Octopus, v. intr.

When I checked in with the writing group, I said, “The MMP is Octopusing like crazy.”  In my pedantic moods, I would object to using octopus as a verb, and suggest “growing tentacles,” “expanding,” or “developing offshoots.”

But the unorthodox usage gives a good sense of the flailing madness that usually accompanies a serious case of the octopods.  When you go from dealing with, let us say, a large and lively eel to wrestling with a ship-sinking Creature From The Vasty Deep, proper language use is the least of your worries.

The MMP began life as an exploration of Thing One and Thing Two because they had something in common with Thing Three, which for reasons I will not explain here could not be dealt with directly but needed the indirect approach via Things One and Two.  It quickly became clear that rather than being auxiliary to a study of Thing Three, the MMP needed to be its own project.

It took longer than I care to think about, but last summer I was pretty sure I had got Things One and Two (my lively eels) wrapped tidily round each other in an attractive twist.  There were just a few little bits to work on . . . and then Thing One grew a tentacle.  The twist became a braid.  Thing One threw out another tentacle.  Plaiting-in-four is possible.  But Thing Two was getting choked.  Nonetheless, I kept taking notes and working on organization and thinking about historical background.  I wish I could draw even as well as Bardiac—picture, here, a small two- or three-masted sailing ship, on a calm sea, under a sunny sky, sails happily belled out by a brisk but pleasant breeze, and Dame Eleanor, in period costume, rearranging piles of parchment on the poop deck, holding them down with deck quoits, while behind her rises the Giant Octopus of Doom, stretching its suckers toward the little ship.  (Sort of like this or this or this.)

Along with my unexpected 880 words linking Thing One and a piece of textile art came (at last) the intimation that Thing Two really should be treated in its own article.  I can’t say this hadn’t occurred to me before, but I always had very good reasons to keep trying to twist Thing One around Thing Two.  However, at this point I have quite enough to do taming the Thing One Octopus.    So yesterday I got out various old drafts, cut out all the Thing Two material, and put that in its own document.  Behold: 6000 words about Thing Two.  Granted, some of that is repetition, so I don’t really have a full 6000 words, probably more like 4000, but given a reasonable introduction and conclusion, and suitable references to bits of the scholarly conversation (all of which I left in the Thing One materials, for the time being), Thing Two is looking like a proper grown-up article all by itself.

So you see what I mean about the Octopus Touch.  No wonder the MMP has given me such fits.  It has already spawned the Companion-Piece and another spin-off (currently a draft cobbled together from two conference papers and some productive-procrastination work in Famous British Library last summer).  I have another idea for a sort of meta-spin-off about the process of researching it and how medievalists have worked at different points in the last century.  That’s actually 5 articles, if I get them all written, and you might think it should be a book.  But the connections are sufficiently odd, and the “coverage” of what really is its larger topic sufficiently spotty, that I do think a linked series of articles is the right way to go.

Still.  I seem to be as bad at grasping the scope of my projects as I am at estimating the time work will take.  I suppose these elements are related—not that I know what to do about this, except to rejoice that I am a tenured American prof who can keep blithely sailing out to explore the deeps, octopoi and all, rather than a TT person who must produce or a Brit who has to deal with that whole HRC hoo-ha in which you have to say in advance what you’re planning to do, and then do it, or your department will lose funding, even if you actually discover something much cooler than what you set out to do.

I think I need a new job title: Dame Eleanor Hull, Octopus-Wrangler.

McPhee, seven: process

“Each of those . . . structures was worked out after copying with a typewriter all notes from notebooks and transcribing the contents of microcassettes. . . . The note-typing could take many weeks, but it collected everything in one legible place, and it ran all the raw material in some concentration through the mind.

