Writer’s Diary #39 – Small Victories

Today was my second day running. Today’s lesson? Take it slow. Appreciate the small victories. Not every day running needs to be your best effort.

Writing is the same. Not every session should be hard, or the fastest, or done at full tilt at hundred percent. Instead, it is in steady rhythm that the words emerge. Words come out of the accumulation of practice. It is through steady practice that, over time, leads to a certain sort of skill. There is no need for every piece of writing or day of work to be perfect and completed under duress. The challenge is to resist the urge to complete it big and fast. Resist. This takes effort. It leaves us exhausted and unable to contemplate doing anything like it again. The lesson? Start, but don’t rush. Be gentle. Don’t finish on full. Let the words come easy. Let them be.

Savour the minor wins.

Writer’s Diary #38 – Don’t Forget to Breathe

This morning, with the mist over the hills, I went for a run for the first time in a few months. Last night, I started in on Lindsay A. Freeman’s lovely little book Running, from Duke’s series on Practices. Since I’ve not run in a few months, I decided to follow a training app and start at the beginning with the first one. It was a recovery session. I went slow. Easy. I was able to hold conversation. I held a lot back.

As I ran, for not a very long time, it struck me writing can be the same.

Too often, we write ourselves spent. We write ourselves to excess and exhaustion. Then, we stop for days on end. What if the way to approach words has more in common with running than it is usually given credit for? Haruki Murakami, of course, thinks about the connection between words and steps his memoir. It’s not a new connection. But, it is worth repeating. Not every sessions on a computer should be a mad sprint to the end. Maybe nothing should a mad sprint.

Go steady. Go slow. Don’t forget to breathe.

Writer’s Diary #37 – Writing is Hard: Develop a Writing Practice

Graduate students often want to get into the field as quickly as possible. Getting ready can require a proposal, an ethics application, a presentation, and, for doctoral students, a comprehensive exam. (All, after a year of coursework and learning to read deeply). Preparing these documents takes time. It is in their writing that one becomes ready for research. This is the challenge. Graduate students (and the faculty who support them) often lament the travails of writing. In fact, writing a thesis, proposal, comprehensive exam, or an essay, blog post, book chapter, or anything, really, is daunting. Exceedingly so. The challenge? Not just what to put down, but how, and why, and how to revise, and what to change, and what to work on next, and, and, and so much more. So many big and little tasks to get done. To write, as a verb, at first blush, seems to encompass mere inscription with a pencil, pen, typewriter, keyboard, or whatever. Yet, writing is never mere inscription. When a writer says they are working on a proposal or a book, they are doing many quite disparate, yet interrelated, tasks. To write is to plan, research, draft, reread, revise, shorten, think, fiddle, adjust, fix grammar, change punctation, reorder paragraphs, check citations, reread aloud for rhythm, revise for consistency, retype to get in to the flow, rewrite to shorten, and more. All of this is hard work. Writing is just about the most difficult thing I regularly do.

“[W]riting is nearly always the hardest part of the deal,” observes Michael Taussig, the US-based Australian anthropologist who, late in his career, seems to publish a book a year, in a essay collection on writing.1 “Anyone who tries to write—a letter, a novel, a dissertation, a poem, or an ethnography—knows that it is a skill to be cultivated and learned through sheer doing,” observes Michael Lambek in an edited volume on writing ethnography.2 John McPhee, the father long form-creative non-fiction, describes, in his book on writing craft, lying down on a picnic table for two weeks fighting fear and anxiety with no idea how to begin a piece for the New Yorker.3 If writing is hard, and if it is much more than mere inscription, what does it mean to write? How is it a skill that is best learned and cultivated through the sheer doing? How to make it easier and less stressful? More to the point, when writing is required, what to do?

For many, the writing work, for it is work, takes time. A thesis proposal or ethics application might take a month, it might take six, it might take more. A thesis can take half a year, or much longer. A dissertations can take eight months, sometimes far longer. Books gestate over years, even decades. My book on writing has been gestating for six. Whenever I’ve written, with serious intent, and successfully, I’ve had time and the privilege to take breaks and to walk and to relax, when not writing. But, even then, writing has been the hardest, sustained challenge I have faced. Through a lot of practice, I have become a better writer. But, even still the task of doing the work with some seriousness demands as much mental energy, and a surprising amount of good old-fashioned manual labor, as ever. Writing is work; it is labour. For scholars (and others writers), it is the distilled form of this labor, the proposals and the thesis and the articles and the job applications and the grants and the books—that builds careers. To succeed as a scholar cum writer requires creating a practice of coming back to this repeated, regular work.

