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    In Praise of the Writing Binge

    When I got my first job, I also got a book of advice for new professors. It gave me some sensible-sounding advice about writing. Avoid binge writing, it said. Write at regularly scheduled hours and keep each session brief. Too many graduate students are used to writing in crazy binges, the authors said, rather than developing steady writing habits. Faculty had to learn to write all the time, and also had to learn to STOP writing even if things were going well. And I tried to take that advice seriously. I have always believed in good writing habits and deplored the way graduate school undermines those habits. I drank the no-binge Kool-Aid with a smile, in an appropriately moderate serving. But that advice is fundamentally wrong. If I had kept following it, my career would now be a smoking ruin.

    Writing binges are things of wondrous beauty. I can't do without them, and all the work of which I'm most proud was done in flagrant violation of the no-binge rule. Part of that is simply who I am as a writer. I will never be a 45-minute-a-day writer, just as I will never be an early-morning writer no matter how much I would like to be. (I am a nocturnal writer, and that's that. Every attempt to become a virtuous early-bird writer ends up wasting a morning and leaving me too sleepy to write later when I'm feeling productive.) But more importantly, some things cannot be written at all without some form of binge. You cannot build them out of six hundred brief sessions, any more than you can train for a marathon by running two miles a day. Some pieces of writing demand the writer's full attention in a way that cannot be kept up forever. They require weeks or months of intense focus to complete, after which the writer goes through a rest period, working at a more relaxed pace and paying more attention to tasks that have been put off during the most strenuous writing.

    Now, the book that advised me to write in brief, regular sessions could itself have been written in a number of brief, regular sessions. Its structure was simple, its prose was not complicated, and neither really were its ideas. Likewise, those books that tell you how to write your novel in one hour a day could have been written in one hour a day. But you can't actually write a good novel in one hour a day any more than you can drive from Boston to Los Angeles in one hour a day. Doing it that way is not efficient. Neither can you write a book of complicated or original scholarship in nothing but short sessions without losing the thread. To sustain a complicated argument over hundreds of pages requires sustained focus.

    Obviously, you cannot write anything so complicated in a single sitting. This part of the no-binge rule makes sense. Procrastinating until the deadline arrives (or passes) and pulling an all-nighter is obviously counter-productive. So is banging out three 25-page term papers over a week and a half, as the semester system requires many graduate students to do. That is not a writer sustaining focus. You need to give a project your attention for the full time it needs. Otherwise, it's like trying to drive from Boston to Los Angeles in a single go without stopping.

    I spent six weeks in the middle of this spring semester on a writing binge. It wasn't a frantic graduate-school-style binge, and it couldn't have been. I can't drop everything else and hole up in my study for days. I continued teaching and grading and going to meetings. I continued my multi-state weekly commute to see my spouse, and continued paying attention to my spouse. I continued cooking the meals. But I arranged things during those six weeks to clear all the time that I could for writing. I set aside that time in large blocks. And I made getting my writing done during those six weeks my priority. There were no deadlines but the ones I set for myself, and the recognition that I could only keep my window of time open for so long. The results were excellent; I completed a few projects that had been almost-but-not-quite finished for seemingly forever, and then finished a monster article that I had been wrestling with for over a year. Working on that article in short, manageable stints had inched along like a glacier, taking a step back for every two steps forward, and every time I was forced to set it aside and deal with something else I would lose the thread. (Of course, spreading out the work on the articles over such a long period ensured that work on it would be interrupted repeatedly, that I would have to work on something else or have a week with almost no writing time.) In fact, the fragmentation of the writing process was damaging it, fragmenting its structure as the months went by. But a sustained six-week march made it into a unified whole for the first time, and got it out the door.

    In the six weeks since that binge, I haven't been nearly as productive. I've had to pay the committee-work bills I'd deferred during the binge, and a bunch of new ones that have come due. One reason that I set my private deadline when I did was that I knew that the end of the semester would bring demands that would leave little time for sustained writing. Oh, I've written a lot over the last six weeks: memos, e-mails, reports, an application form, a questionnaire for a survey, even a form rejection letter. All of those writing tasks fit easily into routine, manageable sessions. And for the last six weeks, my scholarly writing has mostly happened in sessions of an hour or so at a time, which means not much gets done. But I'm less frustrated than I would be if I had hoped, unrealistically, to set aside the same amount of time or produce the same number of pages every week. Instead, I experience this crush of busy-work as simply a fallow period between one season of strenuous writing and the next. I have another week or two of grading and bureaucratic reporting, and then summer will have come in and it will be time to write hard again. When that new season starts, I have to be ready.


    I write like a raft on a stream. Sometimes swift currents hurdle it down the creek, and my only is job is to avoid the rocks. Sometimes the water is stagnant, and hours of sweaty paddling barely move the boat. So when I do catch that current, I run with it as long as I can hold out.

    Yes. You still have to put in your time when the current's against you, but you also have to take advantage of your productive moments and make sure you get everything you can while you can. You have to make space for that productivity.

    I think what I object to is the industrial, clock-punching logic of the advice. Every hour is imagined as an identical unit with identical productivity goals. If you think of writing like navigating a stream, training for a race, or farming a piece of land (i.e., organic metaphors) then a totally different logic applies. Sometimes you're just weeding and mending fences while you wait for things to grow. Other times, it's harvest, and you're going to spend every hour you can spare to get the crop in.

    Actually, writing is more like seducing a beautiful woman. No, more like shooting an indignant elephant. No, more like invading Poland with a horde of screaming Tatars. Oh, forget it.

    I always assumed that the clock-punching advice was mainly for procrastinators who won't sit down to write without a schedule.

    Its ok to binge. Even if its not your best stuff just sit down and write! We can all learn a lot from this guy.



    Nothing to do with the question "To binge or not to binge?" but I came across this just hours ago, allegedly from a guy who also seems to understand the process.  Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules for Good Writing:

    1.  Never open a book with weather.
    2.  Avoid prologues.
    3.  Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
    4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
    5.  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
    6.  Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
    7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
    8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
    9.  Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
    10.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

    This is great, Doc.  Haven't heard it called a writing binge before but I've been there a few times.  Exhilarating and all too rare.  I'm not always happy with the results afterward but it's like a party when it's happening.

    I used to try to follow rigid schedules and then beat myself up if I didn't keep them, but I've learned over time that there is no ritual, no magic, no muse.  The closest it comes to a magical experience is within those periods you're calling a binge.  Very special, indeed. and most welcome whenever they come along.  

    But you can't force the binge, no matter how hard you might try.  Or at least I can't.  That's what makes it, as you say, a wondrous thing.


    I just have to say that this is a fun read; you are always a fun read!

    Thank you.

    I have seen so many writers following a binge writing method, but the main problem about this method is that, remove adenoids it often lacks a continuity and may guide the readers in an entirely another path. So, its better to have a scheduled writing method.

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