I recently finished my annual reappointment process here at El Cid, and I’m quite pleased to say that the Powers That Be have decided to let me hang around another year. Since I’m wrapping up year 5, this means that my next evaluation — less than a year away now — will be for tenure.
That’s good news, of course, but it’s not what I want to talk about just now.
No, what I wanted to talk about was a comment that one of the Powers That Be made in the evaluation process: How, this reviewer asked, do I get so much published?
It was a rhetorical question, and that’s a good thing because I had no answer for it. If you know anything about me, though, you’ll know that I really don’t like not having an answer for something.
So I’ve been thinking about it. A lot.
My first response to the notion, frankly, is that I don’t think it’s true. That is, I don’t think I get that much done. My tendency, at the end of any given day, is to wish I’d achieved just a bit more. (Not sure what that says about my psychology, but it’s the truth.)
My second response was to leave issues of relative amount aside and to try to objectively consider how I get done what I get done.
I hereby present to you what I’ve come up with: my Five Rules for Writing Productivity.
RULE 1: Have Multiple Projects. I can’t think when the last time was that I had only One Thing to work on. Right now, for instance, not counting things currently under submission or in production, I have two academic books afoot and five articles. On the fiction side, there are three books and, well, probably a half-dozen short stories. And all that’s to say nothing of things that are ideas for an article or a story or what-not.
A list like this can be frustrating at times, of course, because even if you knock one thing off the list it can be easy to feel like things aren’t getting done. (And, truth be told, it rarely happens that something doesn’t get added to the lists within a week or two of taking something off.)
At the same time, however, having so many things afoot means that there is always something to do. Got writer’s block on that short story about Quantum Physics? Fair enough, pick up the Chaucer article. Not feeling it? Okeedokee, how about niggling about the outline for this Fantasy novel, or that Science Fiction one, or chapter 14 of this other Historical Fiction epic? It honestly doesn’t take long of cycling through projects before your brain kicks in and says, “Ah! I have something to say about that one!” Because, you see, even if you’re not conscious of it, your brain is constantly fiddling with all these things, niggling away at the ideas while you’re sleeping or teaching or whatever.
RULE 2: Be Broad. Not in measurement, but in interests. I constantly read across a wide range of materials. Some of this is necessary because of my teaching — this semester I’m teaching a class on the literary history of Satan that has a crazy-wide reading list — but mostly it’s because I think it’s important to, well, know a lot. The last few books I read for non-syllabus reasons, for instance, were on Theodore Roosevelt, Chaucer, Writing Pedagogy, and Atheism.
Aside from any existential opinion about the need for knowledge, the simple fact is that this broad reading list helps make Rule 1 possible. While it’s only an idea at the moment, for instance, I’ve had some interesting thoughts on Chaucer and Atheism that could perhaps make for an article eventually. I don’t think this would have happened if I’d not read two books on the subject in such close proximity.
It’s also just really pragmatically useful to have such seemingly divergent interests. If I had, in accordance with Rule 1, ten projects that were all variations on the same topic — say, ten Chaucer articles — then if my brain froze up when it came to writing criticism of late Ricardian poetry it’d very likely knock out the whole block. Rule 1 wouldn’t function. Better to have something completely different to go to when that happens.
If I was a rich man, I’d relate this to having multiple vacation homes — you should have a place in the Keys in case you tire of the Alps, after all — but I’m not, so there you go.
RULE 3: Flexibly Prioritize. Keep an eye on deadlines, if you have them. And if you don’t have them, set them. Establish a priority list for your multiple projects: what must get done today, and what can wait until next week.
That done, be perfectly willing to change it up. If you’re inflexible, you’re going to fall victim to writer’s block, or you just won’t do great work. You sometimes have to ride the hot hand, even if it means that a low-priority item dominates your work life for a while.
RULE 4: Love It. If you don’t love it, why do it? You’ll have to do things you don’t want sometimes, of course, for the sake of something else you do want — I didn’t enjoy the reappointment process for my job, but I do want to keep my job — but if you don’t have a good, ultimate answer for why you’re doing something, you might not want to do it. Which brings us to…
RULE 5: In short, life’s short. Keep your eye on what is truly important in your world. Family, friends, faith … whatever it is for you. There should be, I think, a priority list that over-reaches all other things in your life. It’s the Ultimate Rule that arbitrates all else.
My son had his first tee-ball practice on Monday afternoon. Was there something more “productive” that I could have been doing for those couple of hours? Yes. Without question. I could have furthered myself along the path of one of my several career tracks. But would I trade those couple of hours at the park for some time hunched over manuscripts in my office? Hell no.