In July of 2013, the noted historian and humanist, Anthony Grafton, was interviewed in The Daily Beast about his writing practice. His answer was revealingly candid. At the beginning of each weekday, Grafton said he would be seated at his desk by 8 a.m. and would work until noon. Four days a week, he’d begin with revisions, and then proceed to the creation of new prose. Years earlier, he had drafted his manuscripts by hand, but he’d been using a MacBook Air more recently, and its aluminum skin made for a neat contrast with the early modern bookwheel that held his dictionaries and weighty reference texts. “If I’m writing full-time,” he admitted, “I’ll get about 3,500 words per morning, four mornings a week.”
Days after the Daily Beast interview, L.D. Burnett, an American cultural and intellectual historian in the Humanities/History of Ideas Program at the University of Texas at Dallas, and a blogger for U.S. Intellectual History, challenged Grafton to a race. Marking out the words she needed to write to finish her book, Burnett set a daily pace, matched to her own best effort, and set out to get the job done. Then, Claire Potter, proprietor of the “Tenured Radical” site and a Facebook friend of Burnett’s, coined the Twitter hashtag #GraftonLine and encouraged her readers to join in. Soon, a Facebook page was created. And, just like that, Anthony Grafton had become the éminence grise of a new and unusual writing group, one that spanned the gap between senior faculty and graduate students, public and private universities, friends and strangers. By summer’s end, #GraftonLine had become a capacious proper noun, as much a play on measurement – a more positive “Mendoza Line” – as it was a synonym for ambition and drive.
Collaboration is old stuff, and technology – not merely Twitter and Facebook, but also personal blogs, Dropbox and Google Drive - is making it both easier and different. Steven Lubar, director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University, pointed me to @ProfessMoravec, who works with shared documents and Twitter, and encourages a crowd-sourced model of composition. On her personal blog, Claire Potter has been exposing her methods, revealing not merely how she writes but also how she assembles and archives her materials. At Historiann.com, Ann Little ably summarized her own experimentation with a full-throttle, early-morning #GraftonLine. John Fea locked himself up in a hotel room and generated over 30,000 words in one weekend. And me? Well, the #GraftonLine arrived in my Facebook feed at just the right moment – a big deadline was looming and my writing had stalled, so I owe a book to it.