End-of-year writing reflections

Finally, this year, I have managed to keep up my writing spreadsheet for twelve months! I started this method of keeping track at the end of 2015, but in 2016 and 2017 I forgot about it during the summer and never resumed making entries. My research journal records some word counts for the months in which I was not using the spreadsheet, but I also use the research journal to “park” projects that have to be put aside, to work through problems that come up, and to do certain kinds of free-writing or data recording, so it’s a bit of a job to go through it looking for word counts.

Leaving aside the writing I did for my promotion application, the spreadsheet shows that I wrote about 18K words in 2018. This seems about right, as a lot of the work I did this year was on the translation (recorded as lines translated or reviewed). I’ve written two conference abstracts, a sort of place-holder document for an essay I hope to write in spring 2019 (maybe), done some work toward a set of revisions that I have repeatedly put aside because of more pressing deadlines, and, most recently, re-written the introduction to the translation. That is, I’m still working on that last, but the end is now in sight. I’ve also reviewed two sets of proofs; one of those articles is now in print, and the other will appear in 2019 (sigh . . . annuals).

For 2017, I recorded about 6000 words of writing before I forgot about the spreadsheet in June. I wrote far more than that, because that was the year I revised the most complex part of the MMP, which involved adding 3000 words and 25 footnotes to the beast. The way I work, that 3000 words probably started as at least double that number. In 2017, I also revised the article that came out this year, under pressure from an editor who is also a friend. I wouldn’t have done it without him leaning on me, because I was very worried about my aged father, but that work provided a very helpful counter-irritant to the family drama.

One thing that helped me keep up with the spreadsheet this year is that I set it up for the entire year in advance, rather than doing a month or so at a time. It probably also helped that I did not travel in summer 2018, so that my work habits didn’t suffer any large disruption or shift in place. I did neglect it during June, when our house was first on the market and I was also often feeling unwell, but my personal journal shows that I did keep working on the translation that month.

The spreadsheet is a means, not an end. It’s better to write and not keep track than to obsess about tracking at the expense of writing. Some years, the research journal is probably more helpful than a spreadsheet. There’s a lot more to research than just writing words; there’s reading, taking notes, planning, outlining, mining online databases, transcribing wills written in Secretary Hand, to name a few activities. I do have columns for “pages read” and “other” in my spreadsheet. I like the spreadsheet because it shows at a glance where my research time has gone. (I’m wondering if it might be similarly helpful to start one for teaching duties. I often put off grading because I just don’t want to get started; seeing blocks of days on which I’ve done nothing might motivate me to get on with it.) I like the research journal because re-reading it often gives me good ideas, or reminds me of old ones.

I’ve set up two years’ worth of writing spreadsheets, so now I’m covered for 2019 and 2020 (2019 is fully formatted; 2020 just has the basics, for now). We’ll see how it goes. I still have a bunch of things hanging around that I would have liked to have finished by now. But I am going to get back to my book in 2019. The two conference papers I am going to give are planned as parts of one chapter, although one of them could be a spin-off: we’ll see what happens. That “maybe” article is about a text I’m teaching this spring, so I’ll see what I can do about the article while I’m talking about the book with my class. If I make some progress and then put it down again, that’s okay.

I never feel that I am as productive as I would like to be, but the evidence shows that I’m making progress. Long-term projects are gradually coming to completion, and smaller ones also are getting done. Jonathan’s idea of mediocritas has been very helpful to me. Sometimes it’s frustrating to keep chipping away and never feel that there is much progress, but 18K words is a lot of words: even if they have to be boiled down to half that, that’s a substantial article’s worth right there.

 

 

 

My desk drawer

My desk has a keyboard shelf, a shelf to put a computer tower, and one single small drawer. I sat down this morning, looked at the way that drawer just barely closed, and decided the time had come to clean it out.

