He’s back!

John McPhee returns in the April 29, 2013 issue of The New Yorker, writing about drafts, writerly moods associated with drafts 1-4, and searching for le mot juste.

“Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall.  Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft.  With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus.  Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. . . . What I have left out is the interstitial time.  You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside.  You get in your car and drive home.  On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words.  You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem.  Without the drafted version—if it did not exist—you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it.  In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day—yes, while you sleep—but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists.  Until it exists, writing has not really begun.” (33)

This is quoted from a note to his daughter, Jenny, so I feel I should not quibble over word choices, but I will anyway: “knit at”?  Can you “knit at” something?  I suppose if I had a really expressive, aggressive knitter in the front row of my class, I might feel she was “knitting at” me, with more vigorous clicking of needles, when I said something she objected to.  Do any of my knitting readers “knit at” speakers in faculty meetings, for instance, if you knit in such circumstances?

I thought this “awful blurting” notion sits a little oddly with the careful organizing detailed in the January piece, on structure.  But on second thought, it sounds like it’s a close relative of my “focused freewriting.”  When I know I need a section on a  particular topic, I will “just write” about that topic, without worrying about the logic and structure of that section.  But it does need to be about that topic, not the broader sort of just-keep-writing freewriting.  McPhee plans his structure, and even starts with the first sentence, and then has to bring the writing into congruence with the structure and opening.

I notice also the degree of focus assumed here: that a writer has two or three hours a day to write*, and more time for thinking in a back-of-the-mind sort of way about what one has written.  Many of the activities in which professors engage can be inimical to developing good prose (reading lots of student papers or decanal announcements or committee reports, for example).

*Luxury! we wrote a book in ten minutes a day, licking the typewriter keys clean at the bottom of a lake—we ‘ad to write on recycled plastic bags—and when we were done our department chairs assigned us to the assessment committee that met three times a week for four hours at a stretch for a full year.

Writing Group Therapy

As nicoleandmaggie sometimes say, this is a deliberately controversial post.  The topic comes up because I volunteered to host the next iteration of an online writing group, and I want that group to be helpful for me, as well as for participants.

These online groups are coming up on their second anniversary: we started in May 2011, and continued that fall.  I always liked the basic principle of Another Damned Notorious Writing Group: you were committing to completing a single piece of writing in a twelve-week period.  Notorious said, “Make it a single project, and make it something you believe you can reasonably complete, given the other demands on your time during the semester.”

Over time, the groups have evolved.  A lot of them have expanded to 15 weeks.  People have felt more free to comment on each other’s posts, offering advice, congratulations, and commiseration, whereas I think in the early groups, we tended to wait for pats on the head from our fearless leaders.  I’m neutral on time periods, and in favor of interaction.

But there are a couple of tendencies I’m not happy with.  One is that we’re getting laundry lists of stuff to do from some people, including items related to teaching or taxes.  “Overcome By Events” happens.  We don’t need all the details.  If you need a place to make general lists, then register for an account at the Chron and start posting at Paralysis Analysis.

This listy tendency may have grown from the fact that some of us, including me, have multiple writing projects going on simultaneously, and some of these are large enough to be impossible to complete in 12 or 15 weeks.  So I get that.  But I’d still like to keep the focus on writing/research.  And it would still be good to break down goals to “produce 1000 polished lines of translation” or “one chapter” rather than “keep on with translating” or “write book.”

The other thing making me unhappy is other people’s unhappiness.  It seems as if there’s a lot of venting taking place at writing group that might better go on individual blogs.  The writing group is supposed to support you in the process of getting work done, not help you understand why work is so hard or analyze the reasons for writing block.

So if you’re happy with things as they are, then maybe there should be multiple groups, with different rules.  Maybe I’ll find myself all alone over here.  Maybe you’ll all jump on me in the comments.  Anyway:

I would like to host a group of committed professional writers—or amateurs serious about their craft—who want to complete a single piece of writing between May and August 2013.  The group will provide public accountability and acknowledgement of interim goals met.  That’s all.

Any takers?

What would happen . . .?

The sixteenth-century will I am currently reading is a bad-quality PDF.  So I started hunting through menus to see if there were any tricks I could deploy to make it more legible, and discovered that I could “Activate Read Out Loud.”

Considering that the will is in a secretary hand, and that even though I have considerable experience with such hands, I keep having to tell myself, “no, no, that’s not ‘hippopotamus,’ try again—d, now there’s an abbreviation on the first p,” I really wonder what would happen if I did Activate that function.  Sir John is still asleep or I would try it.

