• August 23, 2014

The Gift of Accountability

It helps to have someone hold you responsible, in an unintrusive way, to your own writing goals

Writing Dissertation Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

As he warmed the mug into which he would pour the first of my three cups of decaf, Kirk, the barista at the coffee shop where I show up every day to struggle to put words on my computer screen, said, "You’re late."

It was true. I had come in at 9 a.m., instead of my usual 8 a.m. That morning I had decided, since the quarter was officially over, I would give myself a break. I would sleep later in the mornings, not worry about meeting a daily word count on my writing, and spend the afternoons running with my dog and reading good novels.

But being reminded that Kirk expected me to show up at 8 a.m. every day and sit at "my" table for three hours and three decafs was, I realized, a gift—the gift of accountability. He and Kevin, the other barista, ask me where I’ve been if I don’t come in for a few days because I’ve been out of town. My conversation with the guys who pour my morning coffee made me wonder about the ways other people could get a boost of welcome, unintrusive accountability into their work lives.

I can imagine how the right department chair (mine, for example) or a dean could help faculty members come up with plans and timelines for their scholarly work and then check in with them on a regular schedule. That kind of scheme could easily go awry with the wrong personalities involved, but wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if it could work? If the role of an academic administrator was really like an invisible hand, there to lift and support, to nurture faculty members into accomplishing the part of the professorial job that tends to be hardest to get done? If a departmental culture involved checking in—once a month, or biweekly—to say what you’ve done and where you’re heading next?

Not every faculty member needs that. But those who do, well, they really do.

A friend who was in the final throes of finishing his dissertation once decided that every time I showed up in his office after 5 p.m., and he wasn’t working on the diss, he’d have to pay me $20. Some weight-loss plans make you pick a cause you despise and, if you miss your self-determined goal, you have to donate money to that hateful cause. Those are examples of the stick approach. Of course, the carrot is always clearly in sight: the job, the promotion, the satisfaction of having published.

Spouses and partners can be handy when it comes to nudging. But they might stop helping if the results are unpleasant, like if their comments are met with resistance or "You just don’t understand: What looks like staring at the ceiling is actually work." Especially if there’s a lot at stake—like a promotion that would result in a big raise, or a lack of promotion that would end a job—it can put extra stress on relationships and family dynamics.

For some a barter system of mutual accountability—and some writing groups provide this—works. It can be easier to be hectored by someone who is suffering right there alongside you. You each commit to finishing a draft of a journal article, or a chapter, by a certain time. You realize that you will disappoint someone else if you don’t do what you say. It’s embarrassing not to meet your own publicly stated quotas. And you will feel real triumph when your writing partner meets his or her goals. There’s a lot to be said for investing in the achievements of another person.

A couple of years ago, after having seen too many students leave for summer break and come back with not a word written toward their thesis projects, I had my advisees draw up a contract. They would commit to writing a certain number of pages—they came up with the number—by the end of the summer. The "contract" was really just a piece of notebook paper on which they scrawled a pledge and signed next to a gigantic X.

They all returned to school in the fall having met or exceeded their own expectations. Deciding on a specific page count and a deadline helped, they said. Even if many of the pages they wrote didn’t end up in the thesis, the discipline required to put words down on paper paid off.

A friend once told me about a minister who described her job as that of a "nonanxious presence." I think most academics would benefit from finding a nonanxious presence to check up on our writing output. That’s what agents and editors do for writers whose work stands to make some money. I realize how fortunate I am to have an agent and an editor whose jobs are to support me, read my stuff, deal with the icky details, and make me feel less alone in the incredibly lonely endeavor that is writing. Just getting a quick email from one of them asking, "How’s it going?" gives me a boost that keeps me going.

But I’m also lucky to have people like Kirk the barista who expect me to show up for work. And that’s what I think many people need: A nonanxious presence who doesn’t care all that much about what the project is and who has to make no real effort to keep us accountable.

Of course it helps when such people edit your writing, too, and can offer suggestions, but I’m not sure that’s as important as finding the help needed to get to the point where you actually have something for someone to read. While many of us crave constructive and gently critical readers for our unpublished work, I think one of the main differences between writers who are successful at publishing and those who aren’t is the ability to finish a complete draft. We may need those critical readers less than we need whip crackers.

I think about adjuncts and lecturers who are so busy trying to earn a living they don’t always find time to write. What would help them (other than a sea change in academe, of course) to get their scholarly work out there? I wonder how assistant professors, weighted under burdens of grading, new course preparations, and service commitments, carve out space to do research.

And much as scarcity is an impediment to productivity, I wonder if abundance creates its own set of problems. Once the fearsome deadlines have been met, what can help associate and full professors keep going once they’ve achieved tenure?

Finding someone who will expect you to do what you say you’re going to do, and will speak up if you don’t, can be a real benefit. Approach someone you see on a fairly regular basis and ask: Can you please check in regularly with me on my scholarly writing and ask me to tell you what I’ve done? Get someone who doesn’t have a stake in the outcome. Then it becomes a game, a conversational gambit. And for you, it could become a not-quite-invisible helping hand.

Just as many of us lack people who will hold us accountable in ways that are helpful rather than threatening, we also miss out on a cheerleading section. When we do accomplish something—finish a manuscript, snag a book contract, publish an article—who can we tell? Who is truly happy to hear our good news? There are people in every department who are always trumpeting their achievements (you know how you feel about those folks), and there are others who never say a word about the amazing things they’ve done. Talking with peers about reviews can be fraught. Even though we’re not competing directly, it can feel that way.

The payoff for the person who holds you accountable is that he or she gets to share in the success, sometimes long-delayed and often of negligible tangibility. But remember the lesson learned by all high-school students who are forced to do community service: It feels good to help someone, especially if you don’t have to do hard work.

So befriend your barista. Enlist the person who cuts your hair. Reveal your struggles to a former student. Ask a colleague or a friend in another field who has no stake in your career for help. Find a nonanxious presence to help keep you accountable.

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her website is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.