Happy spring!

“I knew that creating a first book out of nothing—or at least entirely from one’s own resources—and making it stand up against anything, was a task that, exceptional luck apart, demanded endless time and labor, a long process of trial and error.  Writing, I told myself, is a profession that can only be learned by writing.”

Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, trans. Peter Green (New York: Harper Colophon, 1962; orig. La Force de l’Age, Gallimard, 1960), 290.

Tuesday, 20 March: the path

Claude Lanzmann “sensed that there was just ‘one right path’ to follow, and he set a rule for himself: ‘I refused to carry on until I had found it, which could take hours or days, on one occasion I am not likely to forget it took three weeks.’”

Claude Lanzmann, The Patagonian Hare, trans. Frank Wynne, quoted in Richard Brody’s review in the New Yorker, “Witness” (March 19, 2012), 81-2.

Monday, 19 March 2012: discovery

“The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.”

Gustave Flaubert.

I don’t have a proper citation for this, because WordPress popped it up on the dashboard after I posted an entry last week.  It inspired me to put together a week of inspirational quotations from French writers, though: stay tuned.

Writing Group, week 6: what’s hard?

Discussion last week suggested that even among members of this group, the “hard” part of writing varies considerably.  We have a small sample size, of course, so I hesitate to draw any significant conclusions.  We do seem to have some predictable divisions: the people I know to be in science agree about what they find difficult, which is not the same as those who have chimed in from the humanities side; and there are differences between grad students and faculty, between those working at institutions with high-teaching, low-research expectations and those at schools with higher research goals.

Obviously the same person, at different times in life, may fall into several of these categories.  Personality, life experience, and institutional culture all contribute to our sense of what is “hard.”

When I was in college, lab work in the sciences was hard for me, although I did better on tests where I could apply theoretical and mathematical techniques.  Still, those classes helped to deepen my devotion to logic and rigor: not a bad quality in itself, but I think that definitely slows me down now, when I’m working on the writing tasks I find “hard,” creating clear arguments.  I can’t just associate ideas or put together a paper that appears to “flow”; I have to make sure that I have an airtight argument where one step leads logically to the next.

It makes me crazy.

But I call this “hard” in quotation marks because I don’t think this is inherently difficult.  It’s just hard for me.  And I think studying people who find argument easier could teach me something about how to do it.  I think I can get better at this, and I’m trying to figure out how to do it, partly by harnessing my strengths.

I’m curious about what other people find hard.  Post your comments!  But let’s put off “easy” for next week, OK?  I’d like to do a whole other post about “easy,” so think about that and make notes if you need to, but this week’s topic is “hard.”

Roll Call:

Amstr: 1) complete a very rough draft of dissertation introduction, 2) outline the theory content of each chapter.
ComradePhysioProf: no goal posted.  Still the last grant mentioned, I presume.
Contingent Cassandra: 3-4 short-medium morning sessions with the P conference paper/article/outline-in-progress. Progress on ancillary tasks as possible.
DEH: get a draft to my RL group.
EAM: contact my dissertation director and readers.
FeMOMhist: 500 more words.
thefrogprincess: MIA.
GEW: Order the friggin book review! Read two chapters of philosophical foundations, and 10 pages of methods chapter.
Ink: make the revisions that I wrote in longhand.
JaneB: a) Smooth out the rest of the lumps into a rough draft. b) type all my notes into the outline of the Unexpected Paper. Keep using those little gaps!
JLiedl: Complete a draft of the grant application: CV, budget and actual research project. information.
kiwimedievalist: Finish this article.
Luo Lin: 1) Work one half hour each weekday morning.  2) Continue the writing and revising of the messy draft.  3) Write and submit conference abstract that has deadline next week.  4) Decide where to send a paper that got rejected last fall. Send it.
Matilda: (re-)read articles, start to construct my argument; write something everyday.
Nancy Warren: excused absence due to travel.
profgrrrl: traveling.
Rented Life: Read lots! The book is divided into three parts, so I’d be happy to finish part one this week. Actually re-read my own stuff and either expand or add new section accordingly–let’s say 5 pages of either editing or new writing.
Sapience: 1) Finalize any conference paper revisions, if necessary; 2) re-try to get the major expansion of chapter 5 researched and written.


Why is it that today I need to log in to my WordPress account to post a comment anywhere, including on WordPress blogs where I am a regular commenter and my information already shows up in the i.d. windows for comments?  This is annoying.

