchat, on Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, on Dear Photograph, on Selfies at Funerals. So I’m on a patio in LA, copying and pasting, and just moving into cutting and reframing. I’ll do the slides in the morning once the text is finalized. I’ve been collecting images for months, it’s just a matter of picking which ones and putting them in order.

Ideally, I’d like to arrive with printouts, and not read from my computer. But this has been a hell of a term, and the last couple of weeks haven’t been any better. The whole term, though, craziness be damned, I’ve been reading. And I’ve been writing. Every day. Free writing. Jotting down ideas. Tuesday, my husband and I went out to lunch and we were talking about this upcoming paper, and I stopped and sent myself an email about an idea. I have got in the habit of doing that all the time. It’s paying off.

I’m finding that writing “the real thing” is a lot easier when I have a lot of low stakes or no stakes writing just lying around in my Dropbox. And it’s not just the word count, the cutting and pasting of finished prose. It’s more that I’ve obviously been thinking in a daily and active way about the relevant ideas, so that when I put together the formal presentation, I’m really already quite close to done. I’ve had the ideas I need to have, and figured out how they all relate to one another and to the research, which is the hard part.

The last minute happens to all of us. I’m trying my best to get the formal writing done earlier rather than later, even if I’m not really succeeding this month. In any case, though, my daily low-stakes free writing habit makes all of this so much more rewarding, and my work is much better for it, with way less angst on my part. Even when I have to write the paper on the plane.

I mean, I’ve even got time to write a blog post …

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