Familles, je vous hais

So, more good news (not), this time from my side of the family: my oldest nephew and his wife are splitting up. These are my favorite people on my side, and I love their kids, and this was not a happy thing to hear on a Christmas where Sir John’s favorite relative isn’t speaking to him. I guess I can be glad mine are speaking to me, as well as grateful that Sir John and I are together, healthy, employed, and housed.

I’d tell 2016 not to let the door hit it on the way out, except that I expect in a few weeks, I’ll be begging 2016 to come back. It did, after all, contain half a sabbatical year, a trip to England, a couple of fun conferences, and the successful placement of the last chunk of the MMP. On the personal level, I’ve nothing much to complain of.

I also made Christmas calls to my other relations. Told one brother I’d had an essay accepted (not the journalist, who I knew would just talk about the number of articles he writes every day). Well. Bro #2 is a mucky-muck in his trade organization, so he writes and publishes an article every month in the trade publication. He has a tech writer or editor or something who puts together the framework, and then my brother re-writes so every sentence does what it should, because he is a better writer than the editor.

This is typical, and one of the reasons why I don’t see more of my family. I want to make it clear that I am not sneering at my brother for being in trade. He’s not only good at what he does, I can believe that he’s a better writer than the other person he’s dealing with. Writing and teaching are the family trades, at least in my branch, for a couple of generations now. What I mind is the complete lack of any attempt to understand the difference between what I do and what he does.

A few details on the MMP-1, since my brother didn’t ask: it contains over 14,000 words (a number that will grow when I revise further before publication) and 102 footnotes, it deals with multiple manuscript sources (one literary, at least five documentary), it involved extensive transcription from wills and other documents written in Latin and in secretary hand, it surveys critical literature in an area that is Not My Home Field, it included references to criticism read in a modern language not English, and the last round of readers’ reports included phrases such as “clear argument,” “very welcome,” “compelling” and “impressive.” Shoot, even its first rejection included the phrase “impressively well documented.”

Long ago, I decided that talking to most of my family was like teaching a pig to sing.* I suppose it’s only the sadness and uncertainty I feel about my nephew and his family that bring up all the rest of this nonsense. I should just let it go. Again. I have a partner, friends, and colleagues who get what I do and think it matters. That’s enough.

*It wastes your breath and annoys the pig.


Here we are, my lovelies! Champagne all around! Chin-chin! There is also a chocolate fountain (calorie-free!) for those who prefer it, or want to combine their indulgences, and if you’re not a wine-drinker, I’m sure we can find some celebratory beer or other drinks for you! Because chez Hull, we are celebrating the placement of the final piece of the Massive Macedonian Marginalia Project!

The MMP-1 has found a home. I have to do some revisions, and I still have to finish the revisions for the MMP-3. The MMP-2 and a companion-piece are already in print. (A different set of revisions has taken up my writing time, lately.) But! This means I am finally done (bar revisions) with the Project That Ate My Life for the last seven years, a project that initially seemed simple and then turned into three separate articles plus a companion-piece spin-off, a project that was supposed to be ancillary to a book project that has been sidelined while I work on the other book that cropped up in the meantime. (Generating ideas is not a problem I have. Finishing things, yes, guilty as charged.)

I am so relieved, and so happy. I had started to wonder if I had wasted large swathes of my life working on something that was never going to be news. But it’s okay. The whole thing will, I hope, see the light of day in 2017.

(If you haven’t been following along for years, search the blog for “MMP” and you will find six pages of posts referring to it).

Drink up, darlings! There’s plenty more where that came from! Blog-champers won’t give you a hangover, so have a glass while you grade, or wrap presents, or whatever is on your plate today.


Yes, done

I have submitted the last chunk of the MMP (whatever number it is) that remained homeless.

One piece is in print. The companion-piece is in print. Another piece is that terribly tardy R&R to which I shall now turn my attention.

I started work on this project seven years ago, which seems like an unconscionable amount of time. However, the project, which began by seeming simple, turned into the above-listed four essays. What’s more, during those seven years I have also written three other unrelated articles. One is in print, one is forthcoming (proofs have been corrected), and there’s another R&R, which will be the second thing up, after the super-tardy one. Somehow it feels like I haven’t done anything but the MMP-1 (3?) for years, but that’s not true. If I can get this one accepted, and get my two R&Rs done and in print, I will have averaged a respectable one article per year for the past seven years. It’s just that they clump up oddly instead of appearing tidily spaced on my CV.

