Writing through the pandemic with Ursula K. Le Guin

I spent the early reaches of the spring semester thinking a lot about academic writing. About pursuing an academic career out of a love of writing, and about how joyless academic writing can be. About academic writing reduced to a series of CV-enhancing products, and not as a valuable process in and of itself. Then a pandemic happened.

As cities locked down and universities transitioned effortlessly to virtual instruction/interaction, the online debates about productivity started. Isolation means productivity, Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantined. Short-term productivity is a delusion, worry about securing your home. I sat at home, watching the debate unfurl. I stared at screens and Word docs about as I often as I normally would, but I got less writing done.

I can cope without a pandemic-induced productivity bump. I don’t expect to do my best work at the moment. I might not even advance my dissertation very much. But I would still like to write quite often. I like writing, and I find it grounding. Writing through a pandemic sounds to me less like something you do if you are coping well, and more like a way of coping well.

For writing guidance, I come back time and again to Ursula Le Guin. Perhaps this is because Le Guin can think like a social scientist, but she doesn’t write like one. I want inspiration from someone who takes a blank page and constructs an entire world out of it. Someone who approaches the blank page with a compulsion to create and imagine, instead of imposing the same one template on the page over and again.

In a 1988 interview, reprinted by Melville House, Le Guin sketched out her ideal writing schedule. In trying to write through this pandemic, I am taking cues from this schedule. It probably doesn’t hurt that Le Guin was a colossal introvert, so aside from Zoom meetings her ideal schedule looks quite workable during pandemic-induced isolation. Le Guin’s schedule is not my own ideal schedule, but has got me reflecting on how to build a writing habit that I might just be able to stick to. I have even annotated the original, with five reflections for writing through a pandemic…

One. Writing does not have to take up all your time. Le Guin scheduled as much time for preparing and eating food as for writing. More time for writing is not necessarily better time for writing.

Two. Five hours of writing is a long time. I am not sure that I can do anything very well for this long (I have been working on this section of this post for the past 1.25 hours, and I am flagging fast). I can, however, sometimes trick my brain by writing different things in different ways. Often that means switching from a screen to a pen and a page. Sometimes – not nearly often enough – it means switching from dissertation to reflection, or to fiction.

Three. Reading is not writing, but it helps. Reading widely is pretty essential for all good writers. It is also a great way for a self-doubting academic to pretend that they are writing, or preparing to write, without every committing words to a page. Good reading deserves time of its own, instead of being a prelude to something else. Set aside separate time for reading.

Four. Errands need time, and that time needs to be limited. Le Guin set aside two hours each days for correspondence and household stuff. Two whole hours, and only those two hours. If she’d had an email address in 1988, that probably would have meant two hours in which emails could be sent, and 22 whole hours in which they could not be.

Five. Know when you are stupid and enjoy it. I struggle with this part, and tend to tell myself that any hour of the day could be a good hour for writing. But not all hours are equal, as anyone who has seen me try to sit quietly but wakefully through a meeting or lecture right after lunch will probably know.

If you are one of the lucky ones that hasn’t seen your income decimated by the pandemic, don’t forget to support independent bookstores and publishers.

“Bird by Bird” is not about birds

This is my second year as a writing fellow at CUNY. Afforded a good deal of freedom in the role this year, I have been rooting around for helpful writing resources for students (and for myself). In the fall, several people recommended Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. One of these kind people bought me a copy of the book (get yourself a committee member who buys books for students).

When people recommend Bird by Bird, they often talk about the anecdote that gives the book its title. As a child, Lamott’s brother anguished over a school assignment in which he had to compile a book of birdlife. Lamott’s father (also a writer) provided the sage advice to proceed with the assignment bird by bird. Bird by Bird came recommended for precisely this takeaway message. Academic writing is less daunting when you break it down into small and steady tasks: paragraph by paragraph, bird by bird.

I started reading Bird by Bird during a day off, in the sunny window of a cafe in the Catskills. I started reading without a real sense of how far into it I would get, reminding myself that good academics don’t need to read every page or word.

Lamott has plenty of helpful advice about how to write bird by bird: how to break assignments down into smaller pieces; how to get words out before worrying about getting words right; how to sit down and write steadily at a desk, and how to keep writing when away from it. This is all, I suppose, what I went to the book for, and what I knew I would find there.

