No, no, no, no, NO, NO NO NO NONONONONONO!

Maybe I’m British. I am horrified to discover that it is Hug Your Medievalist Day. While I think Natalie Grinnell’s how-to guide is amusing (the more so the farther down you read), I think I need to caution people I know in real life: don’t hug me. I like it about as much as Basement Cat does.*

Who may hug me? Sir John. My dad. Small children to whom I am related IF they are not sticky.

I tolerate hugs from close friends and family members not listed above, though even with these people, close observers will notice my ears slanting back and the tail twitching a little.

From anyone else, a hug makes the ears go flat and the tail lash. Why can’t you just shake hands? What is with all this touchy-feely crap? How can I single-handedly reverse the rising hug-tide?

Listen up, people: around here, it’s SHAKE YOUR MEDIEVALIST’S HAND DAY.

Okay? Do it my way, and no one will get hurt.


*    Basement Cat and I are both bribe-able. Offer him kibble. Approach me very carefully with a large slab of dark chocolate. In both cases, you may get away with it, but don’t blame me if someone runs away with the bribe and eats it behind the bookcase.

Pamela Dean turns to self-publishing

I have been waiting years for Going North to appear. I’m sorry that the publishing deal for it didn’t work out, but I am glad that I’ll be able to get my hands on it eventually. I already own most of Dean’s books, including ex-library copies of the two now available as either e-books or paperbacks, but I’m wondering who, among my friends, might like copies of Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary and The Dubious Hills, because I would like to support the efforts of one of my favorite authors.

I recommend both books to people who like fantasy, especially fantasy with interesting, active teen-age girl heroes. Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary is about three sisters of those names, particularly the middle one and her group of friends. I like the first two-thirds or so of the book better than the climax and the ending, but to be fair, what’s going on in the last chunk of the book is sort of hard to write about: weird psychological effects of a time-loop-y sort of thing (I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but also trying to be clear about what some people might not like about the book). It’s definitely character-driven and has a lot of atmospheric set-up, which I like, but would drive a reader like Sir John, who needs Plot with a capital P (if not all-caps) out of his mind. JGR grew out of a short story, IIRC, which might help to account for the somewhat odd shape it has. I love it for the treatment of the group of friends; PD is very good on girls’ interactions. The parents are interesting in their own right, which is fairly rare in YA fiction. They met at the same college that is the setting for PD’s Tam Lin, but I never could make either of them correspond to any TL characters, and I think it’s just the sort of recycling that Barbara Pym, for example, did with some of her characters.

The Dubious Hills has a more novelistic shape to it. It’s the same world as the Secret Country trilogy, and even contemporary to SC’s action, but there’s no character overlap, and it takes place in a different part of that world. The characters are engaging and there’s a real problem to tackle, but again, must-have-Plot readers might find it slow. It deals with a family of three children whose parents have disappeared, mysteriously. The kids are very self-sufficient (this is a world where small children have magic abilities, useful for household tasks, which disappear at a certain point in their development, so small people have a sense of responsibility that is not common in our own world), but they miss their parents and want to find them. It’s a lovely book, which includes shape-shifting wolves (shades of Marie de France and William of Palerne, not werewolves as in Anita Blake or Harry Dresden books).

Going North is supposed to bring together the oldest girls from both The Dubious Hills and The Secret Country, in Heathwill Library. Since I love both characters and libraries are my native habitat, I can’t wait to read it (but I’ve been saying that for a long time, so I guess I can, and do, and have, and will). I’m hoping that since Dean is now self-publishing, we’ll get the long version, rather than the one that had to be substantially cut to meet the publisher’s requirements. I mean, editors do have a function, I realize that, and the shorter version might make a better novel, but I want more of the world. Or maybe she could publish both versions! I’d buy them both.

Above average, below genius

You don’t have to be a genius to be competent.

There may be some geniuses who specialize in deep insight, but who are not very competent at applying their insights. However, I expect most geniuses are competent at whatever the lower level of their field requires, even if they wind up doing it in some quirky insightful way that isn’t standard.

So becoming competent may never lead to genius. But it’s not a bar to genius, either. And anyway, isn’t it good to have more competencies? Or to deepen, extend, or speed up one’s competent work in a particular field?

Example: I am competent at various types of mathematics, but I don’t have the kind of insight into math that Sir John has. Basically, I brute-force everything, but when I did more math than I do now, I learned to be fairly quick at figuring out which methods would not work and which were promising. This means I am not a mathematician, but still, this sort of competence is much better than being afraid of numbers or unable to process anything more abstract than a quadratic equation.

This year I have been working on my language competence. I am certainly more talented at languages than many people; on the other hand, I am not one of those who seem to pick up new ones almost effortlessly, and wind up speaking 16 of them plus being able to understand related dialects. I’ve known some people like that. I’d love to be like them. But I am certainly skilled enough to deepen my ability with two or three languages I have studied, and I take considerable pleasure in doing so. There is no point in mourning that I am not hexadecimalingual. That would just get in the way of working on (playing at) improving the ability I have.

