Neelofer Qadir will receive her PhD in English in May 2019 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Currently, she is a Research Associate at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center. Follow her on twitter @_neelofer and check out her website.
Having just defended my dissertation means that the last few weeks have seen a significant down shift in writing time. Still, I don’t want to lose the groove I’ve established. Writing about writing has allowed me even more space for reflection. Finding a sustainable writing practice during graduate school, for me, has required all hands to come on deck and, in fact, involved breaking a lot of habits (binge writing, though it still happens) and changing my lifestyle (getting up early despite being a thru and thru night owl; working from home rather than in cafes).
When I’m not hurtling toward a major deadline, I find two hours to be the sweet spot and, I rely on the pomodoro method in part to stay focused and in part to stretch my neck, shoulders, and wrists. The most challenging part of this routine has been realizing that I need buffer time from when I first wake up to when I sit down to write but not too much or not too little; it has to be just right, like Goldilocks. So, I take my dog for a morning meander that lasts somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes. Then, I make coffee, including freshly and manually grinding the beans. Something about that method — the gears literally grinding — helps me wind up my own thinking and writing practice.
When I was working for 8, or 10 hours in consecutive days last December, I found it useful to devote mornings to writing new prose and the afternoons to editing (see photo below of how I cut up my chapters when editing). And, then, it was crucial to call it a day a couple of hours before bedtime because that transition between work time and not work time is the only way to preserve decent sleep.
The sound accompaniment to my dissertation included near daily listening of Vijay Iyer’s Tirtha (featuring Nitin Mitta and Prasanna), Teju Cole’s “más al sur” playlist, and selections from Spotify’s pre-made playlists, such as Lo-Fi Beats and Gold Instrumental Beats. I also occasionally jam to my workout playlists because sometimes the BPM that one (read: me) needs for the gym syncs up with what the writing life calls for.
[Photos by Neelofer Qadir]
Following up on my last article in which I spoke with nine solo writers, I’m sharing outtakes of what a typical writing day might look like for five of them.
Kate Litterer, PhD candidate in rhetoric
Kate made a radical shift in her writing practice when she began experiencing debilitating pain, which is now a chronic condition that she manages both through lifestyle changes and other therapies. She wanted to highlight the mantras that motivate and inspire her as well as focus on working in small chunks and taking breaks focused on improving mobility.
Like, many of the folks I talked with, Kate is a morning writer. Up by 7am, her morning routine involves a solid stretch and breakfast before sitting down to write (typically by 8am). She begins each morning writing sessions of three pomodoros (25 minutes to work, 5 to stretch) by writing three goals for that day’s dissertation work in a journal and will return to these to wrap up the session. After this roughly 2 hour commitment, Kate tells me that she gives herself permission not to work on the dissertation for the rest of the day. The rest of her work day involves appointments, teaching, and/or administrative duties for her other work obligations.
[Photos by Kate Litterer]
Saumya Lal, PhD candidate in literature
While Saumya doesn’t have rituals for beginning and ending her work session, a regular writing time is a must. Her ideal writing space is a quiet office with a few key requirements, such as easy access to the library, an electric kettle, and a microwave. While there’s a minimalist structure at work in the environment, the pictures she shared with me include several images of work in progress on unlined paper. Saumya told me, “in the pre- and post-drafting stages of my writing, for which I always use pen and paper; unlined paper seems to work better for me — I feel freer to jot down ideas in non-linear ways and make connections using arrows.” And, like Kate, Saumya keeps some inspiration nearby—a portrait of Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy, as her desktop image.
[Photos by Saumya Lal]
Leslie Leonard, PhD student in literature
When I first interviewed Leslie about her writing practice, she told me that a part of why she writes alone is that “Writing can be a very physical process that just doesn’t seem to work well
with a group setting.” Her ideal work space, then, shouldn’t surprise: “In a perfect world I would have a quiet, lamp-lit, windowless office all to myself with no distractions and a dedicated computer that I only use for work.” But, this is not yet her reality. Indeed, her current space is exactly the opposite: sunny, messy, and a laptop that’s for both work and play.
She shuffles through a few Spotify playlists while writing, but not so much for the music itself. She says the sounds fade a minute or two after she begins reading, or writing. Often, an energy drink or coffee accompanies this process, though Leslie says, “I don’t get much of a caffeine high anymore.” As she rounds the corner from exams, she’s hoping and planning “to enforce a clearer boundary between work time and not-work time.”
[Photo by Jeremiah Williams]
Maryam Fatima, PhD candidate in comparative literature
As a new parent, Maryam has been once again re-evaluating and re-configuring what writing time, tasks, and spaces look like. For much of graduate school, she worked from home. It allowed her, for instance, to save money and split up the writing time with household tasks: “chores could organically incorporated into my daily routine. Besides, it’s cheaper than working at a coffee shop.” But as sustained writing at home has become untenable with a newborn, Maryam finds herself at the library for “serious” writing and catching snatches of work time at home.
Yet, it seems as if one of the practices she used to train herself away from binge writing continues to be useful. She told me that she likes to make a writing map at the beginning of each year. The year’s goals are then broken up into seasonal/semester goals, then further broken down into monthly and weekly goals. “Tackl[ing] days and weeks … ensures that I am cognizant of the million tiny tasks and the tedious process that goes into the final written work.” It’s precisely that combination of “tiny and tedious” that kept Maryam afloat last week. She told me, “The only ‘writing’ I’ve managed this week was tracking down this rare manuscript (pictured right), scanning it, and writing a research proposal based on it. The image on the left captures what writing has been like since my child was born — catching minutes between his feeds and naps.” But, as readers can likely glean, what Maryam makes small above is actually significant work that will help her maintain momentum in this inevitable mid-semester malaise that many of us are currently working through.
[Photos by Maryam Fatima]
Sean Gordon, PhD candidate in literature
In addition to being morning writers for the most part, these solo writers also seem to privilege writing from home (though not exclusively, of course). Sean told me that he writes daily in the mornings from home, some times for “just an hour or two, but usually I need more time because I write very slowly.” He says this process of writing hasn’t changed much for him in the duration of graduate school, but his attitude toward writing has. These days, he’s far more realistic about how much time it takes to write.
The tools, then, include a big surface upon which books and other things can be spread out, music for the rhythm it lends to writing, and coffee because “in giving me something else for my body to do, I’m better able to focus on the sentences.” The images Sean shared with me include a collection of pressed flowers, an index card on which the sentence, “Abolition is the answer” repeats, and a stack of books driving the current chapter he’s working on. As far as big surfaces go, I suppose a friendly dog counts as one from time to time as well. He told me about three songs that are currently giving his writing life:
“Pray” by Duendita — “a slow jam that gets you moving and inspires love for the world (lol)”
“thank u, next” by Ariana Grande — “appreciating what you’ve learned from relationships even after they’re over or you’ve moved on, a very fitting attitude to have toward chapters”
“Sleepwalkin” by Better Oblivion Community Center — “a good, cathartic, rock song to close out a long day of writing”
[Photos by Sean Gordon]
What do your writing spaces, rhythms, and practices look like? Which songs keep your writing flowing? Share with us in the comments.
[Header photo by Flickr user nathaninsandiego used under a Creative Commons license.]