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Writer’s block

Topics/tags: Writing, overcommitment

For the past month, I’ve been suffering from a bout of writer’s block. It’s not that I haven’t been able to write. I’ve written daily musings almost every day. I’ve even written some musings that I’m unlikely ever to post [1]. I’ve written reviews [2]. I’ve written way too many letters to Council members and other folks about College policies [3].

But my textbook writing? Almost nothing. And it’s weird because that should be my bread and butter writing; I’ve written course materials regularly for decades. Now, it is true that most of the time I write course materials, I’m under a tight deadline, and the deadline helps motivate me. But readings and labs almost always come easily, and they haven’t been.

I’ve been good at finding distractions. Or maybe distractions have been good at finding me. I learned the basics of writing a new language in Racket from the first section of Beautiful Racket. And yes, that’s relevant to the overall project, although I can’t yet explain why. In addition, because I’m using Scribble as my formatting tool, I’ve been writing code to improve the formatting of what I have written. It’s way too easy to get sucked into the wormhole of I don’t like this aspect of the formatting; I should write a procedure or macro. In the end, that time is worth it. But I should be getting words down on paper (or bits down in a file).

Today, I tried something a bit different. After making a little forward progress on the stuff that’s been my sticking point, I said to myself, It’s time to try to write another section. And I got that section done, a nearly complete rewrite of some old 151 material. In a day filled with meetings and appointments [4], I still managed to draft 2000 words [5]. It’s not as much as I usually write in a day, but it’s forward progress.

Our department’s external review and our other big task for the semester are complete, Grinnell is on break next week, and I’ve made a bit of forward progress on the writing. Hence, I am hopeful that I can continue to make forward progress over the next few weeks. It helps that I’m presenting again to the Obermann seminar in about two weeks [6]. That gives me an incentive to get things done.

Fingers crossed!

Postscript: Of course, there are many different things to worry about after fall break. I’m on the Division Personnel Committee, and we have at least one meeting this semester. I have to attend the primary meeting of the Innovation Fund committee. Preregistration runs from November 5 through November 15, and I promised to be available for my advisees [7]. Plus, I have to finish rewriting my SIGCSE papers by the December 1 deadline.

But that’s all after break. For now, I’m going to focus on my textbook writing.

Postscript: There were some other things I had planned to do this fall, such as work on Grinnell’s implementation of Project Callisto. Unfortunately, given where things stand with the textbook, I think those will have to wait until Winter break, at the soonest.

Postscript: I think I also have to just say no to worrying about policies at the College. I don’t know if I can do that, but I’m going to try.

Postscript: My distractibility this semester, particularly the effects of department and institution issues, suggests that I really do need to separate myself from the College when I’m on sabbatical next year. My Fellowship required that I continue service at the College. My sabbatical should not [9,10].

Postscript: I had thought that the four postscripts set a record. But no; there were about four others that had four. Of course, now that I’ve added this fifth one, it does break the record. I wonder if I’m only writing postscripts to avoid writing the textbook.

[1] Sometimes writing a rant is enough, I don’t need to share it with the world.

[2] Well, meta-reviews.

[3] As you may recall, I’ve been grumpy.

[4] Five pages, using the current formatting.

[5] Meeting with the chair at eight am. Office hour meetings from nine to ten am. A department meeting at noon. Office cleaning at two pm. A faculty meeting at four pm.

[6] Agh!

[7] Let’s see. If I have about 40 advisees, and each needs a thirty-minute appointment, that’s about twenty hours I should make myself available over those two weeks. But three advisees are abroad this semester, and two will be abroad next semester. Those are advising activities that can happen outside of the school day. On the other hand, I can’t expect that my schedule will fill precisely. I’ll plan to be on campus on Monday and Thursday each of those two weeks; that should be more than enough [8].

[8] The Innovation Fund Committee meeting is Friday the 16th, but I can work on campus the rest of the day. I’m differently productive in town, but I can still be productive.

[9] I’ll keep my ten-or-so advisees in the classes of 2020 and 2021.

[10] I realize that there’s a movement afoot to require faculty who are staying in town for their sabbatical to serve on committees. I consider that an unreasonable and inequitable expectation and will do everything I can to oppose it.

Version 1.0 of 2018-10-15.