Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Time Management Tuesday: The Butt-in-Chair Strategy. What Is It?

My on-line secret mentor, Jane Yolen, is often credited with, if not creating the expression butt-in-chair (which she abbreviates BIC), at least promoting it. I'm not a hundred percent sure what she meant by butt-in-chair, beyond the fact that writers have to sit down and do the work, just as anyone needs to do the work required in any field.

The expression butt-in-chair has come to mean, I think, a strategy that involves simply soldiering on. It's often seen as a method of working for those who are strong enough that they can just put their shoulder to the grindstone and push. When I see it used, it is often accompanied by a certain amount of judgement addressed toward those who don't have the natural discipline to simply plow through a project.

Author and teacher J. Robert Lennon wrote just this past April that what he termed "the ass-in-the-chair canard" "...is in fact an insult to almost everyone who has ever struggled with the creative process, and as a teaching tool is liable to do more harm than good. It embraces several dangerous lies: that writer's block is the result, first and foremost, of laziness; that writing (indeed, any creative pursuit) is like any other form of labor; and that how hard you work on something is directly correlated with how good it is." As he also says, being able to sit down and work relatively easily without struggle isn't a moral victory making one writer superior to another. It is simply a method of working.

There is that business of having to put in the time, though, and actually do the work.

This brings me to Butt-In-Chair: A No-excuses Writing Productivity Guide for Writers Who Struggle to Get Started by Jennifer Blanchard. I first heard of Blanchard through one of her blogs, Procrastinating Writers. What I found particularly interesting about her book, is that while early on it includes the kind of judgmental material I've come to expect when I hear "butt-in-chair" (too tired, too busy, too distracted, for example, are treated as excuses for not writing and not as problems that could be addressed), the book is otherwise filled with traditional anti-procrastination material and even time management techniques. Butt-in-Chair is addressed to "writers who struggle to get started," meaning, I assume, new writers, and there is a great deal of work management material in it for people at that stage.

While reading it, though, I kept thinking, how is this butt-in-chair?  People who practice a butt-in-chair work strategy simply work. What do they need any of this for?

Then I wondered, But do they? Just work, I mean. Is it possible that butt-in-chairers follow some time management strategies they're not aware of? Do some of them, for example, take a break for coffee every hour or so, inadvertently breaking their time into units and thus tricking their minds into believing they're starting out fresh when they go back to their desks with their cups? Do they move between projects for the same reason? New project, new energy? Do they work early in the day as much as they can, when their self-discipline is at its highest? Do they break their calendar year into big units, with some time for specific writing projects, some for study, some for marketing?

In short, I am now wondering just what butt-in-chair means. Is it really a specific method of putting in writing time? Or are we simply talking here the acceptance that the writing time must be put in with no how specified?


J. L. Bell said...

I've never understood Jane Yolen's "butt in chair" advice as a way to get through writer's block. (I may wrong her, but I don't get the sense that Jane often suffers from that problem.) Rather, I saw it as advice for people who say they have lots of ideas or ambitions but aren't recognizing the work they have to do to make those thoughts real.

It may relate to time-management in this regard: without recognizing that storytelling requires significant amounts of "butt in chair" time, a person may not include that in his or her schedule. All very well to talk about writing stories, Jane might say, but you do actually have to sit down and write.

Writer's block, significant storytelling challenges, revision—those seem like more advanced challenges that arise after someone is in the habit of applying butt to chair and ink to paper. Sometimes soldiering on works, sometimes it doesn't.

Gail Gauthier said...

I've never associated her expression specifically with what's known as writer's block, either. And I may have misled people into thinking that Robert Lennon was speaking specifically about writer's block by using that particular quote from his post.

I also considered using this one, "When you tell somebody to put their ass in the chair, you are, in effect, saying, “Your problem is that you're lazy. If you were more like me, you'd get more done.” You are, in effect, saying, “I'm better than you are.”" I do get that impression from some of the people who talk about putting butt to chair being all someone needs to do in order to write. But, of course, that may be a matter of what I'm hearing versus what they're saying.

When Jane Yolen uses BIC, I'm not sure whether she means something like that or if she simply means that you have to accept that the work of a writer involves sitting down and writing. That is a significant point. I think there are many people who believe they want to write who just can't wrap their heads around the fact that you do actually have to put in time to write in order to do it.

J. L. Bell said...

I suspect a determined person can read any advice as meaning, "I'm better than you are."

Gail Gauthier said...

Yes, that's the old "What I hear" vs. "What you say" issue.

In terms of time management, I think butt-in-chair relates because the concept itself--you must sit down and write--doesn't address how someone manages their time in order to do that. It's like the "If you really want to do something, you'll find a way" statement. Okay, well, how?

Do people merely place their butts in a chair and something mystical happens so they get their work done in spite of the "opportunity cost" to them? (They can't use that time to deal with needs such as generating income to live on, deal with their personal lives, etc.) Or do they come up with some kind of strategy to manage their time so they can keep their butts in their chairs?

In which case, it's not the butt-in-chair advice that's helping them, it's whatever they've come up with to do that enables them to get and keep their butts in chairs. That's what I think people really need to know.