Tuesday, February 07, 2017

On being slow

I'm finally done with the Essay of Doom (now less doom-filled!), or at least done until I hear otherwise from my editors. I'm happy with it overall; it makes a modestly new argument, linking my older work to some of my newer interests, and it was fun immersing myself in texts I didn't previously know well.

But because I had the brilliant/moronic idea of starting a work diary last semester in order to keep my writing on track, I'm chagrined to report that I know exactly how many hours it took me to write this 8,000-word essay. And it was. . . um, a lot of hours. Like, more than 200 hours. In fact, as of today, it's taken me 233 hours.

Now, it's one thing to know that this essay is virtually the only thing I worked on for four and a half months--after all, it's a teaching semester! sometimes I write almost nothing while I'm teaching!--and another to have a virtual timeclock read-out showing just how much writing I did and how few words I have to show for it.

I've recognized for a while now that I'm not an outlier, or one of the field's super-producers, but I've been perfectly happy imagining myself somewhere in the middle of the pack of my peers. Recently, though, I've been wondering if even that is true. Not so long ago someone praised my work with a counter-argument-anticipating opening I hadn't known that it needed, saying something to the effect of "though her work is not notable for its quantity, every piece is exquisite."

And while half of me was all, "I'm exquisite!" the other half was like, "hold up now." Between that and this blood-from-a-stone essay, you can see why I might be developing a complex.

For the moment, I'm not interested in debating whether any of this is objectively "true"--that is, whether 233 is or is not a lot of hours to spend writing one essay, or whether my overall writing pace is slower than average or my productivity lower. Let's just presume that I am a slow writer, at least in the sense that I find writing slower and more painful than I'd like it to be.

If that's so, then what follows?

First, and most obviously: I need to allow myself more time than I think I'll need. This is the first time in my life that I've really blown a writing deadline (which might be a sign that this was just an unusually tough project for reasons that couldn't be anticipated), but there's nothing that makes me feel shittier than defaulting on my responsibilities.

Second: I need to be deliberative about what I take on. In the past year or two I've suddenly started Having Ideas--by which I mean, ideas for things that aren't my current academic book project--but if even side projects take a lot out of me, I need to be smart about what I commit myself to.

Third, and relatedly: if I do want to do a bunch of different things, and if I'm both slow and bad at juggling them--heck, I can't even keep this blog going when the writing chips are down--I need to figure out a way of making that work. (You may recall that my work diary was originally intended not just to keep me writing during the semester, but to keep me writing on multiple projects simultaneously. That second part didn't happen.)

Other than that, I don't know. I don't yet have a clear strategy for which kinds of projects I want to prioritize, or how to manage a bunch of them, but something has to change.


Are you slow? If so, how do you cope? (And if you're not slow, I don't want to hear about it.)


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I'm slower than I like to think. It's painful to admit that I've been writing conference papers and notes and other stuff for my book for five years, and I still don't have a solid chapter to show for it, although I do have a book proposal that is a decent outline. I am hoping that having a research assistant to be accountable to will help me get more actual writing done. But with everything else going on, it feels like there's never enough time. :(

Fretful Porpentine said...

I probably count as off-the-charts slow, but I'm in the sort of job where giving a conference paper and publishing a book review every year means you're a research superstar, and I have no ambition ever to have a different job, so I don't care.

Megan said...

What if instead of "slow" you thought of your scholarship as "precise" or "created with care." You may not be a super-producer, but if the work you're doing is "exquisite," that's pretty incredible. I'd say most of our profession (myself included) slowly produce work that is not exquisite. So, there's that.

But to actually try to answer your question: I think it's a question of scale. If you know that you need a lot of time and you don't like to work on multiple projects at once, then just make that your bedrock work style and only deviate in extreme cases. Recognize that you won't do all of the things all at once, but over, say, a three- or five-year period, you'll accomplish a lot. Maybe try to think bigger about what you want to do in the next 3-5 years but smaller in terms of what you'll do at any given time?

I say this as someone who has loved your blog from its beginnings and is a few years behind you tenure-wise. So much of what you write about is true for me (or predicts my future!) I can see how this question would loom particularly at large mid-career, as we have more freedom than ever before (and fewer defined writing goals).

Thanks for continuing to think through these questions in this space.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I often find myself telling students that they're not "bad writers" because writing takes them a long time. It takes us all a long time. But you know that; the question is exactly how long it does or should take.

I'm probably slow, too, but it's hard to tell, since writing and research have never been an official part of my job, which means that they fit into my life either in the same way as a hobby might, or (all too often recently) not at all.

My general take is that we (scholars/the humanities writ large) would be better off if we dialed back expectations for speed and quantity at least a bit, but I realize that's hard to do, especially if one will be facing a tenure committee populated at least in part by scholars in disciplines with very different publishing practices (and expectations). Tenured humanities professors can, however, help set a standard, and I like the idea of standard that values, and perhaps even prioritizes, a steady pace and high-quality results.

Bottom line: if you're happy with the quality of what you produce, and are not experiencing pushback on quantity, then it sounds like all is well.

Andrea said...

I am slow. And I cope by not publishing a lot and having a sad C.V. Oh wait that's not coping, that accepting defeat, I mean, the result. I'm anxious to hear what alternative strategy you come up with because I'm not very fond of my own .

Flavia said...


Yes, I think that's right. The positive way of looking at this is that, hey! I wrote a non-book-related thing in less than five months (from zero to almost final version)--and now I have seven months to work on the book (or whatever)!

I'm not sure I can write at this level of intensity twelve months out of the year, but sectioning off discrete periods of time for separate projects may be the way to go: fall semester is for working a conference paper into an article, spring is for drafting a book chapter, summer is for polishing the chapter. Or something like that.

I'm slow mostly because I'm a slow and inarticulate thinker; I work from vague hunches and intuitions and it takes me a long time to synthesize those things and find the pattern or relationship. Moreover, I don't understand complex ideas unless they're written with extreme clarity. So I write doggedly, chiseling away all the wrong and confusing parts until something emerges that seems ENTIRELY RIGHT. (This is also why I have a hard time working on multiple things simultaneously.) I guess the key takeaway is that I just need to keep at it.

And thanks, too, for your kind words about the blog!


Oh, I agree re: publication expectations. And I hate the cult of productivity (even if I've absorbed its teachings too thoroughly and have always had a bit too much of a Protestant work/guilt complex--which is probably what I relate to most strongly in Milton). At this point, though, I'm feeling that there's so much I want to do that it's frustrating to not know how to best use my time or how to prioritize them. But I guess there will always be projects that don't get done.

Veralinda said...

I sent out my (very long in gestating book manuscript) on my birthday. I'm tickled to see that you killed off the essay of doom right before your own upcoming celebratory lap around the sun.