Dame Eleanor Hull


Although I’m not in the TLQ group, I often follow along because it can be motivating to see other people’s efforts to get to the truly important stuff, and comforting to see how/when/why they have trouble getting to it (since I also often get distracted by the Urgent rather than focusing on the Important).  This week’s topic made me want to write about something I started doing last week (that is, before this topic posted).

I don’t do well with external rewards, no matter what they are.  Either I want the thing now, rather than later; or I’m going to do it later whether or not I am done with the tasks; or I find that I don’t really want the thing after all, in which case it’s a lousy motivator.  And yet just having the satisfaction of having completed a task does not necessarily motivate me, either.  It may feel like way too small a portion of the whole thing: I wrote a paragraph of my book, big whoop; how many hundreds of paragraphs to go?  Or it may be something that provokes disproportional anxiety (hello, phone calls), so that the delight of having it over with is dwarfed by the agony of doing it combined with the feeling that I am doing-it-wrong because I can’t manage to think of this as the simple task it is for other people.

Okay, so having already admitted that I’m both perverse and pathetic, I will now tell you how easily I am motivated by a kindergarten technique: colored stars.  On difficult days, I keep a list not of things to do but of things I have done, and I assign myself points for them and draw colored stars or flowers to celebrate having done them.  I choose points depending on how hard it feels to do things.  The easy routine things like administering cat meds are one point; writing 400-500 words is five points; calling the insurance company is at least 10 points.  I don’t do anything with the points, like adding them up to win prizes of some kind.  It’s just a way of acknowledging to myself that that task took some energy and so I should get some recognition for it.  Drawing a star or flower or doodle takes very little time, a few seconds for a one-pointer, maybe a minute for something fancy to celebrate a ten-point task, but it’s a creative break from doing harder things.  And getting a page full of colored doodles for things I have done is surprisingly motivational.  I think drawing them myself is important.  Stickers don’t have the same effect unless they’re part of a design I have made.

Next year I’ll see if this works for grading.

Slowing down time

Usually I feel like I have way too many things to do, and days go by way too fast.  I am shocked by how little I get done, and I don’t know where the time went, and I start the next day feeling behind.  I expect you know what I mean.  This sense of being harried is why we’ve had writing groups and the Top Left Quadrant group, after all.

However, I have recently discovered the secret to slowing down time, and for what it’s worth, I’ll share it.

Don’t do anything.

Since the beginning of November, I’ve been sick with some sort of respiratory crud.  Recovery is steady but very slow.  For the first week, I didn’t even try to do anything.  If I wasn’t in bed, I was on the couch (or on one warm day, on the front porch).  I did a little bit of scholarly reading in a book that is sufficiently off my usual path that, although it is surprisingly useful, I would not have checked it out if I were not on leave.  Mostly I napped or stared out the window or read fun books, since I’m not a big fan of TV, and anyway the TV is in Sir John’s lair because he likes to have it on when he works at home.  So I could read a few pages, and look out the window, and read a few pages, and zone out for awhile, and then find that maybe 30 minutes had passed.  I did not cook, I did not do any housework, I most certainly did not go to the gym.

Now I’m back to doing some work, and some cooking, but I’m still taking it easy and the days still seem long.  I’m sure the sense of pressure will return as my health improves and I get more worried about Doing All The Things.  That is, I would love to believe that this experience has somehow permanently changed me so that I can maintain this zen-like calm for the rest of my life, but I doubt it.  It is definitely an interesting shift in perspective, though, and while I’d rather not have got sick, I’m enjoying the sense that the main thing I need to do is rest and recover, and any other little things I get done are gravy.

So I guess this is why people try things like the “Three Things” approach to to-do lists (no more than 3 things per day) and why you get advice about going out and staring at the sky for 10 minutes when you feel stressed.  Looking at nature is a way of slowing down time and getting away from the harried feeling.

