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.

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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.”

When Reading Is Doing

It’s Saturday morning, sunny though cold, and I have loads of things I could pick out to do: stretch, go to the gym, pack/de-clutter, grade (the current batch of papers look quite good; this will not be a purgatorial task), work on my application for Full, work on The Last Overdue Revisions, color while the light is good, play with my kitties, futz about on the Internet (oh wait . . .), and what do I do? Put together a bibliography for an article I want to write, on a text I’m teaching, a text that hasn’t received enough attention IMHO. I’ve ILL’d one essay, and I can get several others in hard copy at my library, and there’s one book I’m dying to get my hands on that may require a field trip because there are about 7 copies in the world and they don’t circulate.

(Another obsessive un-answerable question: why are there not copies in UK depository libraries, when it was published in the 20th century in London and copies are supposed to go the BL, the Bod, and CUL? Did someone not send them? Did someone not catalog them? Are they somehow catalogued by something other than author and title? I have poked around in the online catalogues, and I do know how to use them, and this book does not turn up. My lawful-good-J side is deeply disturbed: something went wrong in the book world. I tell you, were I not an English professor I would need to be a Literature Detective.)

Someday when I’m futzing about online I really should create a blogroll. I spend quite a bit of time reading blogs by delightful-sounding women who enjoy food, crafts, gardening, restoring old houses, and similar pursuits that I prefer reading about to doing. Despite all the well-meant advice on the Chron fora and similar places about Getting A Life and Pursuing Hobbies Outside of Work, what I really want to do, what I get excited about and spend sunny Saturday mornings on, is reading, researching, and writing. I’ve tried the gardening, restoring, crafts, and so on. They sound like fun. The results look good. But I just don’t get fired up about things I can do with my hands. Except write, which is manual labor, as Colette said.

I have other projects I need to finish right now, so this putative article will go on The List (I have learned the hard way not to get distracted by the New Shiny). Someday I will get to it, and my future self will be happy to have the core bibliography assembled and some basic thoughts outlined. Maybe next spring, when I hope to teach this text again.

Still January

It feels like January has lasted for several months. In fact, I think I had spring, skipped summer, and have come back around to winter and ought to be thinking about Christmas shopping. It has not been a bad month, in fact the reverse, but it has most definitely gone on for a very long time (like last July).

I finished the MMP and went back to translating. I planned spring classes and wrote a syllabus for each class. I cooked a lot. I had appointments with a doctor and a dentist. I spent a week visiting family, which meant a lot of application of my hard-earned people skills, mostly acquired in the classroom. I refrained from teaching a pig to sing; instead, I explained some things to people who are either more likely to take them on board or better at dissembling their refusal to listen (time will tell which). I listened to my father and said “We’ll put it on the list” a lot.

I tried to imagine a life in which Sir John and I live near my family, in a very beautiful area where a lot of people take vacations. Sir John can work anywhere he has an internet connection. I have an extensive library. I could retire from teaching, and write my books while looking out at lovely views, and we could go for walks, and visit my father . . . and socialize with my brothers and their families . . . and drive ten miles to get to a grocery store that sells a lot of the specialized items I need, and significantly farther to get to an actual bricks-and-mortar bookstore, and what about the ballet and early music concerts that we love to attend where we live now? Nope nope nope. However lovely the surroundings, I do not want to live in a rural place (even one with only a ten-mile drive to a grocery store, and I know there are far more remote places). The family connection is not exactly an incentive. The cordial detente I have achieved with them is all I hope for; I do not want to have to spend my birthday and other special occasions with my family.

Visiting them is strange, because it makes me realize how odd I am, in the scheme of things. They’re not untraveled or narrow. But they travel for business, and love their homes, and are deeply woven into their communities. I live among academics who take it for granted that you will have to leave your family and move elsewhere, probably several times; thanks to my commute, I’m not well-rooted either where I live or where I work; I travel because I like to be in other places. Probably what I most have in common with my brothers is that we are live-to-work people, whose idea of retirement involves more of the parts of the job we like best and less of those parts we dislike. We also all like to finish things, in reaction to our father, who (like me) is great at generating ideas and has always been terrible at finishing things. I’m slow and a perfectionist, but I do finish, eventually, and I have learned a bit about what things can be done at 70% rather than at 95% or 110%.