“The notes from one to the next frequently had little in common.  They jumped from topic to topic, and only in places were sequentially narrative.  So I always rolled the platen and left blank spaces after each item to accommodate the scissors that were fundamental to my advanced methodology.  After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and then coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size.  If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders.  One after another, in the course of writing, I would spill out the sets of slivers, arrange them ladderlike on a card table, and refer to them . . . . If this sounds mechanical, the effect was absolutely the reverse.  If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. . . . The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week.” (50)

The emphases are mine.  The concentrating of data is crucial for me, and I have had trouble allowing myself to do this.  “Just write.”  No.  McPhee admits that the typing of notes could take weeks—“many” of them—and he doesn’t say how long “reading and rereading,” “developing the structure” and “coding the notes accordingly” takes.  The point is that these are a necessary part of the process.  And when he is done, then he is done.  Then he “just writes” whatever section is the job of the day or week.

McPhee, six

Here I’m summing up some ideas about structure.  One that is important to me is the notion that a piece of writing may consist of various set-pieces—the portraits, the chronological episodes, the places where things happen, the revealing anecdotes—linked or juxtaposed.

I’m used to thinking of developing an argument, one logical step leading to the next.  Undoubtedly John McPhee and I work on different kinds of writing, in different disciplines.  I need logic; much as I admire his use of “half an inch or so of white space” (49), academic writing requires that I spell out what he can imply.  Nonetheless, I want to think about how I could use set-pieces: whether I have them, and if so how many, and of what kinds.

It’s freeing to step away from the notion of strict logic.

Some structures McPhee writes about having used: the two-armed structure of his portrait gallery (quoted previously), in which themes gradually converge.  The series of chronologically organized set-pieces hanging from a chronological narrative line.  The spiral, beginning at a point that is not the chronological beginning, and using flashbacks to fill in the earlier events.


“How . . . ?  The structure’s two converging arms were designed to ask and answer that question.  They meet in a section that consists of just two very long paragraphs.  Paragraph 1 relates to the personal arm, Paragraph 2 relates to the professional arm, and Paragraph 2 answers the question.  Or was meant to.” (50)

McPhee mcfour

“I remembered a Sunday morning when the museum was ‘dark’ and I had walked . . . through its twilighted spaces, and . . . lingered in a small room that contained perhaps two dozen portraits.  A piece of writing about a single person could be presented as any number of discrete portraits, each distinct from the others and thematic in character, leaving the chronology of the subject’s life to look after itself.” (50)

McPhee, Three

“Developing a structure is seldom . . . simple.  Almost always there is considerable tension between chronology and theme, and chronology traditionally wins.  The narrative wants to move from point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across someone’s life cry out to be collected” (49).

Even thinking like this is a step forward for me.  McPhee is working on developing an interplay between chronology and theme, and later he gives different sample structures (for example, hanging a series of theme-boxes from a chronological line).  One of the things we always teach students is that moving through a text in chronological order is likely to lead to plot summary; construct a thematic order, instead.  OK, I do that, or I try, but the chronology does indeed “want to move from point to point.”  I like the idea of trying to use this tension instead of fighting it.  Since I am currently working on a project in which I do need both to outline a person’s life and to explore assorted other themes, I am for once working in a genre that is more like the pieces McPhee discusses than the “typical” humanities article (if there is such a thing).

McPhee, day 2

“When I was through studying, separating, defining, and coding the whole body of notes, I had thirty-six three-by-five cards, each with two or three code words representing a component of the story.  All I had to do was put them in order.  What order?  An essential part of my office furniture in those years was a standard sheet of plywood—thirty-two square feet—on two saw-horses.  I strewed the cards face up on the plywood.”

Later in the essay, McPhee gives more details about the process of “separating, defining, and coding,” which eventually gets somewhat automated with a computer program written specially for him by his friendly IT guy.  Possibly recent commercial developments would work similarly (I don’t know; we’ll get to that somewhere down the road).  But the program is modelled specifically on his work process.  The important work is the studying, defining, sorting, abstracting, the mental work.  This is the sort of work that gets glossed over in the urgent exhortations to “just write” (and which, again, I would point out is not actually Boicean, since Boice’s Rule #1 is “Wait” while you read, collect data, take notes, and so on; he is anti-rush.  But of course his advice has been bastardized.  I digress).

