Pseudo-science and Rational Woo

First the disclaimer: I don’t believe in astrology.

However, I recently took a trip down memory lane that has to do with astrology. It started when I was reading an old thread at the Chron fora on which an astrologer was posting in ways that people on the thread seemed to find useful—more about working with symbols and archetypes than with predictions, sort of like reading Tarot cards in terms of what the symbols mean for the person getting the reading rather than as they’re generally interpreted. On a whim, I plugged my birth date and place into one of the sites that will give you a full horoscope, what house all your planets are in, the whole nine yards.

The results surprised me, because they were not what I have believed for the past more than forty years.

See, back when I was in junior high, I was quite “into” astrology. I don’t remember if I believed it, or what sparked my interest. Possibly there was a fad for it among my friends; perhaps one friend was annoying about interpreting everything in terms of sun sign, and I decided to find out more as a defense. I mean, obviously not everyone born under Virgo is going to get run over by an egg truck today. What I do remember is that I got books from the library, and read up on both the principles and the techniques, and then, to the best of my ability, calculated my horoscope with all the planets and houses. This was long before the internet, significantly before the computing power now available meant that inputting date, time, and place could instantly spew out all the details. It was also before my math skills were as developed as they later became.

So there I was, at the age of twelve, struggling with the tables and conversion factors in one of the books I’d checked out, and determining that my rising sign was Leo. I liked this result very well, not least because of my fondness for felines. I’m sure that doing all the work was useful in various ways. That is, on the social front, it no doubt allowed me to participate with authority in junior-high conversations (though I don’t remember this part—I try to forget as much as possible about junior high school). Certainly this was child-led education, in that I found something that interested me, went to the library, did the reading, did the math (to the best of my ability), and wrote up my results in a way that pleased me. If I neglected my school homework to do it, well, tant pis; I always have been one to do more of what interests me than what I have been assigned.

The results of my recent whim show that my rising sign is not Leo, nor is my moon where I believed it to be. So much for my long-ago efforts. Looking at what I’m “supposed” to be like according to my new horoscope, I scoff. Definitely a pseudo-science. But! What are the effects of believing, even for a short time, even only half-consciously, that you have certain characteristics? What effect on my adolescent psychology did it have, to believe (or at least, put about to my credulous friends) that I was self-aware, ambitious, faithful, authoritative, energetic, creative? Those are good things to believe about yourself, wherever you get the ideas. It’s hard, at twelve, to have established much of a personality or track record (or so it seemed to me, at the time: friends who knew me at 8 think I’m pretty much the same person now as then!). I spent a lot of time feeling like I was just not-quite at a lot of things I wanted to be better at, so it was helpful to have a horoscope assuring me that I was going to make it, eventually.

So now I wish I had disregarded all the tables and details of my actual birth and just cast for myself the best possible horoscope, the perfect forecast of the person I most hoped to become, and believed in that until I had a track record to believe in. This is what I call Rational Woo: “Sometimes in order to get where your rational self wants to be, you need a little woo-woo. Of course you know the odds against you: will your novel even find a publisher, let alone become a best-seller that will let you move to New Mexico and write full-time? Ha ha. Will your academic book really change the face of the discipline? Uh-huh. Will your dissertation even get you a job? Um . . . .

But an unwritten novel is guaranteed not to be published; the unwritten academic tome doesn’t stand a chance of changing anything; the unfinished dissertation will most certainly not get you the job that requires dissertation in hand. You can’t ensure your own success, that is true. But you can most certainly ensure failure. So you have to at least meet the bar of finishing whatever it is.

And so it’s time for the woo-woo that will let you shut off the voices and the doubts and get on with it. . . . It’s your fantasy life: let it be rich, productive, and comforting. Whatever keeps you doing the work, moving the project forward every day, taking baby steps if that’s what you’re able to do.” So I said seven years ago.

Right now, I want a horoscope that tells me I am a hard worker who sometimes needs significant down-time to let thinking happen in the background; that I can come roaring back from this slow period to knock out a lot of good work quickly; that my trip to visit family is going to go smoothly and be a refreshing change; that the next two months of this summer are going to be excellent for me in many ways, so long as I just keep truckin’.

