After my last post, somewhere in the maelstrom of fury over my critique of writing while listening to music (:roll:) someone asked me to follow up with some thoughts about switching between my academic writing and creative writing. I’m going to take a stab at that today, and I think it best to think of in 2 ways, one concerned with (again) time management, and the other with a shift in mind set.
Writers are jugglers. They have to be. Whether we’re making their living solely from their scribbling or whether writing is part of a multifaceted professional life, we spend a lot of energy on keeping multiple balls in the air. For some, each ball is a different writing assignment, for others one ball is a novel, while another is a 9-5 job, and another still is some other kind of commitment entirely, family, say, or coaching little league. It’s one thing to juggle projects which are essentially similar (like oranges, say), but it’s quite different to be juggling a novel (the orange) along with tasks which, in our juggling metaphor, feel more like a bowling ball, a sword, and a something big, spiky and on fire. Most of us, whether we have day jobs or not, feel like we’re in that latter category a lot of the time.
As I think I’ve said before, I am not a naturally organized person. My partial solution to all this juggling of dissimilar objects is a brand of compartmentalization. As I am wary of multitasking, so I’m wary of allowing my various tasks to get too close to each other. This is partly because they require different skills, different moods and different approaches. If, during my juggling, I allow my arms to treat the orange and the bowling ball the same way, I’m going to A.) drop something and B.) get hurt. I can’t treat my scholarly writing like I treat my fiction or vice versa.
I recently completed the first draft of a performance history of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I also recently completed the first draft of my latest novel. Both books are about 90,000 words long, but that is where the similarities end. The novel took me a few weeks to outline and about four months to write. The scholarly book took me six months to outline and over three years to write. Is that because the scholarly book is harder work than the novel? No. They are completely different. The outline for the scholarly book took much longer because in order to determine what I was going to write about, I had to do a lot of research into dozens and dozens of different productions. The writing of the book itself took years because I had to study all available evidence (photographs, prompt books, programs, prop archives etc.) from those productions while also going through every available review or article anyone else had written on them in newspapers, magazines, scholarly books and journals. Video records had to be watched in the theatre in which they were shot (as per Equity rules), so the project involved a lot of travel, and since every production had to be placed in context, I also spent a lot of time doing historical work, some of it on countries I knew little about. More than all this, of course, scholarly writing strives for something quite different from fiction. The emphasis is on bringing to light facts and on making coherent, subtle and complex arguments based on those facts.
As MW writers have observed before, research is certainly a part of writing fiction, but its purpose there is quite different from what I was doing. For fiction writers, research is a component of the project, but not the largest piece, even in research-heavy work, and I don’t have to weigh every phrase of my novels for argumentative nuance knowing that other scholars will comb it for things to disagree with. Character and story still rule fiction, and those can be created without any academic research at all, built out of the author’s own psyche and experience. Scholarship is a strictly intellectual endeavor, so emotional and aesthetic concerns usually (not always) get fairly minimal emphasis. All of which is to say that scholarly writing and the creation of fiction are apples and oranges or, to revert to my juggling metaphor, apples and bowling balls.
Since they have to be so different in product, they have to be different in process and can’t be permitted to intertwine, at least not for the kind of work I do. I therefore have to keep them separate, spatially and temporally. I cannot write fiction in my office at school. I’ve tried, but I can’t do it. I can’t switch gears between projects either, doing an hour on a scholarly article, then an hour on my fiction. I need to give myself blocks of time for each, and I usually measure those blocks in weeks rather than hours or days. Yes, I can fiddle and edit in spare moments, but to give my attention to a project properly I have to be able to shut everything else out.
Obviously this does require some planning, though that is often driven for me by deadlines: what’s on the front burner is generally what needs to be finished first. Simple as that. But it will also be driven by my schedule. As I said, I can’t write fiction in my office, and that means that if I know I have to be in school a lot because of my teaching/rehearsal/meeting schedule, I pretty much have to abandon the prospect of getting much creative work done. This is also where giving weeks at a time to one project gets simpossible. I can’t switch minute to minute, but I can just about do it day to day, if I stay on top of it and plan.
If I know I get, say, every Tuesday and Thursday morning at home, I need to be in fiction-writing mode at those times, with ideas ready to go so I can maximize the opportunity when I actually get to write. Those mornings are precious and I set myself specific goals for them (usually 2,500-3,000 words of first draft prose, 80 first pass edited pages, or similar), but the key is often going to bed the night before in the transition, knowing what part of the story I’ll be working on in the morning, shaping scenes or snatches of dialogue in my head long before I start tapping them out at the keyboard. Sometimes it means stepping out of scholarly mode just long enough to leave myself a note or two that I can use when I get back to my fiction. That way I can hit the ground running as soon as I make the switch.
Likewise, to adequately wrestle with the ideas I’m working with in my academic work, I need it to be constantly percolating in my head, and this means extended periods of focus. Whenever I try to dip in briefly, I get nothing done or—worse—write a bit, only to find later that what I have just done is poor, repeats points I’ve made elsewhere, or contradicts my earlier argument. If I really have to go into the project one day and out another, I can, but I get far less done, and it’s much more likely to need a lot of work later. It’s much better to immerse myself in it for a couple of weeks at a time, and put everything else on the backburner.
But, of course, some things don’t do well at the slow, unattended simmer. Family is one of them. I rarely do any kind of writing in the evenings or on weekends. That’s time I keep reserved whenever possible. I may leave myself notes to pick up on Monday, but I try to keep the big stuff for times when I don’t feel distracted by the other balls I have in the air.
Is it ideal, all this hat changing? No. Often I’d dearly like to shelve one of them entirely for a year or more so I can give my full attention to the other, but life—my life at least—doesn’t permit such luxuries. That said, there is truth to the idea that a change is as good as a rest. Breaking from one project to work on another (or, better still, finishing one and switching to another of a different kind) can really invigorate you, stop you from getting bored with a steady stream of similar work. In the end, of course, you find the system that works best for you, the proof of which is decent product generated in a timely fashion. It isn’t easy and, like any other kind of juggling, it takes practice, but with work and focus, you can master it.