another advice post on writing productivity

June 8, 2009

When I started this blog, it was hard to know what the audience would turn out to be. But within a few weeks, it became clear that a large portion of the audience was here for the “advice” posts, primarily struggling graduate students. I’ve been there, and can fully identify with that demographic category, and am glad to help.

Here’s a message I just received…

“Congrats on signing the deal for Circus Philosophicus! Am I remembering correctly that this is the third book you’re writing this summer along with Orpheus and L’Objet Quadruple? And I thought I had a heavy workload! I know you’ve said before that as you write more, you write more in the sense that you are asked to write more and don’t want to turn people down but how do you find time to do all of this along with your new promotion, plus working on essays and articles too (I know for example that you’ve been working on your piece for The
Speculative Turn, and can’t imagine how many other pieces you’re working on simultaneously)? It just seems like there wouldn’t be enough time in the day! Do you have a schedule that you adhere to or what? This is something I’ve been wondering for a while when it comes to prolific writers, like, do other aspects of your life get put on hold when you work at that pace or is it a question of simply working better (i.e. less false starts and pieces you become unhappy with,
etc) or what?”

Actually, what’s happening is that Orpheus is getting pushed back by half a year, because I will also probably be writing a short work on Meillassoux. So… in the summer I’m writing L’objet quadruple, in the fall I’m writing Circus Philosophicus, and in the spring I’m either doubling the length of L’objet quadruple (if the French say yes on the matching grant) or polishing off the Meillassoux book. There will also probably be a co-authored book of “advice posts” with a prominent blogger, but I’ll say that later.

And yes, I also have the administrative post now, and am teaching a bit. And no, I don’t just have a boring, monkish, workaholic life (though I probably could use a bit more fun). So, the questions still stand.

Just to give the usual disclaimer… I was not a happy graduate student. For the most part I hated grad school, was ready to ditch the profession immediately upon completing the Ph.D., was carrying tons of incompletes for several years, and writing papers was for me like pulling teeth. I’ve managed to flip most of those negatives into positives, but I feel like it was by the skin of my teeth, so whenever I give advice it’s not presumption, but more like “near-death tales of a survivor.”

Some of it was the pure good luck of ending up in Egypt. For a variety of reasons, it was the right place at the right time for me– interesting job in an exotic place, close to other travel options, sunny climate, and an outgoing populace that can cheer you up just because there’s a cheerfulness to them rather than the morbidly introspective personality type that most Anglo-American graduate students veer toward.

My feeling is that you have to shake those character traits by your early 30’s, or you’ll probably never master them. Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that… You can master them at a later age, but not in a way that is compatible with academic productivity. Maybe you’ll stop being self-defeating and morbid at 45 by opening a restaurant or greenhouse and finding yourself that way. But if you want to be a productive academic writer, you need to ditch the self-flagellating procrastinator costume once it has departed from its justifiable era, which is primarily in one’s 20’s. There’s no shame in being Angst-ridden and dilatory at 25 or even 28 (people who totally have their act together at 28 are often just cookie-cutter teacher’s pets; the people with real spark are often masochistically self-destructive up to a certain age). But if you’re still that way at 35, you have problems. And if still that way when nearing 40, I for one will write you off. The time to kick the bad habits for good is in your early 30’s, at least in the humanities.

Up through 2005 I was doing pretty well… Two books out that I am still happy with, and apparently (and actually) headed for tenure at a fascinating job that I still enjoy. But my “always finishing a book or article” lifestyle didn’t really get going until about three years ago, and it’s not too hard to see why. The writer alludes to it in the paragraph above, and Levi discussed this quite eloquently on his own blog. As Levi said: “the more you write, the more you will write.”

To repeat something I’ve said many times before, if Derrida and Zizek write 10 times more than you, it’s not because they work 10 times harder, but because they are (at least) 10 times as famous as you are. Derrida and Zizek did/do not sit at home writing articles for their own sake, then sending them all off to refereed journals and awaiting a response. They may do that now and then, but most of their pieces are the result of invitations. And this feeds on itself, because more and more people will go to them asking them to submit articles.

The bigger your reputation becomes, the more invitations you get. The more invitations you get, the more lectures you have to write (because you don’t want to let anyone down). The more lectures you write, the more you think: “I worked so hard on this, why should it stay unpublished? I’ll change it into an article this weekend.” Now, I’m obviously not in Derrida/Zizek territory, but there’s literally not a month that goes by where I’m not asked to speak somewhere or write a book or article of some sort.

