Or: how I plan to write my second book without even noticing.
A digressive and over-sharing prelude: The start of a freshly plucked academic year has brought with it a ripe new barrage of mixed metaphors and wayward adjectives, borne out of flailing through the latest effervescent crop of ‘meta-academical’ sessions. No student or junior staffer is immune from these meta-activities, in which the actual work of academia is delayed in favour of compulsory ‘how do we do this’ events.
Such training sessions are based on the optimistic principles that (a) people will read manuals; (b) although, actually, they don’t read manuals, people will listen to manuals in verbal form; and (c) humans can be trained without the use of chocolate and electric shocks. (Ignorance of this third principle is entirely responsible for the development of powerpoint.) (By the way, there are people who make powerpoint slides out of chocolate).
A portion of the seasonal meta-academicising has been delegated to me, thankfully not without the refining presence of other and wiser colleagues. Memories of my own first days on a new course were not helpful in trying to conceive of What Newbies Need. I began primary school by crying in front of everyone for three weeks, and university barely making it into a loo cubicle before bursting into tears. My PhD began with a level of physical and emotional carnage that induced me to suddenly stop taking prozac because life had taken such a bizarre / apocalyptic turn that I reckoned the withdrawal would go unnoticed.
I am therefore lacking in wisdom to impart. But I do have one extremely cunning strategy for academic life, in which I have a messianic level of belief: the process journal.
What it is: the process journal is a torment dreamed up to plague the life of creative writing students. Not only must they suffer the iniquities of having their creative writing (& therefore their soul) stamped with a grade. They must also write about the process of writing. And be graded on that, as well! The process journal is a date-stamped set of entries reflecting on the sordid business of writing in an enlightening manner. I no longer teach creative writing (I ran out of both patience and sadistic glee), but I have imported the process journal into my own academic writing practice.
Why is it the best writing trick ever invented: the process journal can tame the most outrageous and over-ambitious, snarly project and render it a purring pussycat. For my new book I have decided to write about prophetic dreams, all over the world, in all time. This is plainly ludicrous in scope but I’m having fun with it. I intend to continue having fun, despite never having studied psychology or comparative religion, because my process journal has rendered the whole process COMPLETELY PAINLESS.
How does it work: every day I must write 300 words. These need not be good words. Just any old words about prophetic dreams. In they go into one corner or another of my Scrivener project. Today was Jihadist prophecy; last week I was among the Zulu Zionist churches of South Africa. Once the word count hits 300 I must close the laptop and go and do something else. No longer is a Special Writing Day required. Just an hour or two to hack out the daily dose. Then to the rest of the job, such as organising conferences, writing lectures and emailing colleagues with baby tiger videos marked URGENT. The process journal is for keeping track of what I wrote on each day, and of what forces have intervened to thwart this.
Here is a snapshot of my PJ for September, traditionally a month of chagrin about the lack of summer research achievement, plus denial of descent into pedagogical frenzy, combined with sudden inability to know the alphabet, plus no clean pants or socks and parts of the house unaccountably missing in action:
The difference between writing-with-PJ and sans-PJ is clear. Languishing, crapness, consumption and paralysis happen just the same, but having been recorded their menace is de-fanged and there follows a continuation of existence. The languish no longer sprouts melodrama. There is evidence of life beyond the languish. It is dealt with, possibly through a swift application of brie, and the narrative resumes.
September yields astounded to October, and with it the regaining of purpose in academic life: students, seminars, and the bliss of a routine. But can there be any space for three words of research let alone 300 in the daily march to Michaelmas? The PJ assures us that there can, despite an inauspicious start:
So there it is. The Process Journal: No. 2 in a series of staying less crazy (in academia). But how do you keep the Forces Against Writing in check? Is brie involved? And what is your favourite video of baby tigers?