The Writing Job and the Thoughtful Obsessive

I’m not really working on my thesis at the moment. I’m back in Northern Ireland for Christmas and since I’ve handed in a chapter draft, and my suitcase can’t fit many books, I’m taking a break… sort of.

I found this quote on writing (fiction), which struck a lot of chords with me since most of the past term has been spent thinking about writing.

“Treat writing as a job. Be disciplined. Lots of writers get a bit OCD-ish about this. Graham Greene famously wrote 500 words a day. Jean Plaidy managed 5,000 before lunch, then spent the afternoon answering fan mail. My minimum is 1,000 words a day – which is sometimes easy to achieve, and is sometimes, frankly, like shitting a brick, but I will make myself stay at my desk until I’ve got there, because I know that by doing that I am inching the book forward. Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish – they often are. But then, it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better.”— Sarah Waters.

Writing may be a job, but in many ways it is more than simply producing 500/1000/5000 words a day. Even though I’m technically on a break, I’m reading some Irish women’s fiction (because god forbid I should allow my mind to stray or become polluted). I’m also reading a critical book for review. And I’ve been floating some thoughts around in my head both for my next chapter plan and noted some changes I need to make to the draft I’ve just submitted. I’m making notes on one book I did bring home, and before I get back I’ll need to make a start on a conference paper, plus possibly submit an abstract for something else. I’ve also been finalizing the CFP for an event I’m running on contemporary women’s poetry in Oxford in 2012.

If writing is a job, thesis writing is more like an obsession.

Event Retrospective: NESTA Reunion

Last week I was invited to a NESTA (National Endowments for Science, Technology and the Arts) reunion. I was involved with NESTA through their Ignite! pilot programme which supported creativity in young people, and with their support I became more interested in poetry and founded PoetCasting.

This event was a chance to catch up with former fellows – some experts in diverse fields from science, technology, business and visual arts. I was invited to speak about my experience, which was a privilege, especially given the esteem of the company.

The other speakers included Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, inventor of the fantastic Sugru, Rob Kessler who produces beautiful photographs of plants on a molecular level, and Stephen Pizzey who spoke about science in the landscape.

The event got me thinking again about the way science and technology seeks to engage with the public and the wider world, while by and large the arts doesn’t. Stephen talked about being at academic conferences that weren’t in ‘conference bunkers’. At one the delegates boiled eggs and cooked meat at geysers and at another he spoke about the processes of a power plant to members of the public who passed it every day and gave it no thought.


Coming up to Christmas, I noticed that Prof Brian Cox has a high profile show where he is lecturing on advanced physics to celebrities. On top of that, there will be the annual Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (a personal favourite of the festive period – science for children is probably about my level).


As good as BBC Radio is for arts programmes, if academics and arts professionals really want to engage with the public and get extra credit for the public impact of their work, we need to take a leaf out of the scientists books. Carol Ann Duffy explains poetic meter to celebrities? A series of lectures on developments in literary studies at Christmas? At the very least, we could get out of our conference bunkers a bit more often…

Wednesday Apathy

This term’s big milestone has been to write up a full chapter draft, and today I sent it to my supervisor. There is something quite satisfying about scrolling down through a 75 page document and knowing a few months ago it wouldn’t have been possible to produce that work. The process this term has taught me quite a few things about the ways I work best and the small things that slow me down considerably.

The big change I made in more recent weeks has been to reduce the amount of time I give to my freelance work. Turns out, the world doesn’t end if I ignore an email for a few hours.

I set myself daily word targets, and kept almost fanatical record of my progress both during the working day and day-by-day. This worked well for me as a measure of my progress and a measure of my laziness. I get most done between 11 and 4, so those times are important for me to focus and not allow myself to be distracted by other work. On Mondays, I am quick out of the gate and gets lots done, but by Wednesday I am lagging. Simple changes to my working pattern – for example working from a library that day – beat my mid-week apathy.


Any finally, as is tradition here at More Books, Please, here is my post-hand in Wordle.


Gender and Criticism

Michaelmas 2011 is now over and most of the undergraduate students will filter out of Oxford this very weekend. Meanwhile, I’m still working hard on this chapter draft. The Christmas lights at the end of the tunnel are definitely close now though; with over 16,000 words done it should be less than a week before I send this all to my supervisor for comments.

My posts have been sparse this term as I’ve been deep in the mire of poetry criticism for the chapter I unofficially call ‘the gender chapter’. I’m heading back to writing now, so I’ll let one of my thesis poets give a thoughtful approach on my behalf:

‘Gender seems to matter far more in how poetry is criticised. Publishing has opened up, thankfully, but criticism seems to find change harder. Male poets are usually criticised in relation to the canon whereas women poets are often discussed as working in a vacuum’

Colette Bryce, In the Chair: Interviews with Poets from the North of Ireland ed. John Brown (Salmon, 2002), p.319.

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