For those who are still stuck in the self-torturing masochism of the grad school persona, high productivity can seem suspect. “It takes me so long to finish one article, how can these people be churning out so many? They must be cutting corners.” But they’re actually not cutting corners. They’re just adopting a different attitude toward their work. Instead of thinking of yourself as a young warrior initiate on some gruelling hunt or vision quest, where the lion is so painfully difficult to slay that it would feel like cheating if it took less than a few years (heavily male images, I know, but I can’t completely jump out of my own self)… instead of that… I for one think of it as architecture.

The last time I made this analogy, a good-natured architect wrote in laughing and saying that I give architects too much credit. Well, I don’t know about that. But what I like about that profession is that you have to build things, and each project has its own specific parameters that need to be met. What makes it relatively easy for me to write articles and lectures compared with before? Easy: I’ve learned to let each situation do much of the writing for me.

Here’s what I mean… The masochistic grad student attitude is that heroic force is needed to generate each sentence ex nihilo. (At least that’s how it was for me.) But in fact, most of writing boils down to organization, which is why I always say that Outline is All. If you have a good enough outline, it’s already written. And don’t think you’re not being original when you focus on the outline, because no two people ever break down a subject into precisely the same parts. We’re most original when we’re not trying to be original, but simply saying the things we really believe. (It takes a lot of work to find out what we really believe, because much human debate involves posturing rather than genuine individual beliefs, and this can confuse us as to what is real and what is posturing.)

That attitude helps the act of writing immensely. Because instead of this false idea that you’re a floating cogito thinking pure thoughts apart from the corruptions of matter, you come to realize that most development occurs on the outside rather than the inside. I’ve said it before on this blog… What if, instead of publishing Tool-Being in 2002, I had kept on tinkering with it until 2009. Would it be even better than the 2002 version?

No. That was the right time to publish it. For one thing, I wouldn’t have a job right now if I hadn’t published it, and we shouldn’t sneer at purely practical considerations like that, because they often point to realities rather than to the bureaucratic corruptions of an imperfect world. (It’s perfectly reasonable to me if a university expects you to have something to show for your time after 5 or 6 years.)

But furthermore, what would I really have gained from sitting around for 7 extra years with Tool-Being, nitpicking it to death and snapping angrily at others who were going faster than I was? I learned a lot from publishing it and having readers. You learn to build by building. With writing, you not only learn to write by writing– you learn to write by publishing. You have to escape the sick interiority of the neurotic relation to written language, and start to see it as something that has to communicate with other people.

So, I learned to write partly by copying models. (Lingis was and still is the greatest and hardest working literary talent I’ve ever personally met.) I also learned it partly from sportswriting, because there you don’t have the freedom to jerk around with self-reflexive jargon; you have to capture the interest of an audience. I learned it partly from writing voluminous amounts of correspondence, and there too you have pressure to keep people interested. If my most productive writing in the late 1990’s was sports articles, my most productive writing in the early 2000’s was circular letters to friends and family about Egypt and the new things I was seeing here every day. An old lost friend just wrote recently for the first time in 8 years and said my 2000-01 Cairo e-mails were “moving,” and I guess I hadn’t thought about those letters in awhile. They helped me come to terms with what I was seeing in Egypt, and also helped distant friends and family share the experience. The point is: it was always communication, never pretentious attempts to look like an intellectual, which is what long, drawn-out dissertation writing can tempt you to do.

It looks like there are 355 long messages/essays about my travels since coming to Cairo. Blogging now eats up that same energy. Public writing is good. It is healthy. There are many self-defeating alternatives, one of which was recently mocked by a very intelligent friend as “the idea of great, heroic, conceptual labor which can only be undertaken by rugged males in conditions of terrible solitude.” Yeah, I remember that phase too, at about age 25. It’s respectable then, but becomes ridiculous and self-defeating if you’re still there at 35. It means you don’t have anything done yet, because it’s hard to finish much of anything when in that mindset.

All that matters is that you are always trying to externalize. This is a learned skill for me, and hard-won. I feel naturally like a terrible introvert. And yet everyone is always giving me the exact opposite feedback on that point (at least since about 1999, which not coincidentally is when I finally buckled down and finished the dissertation). I think the reason people call me outgoing is because I have to work so hard at it– a lot of energy is going into it constantly, because I remember too well what one can backslide into if constant forward motion is not underway. And forward motion occurs, primarily, through connection. This may be communication with other people. It may be working on some small but useful task. It may be a constant openness to new influences. It may be travelling to new places to connect place names with definite mental images.

The same friend cited earlier also warns rightly against “the syndrome of self-justifying procrastination which has blighted [so many people’s] psyches for years… [Some people’s attacks are] based on the idea that anything produced quickly and publicly [must] be cheap populism. [They are] always trying to reproduce in others the conditions of demotivating, antiproductive anxiety that hold sway in graduate schools – procrastinate, always procrastinate, and everything will be redeemed in the end by the coming of the Masterwork (which is always on the verge of arriving).”

