Cecily Chaumpaign

Geoffrey Chaucer hath a blog, as do Katherine Swinford and Gower (with guest posts by M. Francois Villon, even). Wherfor hath not Cecily Chaumpaign a blogue? Inquiring minds would like to hear from her.

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Zombies

Rather than commenting on Undine’s post, I’ll do my own one. I am having a zombified day. I slept badly and feel very thoroughly brain-dead. I tried doing some class plans (on the theory that if I plan the semester when I feel like this, I won’t give too many assignments to grade), but that didn’t go too well.

I wish I could work well at night. Every now and then, especially after a zombie-day, I’ll have a burst of useful energy in the evening. Mostly, though, if I don’t write in the morning, it doesn’t happen. My ideal schedule is the one I followed Monday and Tuesday this week, before the sleeping problems kicked in: up by 6, put in an hour and a half in my study, then do yoga before getting dressed and arranging breakfast for both me and the cats. After that I can go on to be productive in other ways, or to write more. But it does depend on going to bed early and sleeping well.

The big problem is that I can’t arrange my whole life to allow me to go to bed by 10:00. Most of the LRU English Department’s graduate classes, and some of its undergraduate classes, are taught at night. Sometimes I get lucky and get an afternoon grad class, but in most semesters I have at least one night a week where I’m on campus till what seems to me like a late hour, and then I still have to drive the hour home. Teaching leaves me wired as well as tired, so once I am home I can’t go straight to bed; I need to wind down for a bit. Then if I want to experience Culchah, such as the Theatah or the Dahnse, or just go out with friends or engage in some organized activity, there’s another night or several when I’m not going to bed in time to get up early.

So I’ve tried various tricks to make it possible to get writing done, such as my writing dates with a friend, which usually take place in the afternoon. Or I’ll go to the library between classes (if there is a between-classes slot, which this fall there will not be). One of my old friends swears by doing all teaching prep on teaching days, and having the other days to do research; but this does not work if, due to a long commute, one’s on-campus days are full of committee meetings, crucial library time (even just checking out and dropping off is not a zero-time activity), office hours and essential on-campus errands.

I envy night owls. I bet they think the world is set up for people like me, but I think a lot of things work better for them.

Writing retreat

I’m starting to plan the fall semester. Starting is a key word here: so far, I have printed out some old syllabi to look over, re-read notes in my teaching journal from last fall, and begun my “teaching calendar”: I take two of the big desk calendar pages, turn them over, and turn them lengthwise, so that the faint lines that show through create a 5×7 grid instead of 7×5. This amounts to 14 weeks of a 15-week plus finals-week semester, enough to figure out the shape of things. I’ve put in the dates that I have classes, but nothing else, so far.

I need to keep some research momentum going during the fall term, and to that end, I’m thinking about scheduling writing retreats a few times during the semester. I’d want to schedule those at the same time as I figure out when student work will be due, so I can keep certain times free for writing. Of course I will keep trying to write every day (or read, or add to my notes, or at least read over what I’ve written and perhaps edit a few words, to keep in touch). And I know regular incremental progress is supposed to be the way to go.

Sometimes, though, changing gears or changing scenery can give a person (or a project) a boost. I know there were two hotel rooms I walked into, in England, that made me think, “Ooh, can I just stay here and write?” The first was more picturesque, the second more comfortable and functional, organized for the business traveler. And on reflection (and after a night in each), if I were going to check into a hotel to write, I’d prefer the one aimed at the business traveler: better light, better work environment, more ergonomic furniture, better light-blocking blinds.

So I’m really tempted to plan to book myself into a hotel for a night, take a suitcase of books and all my latest printouts, leave the grading at home, and try to move a project forward as far as possible in the time available. There are some problems with this idea, though. One is check-in and check-out times, and my own natural rhythms: checking in at 3:00 would make the day nearly over for me, and I’d have only till noon the next day. What I really want is somewhere peaceful I could go from, say, 8:00 a.m. till 3:00 p.m., and then go home and sleep in my own bed.

Another option would be to go to a coffeeshop, of course, but although I find them quite conducive to a couple of hours of work, I don’t think a whole day in one would work well. For one thing, they’re not very secure; I’d like to be able to leave my suitcase of books and laptop while I go where even the empress must go on foot, which of course becomes necessary not too long after having a coffee. Similar problems apply to public and university libraries, which also have the much bigger problem of having stacks full of distractions. If I wanted distractions, I could stay home.