Writing should be the same way. If I allow myself to be competent (which I am), and try to improve incrementally, rather than bewailing whatever I see as the flaws that keep me from genius, I’m a happier and probably more competent writer.

Onward and upward.


When I write, I write alone. At some point I show part of what I have written to my writing group. Talking to them is immensely helpful. And then I go back to writing on my own, until a piece is ready to go to a journal.

Translating is different, because I’m collaborating with other people. We have a system. It is mostly asynchronous. So I still work alone . . . but I get feedback on drafts that are still a little rough, and I need to give feedback on other people’s drafts. I feel the presence of my collaborators even when I’m working on a first draft, because I know they will see it soon, and I know the kinds of things they will say.

I find that I feel very tentative about suggesting changes to other people’s versions. I always feel I’m being too colloquial, even though I know my own drafts are too literal, not colloquial enough. And I hate getting my own work back with lots of comments where someone else thought a different phrase would be better. It’s like getting your homework back with lots of red ink all over it. So it is very hard to start going over a passage that has come back to me for alterations.

But that’s just ego. And once I make myself open documents and look at the comments, it’s okay. My ego is a lot sturdier than it claims to be. Red ink doesn’t actually hurt. Accepting or rejecting changes is just a task. I find the ones that are a matter of style or preference irk me more than the ones where I was truly wrong. For example, if I mistook a verb for a different verb, and so struggled to make sense of a line, I am glad to learn what the right verb is, and have the whole passage make sense with that change. But even if it’s a question of, say, “move swiftly” vs. “swiftly move,” I don’t care enough to fuss about it. If someone else cares, then I’ll make the change.

How much time have I lost, over the years, to a drama-queen ego that thought red ink would damage its fragile little self, or that it could never stand to be in the same room with Derek Pearsall’s CV?

Just do the task that needs to be done, whether it’s reading, outlining, writing, translating, correcting, or accepting correction.

Going where?

I had plans for working on multiple things last week, but what happened was (a) taxes, which are now Someone Else’s Problem (yay, I love when I can make things Someone Else’s Problem), and (b) revisions to the second essay that I banged out in rough form last summer. It still needs a handful more citations and a proper introduction, and then formatting. I plan to work on those things this Friday. By April, I want it all groomed and pretty and GONE to be Someone Else’s Problem.

Things that are still My Problem: translation work, two more sets of revisions, another (last?) chapter of the Book in Progress, and a conference paper for next summer. Once the chapter is roughed out, I’ll be able to look at all the bits I’ve done and think about whether the planned organization is working, or if it should be re-organized along the lines of Plan B, or maybe work out a Plan C. The earlier chapters need revision and expansion; the most recent one needs revision and contraction. But I’m looking forward to the moment when I can get a look at the shape of the whole thing.

The main plan for this week is revising and grooming chunks of translation. I’m hoping that that will go quickly and smoothly enough that I can move on to the conference paper or the next chapter or maybe a different set of revisions. Even if goes slowly, however, I think I should be able to sign off on those bits this week, and move on to another single focus for next week.

One thing that often works well for me is to have the “official” focus of the week and the “cheating” focus. So if I don’t feel like working on the main event, there’s another one that I can make progress on while procrastinating on the main one. That’s how I got Second Summer Essay so far along last week!

Don’t go there

It can be useful and motivating to try to model yourself on a somewhat senior scholar whom you admire, to try to follow in her or his footsteps as far as numbers of articles, journal placements, and so on.

But though I had a good reason to do so, I think it might have been better not to look up Derek Pearsall’s complete publication record.

I’m just going to go feed the cats now. I may spend my life laboring in obscurity, but I can buy love, thanks to the people who make cat food.

I dreamed

that I forgot to write my paper for Kalamazoo.

I discovered this when sitting outside the room where I was supposed to present, during the preceding session. I remembered writing the paper, or writing something about it. But the paper was not in the folder where I expected to find it. In another folder, I found my notes. The paper was supposed to be on “Pulling Back the Bedcurtains in the Seven Sages of Rome and Le Roman de Silence.” How alliterative. Mostly my notes consisted of carefully copied passages from the poems, in a Caroline minuscule with Anglicana traits (talk about bastard hands), apparently done with a fine-tip felt pen. Capitals were colored in alternating red and blue, and I’d done a few historiated initials at the start of particularly important bits.

I was trying to work out whether I should just bag the session entirely (there were four papers scheduled, so it wouldn’t have been too awful not to show up, I thought) or try to do some sort of talk based on my notes.

Waking up was partly relief and partly annoyance, because I would have liked to know what my argument was and why it had been so important to produce a hand-copied, prettified set of quotations.