Advice From an Outlaw Writer

You don't have to follow the traditional advice to improve and enjoy your writing, says Jane Ward.

March 4, 2016
 

Everything that I have ever read about having a successful writing practice would suggest that I am doing it wrong. For example, I don’t write every day; in fact I often go for months without writing. I don’t write in my office on the campus like many of my colleagues, nor do I write in my home or at cafés.

And yet, I write. I have written two books and enough articles and chapters to advance through the University of California system at a nice clip. So in case you’re looking for a new writing system, I humbly offer my own to try. It has three principles:

1. Binge write. When I was in graduate school, a visiting feminist scholar gave some advice to the students in attendance at a lecture. She walked over to the corner of the room where the grad students had clustered, leaned toward us and stated in a reverent whisper, “A word of advice. Create a sacred writing space in your home, and no matter what, sit there for one hour every day. It doesn’t matter what you write, as long as you write. And if you do this, writing will become your habit, and you will do well.” I swear I think she winked at us after making this comment, as if she’d given us an insider-trading trip. We nodded with gratitude and admiration.

But guess what? I tried her plan, and it was an epic failure -- a miserable mess. As the days began to mount when I was too busy, too tired, too sick, too in love or just too distracted, I felt like a complete loser for not sitting at my desk to write. I began to utterly dread writing. And when I did write, I would spend hours writing a single page because I resented that I was writing in the first place. Worse still, I did not even know there could be another way of writing, so I assumed I disliked the entire enterprise.

After years of trial and error, it became clear that my weekdays, my home and my office are filled with so much distraction that they are not at all conducive to writing. I needed another way, my own way, and that is how I discovered that I write most productively and easefully when I am far away from my home and from the campus, left alone to be immersed in writing for days at a time.

I now write only while I am on a solo writing retreat, which basically means that I stay at a friend’s or family member’s home while they are on vacation, or I rent a modest cabin in the desert or the woods. I take about four of these retreats per year to “binge write” for two to five days. My partner and our family and friends take care of our child while I am gone. I take a bunch of good food and my laptop, and I write from morning until night with a few breaks for walks and stretching. With no interruptions and the opportunity to write for as long and as late as I want (a luxury if you have children), I can typically draft an article or chapter over the course of one retreat. I wrote my last book, Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, over the course of six writing retreats. I wrote with wild abandon, and every minute was a pleasure. Of course in between writing retreats I do research, take notes as ideas emerge and receive feedback from colleagues. All of this goes into a file, waiting for my next writing adventure.

I recognize that not everyone can afford to leave town for a few days; writers who are single parents, caregivers and/or don’t have the ability to pay for child care may find it more challenging. But if a grandparent or friend can take over while you are gone, it can also be a tremendous relief to be freed of pressure to write daily.

2. Identify as a writer. A few years ago, I was eating lunch at a restaurant in Los Angeles when a woman came up to me and said, “Excuse me, are you a writer? I think I recognize you.”

“No,” I quickly corrected her, “I’m a professor at UC Riverside.”

The woman went on to explain that she had read my blog, Feminist Pigs, and recognized me from a photo that I had posted. Indeed, I was the writer she knew. But why had I immediately denied my status as a writer? I have been writing for years and it constitutes the bulk of my time. Yet, somehow I was trained in graduate school to relate to academic writing as the straightforward vessel that carries my data and an obligatory and ancillary part of what I do. I had subconsciously decided that because I don’t write novels or memoirs or screenplays, I am not a professional writer.

Following that encounter in the restaurant, I made the decision to perceive myself as a legitimate writer, and that decision has changed everything. I joined an eclectic writing group that includes a couple of other academics, as well as some fiction writers and poets. I started to think not only about my arguments and evidence but also about tone, voice, point of view, rhythm and accessibility. Identifying as a professional writer has helped me to make some stronger boundaries with the service and teaching obligations to which my university, at the end of the day, assigns far less value than the quantity of my publications. Becoming a writer also meant that I would take my own writing seriously. I would see that my writing retreats were not luxuries, but necessary tools to accomplish my work.

3. Ignore your colleagues’ professional anxieties. Have you ever been walking across campus having a great day when suddenly you come face-to-face with a colleague’s academic anxiety disease, tenure-track stress disorder or some other anxiety disorder distinct to academics? Perhaps you were feeling pretty good about your chances for tenure, or the length of your CV or the progress of your writing, but then you run into that tortured colleague who dumps a mountain of anxieties on you. They tell you about so-and-so who didn’t get tenure or about how they haven’t slept for days because they have been writing 10 grant proposals, five papers and two books.

My advice: breathe deeply, wish them love and light, back away quickly, and forget everything they’ve said. It’s a sad state of affairs that the academy is home to so many tortured and competitive people, and the reasons for this deserve their own post. But for now, suffice it to say that if you don’t already have academic’s anxiety, please don’t feel as though you need to develop it in order to be a productive writer. No one knows your writing practice like you do, and no two people relate to writing in the same way. Whether you write at your desk for one hour every day, write in the woods four times a year or do something altogether different, I think the goal should be to enjoy your writing.

Bio

Jane Ward is an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at University of California at Riverside, where she teaches courses in feminist, queer and heterosexuality studies. She is the author of Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men (New York University Press, 2015) and Respectably Queer: Diversity Culture in LGBT Activist Organizations (Vanderbilt University Press, 2008). She is the blogger for Feminist Pigs and co-founder of the social science blog Social (in)Queery. She lives in Altadena, Calif., with her comrade Kat Ross and their kiddo.

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