My academic uncle – the one who single-handedly furnished my classical music library and introduced me to Harry Potter before it was popular – sent me a book for Christmas called How to Write a Lot. It’s by Paul J. Silvia, a researcher in the area of the psychology of emotions and what makes things interesting.
Everyone in pursuit or possession of a PhD in psychology or any subject vaguely related to science should stop what they are doing right now, park themselves on the nearest couch and spend an hour or two reading this book. It includes a quote by William Zinsser, author of another book on writing: “Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.” This is the attitude Silvia preaches. And practices too, because the book is short, direct and to-the-point. Quite funny too, in that nerdy academic kind of way.
I read the first two chapters on the train a couple days ago. Chapter 2 expounds on the evils of ‘binge writing’, as he calls it. Silvia tells you to set a writing schedule and stick to it. Seemed to me you could generalise his advise to anything you’re having trouble finding time for. Reading, writing, thinking up experimental designs, cleaning the bathroom, etc.
When I got home, I was all pumped to turn over a new leaf and be super productive. I would make a list of everything I needed to do, as per his instructions, and fix it into a schedule. I sat down at my desk, opened an Excel file and entitled it Schedule of my Life.
Now, I asked myself. Where to start? I opened my diary. Man, I thought. Is it ever hot tonight. Too hot to function. I opened a Word document and got ready to make my list. I should really bring my chocolate into the office where it’s cooler. I bet it’s all melted. List of my Life, I typed. Though it probably tastes better melted. I tried a piece. Yep, tastes even better melted. I tried another piece.
Then my hands were too sticky to type and I’d run out of inspiration anyway. I spent the rest of the night watching the X-Files.
But the point is, read this book if you want to write more productively and require a kick in the pants to do so. Though keep in mind that the author writes from the perspective of a psychologist and makes no claims to the generalisability of his advice to potentially more inspirationally-dependent fields.
“I love writer’s block. I love it for the same reasons I love tree spirits and talking woodland creatures – they’re charming and they don’t exist… Academic writers cannot get writer’s block. Don’t confuse yourself with your friends teaching creative writing in the fine arts department… Novelists and poets are the landscape artists and portrait painters; academic writers are the people with big paint sprayers who repaint your basement.”
And that’s why I liked this book. Thanks, Uncle John. Week after next, when I get back from Canberra and turn 25, I’m turning over a brand new leaf. Brand spankin’ new. The world will have never seen such productivity. Just watch.
...And because I happen to have this on my computer… Uncle John and his two eldest nieces, c. 1987.