Contents:

  • Desk items: 1 pair scissors, 1 magnifying glass, 1 pencil sharpener, 1 intact ruler (dating to my parents’ house), 1 broken ruler (a more recent acquisition, now in the waste basket).
  • Writing implements 1, pencils: 3 mechanical pencils, 2 wood pencils, 3 colored wood pencils, 1 multi-color swap-the-tip pencil that I’ve had for about 25 years (eek), 3 boxes of refill leads for the mechanical pencils. All of these are 0.5 mm.
  • Writing implements 2, pens: 3 blue pens, 10 black pens, 1 fountain pen, 15 colored pens (1 pink, 3 red, 5 purple, 3 teal or turquoise, 3 green).  I think many of the colored pens date to when I collected student work on paper and marked it in colored ink. Now I do all my grading electronically. I have enough coloring books; I should use up my pens in them. Only one of these pens did not work and thus was thrown out.
  • Erasers: 6, all good white ones, 2 still in their wrappers.
  • Electronic storage: 3 camera cards, 4 flash drives, 1 SIM card.
  • Paper clips: a large handful. Not counted. They belong somewhere else. Sometimes I slip one into the drawer temporarily, before putting them away. Um. I put the plastic-coated ones where they belong, and the plain metal ones in a bag to take to school where I will release them into the general office supplies.
  • Sticky notes. 1 3″ square pad, 1 1×1.5″ pad, 6 pads of slips. These also belong somewhere else. I probably have a lifetime supply of sticky notes now. Note to self: admire office supplies with your eyes. You do not need to buy more.
  • Miscellaneous: 1 metal tape measure (adopted from my dad who knows how long ago). Red Cross first aid pin. Chapstick. Glasses cleaning cloth. 2 spare buttons that belong to clothing I still own (these also belong somewhere else). Safe deposit key. 2 i.d.s for Significant Libraries, one US, one British. 1 luggage tag. 1 carabiner clip. 5 hairpins.
  • Totally do not belong here: 3 bandaids. 2 pieces of candy (I ate the ginger chew and threw out the butterscotch). 2 airline packets of salt/pepper (also tossed). 1 small plastic-wrapped spork. 2 dead watches.

Except for the items I threw out or put away properly, all these things are still spread out atop my desk. I’m thinking about what to put back in the drawer. The number of pens does not seem excessive in and of itself, particularly for an English professor who has various notebooks that she actually writes in. It is, however, definitely excessive for this small drawer. I could pick out representative pens to keep in the drawer to use up, and stash the rest with other supplies (like the paper clips) so I could find them when I needed another pen. Alternatively, I could keep the ones I’m most likely to use and release the others into the TA offices at school. But I think I’ll keep them. My nature abhors a vacuum; if I feel that I have a limited number of pens around, I’m likely to start buying more, whereas if I remember there’s a stash, I have a better chance of behaving myself next time I’m in Office Despot.

Thinking through a writing problem

I am revising the introduction to the Big Honking Translation. It was originally written by one of my collaborators, but our editors had many suggestions for changes and improvements. I volunteered to do the revisions, but now, regarding them, I’m in the state of mind with which I am well familiar, where I feel like there’s this mass of material that I am only going to make (temporarily) worse by pulling it apart, and I have lots of good bits that I want to add, and I can’t see how to unpack and re-pack the whole mess. I have printed out my outline and the paragraphs I wrote and showed my writing group, plus a few more notes. Sometimes shifting to paper helps.

I think my biggest problem is that I need a very general introduction to the introduction, in which I lay out the major issues before dealing with them in more detail later, and that sort of big-picture thinking is always hard for me, even though I understand that it is what is needed here, and even though an editor has made many helpful and inspiring comments. So maybe I need to make a list-and-gist outline cum rough draft, deliberately messy, in which I collect ideas, sentences, and quotations from the original introduction, from the editor, and from my work, just to gather all the bits that belong in a given paragraph in the same place. Once everything is gathered together, massage the collection till it turns into reasonable prose. Or I could take my own advice and think of the introduction as a series of five-paragraph essays: the intro-to-the-intro; date, author, audience; sources and influences; themes and issues (maybe a double mini-essay); style and aesthetic qualities. The plot summary and manuscript description don’t need much work. The intro-to-the-intro should of course refer to the following sections, so readers know what’s coming. The third option (not so far from the second) would be to work on the inner sections and then write the intro-to-the-intro last, once it’s clear what ideas it needs to pick up and announce.