And it has become nearly impossible to post comments to any Blogger blog.  I am grateful to people who give the name/URL option.  Sisyphus, how about it?  I keep wanting to comment and giving up in disgust when even when I’m logged in, I can’t get my ID accepted.

Thursday already

“By Thursday I decide I hate whatever it is I’ve written, that I’ve lost my talent, and furthermore I begin inventing my worst-nightmare notices. . . .By morning I know it’s time to force myself outside.  I even put on mascara for the occasion.  I take myself to the campus library and join in the communal contract for concentration.  Leaving the room, I leave behind my fear and am able to focus again.”

Wendy Wasserstein, “Holidays at the Keyboard Inn,” 145-9 in The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work, ed. Marie Arana (New York: Public Affairs, 2003), at 148.


“Supposedly easy tasks . . . such as teaching are far more likely to be associated with punishment than with reward; failing an easy task brings a loss of face. . . . [H]ard tasks (at which workers are commonly expected to fail) are more likely to occasion rewards than punishment. . . . [A]voidance of punishment in an activity that must be faced almost daily (teaching) will supplant a hard activity that can be procrastinated (scholarly writing). . . . The hard-easy rule also hints at what will have to precede changes in the usual, paradoxical arrangement of rewards for writing and teaching.  Stated simply, we cannot expect new faculty to display a fondness for writing, no matter how obviously important it is, until they model what their most productive colleagues do (that is, work in regular moderation at writing, teaching, and collegiality).”

Robert Boice, The New Faculty Member (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992), 101.

Even if you’re not a big Boice fan, it may be helpful to think again about success and failure, reward and punishment, in terms of the tasks we regularly face.

Writing: my nose hurts

“I see a thing, something, someone, something beautiful, something ugly, and I can’t get my hands on it.  I can’t understand, and I can’t just accept.  I don’t know if anything means anything to me.  A painting or a person is like a wall in front of me.  I can’t see the wall, because I’m blind, but I know it’s there and I know that if I take another step I’ll bang my nose against it.  My nose hurts already, thinking about it.  That’s all I know how to write about, how my nose hurts.”

Peter S. Beagle, I See By My Outfit (Pleasantville, NY: Akedine Press, 2002; orig. 1964), 81.

Inspiration? Perspiration.

Glendower is a charming little cat, but he is a morning cat person.  We’re going very slowly with introductions, because Basement Cat really has, uh, “issues” with other cats.  In fact, Basement Cat still has to be confined when people aren’t up and about, to keep him from attacking the other cats.  So he has the guest room, and Glendower has my study.  Their doors are at right angles to each other, at the end of a small hallway which also has the door to the humans’ bedroom.  Now the Tiny Cat has started calling dawn meetings of the Black Cat Club.  She comes up (she rarely came upstairs, until Glendower joined us) and hangs out in the corner by the boys’ rooms, and Glendower starts chirruping and pawing at the door, which gets Basement Cat’s attention.  If I snag Glendower and take him into the bathroom with me, the Tiny Cat runs in and plays Ebonylocks, eating Glendower’s food and using his litterbox.

So I’m not getting enough sleep.  I really have to go to bed earlier, if I have to break up meetings of the Black Cat Club at dawn.

But here’s a thought for the day:

“There’s a rumor going around that if you stick with it long enough, a book will begin to write itself.  Taking that proverb on faith, since this is my first book, I kept a diligent eye for the smallest sign of little nubs developing along the edges of my thoughts—nubs that would finally bud into little fingers whose job would be to effortlessly carry my thoughts into the writing of this book.

“Maybe that works for some folks but not even the slightest swelling of a nub appeared for me.  I finally gave up and settled for the fingers I’ve got—sometimes hesitant, uncertain, and searching and sometimes strong, decisive, and sure.”

Diane Eshin Rizzetto, Waking Up to What You Do (Boston: Shambhala, 2005), xi.

Writing group, week 5: Managing emotion

On the one hand, I think writing should be somewhere on the neutral-to-fun spectrum: part of the academic job, so you just do it; or part of a project that you’re really excited about it, so you love to do it.

On the other hand, I recognize both that for many people, at least some of the time, writing is hard.  I like to write, and I find my research absorbing, but there are days when the prospect of writing makes me feel bad in various ways.  “It’s hard” is a way to avoid the real issues.