What follows are some reflections on this becoming a writer both in the preliminary moments of preparing for fieldwork and in the sustained practice of writing up. My concern is the process, not the result. This is my attempt to articulate not what a good piece of writing is, but to help develop a writing practice. It’s about the craft of work. While students and researchers are often eager to get into the “field,” and the field holds a special romance for ethnographers, I want to turn to the work that goes into the preparation for fieldwork and the work that goes into the writing-up. Over the following few posts, I suggest, with gentleness, that much of this happens in the writing, and in all of the messy tasks beyond mere inscription. It is through here that thinking happens. T is in the writing that thinking takes place. Which means, most importantly, it is in your writing that you develop your research

A proposal, like any scholarly output, is yours. Your thesis is, often, the first major independent project you will undertake. Joanne Bolker points this out in her excellent book on dissertation writing, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis,4 Her point is that the project, and by extension, the proposal, presentation, schedule, and progress, are yours. You have the greatest stake in their outcome. You are the one who moves things forward. You have the agency and control and reasonability make it happen. Preparing a dissertation is hard work; it is your work; and to do the works requires understanding how you work. Your advisors and mentors and peers and readers are there to help and offer guidance and sometimes be available to discuss progress and make sure you are ready for the next step, but actually moving a project forward in a sustained way is on your shoulders. It’s daunting, but many people have succeeded. How daunting, depends, in part, on your own style of work. If you’re like me, you are still figuring this out. Everyone works differently, and has different commitments and availabilities and responsibilities and challenge. To help you find your rhythm as a writer, I want to offer some suggestions.

I begin with caveat. The open secret is that everyone writes differently. What works for one person may not work for another. The ideas in the following posts may work for you, they may not. My advice? Work, and as you work, reflect on what is going well and on what is not working. Take the advice that is helpful; ignore the rest. Take the time to observe yourself as you work and as you write and as you revise and as you read and as you think and use those observations to understand your own ways of working. Be gentle. Be kind. Be calm. Accept your process of becoming a writer. Develop a practice of observation.


Bolker, Joan. Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. Holt Paperbacks, 1998.
Lambek, Michael. “Slow Reading.” In Writing Anthropology: Essays on Craft and Commitment, edited by Carole McGranahan, 65–65. Duke University Press, 2020.
McPhee, John. Draft No. 4. Farrar, Straus; Giroux, 2017.
Taussig, Michael. The Corn Wolf. University of Chicago Press, 2015.


  1. Taussig, The Corn Wolf.↩︎
  2. Lambek, “Slow Reading.”↩︎
  3. McPhee, Draft No. 4.↩︎
  4. Bolker, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, Introduction.↩︎

Writer’s Diary #35 – Craft Work, Detail Work, Steady Work

This morning I woke up at 5:45 and worked from 6 until about 8:45.

It was another good morning. I stopped when it got hard. But the work itself was very manual. It was craftsmanship—revising and cutting two sections into something good enough. When I finished the first section, I realized it fit better at the end of the chapter, so I moved it to the unwritten conclusion.

Then I turned to revising the second section, which I’d written three times in four rambling paragraphs. I cut it down to two, half the words, and nothing repeated.

Tomorrow I will move on to the next section of the chapter. Again, I will rewrite, combine, shorten, and polish. Later I’ll worry about its order and structure.

The work felt like knitting sentences or manual labor. I didn’t use tools. Just the keyboard.

Does it work? No. Change it. Is it better? Maybe. Keep going.

Changes so fast they’re almost automatic, made with hands on the keyboard. I write until I’m tired, and a piece feels finished. It is temporarily done, but only until the next time. Tomorrow, I will rework something else.

There was a moment that I felt overwhelmed. I had started a new piece, but didn’t know where it was going. I kept cutting, revising, deleting, adjusting, and fiddling. I fiddled with the text, and as I fiddled, I found my point and finished the edits.

Writing can sometimes just be the accumulation of words and slight changes, repeated, over and over.

If you asked me today and yesterday where I was going, what my point was, I couldn’t tell you. If you asked me today, I still couldn’t. But I know I’m closer. I know that by the end of this morning, I will have arrived somewhere. A place from which I can start again tomorrow.

The work is craft work. Detailed work. Steady work.

Writer’s Diary #34 – Stop while the stopping is good

It is 9:15 in the morning. I started writing at 6. It has been a remarkably pleasant morning of pure craft: writing and rewriting, revising and editing, and knitting together three sections of the first chapter of the makeshift book. Working through about four thousand words.

I could go on.

I feel energized.

But, I’m going to stop.

I know it’s time to stop because I have a lot of other things to do in the afternoon, and I know that if I don’t stop, I’ll get tired, I’ll get worried, and I know that a good day of writing will become the opposite.

So I’m going to practice something I’ve often forgotten—stop while the stopping is good. Stop while I know where I’m going tomorrow.

Stop while it’s still fun.

