This morning I came across this nice article in the Chronicle, which caused me to dig around in my own files for something I wrote several years ago on a similar theme. The little essay below is part of a collection of short pieces about scholarly writing that I've been cobbling together over the past several years. Not surprisingly, the running/writing analogy resonates with me. This one reads a little preachy, but given that right now I'm violating both the running and writing advice (writing too much on deadline and undertraining for next Saturday's half-marathon) I reproduce it here with the caveat that I don't always follow my own advice.
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At the risk of dragging out the running/writing analogy to its bitter end, I want to reflect upon something else I’ve learned as a runner that I have tried to translate into my writing: scholarly writing projects are best thought of as marathons, not sprints. Now, to be fair, some people run marathons pretty fast. In 1999 I was running the Chicago Marathon, my first ever, when Khalid Khannouchi broke the world record marathon time on that course. They announced his feat to the runners and spectators still on the course. Where was I when Khannouchi completed his race in a remarkable two hours, five minutes? At mile 11. That’s right, he ran 26.2 miles in the time that it took me to run 11 and change. He was twice as fast as I was.
Khannouchi may technically be a marathoner, but when I compare scholarly writing projects to marathons I’m thinking of what Joe Henderson has called “long slow distance.” In over twenty books on running, Joe has always been a firm advocate of training slow and running long. Whether long means a 20-miler in a marathon training plan or a 5-miler for the beginning runner, Joe argues that slow and steady is best for building endurance, commitment, and enabling the body to adjust to the physical and emotional experience of running. If you train slow and steady over a period of time, your body – and indeed, your life – adjusts to each new plateau. The more you run, the longer you run, the more steadfast your commitment, the better you get. And the easier it all becomes.
Many graduate students never outgrow their undergraduate work habits. You know what I’m talking about. They continue to operate on emergency mode. They procrastinate. They put off assignments, even big assignments like papers or projects, until the last minute. They cram. They hand in the first draft of papers, because they don’t leave themselves time to draft, revise, and edit. To extend the running metaphor, their academic career consists not of long slow distance, but of repeated, intense short sprints. No wonder they’re so tired.
During my first year as a faculty member I taught my first grad seminar. Wanting to be the “cool” professor, I invited the students over to my place for dinner on the last night of class. We ate burritos, drank beer, and I asked each of them to talk briefly about their final papers—the essay they would hand in to me at the end of the evening. To a person, each of the grad students managed to mention how late they had stayed up finishing the essay, how much research they had “crammed” into it over the past few days, how much caffeine they’d consumed. They even fed off each other: “Yeah, well I was up till 4 am because I not only had this paper but also the one due for Professor M tomorrow.” They wore their lack of sleep like battle scars, their procrastination like a badge of honor. I didn’t want to be cruel, or condescending, but finally I had to say something. “I don’t mean to ridicule you,” I said, “but you aren’t going to get anywhere with undergraduate work habits.”
Fortunately no one stormed out or threw a beer bottle at my head. Instead, we had what I remember was a lively, and often guilt-ridden, conversation about work habits. Most of the students admitted that they still thought of their work in terms of single classes, single papers written for individual professors. They were not yet at the point where they thought of their scholarship as a long-term project. But, I warned them, sooner or later you have to get rid of those undergraduate work habits because they will kill you.
Undergraduates sprint – running as fast as they can to the finish line, exhausted, breathing heavily, perhaps even injured. You can’t sprint a marathon, unless you’re Khalid Khannouchi. In our work we should strive instead for long slow distance, projects developed in stages, leaving plenty of time for reflection, revision, editing, maybe even a productive diversion or two, even time to heal an injury (I’m thinking about nasty journal reviewers here).
In making the case for long slow distance, I won’t pretend that long and slow is easier. Marathons aren’t easy. You have to train for them – eat well, get plenty of sleep, pace yourself, listen to your body. You have to remain focused, and committed, for the long haul. And you have to make substantial changes in the way you train in order to complete it successfully, injury-free.
Our writing can, and maybe should, be the same way. Faculty members who operate under the flashing red lights of undergraduate work habits seldom produce the quantity and quality of work they would like. Graduate students who convince themselves that they can “cram” scholarly writing into late-night, caffeine-fueled spurts may eventually write, but they won’t develop a committed, daily writing practice that can sustain a project for the long-term. When we make space for the long slow distance of creativity to develop, when we nurture and train for those moments of peak performance, when we show up day in and day out to put in the miles on the keyboard, good things happen. Not always sexy things, or exciting things, but good things.