Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Survivor's Guide to Seminary, Post #18 (The Six Über Skills of Seminary - Part 6 - Writing)

SKILL #6 – Writing: Joining the Conversation and Getting Our Thoughts Into the World in a Lasting Way

I remember the moment when I really learned to write in seminary.

It was after I read a book.

Let me explain.

I actually knew how to write when I entered seminary. I have the GRE scores to prove it. In fact, as I noted before, I really only have three skills – all of which I brought with me to seminary – reading, writing, and speaking. And I thought I did all of them well, even before matriculating.

I was wrong.

Which brings me to writing and seminary. I learned how to write when I read a book.

The book’s thesis was radically simple and direct: Write…every…day.

That’s it. Write every day. I followed the book’s guidance and wrote every day. And now I’m here to tell you that I learned to write by paying $12 for a book to tell me to write everyday.

The book? How to Write a Lot by Paul Silvia. Hands down the most important book on writing I have read to date.

Why was the book so special for me? Because I, like many writers out there (not to mention procrastinating seminary students), was in the basic habit of relying solely on inspiration to get my keyboard clicking and my word processor filling up pages.

Meaning, I spent way too much time sitting around waiting until I felt like writing (“waiting for inspiration”) and way too little time just writing.

Now, stop and park on what I just said. The reason I am saying I learned how to write after reading How to Write A Lot was that I mistakenly thought that I needed to wait until I felt inspired to write. And do you know what – I’ve met a lot of people – including colleagues in seminary – who operate on this principle too. They wait for the feeling of inspiration before they begin the writing process.

Bad idea, muchachos.

You need to retrain your minds and approach writing in a different. Otherwise, you’ll do what I’ve seen so many other folks throughout their time in seminary – binge writing. In other words, writing at the last minute under the delusion that you need the “pressure” to write.

The basic thesis of How to Write a Lot is that if you will write on a regular schedule, rather than according to whim and some ephemeral feeling of inspiration, you will be much more productive, happier, and satisfied as a writer. My experience with this thesis is that it is absolutely correct. Not just correct – absolutely correct! In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is wonderfully true. The best way to deal with the vicissitudes and vagaries of feeling like writing is to write, no matter what, every day.

Why should a slavish devotion to writing everyday (or most everyday) be better than writing when your muse has blessed you with superhuman writing inspiration? Well, as Silvia demonstrates admirably in his book, slavish daily devotion to writing will give you productivity that outpaces your muse every time. And he has scientific studies to prove it. Lots of scientific studies, which makes reading How to Write A Lot really great.

So, how have I interacted with this method of writing?

Everyday, on my daily calendar, I have a writing appointment with myself. Whether I’m on fire or my mind is sludge, I will sit down and type letters into a blank document on my Macbook Pro…every day (with very few exceptions).

The result? Just as Silvia said – more productivity in writing.

Now, what will you write with a daily writing time?

Well, there will be no shortage of opportunities to consider that question in seminary. Your professors will do their dead level best to fill your writing calendar for you, trust me on that.

Perhaps this week you are working on a research paper. Then next week it is a book review for a journal. Once that is a wrap, you’re ready for another research paper, or a talk, or a sermon. It doesn’t matter. The thing that does matter is that you keep your writing on a schedule.

The takeaway message that Paul Silvia has for us in his book is that there is no such thing as academic writer’s block. And you, dear student, are going to be doing quite a bit of academic writing, so listen up. He claims that, just as the people who believe in UFO abductions tend to be the ones who get abducted, only those academics that believe in writer’s block get writer’s block. As he amusingly puts it:
“Novelists and poets are the landscape artists and portrait painters; academic writers are the people with the big paint sprayers who repaint your basement” (pg. 45)
So just do the work and paint that basement. It’s what you do – you write in seminary (or the academy, or the Church, etc.). And according to Paul Silvia, the key to writing a lot is to schedule time to do it.