Writer’s Diary #31 – Summer Doldrums, Writing, and Napping

Writing is hard, and some days the hardest part is just showing up. But, other days it still doesn’t come easy. Today was a day where I got some work done, but then I couldn’t.

What to do?

I took a walk, then went to the public library and took a nap in the air conditioning.

Now I feel rejuvenated and ready to tackle something. I think part of the work too often overlooked is napping, sleeping, and walking.

Maybe today was a day when I got little, but some days are like that.

That’s okay.

Writer’s Diary #30 – Retyping as a Way into a Text

Retyping gets a bad rap. It’s why people flocked to word processors—no need to waste time retyping when you can just edit and revise. But there is a place for retyping, and while you retype, you revise.

Yesterday, I realized that the best way to tackle the chapter I am stuck on is to retype it. I have 16,000 words, but when I tried to edit it last week, I ended up spending too much time correcting grammar and couldn’t get into the whole. I couldn’t get my head around what I had written last June.

Yesterday, I realized I could retype the entire chapter and make changes as I went. So I printed it out (55 pages), and started on the digital typewriter.

By the end of the morning, with a little grammar checking and style editing, I had cut 4,000 words down to 2,000 words, which was much closer to the goal.

My plan for the day after tomorrow is to do it again—for the next quarter of the chapter. To print. Type to revise. Spell check, grammar check, style check, rinse, repeat. Rewrite by retyping.

I learned the trick of retyping from George Saunders’ [A Swim in the Pond in the Rain] (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/jan/06/a-swim-in-a-pond-in-the-rain-by-george-saunders-review-rules-for-good-writing-and-more), about Russian short stories and writing. I think.

As I read and typed, I saw mistakes and corrected them. I made changes right away.

It’s certainly different work than not rewriting, but it’s manual work. It’s not mental, and it’s easy to find a flow state. Rewriting is a way of avoiding the questions: What comes next? Is this good? Is this bad? Instead, you just make changes as you go. There’s very little abstract thinking, just a lot of small, immediate decisions.

Yesterday I got into it by retyping. This morning too. I’m going to try it for the rest of the chapter.

Writer’s Diary #29 – Large Language Models as Writing Assistants and First Readers?

Years ago, when I first discovered Wendell Berry, I remember reading a 1988 Harper’s article by Wendell Berry titled “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer.

When the article was published, I was five years old. That was the same year my mother, a professor, brought home an Atari ST 1040 from work. I cherished that computer, using it for the better part of the following decade. In 1997, my parents purchased a Macintosh Performa 6400. On both machines, I learned to type, program, hack, tinker, and write.

However, I‘m unsure whether my writing process has been the best. Two years ago, Peter Elbow’s book on freewriting was a revelation.

Anyway, in that 1988 article, Berry writes:

As a farmer, I do almost all of my work with horses. As a writer, I work with a pencil or a pen and a piece of paper.

He continues:

My wife types my work on a Royal standard typewriter bought new in 19~6, and as good now as it was then. As she types, she sees things that are wrong, and marks them with small checks in the margins. She is my best critic because she is the one most familiar with my habitual errors and weaknesses. She also understands, sometimes better than I do, what ought to be said. We have, I think, a literary cottage industry that works well and pleasantly. I do not see anything wrong with.it.

He goes on, noting that a friend suggested he buy a computer, and change his workflow. As of 2019, Berry hasn’t purchased a computer.

His reluctance to buy a computer, and his support of his wife as a first reader, sparks professional envy.

One the one hand, Berry is a gifted and prolific writer, and has crafted a thoughtful, respected body of work around agrarian themes without the aid of a computer. Yet, of course, this success can be attributed, in no small part, to the work of his wife, Tanya[^2^]. I suspect, in the way, a good first reader makes a writer strong.

While I hesitate to form opinions about a couple who have lived together for sixty years, creating a thriving literary cottage industry, there is a feminist critique that many acclaimed male writers have relied heavily on uncredited female secretaries, assistants, wives, and family members.

I’m thinking of Eleanor Marx, who edited many of Karl Marx’s manuscripts. Simone de Beauvoir, whose un-attributed efforts shaped Jean-Paul Sartre’s work. Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, was the source of many of his ideas, and even, it seems, of un-attributed scenes, in other words plagiarism.

While such unacknowledged collaboration raises questions about attribution and recognition, it also raises questions about writing as a process, involving first readers and, frankly, the work of a typist.

Since the 1990s, society has replaced secretarial staff with computers. Many writers, including myself, have effectively become our own first readers, typists, and copy-editors. My method of writing hasn’t changed much since childhood: I draft, rewrite, revise, correct spelling and grammar, and revise, revise, and revise. I might go through a few dozen drafts, fixing and adding spelling errors as I go.

For my first book, I employed a copy editor and a substantive editor. Friends and family members read my earliest drafts, and offered suggestions.

