School’s Out For Summer: Are You Writing Yet?

June 15, 2014, 12:16 pm


The children in Enid Blyton books were always being sent away: it always went awry in some exciting way, and yet the parents never lost their faith in the soundness of sending their children away.

At least, school is out for most of us. I am coming off a year’s sabbatical, while other people are teaching summer sessions and institutes. I must say, unless I really needed the dough there is nothing I would rather do less than teach in the summer. Nothing. Because summer is for: WRITING. And the summer is for FUN.

The best part of summer writing is long, empty days. One of the most difficult writing problems to manage? Long empty days. Managing free time is only slightly more difficult than realizing that you pushed all kinds of deadlines into June and July, added a conference and a tenure case, and and have several overdue book reviews. Suddenly the twelve weeks you imagined you were going to spend on your book has dwindled. You can usually ignore this chaos is June. June is great. It isn’t until the third week in July or so that la famille Radical begins to look at each other and say: “Merde! Summer is ending and what have we done????”

So on that note, here are five helpful hints for how to make the most of your summer:

1. Send your children to camp. We solved this problem by not having children. Even before Zip Car we understood that everything nice can be shared, so we borrow them and then give them back. But most people these days seem to prefer to own children rather than rent them, so if you are one of them you need to sign your kid up for camp. Lots of camp. Preferably, you will choose sleep-away camp. Some of my relatives have begun stints at sleep-away camp at the tender age of 8, which may seem a little harsh to you until you take into account that the English upper classes have started their children in full-time boarding school at approximately the same age. Don’t have much money? Send your children to a childless gay aunt or uncle, or to the grandparents — unless those people are academics, in which case I would advise them to say no, since one of the best ways to clear your summer is to….

2. Refuse access to guests. Need I say more? There are special exceptions to this rule. I just made an exception which I do not regret in the least, and as you will see below, I have no scruples about being a guest. However, there is no question that, unless you are editing a book together or running an informal writing camp, having someone else in your home is a significant disruption. Unless you have a guest room (or preferably a Kato Kaelin shack out behind the pool), visitors rearrange your life to a degree that is incompatible with getting work done. This is particularly true if you live in an apartment.

3. Consider making a schedule and setting reasonable deadlines for yourself. Saying: “I’m really going to finish my book this summer” doesn’t make it happen, I’m afraid. Depending on how much you have actually written already, this is kind of like being a novice skier, going to the top of a double black diamond trail, shutting your eyes and presuming you will get to the bottom in one piece.

I know two people who have accomplished some version of the summer book finishing thing: me, and Matthew Pratt Guterl. You can read about MPG’s experience, in which he drafted a whole manuscript, here. My experience was slightly different. I had a big, messy draft and I needed to edit it into a final draft in nine weeks so that I could become an associate professor (the prequel to being the Tenured Radical that you know today.) I sliced the time up like American cheese, and gave myself the same block of time to revise each chapter. I established a carrot: if I finished a chapter ahead of schedule, I took a day off. I hit my deadline, which was August 1 on the nose and took the rest of the summer off. There was also a stick: don’t finish, and find new work.

I tried to think about the carrot mostly. Sticks tend not to produce the best work. People who say “I write best under pressure” should probably say something more truthful like: “I only write at all when I am scared shitless.”

Here’s the takeaway: create structure but don’t set yourself up to fail. You can’t make up for nine months of committee work and teaching in 10-12 weeks of summer. Decide on some reasonable goals and figure out how they will work. And make sure you make room for fun, because…..

3. It’s not too late to plan a writing vacation. When people want to get a lot of work done over the summer, they often make the mistake of failing to schedule exercise, movies, days at the beach and, most important of all, vacations. La famille Radical is fortunate enough to have clan members that actually have nice houses in countrified locations, and they don’t seem to mind us staying with them: one edited collection was, in fact, completed in a long summer spent in one of these houses. However, we also plan some summer time in which we take work to another location by a pond, the beach or the shore. Don’t have the extra money to rent a place? Consider swapping apartments with someone else. This might be a friend trying to finish a book somewhere else, or it might be a complete stranger.

4. Get a puppy. Just kidding. Don’t get a puppy. It’s a huge time suck. I want a puppy, though, so if you know of a nice little fluffy rescue puppy that won’t get bigger than forty pounds, which is the limit in our lease, let me know. You should get a kitten.

5. Put a bounce-back on your email that you are completely unavailable to your colleagues this summer. If they write to ask you to do things anyway, delete their emails. In fact, summer is a good time to delete the vast majority of emails you get without reading or answering any of them. Recently, I have been working hard to clear mental space by zeroing out my email boxes once a week, and have been pretty successful at it. The problem, I have discovered, is that people have this mania for writing back when I respond to them: no one seems to want to write the last email. For every email I send, I am destined to get at least one in return: hit reply to all, and it is a huge frigging disaster avalanche of emails. I counsel you to use delete and let everyone else write the last email: if you really must respond, pick up the telephone. It’s really much more efficient.

Readers? What do you do to jumpstart and maintain your writing summer?

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