By Susan Carter
Nine people faced a small task as part of postgraduate course work: to try to find pleasure in academic writing. They could write somewhere stylish, glitzy or interesting that they had never tried writing in before, or write in the same space as others, i.e., do a write-on-site aka pomodo aka shut up and write. But the mission was to be writing pleasure seekers.
They gave their feedback as to how it worked for them. Sally pointed out that pleasure is an attitude, as well as an adjective that she hadn’t readily linked with academic writing. The thought of sullying the café space, a place that for her is firmly social, went against all logic. But she recognised that she liked to write on campus because the desk space there was her own, unlike the writing places at home in a space shared with partner and teenage daughters. She used a timer to set a rhythm of regular stops, and found that the breaks meant being able to go on for longer.
Kat worked on a couch in a public place, and was interested to notice that a zone of silence descended. She realised that she could block off distraction around her if necessary. Iris went to a deliberately glamorous location, a café in a hotel. She said she regularly looks for somewhere unusual to write as a stimulus, and had never written there before. When she arrived mid-afternoon, the café was pretty quiet. She set a stop watch, and did nothing in the break except people-watch. And Brenda chose an intimate café with little break-out booths, finding a comfortable one that put her in the winter sun.
Tui was travelling to a conference at the time, so her new environment was on the 29th floor of a hotel with views out over the city. She had expected to find it hard to write there, saying she is easily distracted and the magnificent view over the city was alluring, but found the pattern of writing solidly for a chunk of time, then taking a stretch by the window seemed to work: she did get more writing done than she usually does when away from home.
Firmly anchored at home, Lana wrote till midnight beside a son who was having troubling getting to sleep, sitting on the bed next to him with her laptop on her knees. Often the responsibilities of parenting along with a full-time job has restricted her time to write, and she was used to working late into the night. Yet she found that sitting on the bed in the calm of her own research writing somehow made her academic writing more comfortable, homely.
Home was good for Barry, too, who has a magnificent view over the harbour and found being away from work (and having access to coffee, cheese and crackers) was calming—he could settle down and write. Coffee is assumed to be crucial in Inger Mewburn’s ‘shut up and write‘ way of working, along with food for the added sense of comfort.
Kevin established a new routine for the week: writing for an hour each morning straight after going to the gym. He found linking the physicality of the gym with thinking stimulating: his brain seemed to respond to motion, and then he was also glad to sit down at the computer.
Caroline had found that routinely fencing off time to write at the same time each week (Wednesday morning) meant that she made the most of that time. She also had a breakthrough in that, because she teaches mainly in digital media, she found that working at the computer made her edgily aware of teaching demands. So her most productive research writing medium was pen and paper, with her thoughts later transcribed into Word. She was aware of the need for what Rowena Murray calls ‘disengagement.’
Usually disengagement is a bit of a pejorative in teaching and learning terms: the rhetoic at universities is all about student engagement. But Murray’s disengagement is empowering when it comes to writing—for many research writers, this is exactly what is needed in order to do the thinking that research writing demands. There was general agreement that shifting place of writing allowed disengagement from the distractions (often other chores to be done) that familiar space offers. This more readily allows reengagement with writing, and intense focus on it.
There are two benefits to making writing a special occasion, then. It lets you detach from all the other demands, and it makes the habit of research writing something special. Do you know of other rituals around doctoral writing that might lead to pleasure?
Murray, R. (2013). “It’s not a hobby”: Reconceptualizing the place of writing in academic work. Higher Education, 66(1), 79-91.