McPhee says:

“Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? . . . You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got. . . . Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations and other impediments along the way.”

John McPhee, “Omission,” The New Yorker, Sept. 14, 2015, pp.42-49, at 44.

Follow-up to OneNote/Evernote/Scrivener/Zotero question

I’m grateful to everyone who commented.  It was helpful to hear from real people.  Nonetheless, I’m just not seeing what these programs can do for me that I can’t already do with Word, Excel, Adobe Acrobat, and my computer’s Search function.

It sounds like what a lot of people like is the bibliography capabilities of these programs.  Bibliography is the least of my worries.  Having graduated from college before the advent of the word processor, I long ago developed my own methods for keeping track of the books and articles I read.  Compared to hand-writing entries on index cards and re-typing whole pages when the mistakes became too prolific to keep applying Wite-out, changing MLA format to Chicago style is a trivial matter.

I can also take notes on PDFs using Acrobat, and copy those notes into files in Word.  And Word allows me to paste in snippets cut from pictures of manuscripts.

Dropbox allows the same material to appear on multiple devices, with fewer privacy-compromising issues than OneNote.

I can see how a certain kind of mind would love electronic notecards or corkboard, something that looks like the bits of paper but can be searched electronically.  It sounds cool.  But.  Maybe it’s my age, or maybe some other element of my mental makeup, but that makes me totally crazy.  I want either paper or a tidy typed list or paragraph onscreen.

Any operating system worth its salt allows a user to create as many folders as she likes, into which PDFs, scans, pictures, notes, and screenshots can be saved in whatever combination seems appropriate.  The search function allows searching within files as well as for file names.  This is the 21st century: we have optical character recognition (at least in modern fonts; it sure would be nice to have a program that can read medieval chancery hand).  Many documents in different programs can be open at the same time, and with a large enough monitor, or multiple monitors, they can all display at once.  Sir John even has a nifty utility that allows him to toggle between different desktop displays (so he can have, say, four windows with different programs quartering his monitor, and then with one click have four completely different ones appear).  I don’t actually want that much going on at once, but he could make it happen for me if I wanted.  He could also write me a fancier search program if I knew what I needed.

And there’s the real problem.  What I want is a way to make thinking easier.  Remember my man John McPhee?

“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.”

Even the computer program that he eventually got to do some of this work for him was based on his own coding process.  A programmer talked to him for a long time before working out how to write a program that would simplify the sorting of the notes.  But the codes are the hard part.  It doesn’t help to search for everything to do with, for instance, the process of making cheese, if you don’t want to write a whole section of your essay (or chapter, or book) on cheese-making.  If the cheese-making process is providing the chronological structure of an essay about Cheese in Chaucer, then your codes need to indicate that Step One (milk the cow) goes with the widow in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and Step Two (add rennet) goes with the alchemical processes of the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, and so on.

Getting everything in one place is the easy part.  It’s breaking it apart again that is difficult.

As Susan observed in comments to the McPhee post referenced above, “McPhee’s structure is part of the work.”  That is, writing for humanists means discovering the relationships between the parts of your work; the structure is not standard (introduction, methods, results).  Working through all this shows me that there are ways I could make things a little easier on myself.  I could make better use of folders, and more use of Excel.  But in the last analysis, what I really need to do is think, and there aren’t really any shortcuts for thinking.


The Organization

Though black, Glendower has always had a more chocolate cast to his coat than our short-haired black cats, Reina and Basement Cat.  A couple of times lately, when I’ve seen him sitting in the sun with the morning light hitting his fur just so, he looks mottled enough that I’ve momentarily mistaken him for Sabra.  I hate to admit it, but Basement Cat might be right about Sabra’s connections and recruiting efforts.

Plus ça change

Real-world hiring is getting more like the academic job marker.  Or so the Wall Street Journal suggested this morning, in a piece titled “The Six-Month Job Interview.”

“Replacing . . . [a new hire who fails] can wreck a tight budget.  Finding the best candidates requires assembling a large, diverse pool. . . . Group interviews of candidates by multiple insiders are more common . . . .”

Yeah, we know.  Oh, we know.

The do’s and don’ts sound familiar, too:

“Hurdle: Long silences between interviews are making you crazy. . . . Don’t call HR and demand to know the status.

“Hurdle: You’re invited to a 12-hour visit at headquarters to meet and dine with hiring managers. . . . Don’t relax when dinner finally arrives, have a few drinks, let down your guard and crack some jokes.

“Hurdle: A prospective employer asks you to research and present a full-blown business plan.  Do target your presentation to demonstrate the specific skills and abilities the employer wants to see.

“Hurdle: Your No. 2 employer is ready to make you an offer but your No. 1 choice is moving more slowly.  Do e-mail No. 1, explain that other options are advancing fast and ask politely if there’s anything you can do to expedite the process.  Don’t say nothing and settle for the job at No. 2.”

