Does there exist a pleasure in writing? I don’t know. One thing is certain, that there is, I think, a very strong obligation to write. I don’t really know where this obligation to write comes from… You are made aware of it in a number of different ways. For example, by the fact that you feel extremely anxious and tense when you haven’t done your daily page of writing. In writing this page you give yourself and your existence a kind of absolution. This absolution is indispensable for the happiness of the day… How is it that that this gesture which is so vain, so fictitious, so narcissistic, so turned in on itself and which consists of sitting down every morning at one’s desk and scrawling over a certain number of blank pages can have this effect of benediction on the rest of the day?
You write so that the life you have around you, and outside, far from the sheet of paper, this life which is not much fun, but annoying and full of worries, exposed to others, can melt into the little rectangle before you and of which you are the master. But this absorption of swarming life into the immobile swarming of letters never happens.
Michel Foucault, (1969) ‘Interview with Claude Bonnefoy’, Unpublished typescript, IMEC B14, pp. 29-30; also available as Michel Foucault à Claude Bonnefoy – Entretien Interprété par Éric Ruf et Pierre Lamandé, Paris: Gallimard. CD
It’s a great quote, certainly. I definitely feel the same way if I’ve not been writing for a while. I’ve been asked more than a few times about writing – usually at the end of question sessions after papers, or when I’ve initiated a conversation with graduate students about publishing, or most often over dinner or in the pub. People are sometimes interested in more general questions about writing, but the most common one is ‘how do you write so much?’ The answer is pretty simple: I try to write every day.
When I’ve been at my most busy – as director of postgraduate students at Durham, while in the first year of editing Society and Space - I would schedule writing time, if not every day, then definitely into every week. I made ‘appointments with myself’ for other key tasks too. I would tell people who had access to my diary that they could move the writing or other task appointments, but not reduce them. So they could be at different times of the day or week to accommodate other things, but not disappear.
Clare links to a couple of reviews of books on academic writing that give similar advice – the way to write is to make time to write. Jo van Every says the same here, and links to this useful post on what you can do in thirty minutes. That last one is interesting as the numbers would change for different people, but the principle is good.
But what do you do if you’re not in the right frame of mind to write when that time comes around? This is a common follow-up question. Then you do the mechanical things that writing requires – you open up the notes file and tidy them up, you download journal articles, get shelfmarks for books you need to check out, fill out the inter-library loan forms or locate a library that has it, check the author guidelines for the target journal, print the last draft and read it over for grammar, maybe seeing a link or sparking an idea… You get the point. But it should be something that moves the writing on, however incrementally. Graham Harman has a good post on working on different bits of the project in parallel, so you can move to a different bit if you get tired of one part.
And while it isn’t counting words that matters, think of it this way: Take a 52 week year. Take four weeks holiday. Take three days per week with time set aside for writing. That’s 144 writing days. Write 500 words a day – about the length of this post, without the quote, or a page of a printed text. That’s 72,000 words. Two articles and half a book. So then a couple of articles a year and a book every two or three isn’t exactly Sartre-level words per day madness…