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Flourish May/June 2005

vol. 1, no. 4

Is it just me or is the winged chariot of time moving faster these days? Perhaps the gods have traded in time's wings for jet propulsion? Going at such speeds, it is even harder for us to prioritize writing. As time management experts have observed, we have urgent, important, and trivial tasks to do. We tend to focus on the urgent tasks, take relief in trivial tasks, and never get around to the important tasks. This in turn creates more urgent tasks, which increases our stress level and chances of burnout. Writing is one important task we seldom get around to doing. There are always more urgent and more trivial tasks to be done. To overcome this, what about taking a small step now? If you have a paper to write or a conference presentation to give, consider sending a friend a paragraph describing what your article is about and the challenges you face in finishing it. It doesn't need to be anything elaborate or formal, just take fifteen minutes to communicate what you know so far. Say, how about right now?

Stories from the Writing Life

The nonfiction writer Annie Dillard has long been a great observer of the writing process. One story she tells is a koan on the “pleasures and pains” of writing.

Years ago, she was loaned an office in an English department so she would have a place to write “a terrifically abstract book of literary and aesthetic theory,” as she put it. She needed coffee to keep her going so she was given access to a room down the hall that had a tea kettle. There was a small problem. Because the office staff did not want to be annoyed by the kettle whistling when ready, they had jammed it open with a clothespin contraption. Unfortunately, Dillard worked at night when no one else was around. So, the first night she set the kettle up, went down the hall to write, and forgot about it. When she came to, the water was gone and the kettle scorched.

“After I burned the kettle, I had to discover a method to remind myself that I had water boiling on the stove in the faculty lounge, so I stuck the clothespin on my finger. It was, as it happened, a strong clothespin, and I had to move it every twenty seconds. This action, and the pain, kept me in the real world until the water actually boiled. This was the theory, and it worked. So that is how I wrote those nights, wrote a book about high holy art: moving a clothespin up and down my increasingly reddened little finger.”

Dillard concludes this story by saying: “Why people want to be writers I never know, unless it is that their lives lack a material footing.”

See Dillard, Annie. 1989. The Writing Life. New York: Harper and Row, 44-46.

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Quote Unquote

“In many ways, there is little difference between joining a cult and going to graduate school. In both cases, an institution takes your money, gives you an identity, tells you what to say, provides you with like-minded colleagues, requires you to perform a series of rituals that are celebrated only within your sect, confronts you with a hierarchy of guardians and interpreters of sacred texts, and determines your social class and perspective on the world. … As a cult member [of graduate school], I learned more than I had imagined was possible. And, as promised, the cult provided me with a like-minded community. … As disheartened as I sometimes was by my life within the cult, and by the increasing difficulty of successive initiation rituals, the fear of being exiled from the cult drove me nearly crazy. … I did it because I wanted to join something bigger than myself, because there was a body of doctrine that I wanted to propound to a larger audience. And, at the most basic level, I still believe in the Ph.D. cult I chose to join all those years ago.”

Clermont, Ferrand, Meredith. 2000. “Happily Programmed by the Ph.D. Cult.” The Chronicle of Higher Education(November 10): B5.

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News from the Editor

I didn't write a newsletter last month because I was in Malawi, where I had only intermittent internet access. The experience was tremendous. The first week I worked with faculty at the University of Malawi on revising and sending their academic articles to journals. Their research was uniformly fascinating, much needed in Western journals. The resource-poor environment in which they accomplished their work, chastening. The second week I worked with political science faculty on revising chapters for the first textbook on Malawian politics and governance. It was a privilege to be a part of such a historic endeavor and to work with such extraordinary individuals. In between deep discussions of health, politics, economics, and how to persevere with writing when your presence is required every week at funerals and you have the only car in your extended family, I managed to boat on the beautiful Shire River, seeing many hippopotamuses and an elephant swimming! How fortunate am I?

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