Avoid the people who try to reproduce those conditions of demotivating, antiproductive anxiety. Sometimes, I even make a point of attacking them. As some of you will have seen on this blog, I am always at my harshest and meanest when confronted with blood-sucking spoilsports who want to drag everyone else into their self-defeating, procrastinating oneupmanship. They have to be treated like public enemies worthy of the guillotine, because it is so easy for anyone and everyone to go down with them.

The opposite personality type, the type that actually invests its libido in genuine positive things, is so precious and rare that it needs to be protected from the sneers of the sucker punchers and spitwad launchers (who are never getting anything done, just showing their supposed superior rigor through their refusal to publish anything short of the great “Masterwork” referred to above, and which of course they never achieve; if you want to get to a Masterwork someday, you will have to get there in stages– Baudelaire wrote about this beautifully, as did the “Billy Ray Wrote A Song” tune cited recently on this blog).

There were two other practical questions in the original message from the reader:

1. “How do you juggle so many projects at once?” Just by taking them one at a time. You can’t write them all at once, and you don’t have to. Each one you write will give you new speed and energy for finishing the next one, just as space probes use the gravity of one planet to get to the next.

More concretely, I have to write my Croatia lecture. Then I have to write the book for the French market. Then I have a lecture to write for Manchester. Then the unwritten parts of Circus Philosophicus. Then a lecture to write for Maastricht. If there’s free time, a few more can get thrown in somehow. The reason this causes no panic is because I look at them like buildings that have been commissioned, each with its own ground rules and “budget.” They are practical problems. So then, someone will ask, isn’t it a bore to lose all the romance and mystery of it by turning them into practical problems? No, because the romance and mystery for me are in the subject matter— and my philosophical subject matter is ghostly, withdrawn entities barely able to influence one another at all. The supreme danger comes from placing the romance and mystery in the writing process itself. NO! That must be ruthlessly practical, like the carpenter’s craft. Do not accept any mystification of the writing process itself. On that point I am an absolute eliminativist.

2. “Do other parts of your life suffer?” The short answer is no, the long answer is yes. Let me give both versions.

The short answer: No, the rest of my life doesn’t suffer. I simply don’t waste time. I do not socialize casually. I get enough of that by being outgoing when I happen to be on campus. There’s always plenty of time for students, colleagues, staff members. But once I leave campus, I’m fairly ruthless about not wasting time. Casual chitchat is not of interest to me. I have to be connecting with someone on some sort of level, or it’s time to call an end to it. That’s another rule I’m fairly ruthless about. Also, television doesn’t interest me, so I don’t lose a minute to it.

The long answer: Yes, the rest of my life does suffer. But only if I fail to manage it properly. As soon as you commit yourself to the idea that productivity = health = good, there is always the danger of overdoing it. So, for instance, someone wanted me to go out in a foursome as a belated birthday event a few weeks ago. I was so intensely committed to getting the first half of a certain article done exactly on Saturday rather than Sunday that I first refused the invitation. And that was stupid, as well as a bit unfriendly. Luckily, I was talked into it, had a fantastic time, and came back totally refreshed. But Schopenhauer already understood this… You should only rarely turn down a social invitation in order to work, because social interactions generally give you more food for thought than actual working does. The problem isn’t social life– the problem is when people artificially try to produce gratuitous social life as an escape from something else. But the opposite is also something you have to manage. Workaholism is a degenerate form of productivity. It’s a constant risk for me, but it’s a far sight better (and less dangerous) than the opposite risk.

In short… the more externalized your intellectual work is, the healthier it will feel, and the easier it will be to get more of it done as an everyday matter instead of following the excruciating and faux-heroic monastic methods of self-crucifying grandeur.

Also, accepting positions of authority is not some secondary “political” sphere as opposed to a monastic “intellectual” one. Both belong to a single genus: activity with consequences. And that’s why I love my administrative post. Sure, I could say “by examining all of the faculty research grant proposals yesterday, I lost 5.3 hours that could have gone into my own research.” The fact is, it’s inherently rewarding to do work that has practical consequences for others and for the University as a whole. It makes me a sharper and happier thinker, and prevents any possible regression into the absolutely sicko mentality I had toward intellectual work 15 or so years ago. It’s forgivable then, but would be hopeless now. I’m glad the woods are behind me, but they weren’t behind me when I was your age. Don’t worry; there is still time to get out of them, but you’d better get started pretty soon.

A final nice remark that I heard just before taking this job came from the Vice Provost himself: “If you want something done, ask a busy person.”

Also, this post is an example of what I’m talking about… 3,080 words, or about 9 double-spaced pages, written very quickly. It’s a good sort of writing to do, and becomes easier with age and practice. But you have to start thinking like a builder, not like a monk on a holy quest.

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