A belated reply to Undine’s question about work habits:

I am one of those people who need to see things spread out, or at least in piles, in order to make sense of them.  If I put something in a filing cabinet, I might as well just throw it out and save the effort of finding a folder and labeling it.  As much as possible, I punch holes in papers and put them in binders, because then they’re a codex, and I am able to see/locate/believe in books, where files are invisible.  But for a project in process, I like having piles.

The problem is, of course, that piles of research materials are often layered over with piles of papers to grade, or stacks of bills to pay, or materials for some other project, either research or teaching-related, or maybe something crafty like beads to string, or the mending heap.  I dream of having a whole attic just for me and my work, with a 30-foot-long refectory table where I can spread out ALL THE THINGS, and move from station to station when I want to translate, or grade, or work on some piece of the MMP.  (The attic has skylights that never leak, and many many bookshelves, and so I suppose the house must have steel beams to support all the weight on the top floor.  But I digress.)  That’s the dream.  My real house is not all that large, and while I do have a study to myself, it also has to play the role of dressing room, cat playroom, and sewing room.  Hence the layering.

Last week I removed the mending heap, and even mended some of it.  Yesterday I removed a lot of stray papers-to-sort-and-file to the guest room (NB, must file them before Queen Joan graces me with her royal presence, and preferably before Basement Cat starts perforating them) so that I could get at the photocopies and printouts related to the MMP that have stacked up.  I also found a set to do with another project, and a couple of items that made me wonder “What the hell was I thinking?”  Then I sorted and labeled all the photocopies with different-colored sticky notes for Literature, Manuscripts, Reading Practices, Book History, Biography, and Theory.  I also labeled the piles of printouts: MMP-1, MMP-2, MMP-3, and listed what was in them (notes, tables of data, early drafts, feedback from RL writing group, usw).

The labeling meant that I have at least handled (touch work!) some of the pieces I need to cite in one or another part of the MMP, and I re-read one and skimmed a few others.  They have been buried long enough that I had forgotten about them.  Some of them, maybe even most or all of them, are no doubt listed in the bibliography for the MMP; I am sure I have typed notes on some of them in that file; and yet seeing the list and the notes on a screen is not the same thing, for me, as having a physical pile of documents, out in the open, where I am aware of their real present thing-ness.

Writing this, and thinking about my need for the concrete and physical, makes me think I should print out those notes, and maybe the images I’ve acquired from the National Archives, as well.  Even if the images don’t print clearly, just the fact of having them visible in hard copy might make some difference to me.

Having gone through the sorting and labeling, I then sat down and re-wrote (by hand, on paper) the introduction to the MMP-1, which the RL writing group was pretty critical of, last week.  It wasn’t the (placeholder) intro that I wanted help with—I wanted to know which pieces of enormous footnotes could/should be integrated into the main text, or cut altogether—but the intro was what I got feedback on, and of course in the process of saying, “No, no, it’s not about that,” I realized a bit better what it IS about and so what the intro DOES need to say.

I keep having to remind myself of the way the Companion-Piece, last summer, looked like a complete mess until very suddenly it wasn’t a mess any more.  One day it jumped a quantum level or two.  So my job must be to keep hammering away, juggling notes and printouts and revisions, and having faith that at some point the mess will resolve into a tidy article.

Faith, and piles.


7 thoughts on “Out of sight, out of mind; in sight . . .

  1. I have frequently thought about a refectory table as well, with multiple piles as you describe. But I would have a lovely teapot, hot water jug, cups and tins of tea in the corner as well so I can contemplate the piles of papers.

    I am trying to transition to paperlessness, in part because I don’t have tenure, so there is always the thought in the back of my mind that we will have to move house again. However, when I am really serious about working on a project, piles of paper come out again; old notes on scraps of paper, journal articles with notes scribbled on them, more and more handwritten notes on ideas, rough drafts of paragraphs, other papers, drawings of possible analyses, . . .

    And of course everything must have its own pile!

  2. Hm, rectory table is good. My fantasy desk is a library table: big, heavy, dark… And I too love/need piles. “Faith, and piles.” Yes, yes. “Trust the process.”

  3. re:piles – I have always coveted “literature organizers”, sometimes listed in supply catalogues here as “office mailboxes” and other such things. Essentially they are open cabinets with racks of shelves suitable for shortish (up to 4″ high) stacks of paper. Employer bought one that was 6’x6’x15″ deep a few years ago and all I could think was “I want that for my home office.”

    Pros – piles visible, sortable even; saves space, appeases desire to look/feel organized

    Cons – easier to ignore piles if so inclined, nonstandard paper sizes don’t fit unless shelves are adjustable, $$$ for good quality

  4. Correction: I meant “refectory.” (Need more sleep.) In fact, I imagine a rectory table would be quite small and modest, no good at all as a real work space.

  5. Your work space sounds just about perfect to me, too (I like the long table and the bookcases, and there’s also the fact that I’m fond of attics, though my knees are becoming less fond of stairs, so I might add a small personal elevator in a corner, or disused chimney, or bumpout in the rear of the building, or something, not for present use, but for the comfort of knowing the space would remain accessible).

    I also, like aepva, covet “literature sorters” (and in fact am trying to figure out how to buy or make an affordable version to fit on shelves over my desk). On the other hand, I’m contemplating scanning more (folders on my hard drive don’t, oddly, seem to render the contents quite as invisible as the physical kind). But that’s more for true archiving of things I might want to consult one day. I do “pile” a bit on my computer desktop while writing (open windows/tabs), but that slows the computer, and then Windows decides to do an automatic update in the wee hours, and I have to start from scratch.

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