This is my theory about why writing is hard.  To do it, you have to sit down and be quiet.  You stop rushing around juggling tasks, stop talking to (and listening to) students, fellow committee members, partners, children, friends, and you try to turn off the task list in your head that says “grant proposal, answer e-mail, laundry, what am I going to wear tomorrow, what’s for dinner tonight, a cookie would be good right now, how many papers are left to grade, overdue book, gosh this room is a mess.”  Usually your head is so full of that kind of thing that there’s no room for anything you might be trying not to think about.

Once you get quiet, anything lurking at the back of your mind will come out.

It may be sadness, disappointment, anger, worry, even excitement about a good thing; but it will come out and try to get your attention.

And you will try to get it to go away and shut up because you have to concentrate on the grant proposal, essay, review, rough draft, whatever you’re doing.

The Thing in the Back of Your Mind does not like being ignored or told to shut up.  Well, really, who does?  So it gets louder, and it calls up all its friends and supporters, like the Mean Censor and Self Doubt, so they can all gang up on you.

At this point, any sensible person who doesn’t like being on the receiving end of nasty comments is, of course, going to want to get that cookie, start the laundry, or surf the internet, to get all the Things to shut up.

Now, if you learned your craft as a writer at some calm and happy time in your life, or even if you didn’t but writing was a calm and pleasant haven from the other stuff, then you probably have good habits in place that mean you either don’t get the Chorus of Things, or you can deal with them effectively already.  So you can be a happy writer who does not feel that writing is hard.

But many of us learned the craft in high school, college, and grad school, times of turmoil and trouble like heartbreak, moving across the country, and dealing with troublesome roommates.  You may thus actively associate writing with emotional uproar.  Even if your life is calm and pleasant now, getting quiet so you can write may start up the Anvil Chorus just because you’re used to that.

So step one is to figure out whether there is a real, current Thing you don’t like to think about, or if this is habit.  The most concrete current Things are in some ways easiest to deal with.  You tell them yes, this is a serious problem, and you are going to call the insurance company as soon as you have put in this half hour writing.  Assure the Thing that it will get your full attention in its proper turn.  This politeness will usually get it to ease up for 30 minutes or so.

With old habitual stuff, you can use rational behavior-modification techniques on the Things.  Ask them why they want to keep you from writing.  When they say, “So Professor Nasty from freshman year won’t be mean again!” you say, “But I have already published more than Professor Nasty,” or “Well, we survived Professor Nasty and Professor Awesome thinks we’re great!”  The Things may grumble a bit, but a few minutes of attention can convince them that you are too cool and rational to fall for their silly tricks.

I want to say more about writing and managing emotion (not controlling it: if you can control it, you are a Vulcan and I envy you, but we live in different emotional worlds; managing is all I aspire to), but this post is long enough already so I’ll save the rest for another time.

Roll call:

ComradePhysioProf: my grant-writing is coming down to the motherfucken wire!!
Contingent Cassandra: Squeeze in 2-3 short morning sessions with the P conference paper/article/outline-in-progress. Accomplish at least one additional ancillary task.
DEH: do 3 more research tasks and cobble together a nasty dirty rough draft so my RL group can tell me what to do with it.
EAM: set up the study in the new house.
FeMOMhist: 500 more words.
thefrogprincess: rewrite (reshuffle) the article according to the new structure and figure out where needs more work (more evidence, more secondary lit, etc).
GEW: Order that book review. Read 10 pages of methods chapter.
Ink: Finish two curriculum projects (out of four currently underway). Write ONE more fiction page.
JaneB: a) Smooth out the rest of the lumps into a rough draft. b) type all my notes into the outline of the Unexpected Paper that started last week.
JLiedl: Outline the article and write 500 words on it.
kiwimedievalist: Finish the editing.
Luo Lin: write 1/2 hour on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and make a realistic plan for spring break.
Matilda: planning for my presentation in April; ok, I am making an easier goal for next week: writing at least something everyday.
Nancy Warren: polish conference paper and keep working on chapter version.
profgrrrl: finish copyediting and tidying MS, send to publisher; while I travel I really need to work on an encyclopedia entry, a book proposal, and the chapter that has become an article.
Rented Life: Finish chapter 1 of book. I’d be happy to start chapter 2 but with midterm grading we’ll see. Print off and review the scenes I have so far because there’s certainly some continuity issues. And I need to just physically see them like that to start laying out chapters. Expand what I wrote last week.
Sapience: 1) write application letter for a summer job; 2) research and write at least one of the expansions for chapter 5; and 3) finish the conference paper revisions and power point presentation.