Where Wednesday went

Writing on Monday and Tuesday this week was all new words; hence the grinding. But that saw me through a section, so yesterday I was able to move 1300 words in from another document and get the current draft of the Current Project slightly over 6000 words. It’s a good thing I got to that point, too, because yesterday was a highly social day: after breakfast with a couple of friends, I spent the afternoon with the lovely and talented Rebelletriste and her charming twain. They are very happy babies, and they don’t bite nearly as hard as Basement Cat (fewer teeth, which is to say none). The resident orange tabby is a lovable beast, too. I hope I didn’t outstay my welcome, but the babies and their mom all seemed happy (or just have lovely manners), and I know I was enjoying myself.

So now I have to figure out what today’s writing task is—probably more grinding out of new prose—and either write out assignments for the undergrads or devise the grads’ syllabus. I got the undergraduate syllabi off my plate yesterday, no thanks to the Syllabus Fairy. Or, who knows, maybe she did help, because in the end the whole thing seemed to go more easily than I expected it to. OTOH, anything seems easy compared to the current state of scholarly prose production. I really do understand why some writers take to the bottle.

The syllabus fairy

Despite my offer of fresh peach ice cream to Undine’s syllabus fairy, she hasn’t shown up. And neither have the writing elves. Apparently, I have to do everything myself.

Oh dear . . . what were Basement Cat and the Scot so intent on last night?

Any small supernatural creatures who would like to be helpful should probably bring Medieval Woman‘s ninjas along as bodyguards. What sort of horrible fate befalls people whose cats attack visiting Fair Folk? I can’t recall any mention of this in the ballads, so maybe the elves and fairies do manage to look out for themselves. Then again, maybe those ballads just aren’t extant.

Anyway, having ground out 515 words, I am going to have to turn my attention to class plans. I think the writing feels slow and hard in part because I am terribly conscious of having done less this summer than I would have liked. I wanted this piece to be done and gone before Leeds, and here I am still working on what is in effect a crappy first draft that will need substantial editing and cutting (though in cold fact it is not the first draft, no, nor the fifth; but let us not dwell on that).

Speaking of fifths, is it time for MFJ yet? I think it is. Time for something, anyway. Scripsi.

Showing up

418 words. And ground out is what they were, while resisting that almost irresistable desire, etc. Ugh. But it’s progress. I showed up, I was present, I practiced. I’m hoping that tomorrow I will feel a little more flexible, rather than stiff from today’s effort.

Early drafts

The earlier versions were too much like creating his own basic clay or metal to work with, and he wrote them with a sort of hatred. It always seemed too much, at that stage; a too heavy, brightly coloured mass which he could never hammer out thinly enough and he would struggle with this intractable first stuff for months, finding that what he wrote excluded what he had meant to write, and distorted what he would write next, and feeling all the time a nearly irresistable desire to get up, go away, postpone or abandon the whole business, so that every word was ground out only because he promised himself it was the last for that time . . . .

A. S. Byatt, The Shadow of the Sun

More musings on metaphor

One reason I have resisted thinking about my work-metaphors is that I was repelled by Mayhew’s own concept of his work as competition (what a stereotypically feminine reaction, but there it is; and to be fair, he is aware of how this sounds). But he does suggest other comparisons for both writing in general and specific projects, such as exploration, which he then breaks down: atlas, or Triptik? And other ideas: a balancing scale? Do you have a thread (textile) or a trajectory (rocket science)?

Are such ideas useful? Would I somehow be a better (faster, more fluid) writer if I thought of my work metaphorically? I can see how it would be useful for the prospectus, or the abstract, to present the book/article in terms of trajectory, or conversation, or whatever. But for the writing itself? Mayhew claims that “metaphors can be useful for clarifying what it is you’re trying to accomplish,” that they will change as you work, and that using the wrong one can make your work harder. Let’s assume for a minute that this metaphor idea is some sort of magic trick that will make writing easier by clarifying the project (Mayhew certainly represents himself as exceedingly productive, though I think that’s mainly because he is compulsive in ways I don’t want to be, and does not lack for self-confidence).

