Octopus, v. intr.
by Dame Eleanor Hull
When I checked in with the writing group, I said, “The MMP is Octopusing like crazy.” In my pedantic moods, I would object to using octopus as a verb, and suggest “growing tentacles,” “expanding,” or “developing offshoots.”
But the unorthodox usage gives a good sense of the flailing madness that usually accompanies a serious case of the octopods. When you go from dealing with, let us say, a large and lively eel to wrestling with a ship-sinking Creature From The Vasty Deep, proper language use is the least of your worries.
The MMP began life as an exploration of Thing One and Thing Two because they had something in common with Thing Three, which for reasons I will not explain here could not be dealt with directly but needed the indirect approach via Things One and Two. It quickly became clear that rather than being auxiliary to a study of Thing Three, the MMP needed to be its own project.
It took longer than I care to think about, but last summer I was pretty sure I had got Things One and Two (my lively eels) wrapped tidily round each other in an attractive twist. There were just a few little bits to work on . . . and then Thing One grew a tentacle. The twist became a braid. Thing One threw out another tentacle. Plaiting-in-four is possible. But Thing Two was getting choked. Nonetheless, I kept taking notes and working on organization and thinking about historical background. I wish I could draw even as well as Bardiac—picture, here, a small two- or three-masted sailing ship, on a calm sea, under a sunny sky, sails happily belled out by a brisk but pleasant breeze, and Dame Eleanor, in period costume, rearranging piles of parchment on the poop deck, holding them down with deck quoits, while behind her rises the Giant Octopus of Doom, stretching its suckers toward the little ship. (Sort of like this or this or this.)
Along with my unexpected 880 words linking Thing One and a piece of textile art came (at last) the intimation that Thing Two really should be treated in its own article. I can’t say this hadn’t occurred to me before, but I always had very good reasons to keep trying to twist Thing One around Thing Two. However, at this point I have quite enough to do taming the Thing One Octopus. So yesterday I got out various old drafts, cut out all the Thing Two material, and put that in its own document. Behold: 6000 words about Thing Two. Granted, some of that is repetition, so I don’t really have a full 6000 words, probably more like 4000, but given a reasonable introduction and conclusion, and suitable references to bits of the scholarly conversation (all of which I left in the Thing One materials, for the time being), Thing Two is looking like a proper grown-up article all by itself.
So you see what I mean about the Octopus Touch. No wonder the MMP has given me such fits. It has already spawned the Companion-Piece and another spin-off (currently a draft cobbled together from two conference papers and some productive-procrastination work in Famous British Library last summer). I have another idea for a sort of meta-spin-off about the process of researching it and how medievalists have worked at different points in the last century. That’s actually 5 articles, if I get them all written, and you might think it should be a book. But the connections are sufficiently odd, and the “coverage” of what really is its larger topic sufficiently spotty, that I do think a linked series of articles is the right way to go.
Still. I seem to be as bad at grasping the scope of my projects as I am at estimating the time work will take. I suppose these elements are related—not that I know what to do about this, except to rejoice that I am a tenured American prof who can keep blithely sailing out to explore the deeps, octopoi and all, rather than a TT person who must produce or a Brit who has to deal with that whole HRC hoo-ha in which you have to say in advance what you’re planning to do, and then do it, or your department will lose funding, even if you actually discover something much cooler than what you set out to do.
I think I need a new job title: Dame Eleanor Hull, Octopus-Wrangler.