One lesson from all this is to do your R&R as soon as it comes. At the time I got the one on the MMP-3 (or 1?), I couldn’t stand to put down whatever I was working on (I think it was the just-submitted chunk of the MMP, but maybe it was a different piece altogether), because I was sure it was almost done and I was afraid of losing momentum. But “almost done” can drag on, and on.

And on.

I feel like doing something to celebrate, though I have a stack of papers to grade and a lawn to mow. If this essay gets accepted, there will be champagne all around, IRL for sure, and a virtual party with both a chocolate fountain and a champagne fountain for my blog-friends and readers (neither calories nor hangover for the virtual stuff!). I don’t really like being drunk (ask a glass of water . . . ) but finishing off seven years of servitude to this project (fingers crossed; maybe I haven’t done it yet) seems to demand getting drunk as a lord. Or something epoch-making. Suggestions?

Done? ? ???

Earlier this week, I gave a draft of the MMP-1 to a colleague to read. Since then, I have continued to flesh out footnotes and tweak bits and pieces. Now I need to print it out and look for the sorts of things one never sees on-screen. I expect I’ll find a few more things to tweak, and my colleague may have suggestions. I certainly hope he’ll catch any places where I have repeated myself, or, worse, left out a key point I was sure I’d made because I made it in some earlier draft, and in my head it’s still there. As I always say to students, “I’m sure it makes sense in your head, but I have to look at what made it onto paper.”

At any rate, I think I may actually submit this piece again, soon. I’d love to be done with it. I’ve lived with it for a long time, and enjoyed working on it, but the researching and writing (and re-writing) of it has been like another dissertation. I could have written a book in the time. Sadly, I don’t think this piece is a book. It’s one of those dissertations that gets boiled down into a single solid article.

I can’t decide if it’s brilliant or a serious case of over-documenting something nobody else will care about. It is, at any rate, documented to a fare-thee-well. There is no hand-waving.

Have I learned anything from this process? Like, how to get a sense of the scope of a project, or how to outline it so as not to have to re-write multiple times, or anything useful like that? I’m going to be contemplating this question for awhile. I suspect that I’m going to go on being myself: struggling to see the big picture; unable to imagine starting out with a topic like “perceptions of time in the Middle Ages” or “queenship,” but needing to look at a single text, or manuscript, to see what I think is interesting about it, and then needing to compare it to other similar texts or manuscripts; pulling on a thread that turns out to be both very long and attached to the tail of something with claws and teeth; researching in all directions instead of limiting myself to what I already know. I guess I know more, now, which might be handy for the next project, unless it goes in all different directions again (which it assuredly will; the next thing already addresses topics I haven’t read about before).

Sometimes I feel delighted to send an essay out into the world. This time, I’m hopeful but wary. If projects are children, the MMP-1 has had a hard time in adult life, and has sucked up a lot of my resources; some of the younger kids have suffered because of the attention this one needed. But it can’t live with me forever. It needs to go out and try again.

What I’m up to

Posting has been sporadic due to footnotes.

Like Heu Mihi, I’m dealing with an “indefatigably persistent article” (that sounds much less threatening than the Article That Will Not Die), which I have finally beaten into submission for the third time. That is, I’ve beaten its text, but it is not yet submitted, because footnotes.

References to secondary literature, things I have read and have notes for and just have to format them for this journal (can you say idiosyncratic? I knew you could). References to things I have read but who the hell said it? References to things I know someone wrote about, probably more than one someone; maybe I have the citations in a previously-written article or maybe there are notes somewhere on this computer, in some file, probably named something unhelpful, which will probably crash Windows Explorer when I search for it. Properly phrased and formatted references to legal documents (not my usual wheelhouse). References to books on my shelves, bristling with post-its saying “Add to MMP-3.” References to things hand-copied into my research journal when I was working somewhere I either couldn’t have my laptop or just didn’t bother to bring it.

Gah. I wish I were Keith Wrightson. But pride forbids. The MMP-3 will be properly documented if it kills me. It has 95 theses footnotes now, which is probably all of them; it’s just that most of them say things like “Citation here.” Yesterday I had dealt with 19 of these. Today I finished note number 37. So I’ve nearly doubled my count in just a few hours.

It will get done. My articles always seem like a hopeless mess until very suddenly they are finished. So I know how this works. But I want to be DONE already.

It’s August! Panic stations!