Even though I know that I need to do the sorting, collating, story-boarding, etc., in order to get a good final product, I get frustrated and impatient with the time this takes.  I start urging myself to “just write,” instead of taking the time I need.  This is counter-productive.  In the long run, it’s faster to do the job right than to do it badly and have to re-do it.  And so—back to the idea of writing as social process that needs reinforcement—seeing a major author speak so matter-of-factly about “studying, separating, defining, and coding the whole body of notes” (almost as a throw-away aside, as if to say “obviously a writer needs to do this”) is remarkably reassuring.  It’s a voice with which to counter the urgings—internal or external—to write before there is a structure in which to write.

John McPhee on structure in the New Yorker

In the issue for Jan. 14, 2013, John McPhee has a piece on “Structure” that has hit me like the stone tablets must have hit Moses.  I’m going to be thinking about this essay for awhile, and posting quotes and my responses.  The take-aways sound so simple: structure is important in writing, and working at it is both worthwhile and a struggle.  McPhee gives examples, and gives credit to people who helped him.

If you’ve been reading for awhile, you know that structure is what I struggle with most in writing.  I don’t really grasp the idea of just writing a paragraph at a time and then you put them all together and that’s an article, or a book.  Maybe this is because I’m not in a field with a standard structure for writing, such as some of the social sciences have.  In the MLA disciplines, there’s definitely an artistic component to good writing.  You have to discover the right structure; it’s not dictated.  I suppose you could just not bother, but I’m not up for throwing paragraphs together and letting someone else sort them out.  I am always in search of that structure, and I feel a reassuring sense of validation in McPhee’s points that it matters and is hard, and a sense of hope that I may learn something more about my craft by studying his advice and examples.

Just to start, though, here’s my first favorite quote: “To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me.  It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well.  Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.  Square 1 does not become Square 2, just Square 1 squared and cubed” (46).

Writing as social act

Assorted writers—scholars, procrastinators, productivity gurus—have noted the tendency to check e-mail and blogs, sometimes obsessively, when they or their intended audience are supposed to be writing.  This is usually read as a form of procrastination, and something to be avoided.

I wouldn’t say that’s not true, but I am going to propose another way of looking at the situation.  Boice stresses the social aspects of scholarly productivity, and urges scholars to become socially skilled: share writing, get feedback, learn to handle criticism, and so on (The New Faculty Member [1992]; Professors as Writers [1990]; How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency [1994]).  What if the checking of e-mail and blogs is a search for that sort of social reinforcement that makes writing easier?

Having just mentioned to my translation-team, via e-mail, some of my excitement and frustration with the state of the MMP, I find myself longing for some friendly feedback from them.  I want them to tell me that they, too, find this kind of work exciting, that it is worth doing, that they look forward to the results for their own sake and not just because it will let me give more attention to the translation project.

I know this work is worthwhile.  And I like doing it.  But sometimes I want the same sense of an eager (or at least supportive) audience that I have of an eager (or at least worried) audience for the comments I will make on student papers.  The students are there, I see them regularly, they want to know how they’re doing.  I, too, want to know how I’m doing, and it can be painful to wait until an essay is not only finished but published in order to find out what other scholars will think of it.  Sure, there are conferences and so on, but really, even though we spend a lot of time reminding each other that our students are not us (that is, not likely to go on to graduate work), we lose track of the idea that we are not so different from our students (that is, we feel anxious about even projects that excite us and that we want to write).

This is what writing groups can be good for, of course.  At least once a week, someone will tell you that you’re making good progress, moving the project forward, and so on, even if you’re pseudonymizing your project so that nobody knows what the MMP is really all about.

So let me suggest that if you are in the phase of writing where you frequently check your e-mail and blogroll that maybe what you’re doing is looking for support, and cut yourself some slack.  Maybe ask a friend if s/he’ll send you an encouraging e-mail from time to time.  Or sign up for the next iteration of the peripatetic online writing group, which a comment on my last post said would be up today at http://acaderanged.blogspot.com/

If you’re writing, consider this encouragement: I think what you’re doing is significant and worthwhile, and I look forward to hearing about your progress.

And, um, if you wanted to say something similar to me, I would appreciate it!  Because the translation team is busy.