What a fool believes? Whatever. If I say I have Leo rising, then I have a nice protective lion leaning over my shoulder to help me out, okay? Cat is my co-pilot! I can wake up from a nap and instantly nab a mouse! Cats never doubt themselves. They are perfect just the way they are. So I’m sticking with Leo as my horoscope-totem-whatever.

Sources of inspiration

Grumbles and procrastination clearing; forecast offers a chance of further improvement.

A lot of my grumpiness has to do with facing a very old R&R. I want to be done with it. I wish my past self had just done it right away. But when the reviews came in, my past self was struggling with the MMP, and then the series editors put both feet down about the Huge Honking Translation, and what with one thing and another, including my promotion application last year, years have passed. Not without efforts toward the R&R, but now this is one of the contributing factors: I have layers of notes and outlines to review as I try to figure out what the plan was, and the mass of material is daunting.

Since I finally spent an hour re-reading these, I’m feeling more like tackling the thing and getting it over with.

I’m also looking over my shoulder, suspecting that making the effort will (by Sod’s Law) bring down the Translation Editors or some other type of interference with the work.

Yesterday when I was procrastinating/looking for inspiration, I found a couple of helpful posts. One is from a gardener. The advice sounds a lot like any planning process, but it’s useful to see that people in other areas have the same problems and solutions. Here’s what Jen in Frome says at https://doingtheplan.com/2017/04/21/planning-and-doing-the-plan/

  1. Do Stuff. Take small steps frequently to get more good things thriving . . . . Lots of little things done each day adds up to a lot done over the month.
  2. Review. Note down what was done and when, and keep observing and thinking about what’s working out and what’s what’s not.
  3. Plan. Check what’s done so far against what’s hoped for in future, and set out a few next steps to get a bit closer to your goal.

Another is Kameron Hurley on working through fear and writing fatigue, here: https://www.kameronhurley.com/lets-talk-creativity-fear-losing-magic/ Hurley says, “Much of the time I feel I’m spending “writing” is actually time I spend feeling guilty because I can’t write, or because I feel that what I’m writing is utter shit. That’s not “writing” time. It’s my time with The Fear. So much of my writing time has been taken up talking with The Fear that I couldn’t figure out why shit wasn’t getting done. It certainly felt, emotionally, like I was working REALLY HARD. But arguing with your fear isn’t working. Feeling bad for not working isn’t working. Being angry about not working isn’t working.”

Yes, and no. Arguing, feeling bad, and being angry are certainly a lot of emotional labor. Doing them doesn’t necessarily “work,” as in, make it possible to get back to work. But it doesn’t help to pretend The Fear isn’t happening, either. I wound up negotiating with mine. I put on the music I usually use for grading, spread print-outs all over my desk (so I had to see them), and set a timer for ten minutes. That was all I needed to get into the task. When the timer went off, I was annoyed and immediately re-set it for 25 minutes, and made a lot of progress in that time. I needed the short time to start, though, because 25 seemed like way too much time for demon-fighting.

Am I embarrassed about having this sort of work problem, still, again, at my stage of career? Hell yeah. I also hope that admitting to it, publicly if pseudonymously, may help some other people who might be having the same problem. You can get past it. Sometimes you can go years without The Fear. But it’s also a thing that comes back with the right triggers, the right combination of factors, the wrong encounter with someone who pushes certain buttons. The only way I’ve ever found to deal with it is Virginia Valian’s: make the task smaller. As small as you need to. Ten minutes. Five. And be kind to yourself, because the piece of work is not really the problem. It’s all the emotions that have got tangled up with that piece of work. They might be big things that need therapy, or they might be ghosts of something you cleared up long ago, or they might just be bad habits.

If it’s not a good day, if The Fear is happening to you, if you’re procrastinating, give it five minutes, write down what you did in that time, and come back to the thing tomorrow. That’s all. Five minutes, and a note about what you did in the time.

Well, it IS the best medicine

I feel so much more relaxed since I listened to a few seconds of several different “guided meditations” that I found on you-tube when I searched for “meditation for sleep.”