A few years ago, I wrote about oh-shit-it’s-August-syndrome, when the summer hits the fan, as it were, and it’s hard to decide what most urgently needs attention because it all does, but time is limited and yet it’s still so hot that it’s hard to believe that anything really is urgent.

I thought I’d revisit that post to see how much of it can be recycled without updates.

OK, so there’s what I really have to do, and there’s what I really want to do, and there are all those things that I thought I’d like to get done but need to let go of. And then there’s the question of whether some elements of the last group don’t actually belong there.

Check, check, check. That paragraph works.

It’s August. Classes start in two weeks, with faculty meetings beforehand. Besides writing and class prep and having some last bits of summer fun, I have a couple of medical appointments I’m taking care of before classes start, and possibly one or more dentist appointments depending on whether a sensitive spot calms down or gets worse. (If it’s going to get worse, I wish it would just come on and do it already, instead of waiting for the first or second day of classes.) I’m pretty clear on the have-to (syllabi etc, and at least one House Thing) and the most definite want-to (a little more fun reading and a sewing project).

Classes don’t start for three whole weeks! I’m starting early on the panic. Only not so early, because I’ll be away during the faculty-meeting week. So actually I only have about ten days. Wheeeee! Down the panic slide we go! Never mind last bits of summer fun. I’d be thrilled to get the writing and class prep done in the time. The medical stuff happened in July (excellent, pat self on back) and I have only one more dentist appointment to go, which should be a quick and easy one. There are no house have-to’s, though there are a batch of house things for which I need to organize people to come and give estimates. Still, those could happen any time over the next eight weeks or so. Sooner is no doubt better than later, but I’m not going to put those on the must-do-now list. No sewing projects (well, unless visiting a tailor counts, and again, not urgent). There’s no fun reading I’ve been putting off.

But then there are writing-related but not-writing activities, which are desirable but not really essential, like tidying up my home office. . . . There is a heap of paper stuff that needs to get filed.

The home office is fine. I can even see wood on my desk. I tidied it a few weeks ago. It’s true that means there are heaps of paper in the guest room that I need to sort out, but out of sight is out of mind, and at the moment that is A-O.K. I can use sorting them as a procrastination activity when I start getting things to grade! Isn’t that great planning?

Since I got back (not counting writing done on the plane), I’ve produced . . . let’s see . . . Basement Cat, get off my research journal . . . about 2000 words. These are what I might call “focused pre-writing,” rather than true rough-draft writing, because the section presently under construction didn’t get as much pre-writing as the first chunk I wrote. But that’s fine. This stage of writing has to happen sometime, and I might as well do it now, while I’m on a roll.

Since I got back, I’ve produced roughly 3000 new words. Very roughly. It’s hard to be sure. There has also been a lot of editing in which words get tinkered with, cut, re-written, and so on. The current version of the MMP-1 is just shy of 10K words, but I think I’m done with it, except for sorting out its footnotes properly in the style required by the journal to which I plan to send it. I really want to send it and have it be Someone Else’s Problem for awhile. There are plenty of other things to work on.

Nobody sits on my research journal these days. Sometimes Reina sits behind my monitor, but I am in her bad graces at the moment because of unlawful confiscation of licensed weapons cutting her claws. It’s true, when the children grow up you miss the things that used to drive you crazy.

So [should I focus on] writing syllabi . . . and hacking back the horribly overgrown and weedy garden? Actually, I am terribly tempted to abandon the garden until frost kills off some stuff—this seasonal nonsense is good for something!—though I do rather fear What The Neighbors Will Think. . . . I could give up on the sewing and garden instead . . . if we ever get a cool enough day that I want to be outside.

Write syllabi, work on revisions, and hack back the garden. Not that I care what the neighbors think. The front looks all right and the back is nobody’s business. But I’m making progress with the bellflower and I’d like to keep on rather than letting it grow back. The weather is certainly a consideration. We had a pleasant weekend, so I did some more digging.

So, it looks like I’m doing rather well compared to four years ago. That’s a very pleasant discovery. Now to pull a conference paper out of . . . wherever this one comes from.

It’s in English!

I ordered one more document from the National Archives to help bolster the MMP-1. Well, really I ordered it because I am nosy. I’m not sure it will add anything to my argument, but I’m curious about what one person thought she was doing, and what other people had to say about it.

It hadn’t previously been scanned. This is a good thing because it means I get a high-quality photograph instead of a low-quality scan from microfilm. Even so, when I first opened it I groaned, because the document has some wrinkles that will make parts of it hard to read, and of course it has those long lines that make lines hard to track across the page.

