Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
Three weeks into 2014 and I still haven’t worked out what my targets are for the year ahead. It’s not that I don’t know what I need to do: by the time my research leave finishes at the end of September I want to have a final draft of The Prince of Tricksters to send off to my publishers, and a couple of chapters of my book on 1920s Britain as a foundation to build on over the next academic year. No: I’m uncomfortably—increasingly uncomfortably—aware of both of these demands on my time. The problem comes in figuring out the interim targets that will help me get from now to then. Yet without those stepping stones the idea of finishing one book and starting another becomes too much—an impenetrable dark cloud that hovers over me or a tangle of threads that I just can’t get hold of.
It should be easier than this. I find it much easier to set targets for myself as a cyclist—even if meeting them can is never turns out to be quite as straightforward as it first appears. For the kind of borderline obsessive that likes ticking boxes and numbers cycling lends itself to targets: getting out five times a week? That works. Riding 6000 miles in a calendar year? Sounds like bloody hard work but it’s a clear target and as the weeks and months pass you can measure your progress as a line on a graph or a percentage of what you’re aiming to do. Figure out some kind of training schedule and off you go.
This model doesn’t lend itself to thinking about writing though. It is so much harder to measure or count our progress—and, for that reason, to set targets that can be neatly captured in numbers. It’s easy enough to plan to write 400 or 1000 words in a day: sometimes it’s easy enough to do that. But there is no guarantee that any of those words will be good enough to include in the final version of an article or book or conference paper. Quality matters as much as quantity, and no matter what bureaucrats and the REF might tell us, that is far harder to measure. There are times when setting yourself a certain number of words to write in a given period might be a useful way of getting ideas on paper. There are other times, however, when you are revising or reworking or cutting and counting up words just doesn’t work. Given the current state of my book manuscript, for example, a more useful target might be to cut out 20,000 words so that I don’t end up sending off something quite as rambling and incoherent as I have at the moment.
As I have written elsewhere, one reason writing can be so hard is that it’s difficult to work out what counts as a success. A well-crafted sentence, an idea that almost makes sense and a paragraph on the page might all bring some pleasure, but can any of these be a useful target in and of itself? Without setting ourselves targets, however, we have nothing to aim for. With nothing to aim for it becomes almost impossible to measure progress towards whatever deadlines wait for us further down the line. Setting deadlines to finish the next chapter, a full first draft, a revised draft and a bibliography is always a useful exercise. Finishing a chapter or section can be a great feeling—providing a rare sense of achievement and (and this is important, I think) confirming that the end is always getting closer. On the other hand, not meeting targets that we set for ourselves can cause all kinds of anguish and anxiety. Right now I still have first drafts of two of the substantive chapters of my book to write. Back in the autumn I’d planned to have these done by last Christmas. Several weeks on and I am still a long way from getting them done—and that’s nagging at me more than I would like it. At the same time, I have done a lot more reading and thinking about the book’s introduction, and immersed myself in more of the important theoretical and historiographical literature, than I had planned to. Rather than beat myself up about it, perhaps this is one of those times to think carefully and revise my targets on the fly. It’s all moving towards the final goal, after all.
Maybe there is a useful comparison to make with cycling here. With writing and riding you can have targets that are events—a deadline with a publisher or journal is similar to a race or a big bikepacking trip in that sense. With writing and riding you also have targets that we might think of as processes—the writing schedules, chapter deadlines, training sessions and mileage figures that allow you to get where you want to be. As important as targets are, moreover, none of these processes should be fixed and unchanging. Sometimes the words flow and ideas come easily; at other times life gets in the way and it can be a real struggle to work with particular arguments or material. Sometimes (more rarely) the miles come easily; at other times the weather is crap, your legs are empty or you’re run down and ill. It’s at times like this, I guess, that I need to cut myself some slack, listen to my mind or body and think again about whether the targets I have set myself are realistic. Targets should be always-already in process, after all.
Where does this leave us? To be honest, I don’t know. For now my fall-back position is to fixate on the idea of target fixation. Typically, perhaps, this is another cycling term – though one borrowed from training fighter-bomber pilots during the Second World War. See that tree or rock further down the trail? Focus your mind and vision on it closely enough and your awareness of everything around it will diminish. Focus more intently still and no matter how hard you try to avoid that tree or rock you’re going to ride straight into it. I do it often enough on a mountain bike that target fixation has to come into play in my working life, right? Thinking about my book as an obstacle to ride into has to be a healthy solution to setting targets for the year ahead.
This blog is part of my ongoing attempts to share the process of writing a book from behind the scenes. You can find out more about the project here.