As Good As It Gets… for academics

One of my favourite historians is S. E. Duff, who writes about South Africa, empire, food, feminism, and a plethora of other things.  Recently, she discussed her superstitions when it came to the writing process.

The following quickly caught my attention:

I had become aware that my daily routines were becoming increasingly ingrained: that I’d begun to glare at hapless scholars who had taken ‘my’ desk at the British Library; that my day couldn’t really begin unless I’d had coffee in a particular mug; and that I could only use a special kind of notebook for research notes.

Duff argues, quite rightly, that academics might rely on zany, superstitious, and downright territorial writing behaviour because academia can be extremely stressful, competitive and precarious as a career choice; the result is (I’m paraphrasing here), we’re all a little nutty.

So, as I’m about to start the major research phase for my next book, I thought I would take her advice and look at my own writing/researching quirks to see where I fall in the pack.  (An academic engaging in navel-gazing?  Perish the thought!)

1)  When at the British Library, I must work in Humanities 2, preferably close to the reference desk, but not so close that I am bothered by the queue of people retrieving whatever they were working on yesterday.  Will Hodgkinson has said that HUM2 is both “smaller than its vulgar neighbour” and also where “its occupants can literally look down on the plebs in Humanities One.”  Amen.  Some people have tried to seduce me to move over to Rare Books — where the real crazies are — but I haven’t made the leap yet.

2)  If I have to use a book weight, I want it to be one of the ropes, not the device Victorians used to beat misbehaving children or stroppy servants.


… not this:

3)  When writing/reading, I can’t drink coffee after 11am.  10.30am, okay; 11am demands tea.  With milk.

4)  Note-taking — by hand or in Word — must be done beginning with a large idea on the far left of the page and working on a diagonal slant with subsequent points until there is either a new major point or I run out of room.  Quotes reset the whole business.  I tried to demonstrate, but WordPress doesn’t like my style choices.  Fitting.

5)  When it comes to music while I’m working, I need instrumental pieces or music where I cannot understand the language (German, Italian, Elvish, etc.).  Accidents can happen otherwise, like how Axl Rose inadvertently ended up in Ulster’s Men.  I have written, in both my PhD thesis and the eventual monograph, that the Battle of the Somme had an appetite for destruction that treated all Irishmen equally.  After also paraphrasing Yoda and Théoden in later chapters because I had the DVD player on for white noise, the instrumental only rule is fairly sacrosanct.  This also, however, involves making a specific playlist for each article/book chapter I’m working on, which takes a good three or four hours to put together.  Procrastination is a true work of art.

6)  Being an academic and, even worse, an historian, I tend to leave piles of books all over the place.  That said, I need lots of pacing space when I’m writing, so there’s always a long day of tidying before I can actually make my way to the desk.  I also have realized that I need to buy a new pair of large headphones: nothing made me write so much in London as when I was literally tethered to the computer.

7)  Self-bribery is a wonderful motivator.  “If you work on this paragraph for twenty minutes, you can check your email.  Or

8)  Finally, I have to unplug every phone in the house (or now, I guess, switch-off).  If I’m writing, leave some food for me outside the door and don’t expect an answer to anything that actually makes sense/matters because not only am I in my own little world, but I always feel like I’m having to sweep away the layers of dirt and dust from something that already is out there… somewhere.  In the ether.  I know that probably sounds like some sort of Michelangelo-and-his-marble paraphrase (“In every block of marble, I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me…”), but it actually has much more to do with that opening paleontology scene from Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park

So now, I suppose, the question becomes, is there a skeleton of the next book ready for me to find once I have all my quirks sorted out, or do I have to do more digging?


About midatlanticmusings

Historian of the Irish Diaspora and masculinities, wife, mother, lover of good books, red wine, fine whiskies, pop culture aficionado, and Star Wars wonk.
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