But when I zoomed in on the writing, it was in English, not Latin. That is going to make it so much easier to decipher. Not only that, it’s in a noticeably more modern hand than the IPM from the previous century. Between those two changes, I’ll be able to read it far more quickly than I expected, although I think I will still have to transcribe it because (due to long lines) if it’s blown up to a size I can read, it doesn’t fit on my monitor.

I feel like a bad medievalist because I am so happy to get to read this thing in English instead of Latin legalese. I am convinced that Real Scholars (TM), like for instance Jon Jarrett, don’t mind reading in abbreviated Latin. For the moment, however, I am content to be a Fake Scholar. I play a medievalist on the Internet. 😉

Getting the right words

I am still (again, forever . . . ) working on the MMP-1. I have begun to wonder if it would have been simpler to write this article as a book. Cat knows I have written enough words for a book. The problem is getting the right words, in the right order. Another problem is trying to work out, at this late date, what the forest is, when for some time now (like, since I started on this project) I have been focusing on trees.

I love trees. I love their leaves and the leaves’ capillaries, their bark, their mossy growths, the spores in the moss that grows on their bark.

Forest? Is there a forest in here?

Well, damn, who knew?

I will now suspend the metaphor in favor of practicalities, because this might possibly be of some help to some other struggling writer, somewhere. I thought I had a workable introduction, and went on to revise the body of the paper (we will gloss over the current mess in what should be the last body section). But when I ran the intro past my writing group, they had questions. Their questions sent me back to analyze introductory paragraphs in the journal to which I plan to send this version of the paper. I had already looked at whole introductions, to get a sense of what they should look like, but this week I read about a dozen first paragraphs. I listed not what they said, but what the function of each sentence was.

Of course there were variations. Writers are not machines, nor are editors, and a tendency to publish essays of a somewhat similar structure does not mean that there is One True Way For This Journal and any writer who does not conform to this format will be consigned to Outer Darkness.

Nonetheless, there was a pattern, one which seemed fairly pronounced in a couple of essays that are close to the kind of thing I think I’m doing. (Whether I’m really doing what I think I’m doing is yet another question at which I refuse even to squint right now.) So today, after figuring out which forest I’m working in, and how my individual tree relates to it, and what clumps of forest have previously been studied, I wrote a 300-word introductory paragraph.

I still have to figure out what goes in the second paragraph, before my actual thesis. I want to lead with the thesis (did I take too many journalism classes in college?), but I just don’t think it’s going to work for this paper, and this journal. I really want to get on with the middle parts of the paper, except for dreading that swampy bit in the last section where I’m not sure what’s tree roots and what’s snakes, but I expect strengthening the introduction will help in general and even, possibly, with the swamp.

Maybe I lacked some useful training in writing when I was in college or grad school. Maybe other people know to analyze other essays, or even, simply, know how to write an introduction, without needing to look at other essays’ structures. But I don’t just know, and I have found it very helpful to look carefully at the structure of published essays. Including, apparently, my own (I thought I’d written before about studying other people’s, but my own reverse outline is the first thing I found).

I am definitely going to use this first-paragraph-analysis as a writing lesson in my lit classes. I’ll model it first, with an essay we’re all reading, and get student input on what they think the function of each sentence is. For undergrads, I’ll then form groups of three or four, each with a different first paragraph, from essays selected to be appropriate for undergrad readers. I’m thinking several essays from the same journal (exploring that question of House Style), and at least one by one of those authors that appeared in a different journal (exploring the question of personal style). For grads, I’ll probably let them pick their own essays and present the first paragraph and their analysis of it to the class, and we’ll see where discussion goes.

W/r/t the MMP-1, I really hope I’m modelling optimistic persistence that will eventually be rewarded, and not either quixotic fixation on a dead horse, or else sheer bloody-minded stupidity. This has gone on for so long, through so many drafts, outlines, chunks of free-writing, notes, annotated bibliography, etc., etc., that I question my sanity. No, that’s just a moment’s discouragement. I have published the MMP-3 and the Companion Piece, and have an R&R on MMP-2. This is determined resilience, this is. I will get out of the swamp. I will escape the trees’ clutches (and the snakes). I will wind up on the hill above the treeline with a fantastic view of the forest.

And then I will see the essay I should have written.

Oh well. Onward and upward.