Not because they put me into a peaceful, trance-like state, but because they made me laugh. Probably you had to be there (and maybe there is something deeply wrong with me, or at least deeply unfit for the world of guided meditation). So much is about the effect of voices, and I’m sure each individual will respond very differently. IME Brits are tart, not syrupy, so when I hear a syrupy voice with a British accent, I’m already primed to find this very strange, and when he says “Tonight we’ll do a guided meditation to help you sleep,” my response is “No, we won’t.” (Speaking of oppositional, N&M!) The sl-o-o-ow speech on the ones I started trying to listen to makes me think “Duuuuuude, are you on ‘luuuuuuudes? And wouldn’t it be more effective to take something than to fall about laughing while listening to guided meditations?”

I think I’ll stick to rain noise to help me sleep. But hey! Like I said, I’m a lot more relaxed for the laugh, so I can’t say I got nothing out of it! Maybe I should spend some time before bed on the Comedy Channel. Only my sense of humor is so skewed that might not help.

Stevie Smith, 1937

From a letter to Naomi Mitchison:

“I think at the present moment you are in a state of mind that hungers for the disaster it fears. If there are these forces of evil you see you are siding with them in allowing your thought to panic. Your mind is your own province—the only thing that is. Yes, this brings up another point. There is a sort of hubris in this unreal worrying. For if you have achieved peace in your own mind when the worse happens (if it does) you will have reserves of strength to meet it. And if you have not achieved peace in your own mind how can you expect the world to do any better. You are the world and so am I. And at the moment the world is a great deal too articulate! (You will agree!!) and worries too much and so on.”

Quoted in Mitchison’s memoir, You May Well Ask (London: Gollancz, 1979). p. 155.

 

More brilliance from the past

In my remembrance of things past via visits to defunct (or merely suspended? like the Seven Sleepers, perhaps the right impetus will awaken some bloggers) blogs, I have been relieved when some writers actually quote large chunks of text from other webpages, rather than just linking. Links, sadly, break. Thus, having found a clear exposition of Z’s amazing and admirable process in comments at Undine’s, I’m copying and pasting here. I’m not this hardcore, but I agree about the need to think, and that writing before you have thought is “just stewing.” That is, sometimes I write to help myself think, but I have to be very clear that that is what I am doing, and not have any expectation that any of those words will be good, keeper words.

The rest of this post is Z, not me:

*

People say just write, write, write and this will make you see what you are doing. Through the so called process of writing you will figure out what you mean, they allege. I think that is completely crazy, at least for my case … writing is just stewing and will only ruin your thought process unless you have already decided what you are doing. Until such time as your first line comes to you unannounced, and you know what the content of your last paragraph is going to be, you are much better off just meditating as far as I am concerned.

If I do that, all I come up with are a whole lot of great first pages. I could do that for months and even years – and HAVE done it for that long sometimes – and never finish a single piece.

*

My most classic example of this, to which I have alluded before:

When I was in college and graduate school I had a typewriter, not a computer. (In college and through my Ph.D. exam it was a manual one; for my dissertation I bought a self-correcting one by Olympia.) For all papers I kept handwritten notes and would then write directly on the typewriter, no revisions. My dissertation director couldn’t believe my dissertation draft, she said it read like a book, how could this be, but she would have just DIED had she known I had composed it directly like that. She had been yelling at me because I had said I was only writing one page a day, with Sundays off, and would write the whole thing that way in a year. She nearly fainted when this turned out to be true.

Of course in order to be able to do that I had to sit around and think about it for several months first. It took seven months to come up with a dissertation prospectus. Then it took ten months to think. Then it took nine months to write, and four months to have the committee read it and then for me to enter it into my very first computer and print it out on acid free paper. This adds up to 30 months during which I also moved to a new country and took a full load of graduate courses in a new subfield, in a language I was not (initially) very proficient in.]

