I’m thinking about different writing experiences at the moment, and I think they can be often be broken down into either ‘shooters’ or ‘cobblers’. I’m drawing my metaphors here from the several years I spent working behind bars before I went back to school. One job that sticks in my mind was working in a vodka bar, which had a basement bar and an upstairs lounge. The two bars seemed to mostly divide these two types of drinkers – shooters looking to get a quick fix in the basement bar, and cobblers taking their time in the lounge.
Incidentally, in drawing this analogy between drinking and academic writing I’m not suggesting you mix the two, the results generally end up on the cutting room floor. However, one of the things that prompted me into thinking about it was a colleague telling me recently that they found critical reading really difficult without wine – apparently after a couple of glasses they could find the fault in the tightest argument…I can’t vouch for this advice, and there’s a part of me which doesn’t much like the idea of peer review being fuelled by grape and grain, but anyway, I digress.
In the past few months I’ve been required to be both a shooter and a cobbler at different times and for different writing tasks, and it has got me thinking about the many different forms of task that can come under the description of ‘academic writing’ and therefore the many different practices, strategies and skills which we might bring to them.
The shooter, as you will probably know, is a cocktail usually made from 2 or 3 shots of spirits in a small glass, generally disposed of in a single blow. In contrast the cobbler is a long drink served over lots of crushed ice and fresh fruit. It’s a sipper.
I think my default or preferred writing state is cobbling. I think back to my PhD and the way I approached the writing of it, I would have a daily target and the whole day to achieve it, and I would try and stick to particular routines of time and place in achieving it. The relative novelty that writing still represented to me, along with the fact that I didn’t have a clear idea of exactly what I wanted to write before I started, meant that I required such an approach. I needed to sit for long periods of time and really think – agonise even – over what I was writing, and allow it to slowly emerge via many tensions and iterations. It turned out to be an immensely satisfying experience.
However, when writing becomes just one of the things that you have to accomplish in a working day, then cobbling can become a bit of a luxury.
So, shooting, the skill I have had to acquire in the last few months, as I was attempting to publish my thesis as a book. This was an activity which was separate to my day job, and therefore one that had to be fitted in here and there, wherever possible. No longer was it possible for me to sit and hunt the words, I had to learn to sit down knowing that I only had a fixed time to accomplish a particular number of words. Again, I tried to build some routine into this: I would come into the office in the morning and for the first hour would simply open my laptop and start writing. I wouldn’t do any of those other ‘normal’ come into the office activities – wouldn’t turn on my desktop and email, wouldn’t check my messages, wouldn’t even make myself breakfast or coffee (those that know me might understand the kind of stern self regulation this represented). I became pretty adept at it, and in fact, once I had acquired the knack of this kind of ‘plug and play’ approach, I was able to break various bonds of routine times and places and write pretty much anywhere – I started mapping out my day according to where I would be and where best I could find half an hour to get some writing done. This meant that even though I was at that time still quite heavily involved in fieldwork for my day job – unpredictable, demanding, transient, and travel oriented experience that fieldwork generally is – I was still usually able to hit my daily targets. The train became a fantastic ally – as did cafes at train stations – Pret a Manger at Manchester Piccadilly became a second office.
I got so into this rhythm that I was not only able to get the book in on time, but I also managed to submit two papers that had been sitting around waiting for me to submit, or re-submit, for months, but I had just never found the time/place – now these times/places existed everywhere and I just had to be ready to take advantage of them.
Now, I’m back in the offce. I’m writing the research report. It’s odd, but cobbling now seems oddly static. I still find a bit of the shooter in me, that just wants to get as much down as quickly as possible. Then I find I have the rest of the day to try and fill. The challenge is now spreading this energy back out over the day, and breaking it up with other activities, which are productive but which give the writing mind a bit of time to recover and ‘unthink’ – the importance of this is really nicely discussed by Pat Thomson in her blog this week.
I’m not quite there yet at the moment and it’s really frustrating. I’m writing about 1000 words a day, which firstly is not enough for my deadline, and secondly is about what I was writing in an hour or so of shooting before.
Perhaps I should stop writing this blog and get back to the coal face…