If I were teaching, I’d be very worried about missing classes, and would be pushing myself to get to school or keep up with students via online assignments, and it would all feel awful.  And then I might be like my colleague who had this or a similar illness and for whom it advanced to bronchitis so that she has been sick even longer than I have.  I wonder whether next year, if I get sick, I’ll be more willing to stay home and get over it rather than toughing it out.  The thing is, I usually wonder if I’m malingering, if I just don’t want to go to school and deal with people.  This year, I’m quite sure that that is not the problem!  The problem is that I’ve had a nasty virus.  And since I’m sure of what the problem is, the usual nagging voices (you should go to school, you’re such a slacker, you’re not that sick) have shut up and are leaving me alone.  I don’t feel guilty about staring out the windows, or watching the cats, and when I get back to work it’s because I really feel like doing a bit.  If I can retain even a little bit of this calm after I’m fully recovered, I’ll be grateful for this illness.

Days in lives: writers, editors

Writers on how they spend their days: https://veschwab.wordpress.com/2015/09/16/18-authors-share-a-day-in-the-life/ A few commenters add their own routines (one invites his friend Neurotic Anxiety for overnights).

Follow-up post, editors on how they spend their days: https://veschwab.wordpress.com/2015/09/25/9-editors-share-their-day-in-the-life/

These are writers and editors of fiction, not academic writers, but some have day jobs or mention getting writing done before teaching starts. Besides, I like to think that what I write is creative, though in a different way from fiction, and ultimately writing is writing, IMO.  I notice that the editors seem to have even more meetings than Sir John does.

This morning I got to correct some proofs.  I love correcting proofs because it is a task that will stay done, unlike writing where you have to keep coming back to it every day to add some more, or revisiting a piece that is supposed to be finished because someone kindly mentioned that it would be better if you added this and this, reorganized that, and cut the other thing.  Improving a piece is good.  But being DONE for good and all is great.

Les pleurants

2015-09-13 Les pleurants

(Du tombeau de Philippe le Hardi, à la Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine [fermée aujourd’hui à cause des événements du 13.11.15])

Totally. Awesome. Fantasy.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Highly recommended. And I read all the way to the end, this time, not like when I was excited about The Magicians and then was disappointed with the last third of it.

It’s long. It’s involved. It took me three days to read, or maybe it was four; I’ve been sick all week and have kind of lost track of days. This kept me very happily immobilized in between coughing fits and hot-drink-brewing, but if you have actual real work to do and are the kind of Literature Addict who has to read it all, then you might want to put this off till vacation, or flu, or something.

It’s also very funny. Sir John has started it, and we’ve been reading bits aloud to each other and snickering.

If you liked HP, but found it a little too illogical, if you had trouble with willful suspension of disbelief during it, if The Magicians was a little too dark (and Quentin too much of a wanker), if you are interested in what happens when the scientific method collides with magical training, then I predict that you will love this book. I’m pretty sure Nicole and Maggie will get a bang out of it. This version of Harry bears a certain resemblance to Miles Vorkosigan (and I say that like it’s a good thing . . . ).

And if you lose several days to a reading binge, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Ooooh! A post about fantasy.

A new Ellen Kushner! And a selection to read here! Excited as I am, I’m going to hold off on buying it, because this is the time of year when I start saving up stuff-I-want for the Christmas list. Sir John and his family believe in Lists, so no one will be disappointed by getting socks or a lava lamp, and sometimes I have a terrible time coming up with things I can ask for. But this will be great.

One of the (many) things I love about the Riverside world is that Kushner managed to insert a fantasy-inflected academic novel inside the “fantasy of manners,” in Fall of the Kings. It’s a convincing academic world, one in which people care, passionately, about history and mathematics, about knowing, where it’s clear what history is good for in practical, political terms, but also where the past is, simply, interesting, where academic politics get in the way of research, where the joys of research are in themselves magical. There is “real” magic, yes; but Kushner seems to grasp that learning is itself magical and does not need to be overly-equipped with Major Arcana like the Holy Grail, or magical critters of every possible stripe.

