I signed up for Academic Writing Month soon after it started. I hoped that it would help get me into some good writing habits. Plus, I needed to get my MPhil upgrade document written (a 10-15,000 word extended research proposal for my PhD). I promised to spend the first two hours of every morning focused solely on writing tasks (including reading, note-taking and planning) and to write 500 words a day without worrying too much about whether those words were good enough or would make it into my final draft. I went public with this pledge on twitter and on the shared accountability spreadsheet. I was hoping that I would develop some good habits so writing every morning became something I didn’t have to think about, and to get a better idea of how long it really takes me to do something. Because I often find myself flicking between several things at once, it’s hard to know how long any one task would really take me, and as a result I often drastically underestimate it.
I haven’t stuck to my goals – even slightly. And I haven’t participated in the community aspect either. I peer through my fingers at the #acwrimo twitter stream with a mixture of guilt at not participating more, and jealousy of others’ success. Public accountability is a big part of #acwrimo, but because I don’t actually know anyone else involved it doesn’t feel that real: If I don’t keep up my promise, no one except me will know or care. But while public accountability can be incredibly motivating (for some people), having fallen behind with my aims, I feel like I need to achieve something worth sharing before I can start participating again. And with each day that passes, it feels like the something needs to be even bigger to justify my re-entry.
The Thesis Whisperer describes her concerns about #acwrimo feeding in to an academic culture built on an unhealthy obsession with urgency, productivity and performance metrics that can leave many burnt out. What changed her mind is the ability to set her own goals and targets around her own working patterns – so to write for a period of time rather than produce a set number of words. And PhD2Published, heroically coordinating the twitter chat, emphasise that it should be about finding and extending each individual’s personal best way of writing, not adding to the burden of stress:
Nevertheless, we do seem to consistently compare our negative feelings about low productivity and participation to the seemingly easy positivity we can find on the twitter stream. As Explorations of Style points out, this comparison of our internal feelings to others’ external projections is not just unhelpful but inaccurate, and as academics we should know better. But how do we join in when we feel we haven’t achieved enough to earn our place in the conversation?
It is hard not to focus on numbers of words as the main focus of productivity. They are the visible, almost tangible, evidence that we have accomplished something. Kathleen Fitzpatrick talks about academics’ need for outward and visible signs of productivity, or even stress, as indicators of a state of grace. In a conscious nod to the Catholic church’s description of the sacraments, she describes how the signs of busyness we display come to be equated with our academic moral worth. If you have time for leisure – or sitting around thinking – well then you can’t be busy enough!
This made me think more about how “productivity” potentially requires an audience. To really feel productive, perhaps we need to have our productivity seen by others, and in order to display our productivity, we need tangible things like word counts or other outward and visible signs of busyness. But productivity isn’t the same as work, study or thought. One of the reasons #acwrimo hasn’t worked so well for me this time is I’m just not ready to churn out the words. I’ve been distracted by organising events at work, I’ve been getting to grips with (and getting lost in) a new theoretical perspective I’m still fairly ambivalent about, and it’s been a tough time personally for reasons I won’t go into here.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not making important progress. I need time to read and think, and this is harder to display. I also need time to find a way to think about my work and writing in a way that is more meaningful to me than it has been for a while. The pressure of productivity can mean that this important phase can feel unimportant or lead to guilt about the time it takes – this guilt is inevitably counter-productive because without these foundations, efforts towards productivity remain meaningless and subject to high-risk failures. I’ve also started writing this blog, which could become a source of procrastination, but actually feels important as part of a process of finding a voice and a way of speaking that feels right. The blog title says it all, really: I will continue to fail, as we all will, and that doesn’t really matter. The trick is in carrying on and sometimes managing to fail a bit better. This process I hope will mean that the words that I do write, when I write them, will be words that I think are worth saying.