Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
I need some help and advice people: how do you keep your research and writing going when the academic year starts again?
Halfway through the first week of teaching here and already the summer is a distant memory. This is a common experience for all of us working in universities: as the new academic year draws closer the number of emails goes through the roof and the demands of setting up new courses, organizing teaching and managing all our administrative roles increase. After induction week and a couple of days of teaching I’m already shattered. A bewildered expression and glazed thousand-yard stare can’t be far off now.
All of this is challenging and stimulating, of course—I like teaching and the opportunities to think and talk about the past with smart and motivated young people. Sometimes I even like negotiating university bureaucracy and working out how we might improve what we teach and how we teach it. But it also has its own frustrations. I guess most of us got into this job through our love of / obsession with the process of researching and writing about the past. When teaching and marking is done, that is where our attention turns for the summer or in a few snatched weeks over Christmas or Easter. This summer was a good one for me: I rented a friend’s house in rural Massachusetts, hid away from the world and did nothing but write (and ride my bike, but that’s a whole different story). After several years of struggling with the difficult second book, I finally managed to make real progress: 51,000 words and drafts of two big chapters completed. Sometimes wonders never cease.
But now what? I can’t hide out in the backwoods forever—maintaining my sanity and social skills and the demands of the day job put paid to that. So how can I keep up the momentum of my writing when there are so many other things to do? The momentum matters: getting back into writing after even four or five weeks off is difficult: at the start of the Christmas break I often find myself staring at a blank screen for days on end, trying to remember exactly what I think about interwar society and culture. Blocking out a day a week to write and think is one solution—though even then it can be difficult to switch focus from teaching to a very different kind of intellectual work. This time last year I did something different. Following a friend’s advice I made time to write for a couple of hours each day: getting up at six o’clock to sit in front of laptop at home before coming into the office. After a couple of months I was almost asleep on my feet. Still, even just those snatched moments of writing or rewriting a paragraph or section made a difference: When I had a full day for my own research it was easier to switch gear; at the end of term it felt easier to hit the ground running and make the most of a few weeks to work on the book.
At the moment I’m finding it far harder to do this though—I’m too tired and there’s too much other stuff to do. That explains this cry for help: what can I do to keep my research and writing going?
PS If you also have some advice on how I can continue to ride 200 miles a week during termtime in shit weather and through the dark nights of winter that would also be very much appreciated.