I think I may do more metaphorizing my own relationship to my work: as in feeling that it has grown too large and unwieldy for me to tame. Recognizing that allows me to extend the metaphor: if the work is Bucephalus, then I am Alexander, the only one who can ride it; and, further, that makes me the chosen heir. But then that picture makes me nervous: what if I can’t tame it?

Perhaps a more mundane metaphor would work better. The project may be a field that has gone a bit wild and needs to be cleared for new cultivation: just keep picking up stones and ripping out brush, one thing at a time. Sheer persistence will get the job done. I feel that it is easier to show up, doggedly, day after day, to pick up a few more rocks than it is to show up to ride a wild animal.

What am I doing in the Current Project? Map-making seems like the most obvious metaphor: I am representing what is in the manuscripts, and making it possible for other people to navigate them. I want to show my own route of discovery, but I also want to leave a map that could be used by other scholars to take their own journeys.

Is this the best way to think about the project? What if it were a balancing scale; what things am I balancing? Manuscript study and literary criticism? Attitudes of original editor and recent MS-studies scholars? Coverage or depth? The focus is fairly narrow, really, bringing to bear various disciplines (linguistic analysis, MS study, some art history, literary criticism) to illumine (another metaphor!) the story in its physical context. Miscellany or coherent whole? I sure hope it’s a coherent whole. A thread or a trajectory? The textile image appeals more to me. I like the idea of working with cloth. And weaving bits together. Slots that can be filled with the appropriate content? Yes, sort of; I’m trying to think of the organization in that way, anyhow. Overlapping circles? Sounds messy; I like a more linear construction; and yet I always get in trouble trying to make things go linearly, so maybe thinking of the circles as a possible construction would be helpful.

Even more helpful, of course, would be to Just Do It instead of blogging about writing. But today is getting all carved up by waiting for a contractor, and then waiting some more, then actually talking with the guy, and in a little while having to load up a couple of cats for a shared vet appointment . . . so I’m working on syllabi, instead. Today I have a more positive reaction to the course outline I didn’t like last week. It needed some tweaking, and may still need a little more, but I think the trajectory and amount of work (for me as well as students) now seems fairly reasonable.

And a final metaphor, one I find empowering: it is brain surgery. Finicky. Delicate. Important.

Where the party never starts

I have not read this book. In fact, it’s not officially out until tomorrow. I read a review of it this morning in the WSJ, though, and the review inspired me to say a few things.

(The WSJ site is subscription only, so I can’t link; I read the hard copy to which Sir John subscribes. I like the WSJ because it filters the news through its economic filter, so I am rarely subjected to directly heartrending accounts of natural disasters, shootings, terrorist acts, illnesses, and so on, first thing in the morning when bad news can ruin the whole day. But its generally anti-intellectual, anti-university attitude irritates me no end, and I frequently fulminate to anyone who will listen about another idiotic editorial, letter, review, or story that blames professors for things that make no sense whatsoever. For instance, their “Dear Book Lover” column last week claimed that “the canon” is fixed because literature professors teach only what they were taught. Hello? If that were the case, “literature” would still consist of the Greek and Roman classics, in the original languages, and no one would ever study works written in any vernacular. And how does the soi-disant “Book Lover” think anyone manages to teach a course like “Literature Since Year X” where X is a value greater than the year in which the teacher graduated? Okay, let me stop ranting and get back to my main point.)

In fact, I have no opinion as to whether—or to what extent—the “party school” phenomenon is a serious problem. I have never either attended or taught at such a school. But IF it is a problem, and parents want to avoid sending their children to such places, I have a simple, low-cost recommendation: send your kids to a Large Regional University. There are lots of them around the country. Some are close to your home or places your extended family lives; some are in or near interesting cities, some are in beautiful countryside.