I have plenty of work to do today (and another dentist appointment), but what I really want to do is just sit among my books. Not even to read. Just to sit with them, alone except for Glendower and Reina, and be quiet in the middle of a city.

A pleasant pastime: Pym exhibit

Pym Fan and other fans! As usual, I was minding my own business and hunting down something else entirely, something relevant to the MMP, when I stumbled across this: http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/whatson/whats-on/online/barbara-pym-and-the-bodleian#gallery-item=. The Bodleian has way too much cool stuff on their site (NB, this is not a serious complaint). The Pym exhibit is of modest size, so it didn’t even delay me too long. Indeed, I could wish there were more, except that I need to get back to the more distant past.

I guess I’ll think of it as an unscheduled stop in my time machine.

Reta Winters

Reta Winters is a writer, in Carol Shields’s novel Unless (HarperCollins, 2002). She lists the items she has written, with commentary, beginning with

  1. A translation and introduction to Danielle Westerman’s book of poetry, Isolation, April 1981 . . . . I am a little uneasy about claiming Isolation as my own writing, but Dr. Westerman, doing one of her hurrying, over-the-head gestures, insisted that translation, especially of poetry, is a creative act. Writing and translating are convivial, she said, not oppositional, and not at all hierarchical. Of course, she would say that. My introduction to Isolation was certainly creative, though, since I had no idea what I was talking about. I hauled it out recently and, while I read it, experienced the Burrowing of the Palpable Worm of Shame, as my friend Lynn Kelly calls it. (pp. 3-4)

I’ve met that worm. What a good name for it.

A ghostly love story

Since the academic blogosphere, at least my corner of it, has become both more sparsely populated and quieter than in its heyday, I’ve been branching out to gardening blogs and book blogs, such as Clothes In Books (who has almost exactly my taste in reading material) and Leaves and Pages. Thanks to the latter, I found a delightfully comic ghost story, Tryst, by Elswyth Thane, who IRL was Helen Ricker from Iowa. Other reviews here and here. Thane mostly wrote historical fiction set in the US, so I’m a little surprised I didn’t run across her books when I was a child, as they sound like the sort of thing my school and public libraries would have had a lot of. Maybe I did read them and I just don’t remember. Fairly early on I decided that I preferred British history and fiction; American lit seemed so full of back-breaking farm labor, immigrant families and families impoverished by the Great Depression, wars interrupting young lives (Revolution and Civil as well as WW I and II, which obviously do interrupt British lives), not enough time travel or larking about in boats.

Well, anyway, Tryst. The ghost heads straight for his club when he finds himself in London. As you do, I guess, if you’re an Englishman-ghost. I ought not to be snarky; I know the problems of where to be in a city, if you have no office to go to, and you don’t feel like sight-seeing, and it’s the wrong hour to eat. Which of us wouldn’t like to have a club to which to repair at odd hours? And then the kitten, back at the country house Nuns Farthing (seriously? Chaucer is hooting somewhere in the background): “On the hearth-rug, his small tail carried high, Muffin was purring loudly and rubbing himself against friendly legs, about the reality of which he himself had obviously no doubts at all.” I believe absolutely in the kitten. Felines certainly see, hear, and smell many things of which the big dumb hoo-mans are unaware.

