Poised for 2015

Happy New Year!

May 2015 be a productive research and writing year for you.

At the end of last year I read a lot of end-of-2014 posts which reflected on the writer’s year and already this month I have read some scary post about writing planned for 2015 (Pat Thomson’s ‘A whole lot of writing going on’). So I thought I would do a mix of the two.

I started writing MATTER in the middle of 2014 after much hesitating and wondering if I could keep it up. Well I couldn’t. More of that later. My aim was to create a space for my research and writing on material histories, or as I have worded it on the site’s subtitle: ‘Objects, people, histories, and the spaces in between’. I wanted to air some more inchoate or unfinished thoughts and ideas, provide a record for me of what I have been writing, and to connect with like-minded people. I had done a fair bit of looking at other people’s sites and how and what they posted. I determined to do two shortish ones a week and to include lots of images of objects, people and spaces.

Between June and December 2014 I managed to post ten times – hardly the twice a week regime I had optimistically set myself! I began well with regular posts in June and July and then the rot set in until I posted twice in December. The posts alternated between accounts of conferences and papers presented and tips for writing.

I have had 1,430 views over that time with the most in one day at 99. I don’t think that is at all bad for a beginner. Unsurprisingly, June was the most popular month. Apart from the archives/home page, the most popular posting was ‘The bliss of writing retreats’. That surprised me, as I don’t think of myself as someone who writes on writing. But it seems that this is what visitors are looking for. I will continue alternating the range of posts but I do want to write more about my current book projects and articles in train.

The reason my posting resolve broke down was the need to drop everything and do the last push on my current book manuscript, in order to get it ready for the editor. The book, which is a history of everyday life through objects in post-war New Zealand,  has involved lots of object and image research, and re-researching as objects and images have been taken out, put back in, shifted around… Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the fifties and sixties [working title] is quite a complex text. It will have over 400 pages and some 350 images (contemporary photographs and objects). Then it was sent to a final external reader, having been read by three people at a very early stage. The editor completed one chapter but hurt her back badly so through all that I felt that I could not begin blogging again. However, all that is back on track this month and I am now responding to editing suggestions again.

Thanks to a Spring writing retreat I managed three more posts before Christmas, only one of which was about writing strategies. I have now ‘aired’ several conference papers in a different format, as a planned step towards publishing them in journals.

In 2015 I want to get back on the blogging horse and this is my ‘new’ beginning. I want to write about some of the projects below, in terms of both process and mechanics, but also the content and themes.

Currently, I have on my plate:

  • Responding to edits for my book manuscript and participating in the design of the book
  • Edit remaining chapters for an international collection on material histories, based on a symposium I convened with some new papers added
  • Complete a proposal for a co-authored monograph on social history in museums
  • Write a chapter for an edited collection on ‘Mad Histories’ based on a symposium paper delivered last year
  • Perhaps work up another book idea
  • ‘Bring out my dead’ – see if I can resurrect any conference papers and incomplete articles lying around and send them off for publication

Wish me luck, won’t you?

Keeping the writing going

 The third post in a series of tips and strategies around academic writing.

What is the difference between a pomodoro and a pear? And how does a grape count? These slightly bizarre questions were thrown up during my recent writing retreat. But we were jesting in earnest: pomodoros, pears and grapes are all techniques to keep writing regularly. They are just one of the activities I use between writing retreats and meetings of my writing group. In this post I will outline the fruit strategies and some other tips I have found useful. It is important to remember, however, that you need to find something that works for you, as only you can do this.

Activities

  • Writing every day

This is an oldie, but a goodie, and one I personally struggle with. It is best to do this first thing – before coffee and definitely before email – and may be done while still in your pyjamas. Even if you can only manage 30 minutes it all adds up. This is the thing that I say at everyone final session of my writing retreats. Binge writing doesn’t work and is difficult to fit into a busy schedule. Reward yourself with coffee afterwards. Put a star on the chart or put some money into your shoe buying jar.

  • Process writing

I use this frequently with students. If you are staring at a blank screen simply start writing ‘I don’t know what this is about but what I am trying to say is…..’ Don’t pause, don’t edit and see if you can write half a page. Only then look back over what you have written, and see what bits you can cut and paste into a new document.