I don’t like being deliberately messy. Sometimes it’s necessary, but it makes me uneasy. I like writing actual prose. I like knowing what needs to be in a paragraph. That’s why I made the outline I have. Is it not detailed enough? Or did I wander in the wrong direction already as I made it, not even when I started writing (as so often happens) but in the thinking process? The first paragraph starts out well. I think it’s just the last two sentences that get overly specific for this point in the piece, and that have sent me in the wrong direction. One problem here is that I am not deeply familiar with the conventions of the introduction to a text. I know more or less what an essay/article should look like, even though the structure always shifts from where I started. Though related, this is a different genre. Another problem is that I like to write for extremely specialized audiences (talking to Ralph and Tony), whereas in this piece I need to talk to students and scholars who may be interested in this literature but don’t have a lot of background. The problem is not style, as I generally write plainly and avoid jargon, but a question of filling in details and underlying assumptions that I expect Ralph and Tony already know. I may need to write this intro more as my teacher-self than as my scholar-self.

Come to think of it, although I worked on the intro-to-the-intro thinking it could serve as a guide to the rest, really I started there because I was due to give the writing group something and at the time it made sense to begin at the beginning. In terms of what needs to happen now, and given my tendency to get over-detailed, I may be better off working first on the bits where I can develop details more fully (even if some of them need to get cut later), and then using those revised sections as a guide to what needs to happen in the opening paragraphs.

OK. Onward into the middle of the thicket, and then work back out once the center holds.

Where the day went

0540 alarm goes off. I hit snooze and pull some clothing into bed with me so it will warm up.

0545 alarm goes off again, and I get up and dress, feed cats, make tea, boil eggs, toast waffles.

0645 wake up Sir John to say goodbye.

The drive to campus took one hour and twenty minutes, during which I ate breakfast and listened to foreign language radio. I arrived in time to make a second cup of tea before

0830 Latin group.

0930 half an hour of “writing” (actually reviewing an outline and comments on a previous draft, and writing 75 words of notes about what to do.

1000 assorted teaching-prep activities, including answering e-mail from a student who needs a lot of hand-holding. I do some research to figure out what s/he should read, and make general suggestions designed to lead Stu to find these works.

1100 teach in the classroom.

1200 eat lunch and read some of TenthMedieval and the medieval frontiers blog. Translate a sentence of Greek. Wander the building to warm up; encounter a colleague and chat for a bit.

1245 meet with another student to discuss paper draft.

1300 bibliography search: trying to find a suitable critical essay to assign to undergrads; adjust syllabus accordingly; place announcement on the CMS.

1330 take care of some administrative doodah that is due today. Further e-mailing, including forwarding to chair and undergrad director a nice message from a former student who has achieved an advanced degree and a job.

1430 pack up to leave office. Combination of walk/drive/train until I reach home at 1715. On the train, I plan out the week in my Moleskine and start doing a bit of planning for year-end review/setting 2019 goals. I also read 20 pages or so of Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, and take another look at the outline/comments from the morning research session.

1715 sort mail, make tea, investigate the whereabouts of cats, feed cats.

1745 eat dinner with Sir John, play a couple of Lexulous moves while he reads me bits out of the morning’s newspaper, which I have not seen at all.

1820 start thinking about how to spend the evening. Probably play with the cats, read some more, take a bath and go to bed early. When it’s dark at 1700, I have trouble staying awake for more than a few more hours.

 

Calendars

Paper works better for me than electronic: having to write in recurring appointments makes me think about the other associated work (meet class = prep, grading, finding items I want to take in, posting things to the CMS, etc); when the space for a day fills, I realize I can’t take on anything else; I do not respond well to alarms and electronic reminders, which tend to make me snarl “Piss off, you’re not the boss of me,” even if I set them myself. I like doing the planning. I don’t like acting on it. I may well go off and do something else entirely, whatever I feel like doing, but making the plans at least reminds me of the things that will have to happen sometime. Xykademic recently wrote, “it seems that schedules, lists, and detailed plans relax most people by giving them a sense of control.” That’s not how it works for me. Detailed plans make me very anxious; I know I’m not going to be able to live up to them, and that they’ll probably make me feel like I’ve failed within a couple of days. I’m after a sort of awareness that there are these tasks, and this time available, and these other times that are either right out or unlikely to be useful because I’ll be tired. The lists/plans are a way to help me figure out in the moment what I should really use my energy on.