The writing is sprightly, and I happily added more hot water to the bathtub several times so I could finish the book in comfort. On careful examination, this fluff dissolves like the bubble-bath. The story takes place in 1938, the book appeared in 1939, and the chap who snuffed it would likely not have survived the war in any case, so we needn’t feel sorry for him. The heroine, Sabrina, is charming, but I can’t see her as nurse, Land Girl, code-breaker, or office worker taking the place of a man at the front. She does take ghosts in stride, so she can rise to occasions, but she doesn’t seem to have many practical skills. Honestly, she’s probably better off out of this world, too. I’m not sure how much the lovers really have in common. He’s 15 years older than she is (okay, Sense and Sensibility, I know), they like the same books, they like cats, I suppose relationships have been built on less, but I’m not wild about the older man/younger woman pairing. I also do not care for brother George’s attempts at Being Masterful with the society girl that the ghost had an “understanding” with, though she’s not so sure, but George’s advances are certainly Of The Period, not unwelcome to the recipient, and don’t go further than a few kisses (George’s mother is in the house and they are all going to have lunch in a minute).

I thought that in some ways Tryst responds to Rebecca (published 1938), with a mysterious country house and a naive young newcomer of a slightly lower class, but Tryst lightens the suspense and substitutes an inscrutable but kindly housekeeper for the formidable Mrs Danvers. (I hated Rebecca, btw, in case that affects your judgment; I dislike all the characters in it about equally, whereas in Tryst they all seem fairly harmless even when misguided.) Given my obsession with houses, devotion to cats, and disdain for annoying yappy dogs, it would have been hard for me not to like this book, even though in the cold light of day I’m poking holes here and there. My verdict: an excellent bathtub read.

Josephine in the British Library

She’d been able to find out about Ferdinand [the bull]’s political history from the internet. It was all there, accessible in seconds. Some of the fun has gone out of scholarship, it’s become too easy. She’s had to work hard to find an excuse to come to the British Library for the day, where she will be happy and at peace for a few hours in the silent company of scholars. But she has found herself a pretext. Maybe in the boxes of uncatalogued and unpublished letters of Hubert Studdert Meade, and in the papers of his old college, and in the manuscript drafts of his translations, she will find something new, something unremarked—about his wife Alice, the forgotten novelist with her uncut pages. . . . The library welcomes her. Her items are waiting for her. She installs herself at her desk, plugs in her lightweight mini-laptop, and begins to browse through the contents of the slim old-fashioned dark-red string-tied cardboard folder and the larger and smarter pale green canvas box.

 

Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises (Canongate Books, 2017), pp. 250-251.

Josephine makes a serendipitous discovery

She is too tired to embark on reading . . . but she leafs through the illustrations . . . . Amongst them is an arresting and accomplished pencil drawing of an unfamiliar and handsome young man, in an open-necked shirt, wearing an unassuming air of nonchalant gallantry. She glances at the caption, and finds that his name is Valentine Studdert Meade, an unusual name which in itself has no resonance but which nevertheless strikes her with a jolt of recognition. There can’t be all that many Studdert Meades, so he must be connected with her Deceased Wife’s Sister novelist. . . . Here must be a clue to Alice Studdert Meade, in this fairly unlikely place, discovered more or less randomly. This, she says to herself, sadly but with some satisfaction, is Scholarship, in all its triviality. She turns to the index, to discover more about Valentine . . . . Here, so unexpectedly, are clues.

Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises (Canongate Books, 2017), pp. 102-103.

More about Josephine

The libraries mean as much to Josephine as explorations of England mean to her restless friend Fran. They confirm status, confer identity. When Josephine Drummond goes into the libraries that she uses most frequently, she is received with some degree of recognition. Sometimes her books are handed over without her having to request them by name. This doesn’t happen in the British Library in London, though even there she occasionally gets a friendly nod, but in Cambridge she is a familiar. Unlike some old women, she is easily recognisable, even memorable. Tall and pronounced of features, she will never dwindle into a little old lady, with all the conveniences and inconveniences which that status brings. Josephine may think she looks low-key, but she cannot help but look noticeable. She doesn’t look eccentric (or this is her friend Fran’s considered view) but she doesn’t look negligible. Her career hasn’t been distinguished, but has been a career, of a sort, and it’s not quite over yet.

Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises (Canongate Books, 2017),pp. 100-101.