I am not writing. I have not written for almost two weeks, with the exception of a short conference presentation which was largely based on work I had already done.
I know that in the grand scheme of things, not writing for a couple of weeks is not a big deal. I am not too worried about this not-writing, but it is interesting to be reflecting on it as a way to learn about how I write, and how I am continuing to develop as a writer.
I was able to really notice I haven’t written for a couple of weeks because I actually track my writing. I’ve set a number of writing goals to take me to the start of the next academic year. Some are related to content: I have a specific chapter I’d like to have a finished draft of by the time summer is out, and a conference paper derived from that chapter will need to be ready ahead of delivering it in November. Other goals are numerical, or task-based: I am aiming to have written 15k words by September 30th; I have 2 funding bids to complete by early September (a different kind of writing but writing nonetheless).
The aforementioned 15k words don’t have to be good words or even useful words. This goal setting for me is really is about two things: developing a writing habit, and finding out how long it really takes me to write ‘to task’ (i.e. to finish a chapter, a paper, a presentation etc.)
This knowledge is power, and I can plan my work better going forward. I also nerdily track my time spent on other tasks (as well as my personal finances… and the connection between the two!). All this tracking helps me bring some kind of order into the would-be chaos of the unstructured life of a PG researcher in performance…
Back to the not-writing… what have I learned from two weeks of not writing?
ONE – I know my best writing hours are in the morning. My best work happens when the first thing I do after breakfast is getting down to the tasks that require the most brainpower (writing being quite possibly the most demanding for me). However, knowing this has been somewhat disempowering because I have tricked myself into thinking that morning is the only time, I can write… and that’s not always possible for one reason or another. Moving forward, I need to let go of this ingrained idea and embrace being able to write at other times.
TWO – I am an overthinker. Those of you who know me well might well read this and think ‘No sh*t, Sherlock.’ I’ve always had an inkling I might be an overthinker (you don’t get into academia by accident, do you?!) but I really realised it when during my last meeting with my supervisor I asked her: ‘how does one think? How do I know I am thinking? What does it look like to be doing the thinking?’ Her answer (and light chuckle…): you can’t think about that! And she is right of course, I have spent time over the last couple of weeks thinking about thinking so much that I didn’t let myself actually think…
THREE – Instead of writing, I completed a couple of big tasks which in hindsight needed me to attend to them fully and meant I couldn’t do much else. I had my PhD transfer viva (some other places might call it an annual review or an upgrade). It was a big deal and took a lot of energy to prepare for. I also stepped in to replace a panel member at the last minute at a Human Geography conference. This was only my second formal academic presentation since the start of my PhD and getting your work out to people from an entirely different field is definitely a challenge.
FOUR – Connected to this previous point – I am terrible at knowing when I am actually feeling stressed or under pressure. I seem to present or pass as coping quite well with high stakes situation but it’s actually only a mirage. I think this is part of my survival mechanism and this strong suit serves me well most of the time… but it also means I am not always paying good enough attention to my wellbeing, and it ends up having a knock-on effect on my physical health from all the pretending my mental state is just fine.
FIVE – I had some time off and was totally ok with it. I took a couple of days off to see Janelle Monáe in concert with my friend, and then Rosalía in London with my partner and a friend (we also took advantage of having to go to the capital to do some other touristy things). Those things were really good fun. BUT, they were really short breaks… and, you guessed it, I also track my time off… and my holiday pattern, if you exclude the Christmas/New Year period is to never take more than 4 days off in a row… an often of those four days two are a weekend so only two are proper ‘holiday’. I’m inclined to think that this works for me and that having short holiday bursts do the trick… but I now wonder what would it look like for me to take a full week or even two weeks of proper holiday? (Because needless to say the aforementioned 2-4 days break still involve the odd bit of reading, admin or other simple work-related tasks…)
SIX – Time works differently in the land of the PhD. This isn’t something I learned only in the past two weeks, but rather it is something I have been discovering since I began my research project. So much of my previous work as a producer was about firefighting and cramming projects into seemingly ever-shortening days that the rhythm of the PhD can seem painfully slow at times… particularly in the summer months when teaching is over, and many of the usual structures of academic life soften… I am learning to be in a new relationship with time, and with a different kind of busyness and it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge because being a practice-as-research candidate means still having to engage with some of the ‘producer’ aspects of things and the pace they require. It’s a strange dance, the steady undercurrent of research thinking and the waves of busyness of administrative and/or teaching responsibilities.
I am learning to be slow and attentive whilst maintaining a necessary relationship with the busy business. It’s all about becoming a many-headed monster…!
(And I am now 1116 words closer to my 15k goal!)