*

This methodology is the only one which works for me, and/but I warn everyone that even it only works if one is actually working on one’s ideas (not stewing, not rushing, not worrying, but WORKING) in a calm, organized, but *concentrated* way in the meantime. That is what will, in good time, make a first line come into one’s head … and one knows it is the RIGHT first line because with it comes the content of the last paragraph.

Peri-writing

I’ve lamented nostalgically about the Lost Age of Blogging before, and mentioned that I spend a certain amount of time trawling archives of both defunct and on-going blogs. Hey, I spend most of my professional life living in the far-distant past, somewhere between the twelfth and the fifteenth century; spending my leisure 10-15 years back puts me in the current century!

Peri-writing is a great term from the incomparable Undine. I disagree strenuously with the commenter who said it is the enemy of writing. No. It is research. It is the humanities equivalent of running experiments, of putting in lab time, seeing what you come up with. Writing is the writing up of results, and if you do that first, you’re in danger of cherry-picking your evidence and reporting false results. Writing just to write, even just to see where your “holes” are, is a great way to waste time and dig yourself into a huge pile of words you’ll just have to trash. Much better to make notes, look up things you should read, and then at some later point think about those things: can you get by with reading reviews of books, or chapters, or skimming the TOC and index plus some key passages? Are you better off reading the popular overview and then judiciously extracting the original research from the cited works? I agree that the peri-writing stage can be frustrating, but it is necessary, it is work, and we should not be sending the message that there’s some way to skip it. Thinking is the important part, and there’s really no way (that I know of) to shorten that process.

Don’t overthink it

I spend a lot of time living in the past (as longtime readers may remember).

Lately some of that has been the more recent past, as I go through the archives of Grit’s blog, letting time spool backwards as her daughters grow younger. Thanks to her, I have learned of the Battlefields Trust, an organization I would gladly join if I spent more time in the UK, and also got some new ideas of places to visit next time I am there in the summer.

I also reflected on the usefulness of a Just Do It attitude, as in the following post from 2011:

As I drive home with the lovely safe brakes that don’t SCHCHGLMSHKSCH each time I lay my foot on the brake pedal, I consider how I have reached that point where I solve difficulties by throwing cash at them, and sort problems in minutes that otherwise would take me months, simply by doing, and not thinking or planning at all.

There seems to be so much stress in academia on planning, but really, you’re often better off just acting.

“Write first”

It always sounds like such great advice. But there’s a theory/practice problem: the writer is embodied. That is, the physical body has its quirks, and it lives somewhere, and the household also has quirks. Cats. Whatever. Same thing, really.

I am frustrated with not getting more writing done this fall, and so, like Gwinne, I resolved to use the NaNoWriMo energy to spur me to action. Yesterday I wrote on the train, doing some work toward a hunk of close reading to appear in the introduction to the Huge Honking Translation. There were a batch of things I needed to look up, later. Okay. I came home last night, fourteen hours and twenty minutes after I left the house in the morning (but who’s counting?), and resolved to make it easy on myself to Write First this morning. I made tea in my travel mug to leave by my bedside, laid out my clothing for morning, and went to bed at a fairly decent hour. I knew I’d have to go downstairs long enough to check on whether Glendower had finished his food overnight, and if not, take his bowl away from Basement Cat, who sleeps with us so Glendower can graze at his leisure, but I thought then maybe I could get in half an hour of Writing First before the natives (i.e. cats) got restless.

OK. I slept as well as I ever do, and woke up at dawn (which comes late these days). The tea was cold (n.b., get a real thermos, not just the travel mug). Since I had to go down with Basement Cat anyway, I might as well put the tea in a mug and heat it up. My neck hurt, so I also wanted to heat the wrap-around hot/cold pack. There were other bodily needs to take care of. Roughly half an hour later, I made it upstairs with heat pack and hot tea, sat at my desk, and opened up the document from yesterday. Success! I’m Writing First, more or less! Now for looking up words in an etymological dictionary! Oh . . . the internet is down. Call the company that rhymes with Bombast. Recorded voice apologizes for the interruption in service and estimates that it will be restored within four hours.