In theory, I could announce to Sir John that I was putting certain days aside for writing retreats, and that I was going to go into my study to work, and he should pretend that I wasn’t home. In theory, he would be supportive of this. In practice, I can imagine many pitfalls to this approach, not least my own distractability. Even if I were pretending I wasn’t home, I would hear cats mewing, or be seized by the irresistable desire to do laundry, or develop a computer problem that I really had to consult Sir John about, or notice a pile of grading.

I could also, I suppose, spend a night at a hotel in the town where I teach, work in the hotel until check-out time, and then go to my office. On, say, Friday afternoons, there wouldn’t be many people around at work. The drawback to this is that I almost never do research in my office (one exception: working with LALME, whose volumes are too big to take home), so I’m not programmed to work there. In fact, rather the opposite: I’m programmed to meet with students there, and do service work, and prep classes. So I’m not sure that’s a good idea, either.

Does anybody have any other ideas about how to arrange a term-time writing retreat? I don’t want to spend more than one night away from home, if time away is required. Or is this just a pleasant fantasy I should use to fuel regular daily research sessions?

DFL>DNF>DNS

Persistence counts for an enormous amount in academia. Intelligence, talent, and luck all play a part, of course, but sheer hard work (or just hanging in doing little pieces of work) can get you a long way. How many times have you heard the narrative of the Ph.D. who adjuncted and visited and finally, finally, got the tenure-track job?

There are a lot of ways to abandon the race (I’m still thinking in bicycling terms, and allow me to note that next year I’d like to see both Schlecks on the podium). And these may be “better” lives than staying in; it depends on what matters to you! Here are some abandonments I know of:

  • go to France to do dissertation research and never come back.
  • get a job as an editor and give up on the dissertation.
  • finish the dissertation, get seriously ill, get married, follow husband to his job; after recovery, raise children and adjunct.
  • finish the dissertation, get a job, hate it, go to law school.
  • get a job, write a book, get tenure, jack it all in to do something completely different.
  • get a job at a teaching-oriented school, mine excellent dissertation that could have been a book for enough articles for tenure, put energy into family and community life, eventually get into administration (not very happily).

I turned out not to be a high-flyer. I often wish I were more like a couple of people I went to graduate school with, who swoop and soar above me. But I am still here. I may be slow to publish, but I haven’t given up. I don’t want to give up. Sometimes I wonder if I should, but I don’t want to. I want to keep doing my work.

In academia, there’s always the hope that if you don’t give up, eventually you will put your name on the map, somehow. I have a colleague whom I admire greatly because he has persevered at doing work he considers valuable even when he got no departmental support for it and at least one other colleague openly disparaged his obscure field. He knew what was important to him and didn’t care at all what anyone else thought. One day he published a book with an important flagship press, and the department changed its tune about him. He continues not to care what anyone else thinks, and to work on what matters to him.

So today’s slogan encapsulates these thoughts on perseverence, in a form borrowed from a friend who competes in triathlons: Dead Fucking Last is better than Did Not Finish is better than Did Not Start.

WWDD?

During the Leeds conference, I enjoyed a couple of conversations with a woman who once taught in my grad program. She is both glamorous and enormously accomplished: speaks multiple languages fluently, has excellent Latin and Greek, attended one of those women’s colleges that makes sure an alumna has the backbone of a mastodon, then racked up degrees from and jobs at a series of internationally-renowned universities. She does not suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. I don’t think she has ever experienced a second of self-doubt, and, really, why should she?

It occurred to me that I could do with a dose of what powers her. When she sits down to write, I bet she looks forward to telling people what’s what, rather than worrying about why anyone should listen to her.

What’s more, I’m sure she never produces crappy first drafts: pearls of prose form effortlessly. But if she were me, with my methods of working, she would say, “Hey, this is what I do, and because it is mine, it is wonderful, and anyone who doesn’t like it can shut up and keep shutting up until I have a draft, and then a revision, and then another revision. And now I will tell you what’s what.”

So this is one of my new self-motivating questions: What would D. do?

I don’t know how long the effects will last (every trick loses its glamour eventually), but at the moment, channeling D. when I sit at my desk is a lot of fun! WWDD? Tell them what’s what.