  •  Draft without editing

Another version of the previous one. The greatest hand break is the censor within. That voice that says ‘I can’t believe that is a sentence…. What is that cr@**%p?’ It is best to look over your draft after leaving it for a while or as part of your next daily session. Things will compost or percolate in your brain while you are showering or on the way to work and overnight. That is a very valuable stage of the process.

  •  Breadcrumbs for next time

I do this without realising that it has a proper name. When you finish a writing session, jot down some notes to help you start again straight into it. It could be bullet points of the next steps in the argument or next paragraphs. It could be a list of keywords. It could be a revision of the writing plan that you should have sitting next to your keyboard.

  •  Writing plan

I am a great believed in writing a plan or sketch of the structure of the piece you are working on, even it is revised many times while writing. Do you have notes for the intro, body and conclusion of the piece? What contribution are you making to the literature/knowledge in the area? Can you recite an ‘elevator pitch’ of your piece ( the two to three sentences/paragraph that says exactly what you are doing and why as you ride the elevator between floors)?

  •  Blogging

It took courage to start blogging, just as it did to stammer my first tweet out. But it is more relaxed, easy writing that can be done in 30 minutes and keeps your hand in. It can help you find a ‘voice’ and the almost instant feedback is gratifying and all the moral encouragement you need! Blogging about your research is also a way of having a first stab at what might end up as a more formal piece of academic writing. You can try out things and get reactions. It is also a mighty fine way of building in regularity and discipline to a writing schedule.

Tools

  •  Planning – as outlined above
  • Electronic gadgets

A pomodoro is a set time of writing (usually 25 minutes) with 5 minute breaks and is named after the Italian word for tomato partly because people used tomato shaped timers. You can also download electronic apps that don’t have the same ticking noise. The breaks are really refreshing and mean that you can concentrate and then pause. [A pear (pair) is two pomodoros, one of which may be reading (invented by me at the last retreat). A grape is working in groups of three or four and perhaps incorporating feedback.]

I use the free app Evernote to store all my documents and images; PDFs of articles, lists and schedules. It has a function that lets you clip from websites which is very handy.

I also use Pocket to store things to read later – webpages, articles, tweets, Youtube videos, whatever. I have these apps synced across my laptop, phone and tablet so that I can reach them anytime, anywhere.

  •  Write on site or shut up and write!

A research group buddy set these up in a spare room on campus once a week for two hours. We had a 5 minute break in the middle but otherwise it was just 5 of us and our laptops, working away silently and collegially. People often use local cafes too.

  •  Rewards are your friend

Whether it is coffee, a phone call to a friend, a star chart, movies, shoes or a workout, give yourself a gift for making progress.

  • Accountability group

In order to get the last part of my book manuscript finished, I enlisted the help of my work in progress group from my writing retreat. I had to email them every fortnight to report on whether I had finished the latest chapter or not. The warmth of the replies was fabulous! It gave me a set deadline that was external and public.

  • Work in progress with friends and buddies

Do you have some colleagues or friends that you could meet with to talk informally and briefly about your writing? Can you ask for feedback or suggestions for issues that you are having problems with? They will amaze you with their acuity and resourcefulness. Remember, a problem shared is a problem halved.

Inspiration and other sources of advice

  • Twitter #writingpact

I have just begun this. It is group support that is instant and full of warm fuzzies. Tweet what you are about to do with this hashtag and then success or progress when you have finished with the same hashtag. You will get lots of favourites and replies!

  • Other blogs:

I have been following and reading theses for a while and they are goldmines of advice: Patter and Thesis Whisperer. There is lots of other advice on the internet. The most important point is to stop reading and start doing! And make sure that you have a good work situation set up that encourages you to make use of it.

And you know the old adage: practice makes perfect! My best wishes to you in your endeavours to keep the writing going.

I would love you to share your best strategies and what works for you via comments below. Thank you.

The bliss of writing retreats

I am writing this from a desk looking over Lake Taupo, in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand. A well-stoked fire is roaring and six women are writing with me as we share space in a large hall. All is companionable silence.

This is the tenth year I have been coming to either a winter or spring retreat of ‘Women Writing Away’ at the Tauhara Retreat Centre. It has made all the difference to my productivity and also to my hopes and fears around writing. I would not have published as much scholarly work as I have, nor learned how to think, plan and organise around it, if I had not attended these retreats. They form precious bright spots in the year when I can leave everything else behind and focus. Yet, as other women have commented, at the same time it feels like a holiday because we have good company, good food, and as much sleep as we want to have!