It sounds to me like proof that ex-academics have skills that can be applied outside academia.  We know all about long intervals between initial applications and actually starting the job.  Anyone who has made it even to the conference-interview round has faced multi-person hiring committees.  If you get to campus, you will probably have a 36-48 hour “visit at headquarters.”  For “business plan,” substitute “job talk and teaching presentation” and you’ve done that, too.

As a life-long academic (apart from some temp work and similar, in college and before grad school), I thought the odd part was the intimation that this process was Not Normal.  I can’t imagine just talking to one person and suddenly having a job that would start right away, but this article appears to be addressed to people who think that that’s how hiring works.  Maybe this shift in corporate culture will make it easier to explain to our non-academic families how things work in the Ivory Tower.

And we can brag that we originated the obstacle-course, long-slog interview.

a pre-modern question

How did people in the British Isles tell fortunes before the advent of tea-drinking?  (And after the Romans; presumably in Roman Britain, they practiced augury with entrails and birds flying overhead and so on.)


Coming soon: a follow-up post to my last.

OneNote/Evernote question

As I’m thinking about organizing Stuff, I’m also thinking about organizing Ideas.  I’m supposed to be writing this book (oh, lordy, how did it get to be more than 4 years later?), though during the last few months I’ve been wrapping up other projects in order to clear the decks for it.  There are words written and bibliography assembled, and yet I’m still, I think, at a relatively early stage in the process.  So this might be the point at which to tackle some new technology that could make the whole thing easier.

If it would make it easier.

Sometimes I think I might be better off just to assemble all my bits and pieces into boxes, and spread papers out across the floor, a la the early John McPhee.  I’m visual and tactile and it helps to spread things out.  On the other hand, if I wind up with a silo’s worth of material (like John) that could get messy.

I’ve found some posts online raving about Evernote and OneNote, but these are often by fiction writers (“It helps me keep track of my characters!”—not my problem) or by people who are teaching undergrads to organize their research papers, or else obviously by marketing people who say “it’s fantastic!!11!!” but omit anything useful about how the program works and why you might actually want it.

What about you, scholarly readers who write scholarly books?  How do you organize your sources and notes?  Are there programs you would recommend?  If you have either advice or warnings, I’d be glad to see them left in comments.

Thank you kindly.

Stuff, again

I am really not a minimalist.  I tend to believe that more is more.  Mind, if you offered me a small flat in either San Francisco or Paris, I’d pack a couple of suitcases, gather up the cats, and hire a house-clearing firm to get rid of everything else. But in the absence of such a gift, I see no reason to get rid of things that I like, even if they are not things that I would pay to move out of the country.

Nonetheless, it’s amazing how many things I have that I don’t particularly like, or which make me say “WTF is this and where TF did it come from?”  And I love putting those in the give-away heap.  This afternoon’s job was the sewing/handcrafts box and bags, which I reduced to one box and one bag In the process I ditched a lot of beads I’m sure I bought when I was around 14 (for a considerable time, these were not in my custody; but at some point my mother had a clear-out and gave them back to me, and since then they have hung around various closets of mine again).  The summer we were 14, and intermittently for some time thereafter, my oldest friend and I had a craze for making necklaces and earrings out of seed beads—she went on to belts, I think, but I never did.  I have vivid and pleasant memories of scooping up the box of beads, putting it in a backpack, and riding our bikes down to the local campus, where we sat on the grass near a small creek and strung beads in the sunlight, wading in the creek when we needed to cool down.  I kept the ones I still think are pretty, that I might make something with; but that was less than half of what I found.

I also ditched the sewing projects that made me say “Oh no, can’t be arsed,” though I kept the ones that I thought I might like to get back to.  Will I get back to them?  Maybe, maybe not.  I have not scheduled a time to do them.  It is possible that I never will, and a hard-core de-clutterer would tell me to dump them, too.  But I’m not leaving the country, or even crossing it, and I still want to keep the things that I feel friendly toward, the ones that I think could be fun, or useful, or are quite attractive.  They don’t have to be things I love or that make me feel joyful.  Feeling cordial is enough.

On the other hand, there were three non-matching, pressed-glass, footed goblets, whose provenance I am uncertain of and which I am happy to give to the Cats’ Home (or rather, the second-hand shop that supports our local shelter).  If I think about it, they might have come from my mother’s house, but I’m not sure.  I don’t recall any family associations with these things, the way I do with my grandmother’s pickle dish.  They might be things my mother bought at garage sales because she liked them.  I just don’t know.  (And I don’t know what they were doing with the handcrafts, either.)  They’re WTF items, so they’re going.

I’m pleased that I can see the floor in my closet now, and I hope I can get on to tidying up various other areas soon.  I can see how people get exhilarated by the throwing-out process.  If I had a good excuse (like a job across the country or the chance to move abroad), I think I could get to that point myself.  At the moment, though, I just want some balance.  There are objects I’m trying to find in order to give to particular people, and there are objects that I’m happy to let go, and then there are things that I’m glad to see again, that I want to keep, because I can.  For now.