Talking to Ralph and Tony

I’m going to blog a bit about my writing process, which may be repetitious for long-term readers, but I need to think some things through in order to explain them to the friend mentioned in the last post. It would probably be simpler to give her a name: let’s call her Karine.

From the questions she has asked me, I suspect she’s a top-down worker: she has an idea; she thinks about who else is working in this area; she reads around a bit to define the scholarly conversation she wants to enter; then she finds the evidence needed to support the idea, and starts writing to the scholars previously identified. And I know that Karine works on (or at least starts out with reference to) very well-known medieval authors: people with names! The sort of people that get a lot written about them.

I’m a bottom-up worker. I read something (something anonymous, something that doesn’t get written about very often), and I say, “Huh. That’s cool. There’s this little bit here that makes me think. Oh, and now that we mention it, there’s this other little bit that sort of goes with it.” I assemble a vast lot of little bits that have to do with a topic, and stare at them for awhile. I do a bibliographical search, and very often, nobody has written about this precise thing, though maybe someone has written about it in a different anonymous text, or someone else wrote about a related thing in the same text.

So as far as entering the scholarly conversation, I often feel that I am in the position of waiting for a pause as people discuss, say, their vacations, and then saying, “By the way, speaking of vacation, it’s going to be over soon and have you done your syllabi yet?”

In other words, I’m starting my own conversation, or picking up on one that was left hanging a long time ago. Try fifty years, in cases where the main discussion of a topic appears in the introduction to the edition, and nowhere since.

This is why thinking about audience makes me very anxious. Who wants to enter a party that’s already underway, tap on a glass with a knife, and say, “Now we’re going to talk about my thing!”? Hence my focus on my ideal audience. Ralph and Tony will understand where I’m going. I can sit down and write 500 words for them, without feeling that I’m interrupting anything.

In one sense, because the Current Project was conference papers last year, I’m already in the scholarly conversation. Certain other Names have asked interesting questions about the Current Project. Only, to continue the vacation metaphor, I’m talking about hiking in Scotland and they want to talk about hiking in Italy, or nightclubs in Glasgow. There’s a connection, to be sure, but I don’t have a lot to say about either Italy or nightclubs. Clearly the paper will need a paragraph or so on both topics, since my larger audience wants to know about these things, but basically I’m going to be saying “Here’s why Italy isn’t relevant and neither are nightclubs. Now, back to bagging Munroes.”

At some point, of course, I will have to address the big-picture elements of audience, what critical discussion there is of my precise topic, how I relate Munroes to Italian mountains and Glaswegian nightclubs, and so on. I will undoubtedly have to get rid of quantities of niggling detail that I am presently explaining at excruciating length (I’m the party guest who bores on for hours about the precise locations of all the blisters I got and how I finally discovered this fantastic brand of hiking boots that don’t rub my feet, while you look around frantically for rescue and eventually say brightly, “Is that the time?”). Droning on about the details is, nonetheless, an important part of my process. Ultimately, what I’m saying will have important implications about vacations. However, the nature of those implications—the nature of my argument—stands or falls on niggling detail. If the blisters are on the top of my foot instead of on my heel, the whole thing will fall apart. I have to be absolutely certain that the details are right and that each individual piece of evidence builds to the same conclusion before I can talk about the importance of the conclusion.

In short: I collect little bits of information. I arrange them in different ways until I see a pattern emerge. I write about the patterns. I figure out some other things I ought to write about, and produce a few unconnected chunks of writing about those things. I print out all the bits and look for patterns again, and make an outline. I produce a revised draft that puts all the pieces in what seems like the right order, including the chunks about other things. Then I revise the bejesus out of that, usually involving more struggling with the organization and exactly what the thesis is and where it should go. It takes a long time. Often it turns out that the real thesis is something sort of sideways on to what I thought the thesis was, and some other reader has to point this out to me. I used to mind this more. Now I think my job is to keep working on my mosaic pattern till the picture is clear from some angle, and if I’m not the first one to see it, that’s fine. It’s still my work and my picture.

I have tried other methods. But I’m not comfortable with them. My process may seem unnecessarily baroque, even painful, to a top-down thinker. It’s how I work, though; I’m used to it. I still wonder if I might someday discover a better way, some quicker and easier path to a finished product. Writing seems to be difficult (in different ways, perhaps) for many of us. At this point in my life, it seems simpler and faster to work the way I work than to try to be someone else for awhile and then fall back on the way I work. And what I’m aiming for now is the revised draft with the pieces in the right order.

