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Experiments in Cowriting

September 21, 2015

We all have preferences for how we work. Maybe you’re the kind of person who likes to work in complete isolation, in which case this blog post is not for you. But if you’re like me, there’s something appealing about being deeply engaged in your own work in proximity to people who are also being productive. This is why I have long struggled to work at home and instead tend to write in coffee shops and libraries. I’ve also experimented with more intentional forms of co-working.  For many years, my most successful attempt was with my friend Stephen. As a DJ, Stephen would work on mixes and set lists, while I would typically revise papers – beyond the fact that we’ve been friends for years and enjoy hanging out, I think we both got a lot out of the gentle pressure/quite support of collocated work. In the last few years, I’ve made several other efforts at co-working, spanning in-person, online and inter-species collaborations (#noclickbait – it’s not as exciting as it sounds), which I thought I’d share below. If you have other ideas for coworking, feel free to share them in the comments!

The SMC Writing Hour

One of the best things about my post doc at MSR was the awesome collection of visiting researchers (one of whom later became a permanent researcher!) who came through the lab. While Jonathan Sterne was visiting, he and Tarleton Gillespie floated the idea of a co-writing hour, when SMC folks would convene at a designated spot in the lab and write together. We picked a time slot and developed a loose set of rules – no talking, people should feel free to come and go as their schedules allowed and the idea was to write rather than do ancillary work like checking emails or fixing citations. Although participation had its waxing and waning, as a whole, I found writing hour a really productive experience. Beyond the fact that getting to write with colleagues who are also friends is a real treat and you get first-hand info on people’s peculiarities of writing (who uses headphones and who doesn’t, who can’t write without a giant cup of coffee, who takes periodic breaks to stare at the Charles River), the thing I love the most about co-writing is the feeling that productivity is contagious, and that being close to people who are jamming on their own projects spurs me to keep working on my own, rather than succumbing to those fleeting but constant moments of self-doubt and frustration.

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(Photo via flickr)

Alone together on Skype

But sometimes you don’t have the luxury of being surrounded by people whose schedules align and share a love of co-writing. Enter the Internet! Recently, my friend Germaine (another node in the SMC network) and I have a tried an online version of writing hour. We set up a time to Skype once a week, and when the allotted time rolls around, we say a quick hello, tell each other what we’re going to write and then put each other on mute – then we start to write. It’s early days, but so far I really like our long-distance writing sessions. I like being accountable to Germaine as far as clearly stating what I want to work on for the day, and her little face in the corner of my screen simultaneously makes me smile and encourages me not to dawdle on the internet or in the kitchen refreshing my coffee (which for me so easily turns into doing the dishes and then sweeping and then sorting mail). Although mediated, I get the same sense of accountability and productivity-by-osmosis. (I’m reminded of Katie Derthick’s work on videochat and meditation as an experiment in mediated connectivity.) I’m not sure if this dynamic would work as well between strangers, because there is something a little awkward about having someone watch you work, but maybe it would be worth a try.

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Beyond the anthroposcene

I mentioned above that I’ve always struggled to write at home, but partly this is because I’ve always lived in cities where I couldn’t afford a lot of space. Enter Philadelphia’s reasonably priced real estate market, and suddenly I have a home office! I also have cats (meet Adelaide and Shiyali), who apparently like coworking as much as I do, in that they tend to hang out wherever I am, including where I’m writing. I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot in the last few weeks as a result of some early analysis of a project I’m doing on how craftspeople organize their workspaces. During interviews with people who craft (including woodworkers, florists, soapmakers and others), I was struck by how many people (over half) referenced their pets in describing (and drawing) their workspaces.

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In an interesting way, the inclusion of animals while working is a kind of DIY counterpart to elite tech company’s initiatives to allow employees to bring their pets to work, sort of like the ways that craftspeople will make their own furniture and tools to fit their bodies in a parallel to ergonomics initiatives. Rather than (just) wanting to put a picture of (the world’s cutest) cats on the internet, I realized that beyond having space, one reason I’m able to write at home is that the cats give me another echo of being surrounded by activity. As someone who likes to work in the midst of others working, pets offer an echo of co-presence and keep me from getting frustrated when progress stalls. Like coffee and laptops and music, for many people animals contribute to the companionability of workspaces.  And they also give you an excuse to post cute photos on the internet.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2015 6:49 pm

    Have you heard of ‘Shut Up and Write’? These are sessions where people get together in a room for periods of time (sometimes over a number of days) to write together. Thesis Bootcamps also operate this way in the university context – they are popular are mine and others here in Australia. See http://thesiswhisperer.com/shut-up-and-write/ and https://services.anu.edu.au/training/boom-thesis-boot-camp

  2. Jessa Lingel permalink*
    September 22, 2015 9:54 pm

    Hi Deborah! I hadn’t heard of Shut Up and Write, but I’m all about writing retreats. In 2013, AoIR did a retreat in Estes Park, which was so terrific. I would love to see more conferences offering similar programs.

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