Their student population includes a lot of non-traditional students. Many if not most of these students are putting themselves through college. Some of them started at the usual age, then took time off. Some became freshmen in their 20s, 30s, 40s, or even later. Many of them have children, whether infants or college students themselves. A lot of them have extensive work experience. Some are military veterans. Some care for aged parents or grandparents. Some have health problems that mean they cannot “party” without sending their blood sugar haywire or rendering their medication ineffective.

These people value their education. They set a good example for everybody. They don’t always have time to do all the homework, or they may have trouble balancing job, kids, grandparents, and schoolwork, but they do know what they’re in school for and why it matters. They will tell a younger student whose parents are paying tuition that they wish they had all that time to concentrate on studies; they will make it clear what the personal and professional costs of not having a degree are; they will also suggest alternative careers if college really isn’t right (or isn’t right now). Students like these will teach a privileged SLAC-bound kid what the backbone of this country really is. And the faculty—thanks to the hideous job market—are as good as you will find anywhere.

Someone determined to party could probably manage it at LRU, to be sure; but that isn’t really the ethos of the place.

I love my students (and this is a happy thing to think about, at the end of the summer when my reflexive reaction is not wanting to go back to the classroom). Sometimes I find them frustrating, especially when they don’t have time to do the work or for reasons they don’t want to go into, they just can’t get it together. But what I really mean is not that I “love” them, in some gooey, emotional, nurturing way. I respect them. I like working with them. I love my job because I feel that working with these people is really worthwhile. SLACs have their place, and they may be the best place for a lot of students. LRU and its ilk, however, are a good place to work and a good place to study, and I wish more people thought about what the LRUs of this world have to offer, including what they might offer students who could afford to go elsewhere but might actually benefit from attending an LRU.

More things done

Bills paid. Finished reading Shaping the Nation: England 1360-1461, which I’ve been working on all summer. It’s 563 pages, and I read the whole thing. I’ve never been very good at “gutting” a book. I may try, but if it’s at all interesting I wind up reading it properly, and thinking about it. I think I was better at skimming in graduate school, where (at least in the taking-classes stage) there were usually other people around reading the same things, and if I read only chapter 2 carefully, someone else had usually paid more attention to chapter 3, and so as we went around the table we’d all get a good sense of the book. Now, if I’m going to grasp anything, I have to do all the work myself.

And have talked to three contractors and need to return the call of a fourth. It’s all progress.

As for the current project (have I managed to attract a Never-Ending-Project-Of-Doom here?), it still proceeds in fits and starts. As in, I start, and then something about it gives me fits. This morning I figured out the end of a marginal comment I hadn’t deciphered before, which is totally immaterial as far as my argument goes, but gives me great satisfaction and makes me feel I’ve done something when I haven’t, not really. I have also established that that comment is definitely not the same as another hand, which I knew, but now I can prove it. That is a very tiny step forward.

Jonathan Mayhew keeps writing about metaphors: for your book, for your writing process (same post), for your work. My initial reaction was to deny thinking metaphorically. And then I remembered the Octopus Touch, and what is that if not a metaphor? An unhelpful one, because while I’m sure octopoi are lovely when you get to know them, they’re in my mental category of “things with too many limbs to be cuddly” and, in fact, when I pursue the image’s associations in my mind, they include a giant octopus embracing a tiny schooner and pulling it down to Davy Jones’ Locker. I do not want to be a sailor on that ship. Unfortunately, now that I have identified the octopus metaphor, the image persists. I am trying to find a more inspiring metaphor with equal staying power.

One thing done

One of the Things I Had To Do For Someone Else is now finished. The reading didn’t really take that long. I wrote 1400 words on it this morning (woke up before 6; I love it when that happens) and sent it off.