From early in the book, however, it struck me that Bird by Bird is not really about birds – not even metaphorical ones. Lamott’s most insistent piece of advice is that writing for the purpose of being published is never satisfying. To find some degree of contentment as a writer, you have to write for the sake of writing, and not for the sake of publishing.

The conversations that I have about academic writing are absolutely never about finding contentment. They are about efficiency, about how to write better for the purposes of finishing a thesis, or bagging a publication. They are about managing time, or managing notes and drafts. They are about the strict and unspoken conventions of academic genres: the course paper, the abstract, the journal article, the statement of interest. I suspect many of us get into academia because we like writing and reading – I certainly did. How long does that passion last, before we start to succumb to the publish or perish logic? Before the process of writing becomes something to get out of the way?

I started reading Bird by Bird out of an interest in being a more efficient writer. In getting more ideas down, and thus getting more publications up. Even my approach to reading the book shows how little we value writing (or reading) as more than a means to an end. I thought I would read what I could in a bit of free time. I figured I would extract some key messages and get onto more important reading. Cover to cover is not proper political science reading.

And yet, if we devalue the writing of our discipline – of our colleagues and mentors – to the point where the abstract, intro and (maybe) conclusion are all we have time for, then how could we ever come to value and esteem our own writing process? It is odd to realize just how little academia values one of the central practices of the vocation. We are trained and socialized into acting as though good writing is about getting published ,and good reading is about not giving too much time to those publications. From this perspective, it is hardly surprising that I rarely hear political scientists express a love of writing (or at least a love of writing political science).

This semester, I am thinking a lot about how to bring passion and contentment back into academic writing. To start with, I am celebrating rough drafts as the freest stage of writing. I am also trying to do as much low stakes writing as possible. The kind of writing that might be good in itself, and not good for what it becomes. I am reading slowly, sometimes cover to cover. The passion hasn’t exactly come flooding back, but that is hardly surprising. The academic conventions that leech the joy out of reading and writing are deeply set. They will not be easy to shift.

After almost two years, an introduction

I started this site and this blog almost two years ago, while conducting preliminary research in Mexico City. The site started out with the briefest of intros, and a “coming soon” research section, and a short post about the importance of on-the-ground research (which was also an expression of how good it felt to finally be on the ground). I slipped a link into my Twitter bio, and that was it. Site launched.

That summer in Mexico was my first return to the country since I had left Guadalajara to move to New York five years earlier. I had passed my comprehensive exams, and had the bones of a dissertation project. Creating a site was my way of telling myself that it was time to be a serious academic: to have a research agenda and a long CV, and to feel comfortable talking about and sharing these. But why the blog?

It took me a while to realize this, but the main point of this blog to capture the processes that won’t show up among the static products on the other pages of this site, or the lines of a CV. Starting my field research in 2017, I knew it would take years (at best) to have any finished, published products to show for all my work. Blogging is a very small way to document my research processes, and also to remind myself that there is far more to writing than just polished, academic pieces.

Documenting my research processes is an important step towards transparency. Researchers do this through codebooks and similar anyway, but I wanted another record of my research, one that can stretch further back and think about why I research the topics that I do (as opposed to just recording how I research them). Conventional political science writing strips away any sense of narrative or discovery to the research process; the results are announced at the beginning of the paper, and then presented as the quite inevitable outcome of theory + data + methods. Research results can be surprising with respect to existing theory, but never with respect to research design. Blogging gives me a way of capturing the constant surprise of discovery, and of narrating all of the messy work that gets left out of more formal academic writing.

This blog is also a way to remind myself to write regularly and imperfectly. Perhaps to think imperfectly too; to work through and reflect on the nagging ideas for which I have no clear answers, but which seem too important to leave completely alone. As students we receive plenty of encouragement to write, but also plenty of pressure to produce those final, polished products. As though such products can be downloaded directly from some genius repository in our brains. This blog is my space to muddle through ideas, and to ramble on through paragraphs. And controversially, it is a place from which the passive voice is not necessarily banished.

So after two years, welcome. Among these blog posts you will find anticipations of and reflections on teaching; updates on my progress delving into data; thinkings-through of some of the big theories and conventions in the topics I study; and the occasional reminder of how ludicrously wrong things can go. Thanks for making it through at least one of my posts, and stay tuned for a steady trickle of further ramblings.