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‘Slouching Toward’ Productivity

How novelist Joan Didion teaches us to accelerate our writing output by focusing on the result, not the beginning, of another taxing routine.

February 24, 2019
 
 

Deidra Faye Jackson earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education from the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where she teaches in the Departments of Writing and Rhetoric and Higher Education. You can find her on Twitter at @DeidraJackson11.

I wish that more of us who struggle mightily with engaging in scholarly writing could appreciate the solidarity we share with some of the most prolific and celebrated writers of our time, who also profess to be challenged by blocks and other hindrances to productivity. At one time or another, famous authors such as Maya Angelou, Neil Gaiman, Toni Morrison, and Ernest Hemingway all faced writing barriers and employed their own antidotes to creative paralysis and the psychological inability to write. When our demanding schedules play roles in blocking us from all the writing we’re told that we “should be doing,” I hope we realize that even the most productive writers – if they’ll admit it – face obstructions that too often yield in their own sweet, interminable time.

When it comes to scholarly and research productivity, the immediate message to readers of this post is to consider focusing on the end and not the beginning; concentrate on the aftermath of your hard work (to rev up that motor), and not the difficult beginning of yet another exhausting routine (to avoid stalling out before you’ve begun).

But for many of us, whose varying get-up-and-go’s, motivational writing habits, and emotional responses to looming deadline-days either inspire us or render us immobile, that magic elixir or sure-fire method to boosting our writing productivity is much more elusive. As it has been said, what works for one, may not work for another.

I was reminded recently of work by noted award-winning essayist and novelist Joan Didion when I introduced to my writing comp students her beautiful composition, “On Keeping a Notebook” from her 1968 collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Though the point of having the students read the essay was to extol the virtues of thinking beyond the fogyish 5-paragraph essay, I came away with a compelling message to share about slipping past the blocks that impede our dynamic writing work and becoming more productive scholarly writers and researchers.

Didion, in her essay, seems to provide several reasons for keeping a notebook; however, the least among them, she said, is “to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking.” Recording how she felt during particular moments, simply giving in to impulses to write things down, and staying in touch with the characters and scenes she records, figured among her primary motivations for her consistent chronicling. Likewise, we teach our students to free write and to express their initial informal thoughts before they begin the formal process of crafting a cohesive essay.

First engage in free writing. Again, with eyes on the aftermath – beyond the lead-up to the finish line – write down anything and everything that you perceive to be even remotely related to your topic.

There’s another line in “On Keeping a Notebook” that refers to what she regards as the real reason she retains a journal, and more than any other, it perhaps reveals her comradery with those of us who juggle academic demands with frequent writing responsibilities: “See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is to write – on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be. . .

The writing avoidance; many of us have been there.

After a particularly brutal bout of writer’s block recently, I knew I had to take drastic measures to stave off my own potential disaster in the making as real deadlines threatened in the near horizon. Here’s where I took an existential turn: I imagined that I was someone else who had to assist this person (me) who was struggling to get it together.

It worked.

I was able to lift my writer’s block when I wasn’t fixating on the writer’s block and all that I had to do. I came to the aid of that other person (me) and helped her jumpstart the motor that enabled her to begin and resume her work.

Additionally, Didion in her essay, said she imagined “that the notebook is about other people. . . Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.” Keeping a notebook seemed to inspire her to earnestly anticipate the aftermath, as opposed to engaging in a process. We productive scholars and those who aspire to be, can take away some wisdom – and encouragement – in that.

How do you increase your scholarly productivity? What challenges have you experienced with trying to increase your writing output? Tell us about it in the comments or on Twitter!

[Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash and under the Creative Commons license.]

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