When I think about the time it took me, as opposed to the time it has been on the List of Stuff To Do and trying to get to other things first, I think, “I could have done that a long time ago.” I know why I try to do other things first. The other things are supposed to be the important stuff. Do your own writing first, etc., etc. And some days, I do. But today it feels really good to have done something that will stay done, and not come back tomorrow demanding another 500 words or another bit of analysis.

The next thing today (after yoga, breakfast and cat-wrangling) has to be paying bills, which is another thing I’ve been dawdling about because of other stuff that has to get done. I’m really having doubts about this do-the-important-stuff-first routine. Heresy! Will I be burnt on a pile of 7 Habits and books by Boice? But how about getting some of the crap deadline-related stuff out of the way and then going on to play with research, feeling that it’s the fun and interesting thing to do once your homework is done?

Sir John is back in the house (his absence was part of why Monday was difficult; it’s much easier when we can divide responsibility for sick and well cats), and approves of the writing retreat idea. Once I get course assignments planned, so I know when I can take a grading-free weekend, I’m going to make a reservation for some very bland serene hotel 10-15 miles away from home, where for most of a day there will be no distractions and nothing to do but write. We’ll see if this works. If it turns out I’m more productive in familiar surroundings with cats, then at least I’ll know that.

Cat update

Thank you for your good wishes!

The Scot is fine; he just gets collywobbles from time to time. He may be struggling to bring up a hairball. He and the Grammarian are both very good groomers, and groom each other, too, so there’s a lot of hair going around. Once the Scot was observed to bring up a hairball consisting entirely of the Grammarian’s fur. Now there’s a good friend.

The Shakespearean Heroine is an old lady, suffering from some of the minor problems that old ladies often get, including constipation. (If you don’t understand how that leads to the clean-up problems I had yesterday, I’m not going into it here. Ask your vet next time you’re in, dear.) She is basically fine, but will be spending the next few days sequestered in my study so we can be sure she’s pooping properly.

This sounds like the beginning of a tongue-twister: Portia pooped properly . . . .

Sorry. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is the human condition to have to talk about poop. If it’s not worrying about the contents of diapers and the struggle to potty-train, then it’s animals and aged parents. The only way to be refined is to be a childless, petless orphan, and even then, I bet the universe will swing around and hit you or someone you know well with IBS or something like that, just so you get your share. It gives me a certain insight into Chaucer’s fart jokes.

And that, of course, leads me back to thinking about my fall courses. Maybe I’ll write a bit to procrastinate on syllabi. Or vice versa.

Updated to add: I like my new yoga mat. But the Heroine peed on my desk chair.

Ready for a drink at 9:30 a.m.; or, why I read mommy bloggers

The Scot got the day rolling by beginning to puke on the bed at 6:30; with my assistance, he hit the floor before actually getting anything up. Worse than that, though, it appears to be time for the Shakespearean Heroine’s annual attack of gastritis. By 9:30 this morning, I had cleaned up four lots of vomit (from two different cats) and assorted other effluvia, and done two loads of laundry. I have been thinking for awhile that I would like a new yoga mat, but now I really want that new mat. As in, before tomorrow morning. And I just realized that I need to change my shirt. Excuse me a minute.

I wanted to start the first Monday in August with a calm, deliberate approach to my work, and now I’m off-schedule already and feeling rattled. For the mommy bloggers, this would be pretty much a normal day. The academic mommies would go on to send in a couple of grant proposals or polish off an R&R. What is wrong with me that a bit of puke and poop knock me off my game so fast?

In my own defense, one expects to change diapers for infants, and also can expect that job to cease in time. Cats have a reputation for cleanliness. I’m completely certain that the Heroine does not enjoy needing my help to clean up. And we are dealing here with a geriatric cat. The problems of geriatrics are always less attractive than those of babies, of whatever species.

So, I’ve held out till past 10. What is the appropriate beverage for this time of morning? Does Comrade PhysioProf advise MF Jameson’s at every hour of the day, or is there something more suitable in the pre-noon hours?