I expect it would either give the program a nervous breakdown or result in “spam” readings—like “the hippopotamus lying in the piff of faint John Baptist”—since it probably couldn’t cope with the abbreviation for “parish,” or the long S.

Here is some of my blog spam:

Good Blog You Got Here.
It is appropriate time to make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy.
je trouve ton blog vraiment sympa.

Very encouraging, isn’t it?  Spam is sometimes like reading a horoscope, providing a silly little lift to the spirits.

Glutton for punishment

Now that I’m done with the Inquisition Post Mortem, for the chap who died intestate, apparently I can’t face being without some early modern document to decipher.  I paid for and downloaded a couple of wills yesterday.  They are PDFs, not fabulous quality (not nearly so nice as the IPM, which had not been digitized before, so I was able to get a full-color JPG of it when I requested a copy), but, on the other hand, gratification was instant.  And they are in English rather than Latin, so I could use them in a class someday, if I can work out a suitable focus/assignment.

I know I’m supposed to be teaching medieval literature, and I’m sure my colleagues and students expect this to be done in a fairly traditional lit-crit way.  After all, that’s what they do.  But I keep thinking that my students can get traditional lit-crit from anybody, whereas I can pass on really specialized skills (or at least an appreciation of these) that very few people at LRU can provide.  And nice legible edited medieval literary texts don’t just appear by themselves; they’re produced by people with a greater or lesser ability in these specialized skills.  I think it’s useful for students of literature to be aware of this.  So more and more book history and editing assignments creep into my classes.

And then I wonder if this perpetuates the idea that medieval literature is difficult and inaccessible, and if I should just teach Chaucer as if he were Chandler.  I know there are good arguments for doing so, and those of my students who go into teaching will undoubtedly do more or less that.  But for me, it goes against the grain.  I’d rather say, Look, this is different, and here’s how and why it is different, and here’s how I can help you explore those differences instead of pretending they’re not there.

I mean, where’s the excitement in taking the easy way out?

Challege ends early

I did six lines of transcription instead of three today so I could finish.  Now it seems funny that I was so overwhelmed by the discovery that there were 78 lines of the IPM to get through.  Of course, that was in February; lots of silly things seem overwhelming in February.   But now it’s April, with sunny days that are long enough!

I don’t so much have SAD as SBD: seasonal bi-polar disorder.  I’m depressed in winter and manic in summer.  I suppose I should not misuse these terms; by “manic” I mean  something like “low-normal levels of energy and good cheer.”  But the difference in mood and energy certainly is noticeable, and since it seems to take months to adapt to the seasonal depression and figure out the work-arounds for it, I just about get there when spring flips the switch and I start zooming around.  Comparatively.  I really must figure out a way to work with these seasonal ups and downs, since they are predictable, and stop fighting them.  Resolved: do not take on any project with a winter deadline.  Winter is for tiny daily chunks of something non-threatening.

Now I want very much to work on “real writing”: the Companion-Piece revisions, the MMP-1 (my real-life writing group reader thinks I’m nearly there with MMP-1, which is to say there will have to be a lot of filling-in of notes and so on but the structure is working), but I really need to tackle a batch of teaching and service tasks, not to mention the taxes, which I truly cannot put off much longer, and if I’m doing that then I should do some filing and shredding and so on while I’m at it.  Huge sigh.  I wish I could delegate all such things to a PA.

Maybe I will allow myself half an hour of “real writing” and then start the teaching, service, and life-admin.  Maybe I will then issue myself a three-day challenge to get all that stuff done.

The hope would be that on Monday I could start a new work challenge.

Challenge update, day 15

I’ve finished a rough draft of Chunk 2 of translation (I think I will have 7 chunks altogether).

There are 9 lines of the IPM to go.

I didn’t do any work on Easter, as family obligations took over that day, but apart from that I have done at least 50 lines of translation and 3 lines of transcription each day.  At this rate, I’ll be done with the transcription two days early, and the translation is 5 days early.  Let the polishing commence!


Finally I have got down to the good bit of that inquisition post mortem (nearly 70 lines in, and who’s counting? I am), about the people I wanted to know about, and the girls are already married.  I wanted to know who held a particular wardship.*

It doesn’t matter for the actual argument; nothing really hinges on this.  But for the big picture, it would have been very useful.

And I just wanted to know, because I’m maybe just a teeny-weeny bit obsessive about details.

*For Comrade PhysioProf and any other non-specialist readers: when gentry or noble parents (or other guardians) of underage children died, said children needed to be the wards of someone who would take responsibility for arranging their marriages.  Wardships could be quite lucrative, because you got to administer the heir’s lands until she/he/they were old enough to marry, among other details.