im in yr head rooning yr vocab

Proof that the internets in general and LOLcats in particular have had a deleterious effect on my ability to express myself in a manner suited to my profession: in today’s writing session, I noticed something outstandingly interesting and significant about a text I’ve worked on for over a week.

The phrase “OMG PONIES!!!” appears in writing at the point where the connection dawned on me.

The first five days

Five days into the Forty Days and Forty Nights Writing Wilderness Challenge, I am happy to report that I have written 4326 words. I have consistently produced between 500 and 600 words on whatever I’m working on: a single project each of the weekend days, two projects Monday to Wednesday this week.

I felt pleased with myself over the weekend; on Monday I felt that I was not doing enough; Tuesday I got the work done by 1:00, which made me feel good; today it has taken several hours, with assorted interruptions from family/holiday related phone calls, cats (of which more below), and nose-blowing (did I mention this is a really yucky cold?). I have not yet done any necessary errands or even checked my e-mail. But I did get the day’s writing done.

Basement Cat came and lounged on my desk in the sun for awhile. He seemed peaceable and laid-back, rather than energetic and bitey, so I was off-guard. And then, still reclining lazily, he stuck his paw into my half-full mug of tea and knocked it over. On my desk is a large monthly calendar from Office Max, with the months’ borders alternating blue, green, and tan. Half of November is now uniformly tan. At least I snatched my laptop out of the way.

Would anyone like an elegant black panther who purrs at people and bites other cats? It’s hard to believe he was ever an adorable tiny kitten; at 7 months, he weighs ten and a half pounds, and has all the judgment of a backwards teenager. What percentage of their adult size do cats achieve at 7 months? If it’s 3/4, he won’t be much bigger than our orange tabby; but I certainly hope he’s more than half-way to full-grown. All we need is a 20-pound bully.

Forty days

Last night I figured out that there were 40 days till the end of 2008, a very Biblical number.

If I wrote 500 words a day for 40 days I would complete 20,000 words between now and New Year’s.

This is my new goal. 500 words a day, every day, weekends and holidays included, for 40 days and nights in the writing wilderness.

Also: not more than 1500 words a day, because I fear bingeing and stalling. Should I reach 1200 and still feel like writing more, it will be time to sketch what I think should happen the next day and then stop. I refuse to be a writing bulimic. I am trying to instill (re-instill: I had them once) good steady writing habits.

On weekdays, I hope to do 500 words each on the book and on the overdue essay (if the editor is reading this, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa). On weekends and holidays, I get my choice of one or the other, or 250 on each.

Today I completed 509 words on a text that I will discuss in the book. Please cheer me on—and if you are one of those people like me who has failed at the November research-writing challenge, you are welcome to join the Forty Days and Forty Nights in the Writing Wilderness challenge!

Get thee behind me, Basement Cat.

Three cats in one

In photographs, our Basement Cat looks solid black. However, close inspection reveals a dusting of a couple dozen white hairs on his lower belly, seven more on his chest, and one white whisker, making him a sort of vestigial tuxedo cat.

What’s more, in the right light you can see that rather than being solidly black, he has faint black-on-black stripes. I’m wondering if, when he is old, he will fade into a tabby, just as a beloved-and-departed tabby faded with age into a gray cat (stripes faintly visible if you knew where to look).

He’s trouble enough for three, that’s for sure. Getting better . . . but every time I say that, Sir John says, “He’s not good yet.”

Sick days

This week I have the worst cold I’ve had in years. It’s . . . no, I am not going to describe the symptoms. Just the worst, OK? I have not even tried to do any work. I spend my days lying on the couch, draped in cats, watching Six Feet Under, blowing my nose, coughing, and drinking cup after cup of herbal tea.

Sometime next spring, I am going to regret this. Right now, it feels like payback for all the times I taught when I was sick, graded when I was sick, alternated hours writing with hours napping when I was sick.

That November write-your-whatever thing? Just not happening.


Neophyte asked about my outlining work, so here is a long and wordy post that I hope may help others who struggle with this part of writing.