The contrast I’m thinking of is a book I would like to like, which came highly recommended by a friend; I enjoyed the beginning because it gets Oxford and the Bodleian down so perfectly, and I can easily swallow enchanted manuscripts (aren’t they all?). But when it comes to vampires and the rest of the exotica, my willful suspension of disbelief breaks down. I suppose I was scarred by Bram Stoker, but to me vampires are icky and I cannot face any of the vampire-hero fiction. Well, OK, I tolerate Harry Dresden’s brother Thomas, but the whole point of Jim Butcher’s Dresden series is how incredibly over-the-top every single book is. Disbelief never even gets off the ground. My interest is always “how is he going to get out of it this time?”

So Ellen Kushner’s evocation of a world where magic is nearly gone, deliberately suppressed, but can be approached through beat-up old books by scholars who know how to interpret their language and symbolism, that floats my boat. That’s my world . . . plus a little something. It’s the world I glimpse when reading my own old romances, the world that’s just around the corner from this one, where the magic lies in grasping what was magical for people of 500 or 700 years ago. Scholarship, when it’s well-done, creates (or re-creates) something that is akin to fantasy. And Kushner, I guess, creates fantasy that is akin to scholarship. Minus the footnotes, but we have Susanna Clarke for that.

And now, back to my own efforts at creation. Revisons of the MMP-Octopus. Someday all the bits of that project are going to see the light of day.

Sod’s law

It looks like there might be some marginal entries on this page of a manuscript, but the photo I took is blurry. And I didn’t re-take that particular page, even though I have multiple good pictures of the previous page, and multiple good shots of a single comment on another page.

Why?  Why did I not notice that that one was blurred, or that there was something there I might want a decent shot of?

Why aren’t all my photos in focus, in the first place?

Grumble grumble grumble.

Maybe someday I’ll get another look.  For now, I’m going to have to finesse this.  Please let the reviewers not pay too much attention to the paragraph in which the finessing happens.

Tea/coffee, English/Continental, Pym/Thirkell

I have long been a tea drinker. I normally make tea in the morning (loose if I have a little leisure, a bag if I’m running out the door or am just too groggy), and read while I drink it and wake up. One of my great pleasures when traveling alone is to take a cup of tea back to bed and read or write in bed, which I cannot do at home since Sir John and I live in different time zones.* At least, I do this when I’m traveling alone in England, where hotel rooms are always equipped with an electric kettle, or in the U.S., where there is always a coffee maker that can usually be coaxed to produce hot water that doesn’t taste too much like coffee if I take the thing apart and clean it.

However, Barbara Pym’s observations in Excellent Women about tea on the Continent still apply in the present day: “When it comes, it’s a pale straw-colored liquid . . . and the tea’s in a funny little bag . . and they may even bring hot milk with it.” As to the pale liquid, I might add that you’d be lucky; usually you get a pot of slightly-more-than-lukewarm water and the funny little bag still in a paper wrapper, and you have to inflict the making of pale and unsatisfactory fluid on yourself. The same points apply to many restaurants and cafes in the U.S.**

Thus, on my recent trip, after a couple of unfortunate mornings with straw-colored liquid, I resigned myself, with increasing pleasure, to cafe con leche rather than tea. It was of course necessary to get dressed and leave my room for this, because Continental hotel rooms do not provide kettles or coffee makers.**** I never thought of the French and Spanish as a batch of morning people, but apparently they achieve some minimal level of functionality before caffeine input in the morning, at least when they’re not in their own homes. (Getting the cafetière going is a recurrent trope in the modern novels I have been reading lately.)

After a week of cafe con leche in a southern Spanish plaza, tea chez moi just didn’t taste right. And so I thought that perhaps this year, my “something new and different” that “you didn’t do as a normal part of the work routine when you weren’t on leave” could be cafe con leche. It did occur to me that I run the risk of turning into an Angela Thirkell character:

“Eccomi! said Mrs Grant, throwing both arms wide so that her necklaces and her bracelets clanked and clattered in sympathy. “Eccomi!” she said again, stretching her hands towards her friends as a shipwrecked sailor might stretch towards his rescuers. “Sir Edmund! You remember me. Felicia Grant.” Sir Edmund said with great truth that no one could ever forget Mrs Grant. “Ah, we were younger then,” said Mrs Grant. “We meet now nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. But in sunny Calabria age has no terrors. A crust, a clove of garlic, what more is needed? Brother Sun and Brother Sleep.” Noel said under his breath And Brother Mosquito Net, which made Lydia laugh.*****

