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.

A few more random observations

  • I’m reading two sets of archives at the same time (Dr Medusa’s and KulturFluff, and how I regret Frenchie Foo having disappeared her whole blog). I should sync them up, because one is starting the summer and the other is writing about Thanksgiving, and it’s making my head spin.
  • That’s okay because it makes me go back to work.
  • Students. Oy. I was assigned a class at the eleventh hour, so made sure that for the first few weeks, all readings were available online, since there was no way the bookstore would get books in for the first week. But this week we’re starting to read Actual Real Books. I showed everyone the books in the first week of classes, reminded them periodically about buying books, have posted announcements on the electronic course thingy, etc. And now students are “confused” and don’t know what they’re supposed to read.
  • Like heu mihi, I’m reading Malory. In this case, re-reading. There is some serious timeline-slippage in the Book of Tristram, which I’m only now picking up on. Hmmmmm.
  • Is February over yet? I’m not sure I can take another week of this weather. I appreciate the lengthening days; they’re great. But I have actually started wishing for snow (yes, I, the desert creature who spends the winter imagining she’s an iguana) in preference to any more freezing rain. I hate freezing rain. (I do love the meteorologists’ abbreviation fzdz for freezing drizzle, however.)
  • Maybe I should have done these bullets as a Fortunately/Unfortunately series, but I’m too lazy and the items are too random.

Spontaneous haiku

Because I’ve already done an hour of Dead Language, and need to start Actual Real Urgent Work On Revisions, of course I took a break in someone else’s archives. Inspiration: Haiku in the Raw Meme: Look out of the window. Write a haiku about what you see.

Snow lying on rooftops
Two trunks of oak tree divide
Apple tree’s bare branches.

So I’ve done some writing today. Seventeen syllables, plus the blog post. Oh all right. Actual real work coming up.


RBO February

  • Dr Medusa’s archives are still available. Yum, more back-in-the-day procrastinatory/reward reading.
  • I seem to have some very-low-grade sinus something going on. Ugh. I don’t feel awful, but I don’t feel particularly well, either. This along with an uptick in insomnia and low-grade gut stuff > not getting much done > feeling guilty and anxious > more insomnia. Rinse and repeat.
  • I’ve been putting off responding to one of those university program requests for info about how a particular student is doing until a paper was due in that class, last night. Looked at the online course thingamajig this morning: particular student didn’t turn in the paper. Okay, sorry but you are not going to get a good report, dude/tte! But maybe your program will make you shape up.
  • My friend Lady Maud wrote a really good poem. It’s usually hard, as a professor of literature, to have friends show you creative writing they’ve done. The supportive friend cannot easily turn off the training in lit crit. But it is an absolute joy to be able to tell a friend, truly, that she has created something remarkable.
  • The Overwhelm Monster and House Maintenance Monster are ganging up on me, with assistance from Wintry Sinus Whininess and a lot of gloomy grey days. I don’t so much mind grey with rain (as a west coast native, I think “proper winter weather!”) but sub-freezing grey does me in.
  • But really, I have nothing much to complain of. My health problems are just the usual low-grade crud, Sir John is back to normal after a couple of changes of antibiotics, the cats are fine, my students are nice, it’s a wonderful life. I think I just want it to be not-February. Two more weeks, and we’ll be there.


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.

In a Vase on Monday

Nature morte:

Barberry, bayberry, and dried oregano flowers. I don’t know the cultivars of any of these; the previous owners planted the garden here, and I just try to keep it up as best I can. The vase was a present from a Korean graduate student, some twenty years ago, and I’m pleased I was able to find it when so many of our things are packed up in hopes of selling the house and moving somewhere smaller, newer, and more manageable.

I just spent an hour and a half shoveling snow—we did get snow, after all, so I’m at home rather than on campus—and contemplating the winter remains of the garden as I worked. I had thought that this might be the only Vase post for weeks if not months, but I think I may be able to pull together one more winter vase.

This meme comes from here:

Any readers who miss snow and four seasons, I will happily swap places with you.


I have finally created one.

It’s an alphabetized jumble, without categories for academics, ex-pats, writers, gardeners, readers, travelers, or friends-of-blogfriends, and some of the blogs haven’t been updated for awhile. Nonetheless, I recommend their archives and continue to hope that their authors will return to regular blogging, or at least give annual updates, or something. As a somewhat irregular blogger myself, I’m in no position to criticize!

Thanks, Clarissa

I started reading Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl yesterday, and it took me awhile to realize that it’s a retelling of Taming of the Shrew (although I did notice the coincidence of names). The love interest, Pyotr, doesn’t seem to want to tame Kate. He likes her fine the way she is. In chapter one, he beams approvingly as he says of Kate, “Just like the girls in my country. So rude-spoken.” When Kate suggests the term “women,” he says, “Yes, they also. The grandmothers and the aunties.” Later he says, “It is evident you could choose any husband you want. You are very independent girl. Woman. You are very independent woman and you have the hair that avoids beauty parlors and you resemble dancer.”

From Clarissa’s descriptions of Ukrainians, I recognize that Pyotr is probably absolutely accurate and truly attracted to Kate. Although I’m exceedingly happy in my marriage, he sounds pretty good to me, far more interesting and worthwhile than most of the Romantic Heroes of Romance. Romance writers please take note! We need more Ukrainian heroes. Kthxbai.

My qualifications

In case any of Ganching’s readers wonder where I get the authority to pronounce on dirty words in Chaucer, I have taught 47 classes titled “Chaucer,” at undergraduate, master’s, and Ph.D. seminar levels, plus two independent studies on his works. I have read everything Chaucer ever wrote, usually more than once, usually more than four times (it’s true that once was enough for the Treatise on the Astrolabe). Although I consider myself a scholar of medieval romance, I have published on Chaucer pedagogy.

When I counted up the 47 sections, in the process of compiling my promotion application, I was so horrified that work stopped on the application for several days while I processed the realization. There was even one year when all I taught was Chaucer: five courses. I had repressed that. Possibly the powers that be were trying to minimize my preps at that point, because I was applying for tenure? Except I think that I had just applied . . . maybe it was supposed to be a reward after getting the application in? I don’t actually like teaching multiple sections of anything. I’d rather have all different classes, so I don’t have to keep sections in sync, or try to remember whether I’ve done the medieval demographics lecture in this class or not, or whether I’m repeating myself in one section and never saying something important to the other one. So that was a vile, vile year.

Despite the existence of books like Chaucer’s Bawdy and people like Carissa Harris who study rude drawings in Chaucer manuscripts, Chaucer is far more given to innuendo than to open obscenity. His rudest word is probably¬†swyve, a word I’m fond of, but whose register seems to be roughly like that of screw in modern English. He does use shete (shit) on occasion, as well. When it comes to female genitalia, he prefers French belle chose, pretty thing, and queynte, with all its available puns (quenched, quaint). I recall (but am too lazy to look up) a discussion by some august critic (Larry Benson? John Fleming?) that considered translating the famous phrase from the Miller’s Tale as “he caught her by the elegant.” I believe this possibility was then dismissed, but I quite like it, and think it goes nicely with “belle chose,” the Wife of Bath’s choice for what it is men want of her.

Traybake’s assertions, however, make me wonder if there is a translation into modern English that uses ruder words than Chaucer did, or if it’s just that some students are so shocked to see any non-latinate reference to genitalia in Great Literature that they remember such references as cruder than they are. Students can be funny critters. They sometimes try to shock me by asking questions about words like queynte, and then they get the full philological lecture, with dictionary displays and etymology, which ought to bore them into quiescence. But usually it makes them decide I’m unexpectedly cool.