Down the rabbit hole

I had plans for a sane and sensible work routine this week: work out first thing, then come home to feed myself and the cats, get to work from 9-1, put in roughly an hour each on Revisions, Translation, and Work-Related Administrivia, then spend the afternoon on House and Life Admin.

Cue hollow laughter. I’m not good at transitions. When I’m in the Zone, I want to stay there.

The present Revision material is the MMP-1 (for its history, see here, here, here, and, well, just search this blog for “MMP”). I love this project. For (mumble) years now, I have been living with its protagonist. When I’m working on this project, I stare at Google Images of his tomb and his lands (as they are now: so far, I have not convinced Google to cough up overhead shots from earlier centuries, though there are some nineteenth-century images of his parish church and nearby bridge). I am obsessed with this manuscript owner. I don’t know why the MMP-1 has not yet found a home, when the MMP-2 and MMP-3 have done so. Probably because it’s a large and unwieldy project. This version is going to be much better than the previous two submissions. I know where I will send it this time, and I know where it will go after that, if that’s what it takes. I believe in this project. Sooner or later, some editor(s) will love it as much as I do.

Ah, so, anyway, this morning I skipped the gym and sat down at my desk at 7:30 and put in two solid hours on the MMP-1. That was after about an hour of tracking down an obscure reference last night. When I could no longer ignore the cats, I took a break for about an hour, trying to get my head away from the MMP-1 and around translation. Or Administrivia. I thought I’d done it. But when I went back to my desk, from 11:00 to 1:00, I was immersed in the MMP-1. I cannot quit it.

I’m re-writing the whole thing, this time, because it has gone all patchworky and awkward from having too many bits imported from earlier drafts, a real Frankenstein of a piece. I’m very happy about writing 1769 words this morning. I want to write this piece in big chunks, because that will make the style much smoother. But I’m sure not sticking to the plan. There’s a translation deadline, and at least one Administrivia deadline (two days off, plenty of time), and I really prefer to go to the gym early in the day because it’s better for sleep and organizing meals and such. And a lot of Life Stuff to deal with, including travel plans for this summer.

Tomorrow is another day. Either the plan will work, or I will stay immersed in this project till it’s done. Again. Either is an acceptable outcome.

Ooooh! A post about fantasy.

A new Ellen Kushner! And a selection to read here! Excited as I am, I’m going to hold off on buying it, because this is the time of year when I start saving up stuff-I-want for the Christmas list. Sir John and his family believe in Lists, so no one will be disappointed by getting socks or a lava lamp, and sometimes I have a terrible time coming up with things I can ask for. But this will be great.

One of the (many) things I love about the Riverside world is that Kushner managed to insert a fantasy-inflected academic novel inside the “fantasy of manners,” in Fall of the Kings. It’s a convincing academic world, one in which people care, passionately, about history and mathematics, about knowing, where it’s clear what history is good for in practical, political terms, but also where the past is, simply, interesting, where academic politics get in the way of research, where the joys of research are in themselves magical. There is “real” magic, yes; but Kushner seems to grasp that learning is itself magical and does not need to be overly-equipped with Major Arcana like the Holy Grail, or magical critters of every possible stripe.

The contrast I’m thinking of is a book I would like to like, which came highly recommended by a friend; I enjoyed the beginning because it gets Oxford and the Bodleian down so perfectly, and I can easily swallow enchanted manuscripts (aren’t they all?). But when it comes to vampires and the rest of the exotica, my willful suspension of disbelief breaks down. I suppose I was scarred by Bram Stoker, but to me vampires are icky and I cannot face any of the vampire-hero fiction. Well, OK, I tolerate Harry Dresden’s brother Thomas, but the whole point of Jim Butcher’s Dresden series is how incredibly over-the-top every single book is. Disbelief never even gets off the ground. My interest is always “how is he going to get out of it this time?”

So Ellen Kushner’s evocation of a world where magic is nearly gone, deliberately suppressed, but can be approached through beat-up old books by scholars who know how to interpret their language and symbolism, that floats my boat. That’s my world . . . plus a little something. It’s the world I glimpse when reading my own old romances, the world that’s just around the corner from this one, where the magic lies in grasping what was magical for people of 500 or 700 years ago. Scholarship, when it’s well-done, creates (or re-creates) something that is akin to fantasy. And Kushner, I guess, creates fantasy that is akin to scholarship. Minus the footnotes, but we have Susanna Clarke for that.

And now, back to my own efforts at creation. Revisons of the MMP-Octopus. Someday all the bits of that project are going to see the light of day.