The Writing Life ... One in a Series

Mr. Stearns, Provost of George Mason University, is the author/coauthor and editor/coeditor of eighty-four books (including revisions). One of his many books: THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORLD HISTORY.

I need to preface these remarks by insisting that HNN editor Rick Shenkman asked me to write on “how really productive scholars organize their time.” My comments will leave me vulnerable to various accusations, so I don’t want excessive pride to be needlessly exaggerated.

Rick also insisted that I mention that I have a fulltime job in academic administration, as Provost of George Mason University, while still managing to write fairly regularly.

I have written and do write a lot. This leaves me open to claims that I write too much, which is certainly possible, or with insufficient profundity, also possible; but these are not the problems I was asked to comment on here so I’ll simply offer the acknowledgements while personally believing that for the most part they do not apply.

It is not boastful to note that, probably predictably, people often ask me how I turn so many books out. I actually find the questions embarrassing, because I don’t have entirely satisfactory answers (which may mean in turn that even if you’ve read this far, you should stop now). To some extent, I think I just do it. It may be relevant that my mother was a somewhat driven person, with a passion for doing things promptly that I have certainly inherited; my father was actually a historian-writer but with far different habits from mine.

Unlike many productive colleagues, and partly because I have other tasks, I don’t have a set writing time, though if I have something in the works I usually get a bit of activity in first thing in the morning, while previous evening thoughts are with me (on which I sometimes take notes) and before the appointments begin. I do not stay up extra late or get by on little sleep. I do sometimes write on weekends, again if something is in the works, but not all the time. I tailor some of my leisure to getting ready for the creative tension of writing, but have no magic formulas here.

Four thoughts, which I think interrelate. First, I took piano lessons and then typing, so I was all set for digital activity.

Second, and much more important, I really think through where I’m going with a chapter or essay. Sometimes the ideas crowd my head so that I have to get them out, as if relieving pain (this applies to the evening thoughts that I have to finish up the next day). I don’t usually write a formal outline (except the chapter sequence for a whole book, though that often changes in course). But I do have the sequence of data and argument firmly in mind.

Third, as long as a unit is started, I can get back to it and write something even in a spare ten minutes. (I do need at least a half hour for launching, and sometimes a bit more; but then it flows). I have always loved the account of how Thomas Aquinas could dictate different parts of a book to as many as three separate scribes. I like to indulge some similar juggling with regard to writing and my other tasks. It’s a delightful challenge and provides soothing contrast to some of the administrative nonsense. By this point in my career I really find writing an essential part of my life, calming despite my periodic sense that there’s a compulsion to get a particular thought down. There’s more than a slight sense of holiday when I can sneak in twenty minutes between the many meetings where I have to plead with faculty to ask me for money.

Which leads to the fourth and final point: it all gets a lot easier with practice. My doctoral dissertation dragged terribly during my final year of graduate school, which was also my first year teaching. I did end up writing it pretty fast because I had a job that required completion, but the creative process as a whole was not very streamlined. Writing becomes not only more familiar, but more essential, after the first few projects. I also learned – it took three research projects for this – to let my head handle materials, selecting from my notes, rather than having the notes painstakingly dominate. Finally, I have learned perforce how to use good research assistants, and I’ve been blessed with a number, something I couldn’t imagine doing when I was getting started.

And pretty obviously, as this ramble may suggest, I do like to see myself write. Hope this particular result is at least a bit helpful.

Editor's NoteOur email asking Mr. Stearns to write a piece went out at 10:07 am, last Thursday. An hour later he wrote back to ask how long it should be. We answered thirteen minutes later. Exactly thirty-seven minutes after that the completed article appeared in our in-box. As we informed Mr. Stearns, that was "a record!" And so it was.

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Nancy Tann - 8/19/2004

Having made the transition in the last five years to writing on a computer, I notice how much more fun it is. When we can edit, cut and paste so easily, the word processor becomes a tool like writers have never had.

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