• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Keeping Ignorant to Stay Productive

I have some book deadlines coming. I need to forget about them to hit them.

June 15, 2017

I recently got some good news and bad news.

Good news: I sold not one, but two books to publishers. I’ll write more about the specifics another day, but they both draw significantly on the exploration of writing pedagogy I’ve done in this space, and I’m excited for the opportunity to spread the word to different and wider audiences.

The bad news: Both books were sold on proposals so I now have to write the actual books.

No, that’s also good news, but the challenge is significant. One manuscript is due in October, the other in December, and while both books were underway prior to being sold, and I have a (knock on wood) spotless record of meeting manuscript deadlines so far, I also recognize a (for now) low grade anxiety over the tasks ahead that will likely intensify as the deadlines approach.

To finish on time while also maintaining my other obligations – professional and otherwise – I’ll have to be “productive.”

How to be productive has me thinking about the line between accountability and surveillance, and how to maintain the kind of freedom necessary to do my best work.

If I focus too much on being “productive” I will lose the intrinsic drive that led me to pursue these projects with only a hope – but no guarantee – of publication. The books are the product of my own curiosity about how best to teach writing, a problem I assigned myself that was attached to no specific outside incentive. It wasn’t part of my instructional duties. Other than when my thinking spilled into this blog, the work was almost entirely hidden from the rest of the world.

I gotta tell you, it was great. It reminded me that freedom really is a necessary condition for learning and discovery. Having no one to monitor or judge me was a necessary condition or these projects to come out. I spent almost a year conceiving and working on the proposals for the manuscripts, imagining the books they could be. This also provided me the time to come to believe in my own “expertise” as a voice in the field. Not being a proper academic and having no institutional authority behind me, I had to convince myself that I could take these ideas into the world and find success. For the period of time during which these projects were failures – meaning non-existent – no one had to know.

But now, as they say, failure is not an option. Not only have I pledged the  manuscripts to the publishers, the books are also a source of current income with the potential (however slight) of additional future income over the course of years.

I’m making myself more anxious just thinking about it. Attaching stakes to the work has suddenly made it harder to do the work, even as the work must get done. My students have expressed similar sentiments about grades and deadlines. Most students express that deadlines of some kind are necessary, otherwise, they might not finish anything. At the same time, I have many students lament how school makes them “finish” things without allowing them to take the projects to completion. I tell them that they can always work on something more once the class is over, but they look at me like I’ve lost my mind. School privileges schooling, not learning. Any time spent on a project already graded is for fools, no matter how strongly it might call.

I’ve considered different mechanisms for accountability: a writing buddy, public posting of word counts, systems of reward and punishment. My wife has created a kind of community surveillance mechanism, telling all our friends and family that I’ve sold these books and I’m under a deadline and so every time they see me they should ask how the books are coming.

I may have to stop leaving the house.

Or responding to email.

The interesting thing is I need none of these things to work on long form projects (as opposed to weekly obligations such as this blog) when they are not subject to deadline. I wrote over 180,000 words last year for various projects that no one has yet seen and may never see. I write all the time when no one is waiting for it.

I write better too in the sense that I give myself permission to do something bold because the stakes of “failure” are low. Accountability and judgment are not necessarily the friends of writing. It is not lost on me that these are the most significant features of writing instruction. What’s my grade? How can I do better? If I had to write with those questions constantly looming over me, I would probably stop writing. For sure, judgment of some kind is inevitable if we are going to write for audiences, but the work itself is better undertaken in a state of ignorance of that fact. I would like to figure out how to make students forget about my existence at the end of their writing journey so they can explore the ideas most meaningful to them.

It is this ignorance that I will be working hard to maintain as I write, the freedom of ignorance that allowed me to create these projects in the first place.

If you ask me how the books are going, my answer is going to be, “What books?”


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