We all have been there: or, at least many of us have. That is, the experience of having a writing brainstorm at an inopportune time. It may disrupt our sleep at 3 am, appear in the middle of office hours, or make itself known as the latest crisis is unfolding on Queen Sugar: often as a partially digested kernel of an idea. Much as writer’s block inevitably comes when we have All. The. Deadlines, that nugget of brilliance does puckishly seem inclined to appear when we are not in an immediate position to write. It has the potential to make a work-in-progress so much better, but its evanescent nature means it may not stick around until we are back in front of our computer. So what’s a scholar to do when they have a stroke of genius and don’t have a block of writing time immediately available?
As I embark on my first experiences mentoring master’s students through their MA thesis processes, I have thought more about my own research process. I consider both how to tackle common writing problems, such as the uneven writing that typically comes from disorganized brain storms. And more specifically, I have thought about how I organize my thoughts and make my output more efficient. The two students I am working with both aspire to PhD programs, and I aim to help them develop good scholarly habits now. The tools and habits that produce good undergraduate papers do not always translate well into more scholarly writing environments. The first year of a PhD program is not an ideal time to make that discovery. I also have had conversations with some current PhD students who asked about my process, so here goes…
Since my PhD program, I have been a keeper of research notebooks…and I do mean plural. For better or for worse, my brain loves to drop these little morsels when I’m sleeping, in the car, the middle of dinner, or otherwise occupied. As a result, I keep notebooks and pens in my purse, my laptop bag, my glovebox, my nightstand, and one in my desk at work, in which I can record ideas as they pop up. I also have one primary research notebook where I try to record my thoughts after days in the archives, or even to map out the organization of a chapter or essay I have in progress when I don’t have an extended distraction-free time to write. I transfer ideas from my other notebooks into my primary research journal and may spend some time trying to develop them further. Sometimes, the mere act of putting pen to paper in service of transferring these notations to my main journal will set me on fruitful a chain of thought that helps me develop my more ephemeral ones to a point of usefulness.
I also frequently write an entry after I have read a book or article of relevance to current projects, specifically to help me process where my own scholarship fits in the historiography. (And to identify where I might need to make adjustments.) For instance, my current book project has a chapter that considers Africa in the African-American imagination, and the politics of colonization. I recently finished reading Sharla Fett’s Recaptured Africans, which has been thought-provoking and suggested some adjustments to my argument. There’s likely to be a journal entry working through those adjustments. I may also use journaling to work through a response to feedback. Black print culture features prominently in this book project, but for obvious reasons, some writers (Phillis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano) feature more prominently than others. So in addition to bringing in as many Black voices as possible, I needed to work through how to address inevitable questions about representativeness, and also about their predominately white audience (and white control of colonial/antebellum print shops and distribution networks). Writing about these questions in my journal helped me to figure out how to respond to that feedback. In particular, it has proved a fruitful place to consider how Marisa J Fuentes‘ approach to fractured sources in Dispossessed Lives might shape my approach. Or how some of the new scholarship on Black print culture by Stephen G. Hall and others might suggest tweeks to my own work.
If I have a brainstorm for a future project (whether traditional scholarship or a digital project), I note that too. This way, I always have plenty of inspiration for new projects. With my thoughts organized, I am able speak intelligently about my work to acquisitions editors when the opportunity arises, even if the research is not yet finished. For the job market, it also serves a preparatory function. My first book is out. My ground work means I have thoughtful responses when search committees ask me what’s next.
When I do have a distraction-free time to write, I spent a few minutes flipping back through my research notebook. I have found that the notebook helps me to pick those fleeting brainstorms back up so that I can develop them further. It also helps me to identify specific, manageable writing tasks to tackle during my writing time, rather than wasting much of the sometimes 45-60 minutes I have to write that day (and I do try to write every day). Additionally, while I view myself as a teacher-scholar and do not see teaching and research as mutually exclusive, but my research notebook process has also allowed me to continue to produce, while teaching in (multiple) contingent positions at teaching-centered institutions.
Obviously, what works for one scholar may be useless for another. Still, I have decided to have my MA thesis students keep notebooks (just one each). My main purpose has been to help these junior colleagues think very deliberately about their own research, and in particularly, to get them in the habit of routinely re-evaluating where their own works fits with broader historiographical themes. It is a very necessarily skill to master, and one that takes practice. I hope too, it will help them to focus (as it has me) and produce a more polished MA thesis that helps them stand out favorable in the pool of hopeful PhD applicants. Have a process that works for you? Share it in the comments below!