Lately I have been trying to think much more abstractly about what the various parts of an essay need to do. The “abstract” outline for my current essay goes something like this:
state problem
plot and manuscript background
explain extent of problem
breakdown of problem (1, 2, 3)
methodology (1, 2, 3)
apply methodology to problem (1, 2)
compare to other similar texts
point of making comparison
generalize to whole text (not just area of study)
other solutions to problem, from analogue texts
work that area of study does for text as a whole

It helps me to think about what various parts of the essay need to do in the most abstract terms possible. But it’s not easy to do that. I tend to bog down in details; even in the list of topics above, you can see some slippage. Why isn’t “compare to other similar texts” part of “methodology”? It is, in essence, but I started getting more concrete as I worked through the elements I thought I’d need. Still, such a list helps me ensure that all the necessary parts of the essay get written.

A few years ago I wrote a conference paper that I knew from the outset would appear in a proceedings volume, greatly expanded and developed. Here are the outlines I made for the conference paper and at an early stage in the expansion, followed by a reverse outline of the paper as it finally appeared. Details are suppressed in favor of vague terms like “particular kind of thing.”

Conference paper organization:
introduction (refer to critics 1, 2, 3),
theoretical background/situation in terms of topic 1 (deeper treatment of critical POVs),
also for related topic 2,
MS description,
plot summary,
explain “filter” (critic 4),
argument about the audience (critic 5),
analysis of text as particular kind of thing with examples (critic 6),
position of text in MS & how it relates to other contents,
idea of pairs of texts in MS as MS organizing principle.

When I started revising for publication, I made a list of “building blocks,” and wrote these sections separately before thinking about how to fit them together:
text and MS as particular kind of thing
description of MS
description of audience
relationships among MS contents
particular text as “key” to MS
plot summary
particular text as particular kind of thing
history of particular kind of thing (as usually told)
definitions of particular kind of thing
2 types of narrative structure in particular kind of thing
how particular text participates in these types of structure
critical and theoretical backgrounds
importance of fundamental critic X

And here is what the published essay turned out to look like:
Intro: 3 graphs
fundamental critic X and his influence
historicizing and theorizing part of his argument
important questions for Middle Ages that X failed to ask

Text and manuscript: 7 graphs
argument about text A
idea about pairs of texts as organizing principle in MS
how text A relates to other texts in MS
original owner of MS
description of MS
other readers of MS

Definitions of particular kind of thing: 11 graphs
problems of defining
efforts to define, 1
efforts to define, 2
efforts to define, 3
periodicity problems
overlap problems
focusing on overlap as feature, not bug
critical solutions to definitional problems
how this works in medieval texts, 1
medieval texts, 2

text A as particular kind of thing: 12 graphs
medieval standards for kind of thing
kind of thing in text A
close reading of part of text A
more close reading
relating close reading to significant critic Y
more close reading
relating critic to significant critic Z
further attention to text A
more of this kind of thing in text A
links between texts in MS, 1
links, 2

conclusion: 2 graphs
MS owners and reactions to texts
connecting all major ideas

I’m not sure that what I see the parts of this essay doing, now (about 5 years after starting it) was what I thought I was doing when I wrote it. It was long and complex, and required boiling down a lot of ideas that I am dealing with at greater length in my book in progress. Writing the essay, in fact, made it clear to me that I needed to write a book in order to present the ideas adequately. Furthermore, the topic of the conference meant that I was free to talk about only certain aspects of Fundamental Critic X, and only in my introduction, and then leave him for other contributors to deal with in other ways and at greater length. If I had written this essay as a stand-alone piece to submit to a journal, I would have made sure that Fundamental Critic X reappeared at least in the conclusion.

Really detailed outlining—I A 1 a b i ii c 2 a i etc—just doesn’t work for me. I have tried, because my writing process does involve gathering lots of details and writing about them. So it seems as if sorting them into categories, then fitting them together in that sort of outline, ought to be a helpful approach. But it isn’t. The paper built up from that approach never makes any sense. By nature near-sighted, I find it very hard to get any perspective on the big picture; but that is precisely what I need an outline for, to keep me on track with an actual argument instead of presenting the reader with more and more delightful details that I think are really exciting.

And now off to work on one of the “break down problem” paragraphs.

Free at last

This afternoon on CNN someone said something about waiting 21 months for the election results. I said, “Try eight years.”

Really I’ve been waiting for this night all my life. I was born the year these men died.

I don’t think the work of the Civil Rights Movement is finished. But am I ever glad I got to see this day. And that my almost-83-year-old dad got to see it, too.