Perhaps you will write from 8:00am-9:00am every day (I recommend trying to keep it consistently at the same time, if possible, everyday). Or perhaps you will write from 8:00am-9:00am Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and 2:00pm-3:00pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Don’t forget the weekend. Maybe on Saturday and Sunday you write later in the evening. It doesn’t matter. Just write every day.

Doing so has really taught me how to write. I am writing Survivor’s Guide to Seminary on a daily schedule, FYI. I’m able to do it because I make time.

Why don’t people write more? Well, one of the excuses (one that I have used in the past) is that we don’t have time to write.

“Rubbish,” says Paul Silvia.

The reason we don’t have time is we don’t make time by scheduling in writing along with all the other things we have to do. He accuses many academics of being ‘binge writers’ who think they will get their writing done only when they have a long stretch of time to do it. These writers may well be productive during a holiday or weekend. Or they may not. Silvia points out this might be one of the reasons why academics can be difficult people to be married to.

Silvia is a self-confessed obsessive about his scheduled writing time and writes every weekday from 8am to 10am. It obviously works for him because he has an impressive list of publications.

And you can too. You can be productive in writing. How? By “application of buttocks to seat” and by writing everyday.

Yep, it’s that simple. The number one rule for writing is to sit down and write, according to a schedule, every day.

Now, what do you do if you just can’t write? I mean, what if you're a procrastinating monster who just can’t seem to put words on paper? What to do?

You laugh, but I met more than a few of this species while I was in seminary. They were the folks who needed an all-nighter in order to do anything smacking of seminary productivity. It was an altogether sad thing to behold. Which reminds me, I really should write something about procrastination. But I digress…

Rule number one of getting things done is do whatever works. Here’s a simple formula for getting something on paper, even if it is total excrement and you know you’re going to have to toss 90% of it out in the rubbish bin.
  1. Close email, text messages, and everything else that might distract you. 
  2. Open up your writing software (MS Word, Pages, Scrivener, etc.), your bibliography software, and research sources are available. Array them so that the writing surface is at eye level, and everything is a click or short distance away. This is your last chance for OCD-ish dawdling. Don’t blow it! 
  3. Open up your Bible software if you are going to use it. I use Logos and it takes a little bit to load and open resources. Get that thing open and set up for the work ahead. 
  4. Set your timer to 25 minutes. For many folks, including myself, 25 minutes is a nice block of time to get into the flow of writing (note: Google ‘Pomodoro’ technique). So write for 25 minutes. You can even use a timer and set it within eye view to track the time block. For some reason, if I have only three minutes to go before the alarm goes off, I work harder. I race the alarm clock. Yes. I know. It’s silly. But trust me, it works. 
  5. Write. Write damn you! Write like your life depends on it! The wolves are chasing the sled! The T-Rex is in your rear-view mirror! Your kitchen timer is watching! Write like your life depends on it. And don't worry – sure, you might be flinging poo at the page, but fling it with all your might! Fling, damn you! 
  6. When the alarm goes off after 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break. Twenty-five minutes of uninterrupted work will have generated at least a few sentences. Or some serious editing. And when the alarm goes off, you may need a break. Finish the sentence, stand up, and stretch. Sometimes, you may not even hear the alarm. That means you are in the zone. Shhhh kitchen timer! I’m busy! 
  7. Go to 5.
Do you think this writing ritual sounds a little crazy? Well, you know what else is crazy? Not writing, that’s what. So don’t be crazy. Write.

Now, before I close (and let me note here that there’s a lot more that could be said about writing) I want to leave you with just two more little things: 

First, as you write papers and book reviews in seminary, think about publishing your class papers and reviews in journals.

I’m serious.

Too many students approach writing papers in seminary as a one-off endeavor that will garner them a grade and let them move successfully through a course. But what if the paper you are working on for a class could also be profitably submitted to a biblical journal? What if the book review you are writing for your New Testament theology class could be submitted to the review section of a favorite journal?

Second, consider blogging while you are in seminary. It's a great exercise for writing productively and it helps to get one's thoughts out in the public sphere - you'll be doing that a lot later.

Think about it, then go and write!