What I learned during #Acwrimo (and what I didn’t)

AcWriMo, for those who are in the dark (as I was before I took part in one) stands for Academic Writing Month, and this month seems to be largely November around the world. A group of colleagues and I signed up for our own AcWriMo as a group, with a commitment to to make and keep to our own chosen writing goals and post updates on our shared FB page about our progress. The idea is to set yourself a goal that is bigger than your usual writing goals in any given month – to be realistically ambitious, if you like. You write as part of a community and share your goal with others, so that you have support and encouragement around you, a sense of shared purpose, and also quite possibly a gentle form of accountability (although you don’t get into trouble or anything if you fail miserably to achieve your goal).

Thank goodness for this last part, because I did fail. Pretty miserably. I wrote about my goals towards the beginning on November here, and I must say, I really did think I had pared back a lot on my overly idealistic goals and was finally being more realistically ambitious. However, I achieved only 1.75 out of 4 written pieces that I set myself as goals. I wrote 3/4 of a paper that I am now ignoring rather pointedly, and a (pleasing) abstract for a book I really want to contribute to. I have not even planned out the 2nd abstract I planned to write (and the deadline has been moved quite a bit back, which doesn’t help with the fear-factor-panic-motivation), and I did not even attempt the other paper for the special issue. I spent one week out of the 4 actually writing and reading every day. One. So, there you go. That’s my AcWriMo confession. I am, to say the least, disappointed with my poor showing, but rather than eat too much chocolate in an attempt to console myself (although I kind of did this too, sadly), I thought I would blog about it in an attempt to reflect on and learn something more about my writing habits, enablers and big brick walls.

Enablers – start with the positives: Even though I did not get to where I wanted to go with my writing this last month, I really loved being part of this big writing community. We all posted quite regularly in the FB group, and sent each other virtual ‘high-5’s’ and encouragement, as well as sympathy and images of Pusheen the Cat. It felt like a warm, encouraging and connected space, and if you’re going to push yourself to reach deadlines and do more than you usually do, that is a good space to be in while doing it.

Habits: I learned that I have to work on my own research reading and writing first thing, before email is opened or the internet is activated. I am too easily distracted, especially towards the end of a long, busy year, by things that are much easier to do than thinking and writing papers, so if I am to focus, it has to be early in the day, and before I engage with the distractions. Another thing I learned was that I need to spend a fair bit of time thinking – percolating – before I can really write. This is a good thing to work out, because I can organise my time and headspace accordingly, but the downside is that my thinking can easily be hijacked by other things, like work. So I have learned that I need to be firmer with myself about making myself sit down and just write, and work on thinking while I write as well as before and after. I think if I could have just made myself get words out every day, even if they were mostly crap, I could have finished the paper. You cannot edit something that does not exist – it’s bringing my ideas into existence on a page that needs some work.

Big brick walls: I have to admit that I was fairly shocked by how easily my mojo shifted to ‘meh’ after a motivated and energetic first week where I got a lot done and felt really accomplished. I let it happen so easily, without much of a fight at all. I let work commitments that could have waited become really urgent; I agreed to do things I could have said ‘no’ to because I just had to do them; I packed up my office, when that could have been done this week; email became the most time-consuming task of the day… Interestingly, I could see this happening at the time – all these distractions and day after day of no writing – but I felt quite helpless to do anything about it. On reflection, I can see that there was a big emotional reason for all this drifting and procrastinating that I did not account for when I signed up with my ambitious plans in October. I am leaving my job this month, after 6 years, and even though I am moving on to something new and exciting next year, this is huge and a bit scary for me. A big part of my identity has been this role I have had for the last 6 years – my first real academic job – and I am finding it hard to let go. I think a lot of the ‘meh’ about writing after week one stemmed from a more emotional fatigue and resistance and I didn’t really make room for that in my plans.

So, what I learned from AcWriMo:

  • I do my best thinking at odd moments, and not always when I am in front of my laptop, but I write most productively in the mornings. I need to learn how to structure my days to take advantage of that time and I also need to keep a notebook with me, to jot down ideas when the muse grabs me.
  • My mental energy and focus is very much affected by other, seemingly unrelated, things that affect my emotional state, and I cannot easily switch the latter off or escape into reading, writing and thinking. I need to learn to be more aware of what else is going on in my life, and account for these potential brick walls when I plan my writing and research, so that I can actually be kind to myself and not feel like a failure.
  • I need to switch off the internet when I am writing. I am too easily distracted and until I have worked on my concentration span and increased it to more than 15 minutes, I need to minimise distractions like Twitter, Facebook and email quite deliberately.
  • Finally, I respond well to bribery, so I need to give myself small rewards, like tea, walks, snacks and chapters of my novel, to get me through as writing and thinking, especially on new work, can be tough, and take a lot out of me. Kindnesses to self are key :-).

I am going to try my own AcWriMo again in February next year, and finish this 3/4-done paper and write the other one that I had planned to write now. I thought January, and then paused and thought about the school holidays and back-to-school shopping and moving house, and stopped. If I am to do better next time, I must put into practice my learning from this time. So, February it is. Watch this space for updates…

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