Writing Residencies: Dorland & Compartmentalization

Two weeks ago, we wrote about going “Back to Dorland” and how we are doing things differently this time.


View from the Porch

As a writer, I’ve had a love–hate relationship with compartmentalization. It’s taken me years to successfully combat notions that I should get other tasks—seemingly quick or urgent tasks—out of the way before sitting down to write. I like crossing items of my list of things to do. It makes me feel efficient. It’s been tough to do writing first on a given day or in a given week. It doesn’t help that writing is more difficult to complete in a way that’s crossed of the official list. But when writing is not done first, it’s less likely to get done that day or that week.

Though I’m not a morning person, not writing first thing risks not writing when I have the most energy, am most clear headed, and am least distractible. The One Thing by Gary Keller makes some hard-to-swallow leaps in its argument for radical reprioritizing and rescheduling but makes a good point that, as we work through decisions and focus on multiple tasks during a given day, our willpower gets used up. “So, if you want to get the most out of your day, do your most important work—your ONE thing—early, before your willpower is drawn down.”

Breakfast of Champion Writers (oatmeal with bananas and Greek yogurt)

An even more dangerous version of that get-other-stuff-done-first approach is the deceptive notion that, if only I could get all other tasks accomplished, I would have long stretches of time to write without any distraction. As melodious as that kind of thinking sounds and as much as my list of things whistles that tune of one more thing and one more thing, it’s impossible in real life to get everything else accomplished first.

If I am to write, other tasks—whether completed or pending, whether trivial or pressing—must be set aside. Writing residencies encourage a person to do that in a big way, for weeks at a time. But unlike Doug, I’m not at Dorland for a month straight. I’m on a writing residency for a few days at a time, then back in the semester for a few days, then back to Dorland, and so on.

When I’m at home, I’m completely focused on teaching, meetings, getting up to speed in my new role in the Office of Undergraduate Research, working on curriculum revision, socializing with colleagues, and such. If it’s a teaching day, that’s the priority—prepping and being fully engaged in class. I might go to a meeting before class, but only if I’m ready for class. On Wednesdays, I do one meeting, then the next, with other tasks (like lunch! and email or spontaneous conversation) in between as time allows. It’s intense but not frantic because it’s all scheduled. Because my schedule is tight, unimportant tasks fall away. I’m still being efficient (slashing through my list of things to do), but I’m being more effective as well (taking more control of what’s on the list in the first place).

Doug's Porch Buddy
Doug’s Porch Buddy

This jam-packed, time-blocked schedule has taught me something about email and requests from colleagues that The One Thing mentions: “Most often, these requests are more about an immediate need to hand a task off than about a need for it to be done immediately […].” In other words, I can, more often than I’d previously realized, acknowledge a task without immediately doing that task. And I can respond in ways that assure but also delay or delegate so that everyone feels less urgency. And perhaps for the first time, I see that more tasks than I’d expected aren’t important enough or relevant enough for me to do. When that happens, I feel surprisingly okay saying, No.

When I’m there immersed in the semester, I don’t think much about writing (except as something that I’m going back to in a few days). Work-work is switched on, and that overrides everything. It’s intense—the original Latin suggests, holding tightly in my grasp—in a way that fuels itself. Thus far, I’m incredibly productive at work-work. And then I drag my suitcase to the car and turn that mode off.

Dorland Bench for Sitting Calm
Dorland Bench for Sitting Calm

When I’m at Dorland, I’m completely focused on writing. Sure, we take a break to see a movie on Friday night, to sit on the porch each morning after breakfast, to walk the hill to clear our heads and tend to the exercise of our physical bodies (even when it’s 109 degrees, as it was this past weekend). I also make sure I know exactly what I must do to prepare for Tuesday’s class and allot time for that, even if it’s the end of my Dorland time—students can’t be set aside. Such breaks in activity, however, don’t undermine or compete with my focus on writing.

Writing—the creative work—is the priority for every day at Dorland. I’m relaxed and open to ideas. Time there feels large and flexible, curving to my wants. I sleep well and without an alarm. I write for hours at a stretch. I read a little, with writing in mind.

This past weekend, I reread Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (translated by husband-and-wife collaborators! Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). So, in those moments when I worry that I’m living a crazy month or shirking the expected routine, I recall Ivan Ilyich’s despair in the weeks before he dies:

“Maybe I did not live as I should have?” would suddenly come into his head. “But how not, if I did everything one ought to do?” he would say to himself and at once drive this sole solution to the whole riddle of life and death away from him as something completely impossible.

That first weekend after the semester started, I got nervous about work-work—about not doing what I ought—so I checked email while at Dorland. That was a mistake. I couldn’t not respond. Worse, I logged in again later, checking for responses to my responses. Email wasn’t merely a distraction. The One Thing states, “For time blocks to actually block time, they must be protected. […] So it’s your job to protect your time blocks from all those who don’t know what matters most to you, and from yourself when you forget.” Email and all the tasks it suggested inserted itself in my mindset and threatened my focus on writing. I need to keep the partitions up. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” At Dorland, writing matters most.

DorlandFeetMy life is compartmentalized this month, and I like it. This drastic partitioning of work-work and writing may be unsustainable for the long haul. (I may need, at the very least, a full day off from both modes soon.) The geographical switch—one mode at home, a different mode at Dorland—certainly helps reinforce the partitioning and keep me going. Compartmentalization as I’ve never known it before seems good for my writing right now.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s