There are other risks, it turns out. Coffee-making is just too complicated for my early mornings. Tea involves putting on the kettle, scooping leaves into the strainer, and pouring hot water until the cup is full. I can cope with that, and there are bags to avoid the scooping step if I’m really groggy. But coffee requires finding the grinder, beans, filter, and filter-holder, and getting them assembled in the proper order. The beans go in the grinder, not the filter or the holder. Then it’s necessary to grind them menace the cats with Terrible Cat-Eating Machinery, which they flee; with luck they don’t knock anything over during their escape from the kitchen.******  Ground coffee goes in the filter, not into the cup or the filter-holder. The water has to be measured, and the milk heated, but preferably not boiled. After Caffeine, I could probably manage just fine. Pre-Caffeine is another story.

I can tell you that my respect for baristas has increased dramatically over the few days I have been trying to prepare coffee in the morning. No doubt there are shortcuts and gadgets that could change this picture. But the idea was to add pleasure, not to complicate my life. So I’m going back to tea. Coffee will just have to be reserved for Continental breakfasts taken on the Continent, where someone else operates the machinery.*******


*Same house. Different time zones. I’m New Brunswick, he’s Vancouver.

**At Peet’s Coffee, they know to put boiling water*** on a tea bag. They even sell loose tea. The place could just be called Peet’s Caffeine.

***I even know that water for tea should ideally be just off the boil, but let’s not get unduly fussy. I’d prefer the water be too hot than too cold.

****The Mercure at CDG had a kettle. No cups, or tea bags, or coffee packets. Perhaps you have to ask for the kettle set-up, as you ask for down-free pillows or a lighter blanket. Vive la France!

*****Angela Thirkell, County Chronicle (1950; rpt. Moyer Bell, 1998), 160. Mrs Grant also appears in The Brandons, but I think I must have purged my copy on account of its being excessively battered, while the library can supply me with a sturdier copy.

******Without luck, there’s more mess to clean up than just spilled coffee grounds.

*******If I’d thought ahead, I might actually be spending my sabbatical abroad, but (as usual) the home situation is just a little too complicated to allow us to pack up and move for a year. Too many cats, too much house. I am not Excellent Woman enough for that; or maybe I am, precisely, Excellently presiding over my own home instead of gallivanting adventurously abroad. Perhaps I should have studied anthropology like Helena Napier, instead of getting involved with English Literature.

Deux pensées

Est-ce que les idées nous attendent si longtemps? C’était peu probable. Les idées patientent un peu, et partent à la recherche d’un imaginaire plus accueillant. (123)

On n’écrit pas parce que la vie vous laisse du temps libre. Il faut organiser sa vie autour des mots, et non le contraire. (268)

David Foenkinos, Je vais mieux (Éditions Gallimard, 2013).

Mary Roberts Rinehart on writing

“I have had to cut my suit according to my cloth, and as time has always been a serious problem, to go to my desk at certain times, pick up my pen and begin to write. Any writer will know what I mean when I say that I think at the point of my pen. I can think there, and there only. If throughout the hours away from the desk I were still to be absorbed in the work which lies there, it would be impossible to live a rounded life. I could perhaps be a better craftsman, more of an artist; but I would be nothing else. The necessity immediately of changing the introvert attitude of the creator at the desk for the extrovert and objective state of mind necessary to meet the daily life and its emergencies is not easy, even now. I am often a little dazed when I leave the desk, and certainly very tired and empty after a full day of work. . . . Only at night after I go to bed do I begin to work again. Then I make notes, write sentences and even paragraphs. My first glance in the morning is at my bedside table. Much as I detest the word inspiration, it is probably at this time that it comes, if it ever does. Sometimes I am too sleepy to write it down, and in the morning I have forgotten it; but even at the desk once in a long while comes something which I seem to have picked out of the air, or ether. Something I am not capable of thinking for myself.”

My Story: A new edition and seventeen new years (New York, 1947), pp. 407-8.


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