“Oh, yeah, that’ll get me to work. Then I’ll have to take time to get a new chair.”
OMG ROTFL LOLcats AND xkcd all in the same place at the same time.
Apparently even pictorial cat blogging loosens the writing mojo; I now have an outline for the essay that’s due at the end of this month. That is, on Friday.
Once I have an outline, the actual writing usually goes very fast. I can cut and paste chunks of my early figuring-out-what-I’m-saying, and where I need to write new material it’s clear what I need to do. The outlining, though, that is a trial. Getting the argument made clearly, with all the pieces in the right order, not overwhelming the main point with extraneous detail (but really, you need to know this about medieval sermons to understand my point about romance conclusions!), including a suitable number of quotations and making sure they actually contribute—this, to me, is to writing as grading is to teaching: the part they pay us for.
But now I can get on with the good part.
In the 20 October 2008 New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes about prodigies and late bloomers, using Picasso and Cézanne as artistic examples, Jonathan Safran Foer and Ben Fountain as literary ones. Gladwell draws on research by David Galenson at the University of Chicago. He quotes Galenson as saying of late bloomers, “Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental. . . . Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goal.”
And Gladwell says, “The Cézannes of this world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.”
It used to be that the model for medievalists was a late-blooming one, because there was so much to learn, so many languages, so many hundreds of years of critical responses to texts. At least in literature departments, the paradigm started to shift, during my career, to “must have a book for tenure, no matter your field.” I didn’t; I got tenure the old-fashioned way, for medievalists, with articles. But that left me feeling very much behind the eight-ball, with no book at mid-career.
Gladwell and Galenson make me feel better. I’ve been building my skills and improving my work.
The confession: for awhile now, I haven’t been able to enjoy reading fiction written for adults (I started to write “adult novels” and realized that would be prone to misinterpretation). I feel like my English-professor license may be revoked at any time.
Even genre fiction, otherwise known as brain candy, hasn’t appealed. I’ve been right off mysteries, once my preferred escape fiction. When I visit my family, I read romance novels, as they provide the right level and kind of escape (look, a fantasy situation where all the interpersonal conflicts get resolved! they live happily ever after!), but as soon as I get home, I can pick up another romance by the same author and think, “Why in heaven’s name would I want to read this?” Fantasy/science fiction, usually my old reliable, isn’t working for me either.
A lot of this is because I’m spending a lot of my time, mentally, in the fifteenth century (with a few excursions a little bit forward or backward in the abysm of time). And I want to spend my time there. I really enjoy my current research projects. But there are limits to how much time one can spend reading work material, even fascinating, well-written scholarly work or charming, original medieval tales. Thus, children’s literature to the rescue.
When I got back from England this summer, I acquired all the Swallows and Amazons books I didn’t already have and read right through the whole lot. After all, there’s nothing half so worthwhile as simply messing about in boats. As I’ve said before, I love re-reading my favorites.
But I’m branching out. This week, I’ve read three kids’ books that were new to me and liked all of them, though they’re all quite different. Sylvia Waugh’s The Mennyms is a strange and charming book about a family of life-sized rag dolls living in present-day (well, now about a decade back) England, trying to keep anyone from noticing that they aren’t human. Very little really happens; that is, what’s advertised as the big conflict turns out to be a non-event, and the real drama lies elsewhere entirely. Rather like life, now I think about it.
I discovered a Diana Wynne Jones novel I hadn’t read yet, Hexwood. Its form is almost experimental, as events take place in a non-linear fashion, which confuses the characters; but Jones motivates these temporal shifts by a science-fiction device. Somewhere past the middle it dawned on me that Hexwood is an Arthurian novel (with most names changed to protect the guilty). Arthur has a fairly small role, but I think I should have noticed Merlin sooner. On the other hand, there’s competition for the Merlin role. I can’t quite decide if Verrian is Vivianne/Nimue; probably, but she seems much nicer than her avatar. I’ll have to put this on the list of Outside Arthurian Literature I assign to students in my Arthurian Lit classes. It’s a lot more complicated than most YA Arthurian books; more “inspired by Arthur” than a close follower of that plot.
And my favorite from the week: Pat Murphy’s Wild Girls. I read a review of this last year and thought I might read the book, but then forgot about it till I saw it on a library shelf. I loved the book, and it went somewhere quite different from what I thought the review suggested. I loved it partly because it’s set in my old stomping grounds (the characters are just a few years older than I am), and it’s a pleasure to re-visit my very own childhood in this way. I also like the way life in the book continues past the climactic moment that ends the first part, and the way the characters invent personal myths knowing that that’s what they are, but recognizing that sometimes you need to believe in something crazy because the truth hurts too much. You deal with the truth later, but the myth is sustaining in the meantime.
I’m realizing why, when I’m teaching, I tend to alternate 12-hour days on campus with days when I do maybe 4 hours of work interspersed with the gym, errands, laundry, and so on. It seems as if 40 hours a week ought to be the same whether you do it as 8-8-8-8-8 or 12-4-12-4-6-2. But it isn’t.
Part of it is a matter of what I’m doing. Teaching is a curious combination of energizing and exhausting (Dr Crazy had a post recently about needing the energy from one class to cope with its drain on her energy; I knew just what she meant). On campus days, when I’m not teaching, I’m usually in a committee meeting or in office hours. In office hours, I’m either meeting with students or dealing with correspondance or other paperwork, possibly prepping for class. Once in awhile I manage a quick dash to the library. When I’m being very determined to keep research going, as I was all last year, I will schedule a whole hour in the library to write or read (if I stay in my office, I find it very hard not to respond to the inevitable knocks on the door).
So I can stay awake and focused to do all these people-oriented things, and find the hour in the library restorative. There is really nothing to do but work; I push away all thoughts of domesticity and what a friend calls Life Admin. Then the next day I’m worn out from all the classroom performances and interactions with other people, and it’s nice to sit quietly and read and take notes, or work on an outline, or actually write something, while the physical activity of errands (or whatever) re-energizes me after sitting down to a writing or grading task. And over the course of the week, the hours sort themselves out (I do keep track).
Having all day every day to read and write is another matter. The research is no longer a welcome break from other kinds of work; it’s THE work. I have a schedule, but it’s easy to show up late when the appointment is with oneself, not someone else (or a room full of someone elses) waiting for one. Then there are the things that aren’t really on the schedule and so, at some point, overrun it, like organizing a series of Kalamazoo sessions for next spring. It seemed like something that could be done in a few minutes here and there, until deadlines loomed and participants needed to be chivvied and in some cases coaxed out of the woodwork. Then it ate most of a day: except for the two hours scheduled to write with a colleague, for which I showed up and did my work.
(I must say, though people often say that gathering academics together is like herding cats, that I find herding cats vastly easier. What is the equivalent of a nice rattley jar of cat treats to shake for medievalists?)
Part of the trick to time management is to be realistic about the amount of time tasks take: not my strongest point, but I’m working on it. Another is to get the right combination of variation among tasks and time to concentrate on a single project. It is such a luxury to have a thought and spend a couple of hours following up on it, consulting relevant volumes immediately, and letting one lead to another, instead of making a list of things to look up next time, whenever that is. Then there are the rituals that signal “time to work.” I’ve been starting my work day with half an hour either studying Greek or brushing up my Latin. It seems almost self-indulgent, but it’s a mental exercise that calms my mind and helps me focus. I think I may also need more interaction with other people. In addition to my dates with my writing buddy and a regular library day, maybe some phone check-ins with virtual writing buddies would help.