Tuesday night write
As a part-time PhD candidate with a family and full-time job, my academic writing is most often conducted in self-imposed solitary confinement. Alone in my home office. Behind a guilty barricade defending against the delightful distractions of my wife, wee boy, and father. After the rest of the family has gone to bed or, less frequently, before they wake up. On my once-per fortnight day off from work for study, and on weekends, and on public holidays.
Solitude is important to to most academics’ writing routines, but too much of it proved to be counter-productive for me. I had trouble making myself accountable and my tendency toward procrastination worsened. I also missed being able to readily reach out to other researchers, to test an idea, get a quick concept-check, or just have a bit of a moan. I sensed that other doctoral candidates I know were struggling with similar challenges, which motivated me to try creating some writing social support for us.
When I lived in Melbourne, I enjoyed participating in the Melbourne Write Up or my uni’s Shut Up and Write!. The concept of these events is simple: gather with other writers in a classroom or cafe then shut up, and write. These sessions were a godsend, a precious few hours of focus and commitment to writing protected from my other obligations. No one checks on what anyone else is actually doing, but nonetheless the tacit social contract between participants triggers your conscientiousness. You’re more able to resist temptations to do anything other than write (or read, or code, or edit; writing can be interpreted broadly).
When I moved to Toowoomba, I missed those events. I could have instigated a local in-person Shut Up and Write, but that would have excluded my friends, co-candidates, and collaborators who live far from me or have commitments that make attendance difficult. My solution was to convene an online Shut Up and Write group for my ACCELL research colleagues, which I’ve called the Tuesday Night Write.
I sent my colleagues a recurring calendar invite and Zoom meeting link, for 7.00pm to 9.30pm every Tuesday evening. I told them I’ll be in that Zoom meeting every Tuesday, writing, and if they join me they’ll be warmly welcomed. We’ll chat a bit about our research, then mute our microphones and write for a bit, before checking in again. No obligations and few rules, just some social support and a little bit of healthy accountability. I’ll admit that it’s can be bit awkward, to see into someone’s home and observe them silently writing. But that’s the point: if they are writing, I should be writing.
I missed the first session, thanks to a massive storm, complete with power cut, earning me some gentle ribbing from my colleagues. I’ve missed one or two Tuesdays since then, due to various family commitments, but overall I’m satisfied with my adherence. I have one pal who regularly joins me, sometimes one or two others show up, and sometimes it’s just me, alone in a Zoom meeting, my webcam broadcasting a scene of me writing, to no one.
The social element of Tuesday Night Write is very important. Knowing that I’ll start by stating what I am working on forces me to commit to a concrete writing goal. Knowing that I’ll be checking in once or twice forces me to actually work on that goal, lest I have to confess that I spent the last half hour on Twitter. Also, conversation with colleagues in the session has been enlightening and motivating. Only after enjoying this regular non-supervisory intellectual outlet for a few weeks, have I realised what a gap it’s been in my academic life.
Equally important is the calendar entry, marking a time when I will sit down, shut up, and write. My family now knows that Tuesday evenings are writing evenings for me. They don’t begrudge me that time because they know that if it means I can make progress on my PhD, it also means I’m more available to them and less anxious at other times.
So this Tuesday evening and most Tuesday evenings into the future, I’ll be found in my home office, broadcasting a writing session into the internet. Sometimes enjoying the company of others, sometimes alone. Most importantly, I’ll be meeting a commitment to myself and getting some words out of my brain and onto the page.