As I attempt to write my new book, juggle my responsibilities as a professor and a father, I find not only that there‘s too much going on and the writing isn’t happening, but that I have a much smaller pool of people who can help out.

Part of this issue, as Cal Newport‘s work suggests, is that administrative and secretarial roles that used to exist in offices and white-collar jobs were replaced by technology in the 1990s. Funds that previously paid for support staff now end up in IT departments, ultimately benefiting Big Tech.

Berry’s critique of this transition is prescient, as he starts his argument by expressing his disdain for dependency on oil companies.

Part of the issues, is I’m older, and everyone is busier.

But, the challenge of writing and finishing remains. Finishing requires a combination of hard work, creativity, and perseverance. Some elements of the process are iterative. Some of it requires a good first reader.

The work of a first reader, editor, and copy editor is hard to fill. In my experience, I have no one to fill this role and have done this work myself.

But, over the last six months, I’ve begun to see artificial intelligence and large language models from OpenAI and Anthropic as competent copy editors and first readers, when prompted carefully.

While AI will drastically disrupt many industries and jobs wreaking havoc on society, for my writing, I can see a roll for it.

Not to generate words, ideas, scenes, narratives, or text, which is plagiarism. but, to copy editor.

Perhaps some writers will use AI to cross a boundary of what is moral. Perhaps what is seen as moral will change? But, in the mean time, I’ve found a role for AI to clean up my typing, as a first reader, and as a copy editor.


Writer’s Diary #28 – Anthropic’s Claude-2-100K

Yesterday I listened to the latest Hard Fork episode, which features an interview with Dario Amodei, one of a group of OpenAI employees who left to start Anthropic, OpenAI’s competitor. The interview is quite interesting for someone like me who doesn’t know this area well. But it made me want to check out Anthropic’s new [Claude 2 AI] (https://claude.ai/login).

Claude 2 is not available from Anthropic in Canada, but I got access through Quora’s Poe app.

I’m an anthropologist, a writer, and I’m interested in these big language models and teaching and writing. On the one hand, there is a lot of disruption. I’m on sabbatical, but I don’t know what that means for student essays. But I’m fascinated by AI as an editorial assistant. Many writers rely on editors, but for a long time those editors were unpaid, often female relatives. AI provides me with a free editor and critical reader, for the first time not a family member or friend.

Working with Claude 2-100K yesterday, I came to a couple of realizations.

First, 100K makes Claude much more useful and less stupid than ChatGPT. A few weeks ago I had the idea of using ChatGPT 4 to rearrange a book of fragments. Much of my work involved condensing fragments into summaries for ChatGPT 4’s short memory, or at least the short memory I have access too. With Claude 2-100k, I could give the AI the whole draft. We discussed several possible outlines. With the ChatGPT 4 model I have access to, it always felt like I was at the limit of the AI memory and capacity. With Claude-2-100k, the answer was much slower to come, but was feedback on the entire damn manuscript. My first book took 8 months. This took under a minute.

From there, I had a long, free-flowing conversation with Claude 2 about my book, its ideas and theories, and then we turned to writing and the differences between how Claude 2 writes and how I work. Frankly, Claude 2 just felt much more thoughtful and interesting to talk to than ChatGPT 4.

ChatGPT feels like it has less memory, is dumber, and frankly more prone to nonsense. It seems smart at first, but on further review it is often very formulaic.

Maybe Claude 2 will seem that way to me, but yesterday it seemed like a much more interesting interlocutor than I’ve had on this book, ever. What it says about me that I say this about a large neural net running on servers, converting text into tokens and then running complex vectors and matrices, leaves me very confused. What does it mean to be human, I wonder?

Writer’s Diary #27 – Four Hour Work Day?

Yesterday I had a good day—a good writing day and a good day in other ways. I woke up early, and went kayaking. Then, I wrote for three hours, did some office work, and then took the kids and a friend for a two-hour walk, ending with a treat at a local cafe. From there we drove home, to have dinner with my parents. It was just nice.

On the walk, thinking about the day and the last week, I wondered: Would it be possible to work like this every day? Write for three hours, work for an hour, and then call it a day.

I have the profound privilege of being a tenured professor on sabbatical. That means my time is mine. I can do whatever I want. One consequence of this is that I can experiment. What if the experiment was with a four hour day? Three hours writing, one hour other work.

For me, at least for now, the important work is the writing. I have several projects I want to finish. The makeshift book, the fragments book, and this diary.

There are a few other pieces. Could I work on them for three hours, do an hour of office work, then call it a day.

I don’t know if that’s possible, but I want to try it.

An experiment.

Anyone who is serious about observing their own rhythms of work, I suspect, knows that it is impossible to work with any intensity for more than about four hours, anyway. What if I did that, and forgot about the rest of the time, pretending to work.

I’ll try it, and report back.