Well, that’s one way to avoid being distracted by the wonders of the Internet. In the meantime, I fiddle with the edition’s glossary, my Latin dictionary, and what I can pull out of my ass memory about sound changes from Latin into modern Romance tongues. I remember that I have, somewhere, a CD with a most excellent dictionary for the language in question, which I installed some time ago, on the laptop that is now both kaput and permanently wiped (though not yet taken to be recycled, sigh), and on my office computer (do I still have the same office computer? hell if I know), and I start wondering where the CD is: at work? But I didn’t see it recently when I was looking for another CD with Important Images on it, which I couldn’t find either. At home? Not in any of the obvious places. Quite likely packed away in a box marked as “miscellaneous work materials.” I am so tired of living with half my things packed into storage.

OK, the internet is back, three or more hours before Bombast’s estimate. Yay! Look up a word. Stare confusedly at results and hard-copy Latin dictionary. Go to different online Latin dictionary. Write about ten words of notes in my document. Let Glendower into my study. Prevent Glendower and Reina from tussling about who gets to curl up in her bed. The natives are definitely getting restless. Check e-mail before going to feed cats . . . a graduate student has replied to my query about articulating a research question, good, citing Habermas in the first line, bad . . . I am NOT dealing with Habermas before food and more caffeine, so off I go to feed myself and the cats.

Whereupon I discover that there is no more cooked rice, so I have to do some pre-cooking before I can have breakfast.

For roughly another 36 hours, I have no grading to do, so it is reasonably possible that there will be more writing today and tomorrow before I return to the realms of procrastination creating useful and friendly feedback on other people’s writing.

Faderman =? McPhee

Also from the Scholars Talk Writing series, Lillian Faderman‘s system sounds very like John McPhee‘s:

“I developed a system when I was writing my dissertation 50 years ago, and I still use it. Before I start writing a book I need to have at least the illusion that I know how it’s going to end and everything else in between.

So first I need to complete most of my research. Then I review all my research notes — which generally takes several weeks — and I decide what will be useful and where in the book I’ll use it. I’ve concocted an elaborate coding system of numbers and letters, which I give to each idea or fact I anticipate using. Then I put it all into a huge outline with key phrases followed by the numbers and letters that will let me locate the material in my notes. When I was working on The Gay Revolution, an 800-page book, I had a 75-page outline. For my Harvey Milk biography, which is about 250 pages, my outline was 20 pages.

But when I finally start writing I veer away from the outline almost as often as I follow it — which is fine. The outline’s biggest purposes are to be a sort of Dewey Decimal System, to tell me where in my voluminous notes I’ll find things; to remind me of the ideas I want to develop; and to suggest their possible order.”

I wish someone would describe the coding system, any coding system, in more detail. I suppose it’s one of those things that is more useful when worked out for oneself, but some insight into a working system would be helpful in creating/adapting one’s own.

Note that she thinks in terms of Dewey Decimal! Once I discovered the Library of Congress system, I never looked back. It all depends on what you’re used to, I suppose.

Writing links

The Chronicle has a series called “Scholars Talk Writing.” Quite a lot of the scholars (and creative writers) talk about writing for a general audience, which tends to make me cross, because I write for a very specialized audience and I’m not apologizing for that. But I liked some of the pieces quite a lot. Anthony Grafton on patience:  a writer needs “to learn to be patient enough to wait until you have an idea of where you want a piece to go.”  Ruth Behar on revision: “I’ll go through this revision process several times. What I usually discover is that I’m not done when I think I’m done. There’s always more revision to do.”

I loved Helen Sword on the various ways we have of approaching writing (not a single “right” way): “Not only did very few of the academics I talked with follow the recommended practices; many of them actually reported engaging in behaviors that the writing guides explicitly warn against, such as ‘binge writing’ or writing only when they feel like it. . . . Successful academics don’t necessarily write every day, but they’re constantly strategizing about how and when they’ll get their writing done. They don’t necessarily consider themselves to be ‘stylish writers'” but they care deeply about wordcraft. They don’t necessarily enjoy every aspect of the writing process, but they relish the challenge of communicating complex ideas to others. These core attitudes and attributes remained fairly constant across nearly all the writers I interviewed.”