ImageThe main building at Tauhara, image from website

The WWA retreats are organised by the incomparable Barbara Grant from Auckland University, who has written about them here. They follow a well-developed template of a mixture of writing time, work-in-progress sessions, group paragraph editing, optional workshops, and a collectively written murder mystery that often has a lot about university politics and bureaucracy thrown in for good measure!

The retreat centre at Tauhara is around the lake in Acacia Bay on semi-rural land. We supply our own breakfasts and coffee, and daily lunch and dinner, made from local produce, is provided for us. This takes the time and angst of meal preparation away and leaves ample time for writing.

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The dining room, image from website

The aim of the week is to produce an article ready for publication or for a conference, or a chapter towards a book or PhD. We arrive for Sunday night for introductions, orientation, planning and decompression, followed by a shared dinner to which we all contribute. After the first, sometimes slow, day of writing on Monday night we do the mandatory group editing of a paragraph. This exercise is brilliant. We read a paragraph aloud sentence by sentence and respond to feedback on the appropriateness/accuracy of words and send, the rhythm and length. I always come away with a much punchier and convincing paragraph and it is amazing how reading aloud helps!

On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights we share work in progress. The idea is to bring an issue, a puzzle or a piece of draft writing to the group for reponses. Last time I got collective thinking about my schedule for finishing my book and we set up an email group that I agreed to check in with every two weeks. This time I am going to run an ‘elevator pitch’ for my book past the group so that my introduction has a consistent focus. At the moment it takes several goes at saying what the book is about!

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My desk as I write this

After lunch most days there are optional workshops on getting writing going, first sentence exercises, writing book proposals, applying for grants or whatever someone nominates.

On Friday late afternoon we reconvene as a group to set some goals to keep the writing going when we return home. These are emailed to us afterwards so we can keep to our promises! Then on the last night we read aloud the Case of Missing Conclusion, our jointly written murder mystery.

I usually bring one main project and other subsidiary ones. When I first started attending, there was no WiFi, and we could really keep to the retreat nature of the week. Now I do a lot of (re)searching on line so I choose to pay for WiFi access for the week. I have managed in one week to draft out a whole article, but usually my aims are more modest. If find that I do as much research planning and strategising, as actual writing, as I have uninterrupted time to think. I find the week a useful stock-taking time.

I always make time to have an on-site massage. Self-care is a big part of the week.

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Accommodation units, image from website

This year I plan to go in Spring as well, as my current large administrative role makes it more difficult for me to carve out writing time. This week it is revisions to my book manuscript, which has had more than one trip to this oasis on the edge of Lake Taupo. I’m optimistically hoping that it will be the last time I bring it!

 

The importance of a name

Just as I was casually googling ‘material histories’ I saw it. How did this happen? I asked myself, dumbfounded. I had found another blog entitled Material Histories. To cut a long, agonising, story short, I have decided to rename my one, out of respect and courtesy.

Then the second hard part of this saga began. With so many good blogs on this subject (as my blog roll attests) what new, memorable, apt name could I conjure out of my consciousness? I finally decided on MATTER. It refers, of course, to the content of materiality, stuff, and material histories. But it also, I think, is a nice play on what matters, and the matter in hand. So I have changed the masthead as you can see.

MATTER was also the name of a short-lived but active, research cluster I directed in my former school in the College of Creative Arts at Massey University from 2009-2012. Now that the School of Visual and Material Culture has been restructured out of existence, and I shifted to the School of Design the cluster went into hibernation. The cluster was very productive. As well as running seminar series and housing postgraduate students it also produced:

A delegate blogged on the Material Histories conference and I am in the process of editing some of the papers for publication.

I continue to be fascinated by, and to tussle in my research with, objects, people, histories and the spaces in between. They are an endless variety of forms of matter, they are the matter in hand and they are what matters to be in my research life.

Hullo world!

In a few days I will post my first blog about the annual conference of the Costume and Textile Association of New Zealand, held at the Auckland Museum. I was a keynote speaker but there was so much more…. thanks to the organisers for a superb event. More to follow, including a review of the rest of the programme and an overview of my keynote.