RBO Catching up

  • I’ve been home for just under 24 hours.
  • I’ve been up for 6 hours, after four and a half hours sleep, 2 and a half hours up, 5 hours dozing, and a few hours before that watching DVR’d Tour de France coverage and complaining about how tired I was.
  • In those 6 hours, I have (among other things) gone for a walk, discovered that my ATM card had expired, found the new one and activated it, written 440 words, satisfied assorted cat needs, and checked e-mail.
  • In that time, I have not responded to student e-mails about next fall (la-la-la can’t hear you, there must be more than a month before classes start, please, please), filed anything else from the boxes I left in my study, unpacked any more than I did yesterday, made a schedule for the next month (please let there be more than a month, please), got cash, done yoga, been to the gym.
  • I felt good about my 440 words until I checked e-mail. I have to submit something to my writing group (had forgotten that but meant to do it awhile ago so now I feel that sort of guilty panic even though, really, it’s fine); and the friend to whom I sent this essay at roughly its 2000-word point wants to know who the intended audience is. I have been following what I think is advice from Julia Cameron to write for your ideal audience: so, okay, Ralph Hanna and Tony Edwards. Hi! Does anybody else want to listen in? Do you need more information? Okay, could you just hold questions till the end, because I am going to go totally fucking insane (a la Comrade Physioprof) if I can’t get a complete draft of this damned thing done before school starts (in a month? say it ain’t so). I can cope with revising after that, but I want to finish something besides syllabi this summer. So if talking to Ralph and Tony is what will get me through that, then I am talking to them and we’ll worry about other people later.
  • Actually, I can’t cope with revising after that, because I have committed to finishing a very old R&R by the end of the fall term, and I just this minute remembered two more Very Important Things I have to do for other people before the term starts, if not by the end of July.
  • Excuse me while I go panic. I will multitask by doing it in the pool, because that might calm me down a bit and even if it doesn’t, I will at least be exercised. I mean, I already am, in the mental sense (clearly).

Books

I did not mean to buy books here. It’s silly to buy books in pounds (multiple senses) and have to get them home. I only went in the book exhibit because I overslept, and I was so late to the first session, where I could see people sitting on the floor already, that I decided to bag it and just kill a bit of time before walking over to Weetwood for the second session.

$ $ $ $ $ $ $ $

Some time later, I emerged the owner of a facsimile I have coveted for some time. My library’s copy has been charged to me for about three years. Now I can return it, and use it for teaching purposes, while I have my very own one for research. Squeee! And then there are the lovely books I acquired from the very helpful (and in one case quite toothsome) young men at the U of Wales Press. And a book from B&B that is really quite perfect for helping me plan my fall courses. There might be one or two other things off a sale table. That doesn’t really count.

There are several other books I would like to own, which I have heroically resisted! I’m not working on those topics right this minute, and when I get to them I’ll get the library copies for awhile, and then maybe they’ll come out in paperback or I’ll score a review copy or something. So I didn’t buy so many books as I might have.

It’s a disease. Or an occupational hazard. Not my fault. And I didn’t mean to. But I’m not sorry, at least not now. Check with me when I’m struggling with my luggage, later.

I see London

Otherwise known as the underwear fashion report.

If you are wearing a short skirt, be very careful how you sit. If you don’t believe me, sit down in front of a three-way mirror sometime, and try different postures.

Fishnet stockings are for evening wear. (So are velvet and satin garments.)

But the stockings with tiny bouquets, worn with a rather severe dress, that worked.

Under a clingy jersey dress, most of us need at least a slip, if not Spanx. Even if you’re thin, underwear can create unsightly bulges.

Here, of course, we’re back to the travel problems. Non-clingy, crisp fabrics can be far more flattering to many of us, but they tend to be heavy and prone to wrinkle. Jersey knits are lightweight and don’t wrinkle. I remember girdles (not quite old enough to have worn one, but I recall my mother getting in and out of them) and I wouldn’t wish one on any woman. And it’s not so easy to find a suitable slip, actually. So I’m not sure what to advise . . . maybe just to be prepared for critical old bags like me, who are probably just jealous crones.

Safari suit and black pointed hat, here I come.