Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Musings on writing

Courtney has this great post on running and writing where she compares the two and concludes that they are more alike than she thought. She says, “Like writing the novel, running is all about showing up, going further than you think you could, under circumstances you previously never would have considered.” Now that strikes me as absolutely true. I don’t have experience writing a novel, but I do have experience writing a dissertation, and I learned from it that there’s nothing more important than just showing up every day. Or even just showing up most days.

I got through the dissertation one hour at a time. I realized fairly early on that I’m terrible at working long hours on an intellectual task as difficult as scholarly writing, and so I didn’t ask myself to work long hours. I just asked myself to work for one hour, or sometimes even for a half an hour. That worked. Even a pace as slow as 5-7 hours a week will get you a dissertation eventually, and the novelists will probably tell you it will get you a novel too. Now I wasn’t a stellar dissertation-writer, and I took longer to graduate than I should have (I never had to ask for an extension, but that still left me with years and years of time available), but I finished.

I expected that I would have to work long hours at the end; I have the impression that most dissertation-writers have to go through a crazy period where they are frantically making revisions and finishing up that last chapter and furiously hunting down references, but it wasn’t like that for me. I kept working an hour a day, a page or two a day, and I kept doing it and doing it until I reached a point where I didn’t have any more revisions to do and then I stopped. At that point my dissertation advisor and I set a defense date, and then I waited a month to give people time to read things, I defended, and that was that. I did have to add on a short conclusion, something like 8 pages, before I turned in the final copy, but that wasn’t difficult. It was rather anti-climactic, really. I was writing an hour a day and then I wasn’t. Simple as that.

Actually, what happened is that my hour of dissertation work a day became my hour of blogging a day.

As I was writing I kept cycling and backpacking metaphors in my head. Showing up at my computer for my hour of writing was like taking a ride. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but take enough rides, and at the end of the year, you’ll have ridden something extraordinary like thousands of miles. Or it’s like a day of backpacking. One day’s walk doesn’t get you very far. But walk every day, and you can walk the entire Appalachian Trail, from George to Maine, and you’ll finish in a matter of months. You’re not doing anything extraordinary each day; if you walk 10 miles a day, you can finish the Appalachian Trail in about 7 months. Healthy, able-bodied people can walk 10 miles a day without working too, too hard, especially once you’ve given yourself time to get used to it. Walk at a meager 2-mile-an-hour pace, and it’ll take you 5 hours. Do that every day, and you’ll have walked across a continent.

Similarly, write a page a day, and you’ll have something 365 pages long at the end of a year. And how long does it take to write a page?

Well, okay, sometimes it takes a while to get to the point where you can write a page; certainly I had to do an awful lot of reading before I was ready to write my pages, but even so, when it comes to dissertations if you do an hour of preparation a day, you’ll be ready before you know it. Or if, in writing your novel, you decide you need to discard half your pages, you’re still left with 180 at the end of the year.

So for me, writing is an endurance sport. How about other writers – what metaphors do you use?