Choices, Mindfulness

From To-Do to Done

Eero Saarinen list
Eero Saarinen’s list of Aline Bernstein’s good qualities, ca. 1954.

Every day I wake up to a checklist panting in my face. Every day for my entire adult life. I never considered questioning it. Bottomless need? Multiplying demands? Expect only this, nothing less, certainly nothing different. Tasks on the to-do list comprise a responsible life.

Wake up and get to work, Smirk.

Oi vey, what a wretched way to start each day.

Continue reading “From To-Do to Done”

Choices, Determination, Purpose, Writing

Treat Jar


The professor wears plaid clogs.  She strides into the conference room, bold black and gray swimming around feet sheathed in silver-threaded socks.  I tell her I like her style.  She tells me that every time she hits a professional milestone, she buys herself shoes.  She can stand in her closet and scan the trajectory of her career: her first publication shoes, her first edited volume shoes.  The plaid clogs?  Tenure-track shoes.

“What’s next?” I ask.

“Full professor, going up next year.”

“Have you scoped out the shoes?”

She shakes her head.  “Oh no, that would jinx it.”  Then she grins.  “Which is a total lie.  There are these boots,” she sort of moans.  “Boots and a whole new outfit to go with them.”

This concept mystifies me.  One friend picks out a fancy purse for every promotion or raise.  Coach, Kate Spade, Louis Vuitton.  Another takes herself on a cruise.  I clap along but something rankles.  We’re dogs now?  We get cookies for every well-timed wiggle?

Continue reading “Treat Jar”

Learning, Writing

Zero Draft

As a single word carrying multiple meanings, writing is what you produce, the act of producing, and the tools you use. This piece is writing. So is this tap-tapping and so are these sentences made up of all these words.

Academic writers who aim to do more than churn out a dissertation, who want to write for publication and contribute to their fields, write differently in all three ways than do the dabblers.

Scholars with their names on the spines of the weighty tomes seem to belong to a secret society. Only the ultra-talented and super-human make it in. It can seem impossible to reach that degree of productivity. The truth is much less mysterious. Becoming an author as well as an expert is a choice, and it is a choice that takes the form of an overhaul. Shedding the ill-suited writing habits most everyone carries from English 101 and establishing themselves in writing life, those authors recognize that their subject-matter expertise is only valuable when it is part of a larger conversation.

Be that as it may, the transformation from student to scholar does involve entering a secret society. For members of this circle, the zero draft is the secret handshake.

Whether you call it the “spew” draft, the discovery draft, or the exploratory freewrite, the purpose is the same: to break the one-draft habit. In graduate school and in publishing, the writing process necessarily becomes both iterative and complex. The students who grasp this begin their initiation into the community of scholars not just by writing to demonstrate learning, as Peter Elbow notes, but writing to learn.

Ideas do not exist in a pure form separate from the act of writing them. The old axiom about clear writing being the result of clear thinking is inaccurate at best and dangerous at worst. It feeds into the assumption that writers have fresh ideas which they can capture and display. When writers consciously and intentionally use their initial drafts to pour and explore, they unlock themselves from their pre-determined formulations of what they “know,” and reveal assumptions, concepts, theories, and connections – all the things that came before and exist alongside what they are now cobbling together. Writing then works to fill in and build out the conversation about what we understand as real.

The false divide between subject-matter expert and writer exists only as long as the scholar imagines her job is to accurately represent some slice of the world. When she accepts the premise that the world itself take shape as she writes, the velvet rope lifts.


Murder your Darlings

Last night’s writing meetup began with a lively critique of a zero draft. Building a frame from the pulpy beginning is the most entertaining part of the process. It’s a barn-raising. “Develop the scaffolding like this.” “It needs a 10-point list and then the explanation.” “You’ve got to figure out which of these two things you are doing, because right now you’re trying to do both and it’s not working.” The author, all grace and nods, filled three pages with notes. She knew she had brought us rubbish. Her excitement about taking the suggestions home was infectious and everyone was giggling by the end of the discussion.
It turns out proofreading for a government contracting journal can be more pleasant than a root canal.
The benefits of writing group participation are obvious to anyone who has been in one. We know anecdotally that the combination of camaraderie, accountability, and feedback keep us moving towards better work. If only my frazzled doctoral students would drink the kool-aid. They hear it from everyone then hear ten more times from me: Cobble a group together early. Like first-year early, well before you head off to the Balkans or Omaha or wherever your research strands you. Before you discover you must birth this monster all alone.
Curious about the scholarship out there on writing groups for graduate students and hoping to find a study correlating participation and degree completion (I didn’t), I dug around in the education literature. The piece I wrote on the topic, Writing Better Together, notes that the intuitive benefits of group participation are supported by the research. Students who participate in groups report improvements in output, skills, and confidence.
Surely, we hoi polloi can glean a thing or two from the findings. Here is one: Groups with diverse membership showed the greatest gains. The ideal setup is a mix of native and non-native English speakers with various levels of experience and a mix of research interests. Participants are forced into a greater awareness of the reader and more dexterous communication with a wide range of audiences.
Here is another: Some folks complain that groups are a time-suck and that energy is better spent attending to one’s own work. This doesn’t pan out. Collaboration and group participation contribute to productivity, even when the attention is on others’ material. Beyond the obvious improvement from receiving feedback, folks are often surprised at how much their own writing develops as a result of giving feedback. The reciprocal advantages of peer tutoring help explain why attending to the form style, and clarity of some other fella’s work can improve the writing of the one doing the critiquing.
Finally, a good writing group thwarts the doubt, insecurity, and fear of rejection gumming up the works. Regardless of variance in skill levels and topics, folks who stick by one another report being more productive, confident, and motivated to write.
We are lucky. Our first Tuesday meetup has a solid core surrounded by a porous outer layer. The folks who stick with it have come to depend on each other. Taking our work out of our private alcoves and placing it into rough, human hands makes it better. Or rather, it makes us better at making it. Signing on forces the choice: improve or keep hiding.
Last night near the end of the gathering, our own Sir Edmund Hillary led us into a heady conversation about criticism. “What was the best critique you ever received?” Around we went, re-living the mortification of having mentors and friends pierce our inflated egos. Here are some of the scars that make us marginally better today than we were yesterday:

  • Where’s the “so what”?
  • The first draft is always garbage.
  • Clear writing = clear thinking.
  • The reader doesn’t care about this subject unless you are in love with it.
  • Don’t be boring.
  • Be the reader’s surrogate.
  • Murder your darlings.

We go home and hammer away at our projects. Someone who knows we are capable of better and more will be asking us about it in four weeks’ time.
Commitment is a cruel mistress. She cracks the whip.
Now, how to get my students to enlist?