So I use two calendars. One is an 8.5×11 monthly grid (opens to 11×17) where I can put in all the recurring and one-off appointments, and make a few notes about things coming up that I’ll need to plan for, such as when to book flights for planned travel. It lets me get a big-picture sense of commitments. The other is a small Moleskine blank book. I create a very small monthly calendar at the beginning, to flag things I should look at the big calendar for, and then add goals, lists, day-per-page to-dos and have-dones, or two days per page sometimes, or even a week per page or two pages for a day, depending on what’s going on and what I’m trying to capture.

Finding small ruled or squared Moleskine books is no trouble at all, and I hereby express my gratitude to the company. Truly. Sincerely.

Finding a good monthly calendar is a pain in the patoot. I don’t want pink, flowers, Jesus, or fancy curly script. I want a plain font, big squares, plain cover, or maybe a tame geometric pattern, no optical illusions or cartoons. I definitely do not want wastes of space such as “inspirational” quotations or pre-made checklists including items such as “Make time for family” (I got away from those people, thankyouverymuch, we don’t have a lot of time for each other and that is just fine with all of us), “I am grateful for” (I would be very grateful if you would fuck off with those reminders), and “Drink water” (a reminder that makes me want to drink alcohol in excessive quantities). Yeah, I have a bad attitude, what was your first clue? Ahem. I also want my big calendar to be stapled, not spiral-bound. Spirals always come undone and stab me and other stuff in my bag, and then the cats mess with them, and oh just let’s not start.

Two years ago, I got a really good See It Bigger calendar with a plain navy cover, a two-year calendar, so for two years I haven’t had to worry about this. But now I really need a new one. Recently I looked, hopefully, in local stores for something similar. No dice. You’d think everyone who uses a paper planner is a pinky-winky little girl planning to give her life to Jesus and kittens. In a spiral binding. It took a long time wading through junk online, but I think I have finally tracked down a similar plain navy calendar with big squares, plain font, and no unwanted extras. I hope. There weren’t enough pictures to be truly reassuring. I may update you on the calendar quest in a week or so. Let’s hope it’s with genuine relief instead of more grumpy snark.

“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.

Reframing

I’m at the point in the semester when I can figure out my real schedule, the one I can actually manage, not the hopeful one I plotted before the shit hit the fan.

It appears that six years ago, I was able to use a long afternoon between morning and night classes to get some writing done, which explains why I thought I could do that again this term. The difference is that this year, the night class addresses a whole batch of texts I haven’t read before, so that particular afternoon often goes to class prep, or administrivia (I get to be on an extra committee this year). Usually by this point, I’ve readjusted my sleep schedule from wherever it wound up over the summer, and am managing to get to bed at a sensible hour before the 5:30 a.m. alarm; so far, I’m not doing well at all with that, so I’m not getting enough sleep, and that’s not good.

In trying to work out what I can actually do, it’s clear that I need to make good use of mornings, the time when I am most likely to be awake and alert, the time when I feel as good as I’m going to. (I don’t know why I always hope I will feel better later. It rarely happens. Once in awhile, which is I suppose why I keep hoping, but I should not count on it.) Thus there are some things I need to do to clear space in my at-home mornings: stop waking up slowly over blogs or the crossword, and put that waking-up time to languages, instead, then move on to writing once the tea kicks in. I’ll discontinue the morning yoga classes, both with the chatty teacher and with the nice teacher the morning after my night class (when I tend to sleep late and not want to rush out of the house to go do something).

I’m quitting the third one as well, though it’s in the afternoon. The difficulty there w/r/t timing is fitting in the gym plus a full work-from-home day, and along with front-loading days, I also need to front-load my week. The other difficulty is the teacher’s love of incense. When I talked to her about it, she said brightly, “It’s not incense, it’s wood! Let’s try opening the windows, how about that?” It’s scented smoke that makes me cough for hours. Do whatever you like with the windows; I’m going home rather than expose myself to any more of that. So, yeah, now I’ve spoken about it; but who knows what else is going to crop up? I’ve remained cross about yoga-woo stuff, when I just want to get stretched out.

So back to my own routine at home, preferably in the morning, because it is important, because I feel better after it, because I want to make sure it gets done. Twenty minutes is adequate. Thirty is great if I feel like it. Ten is better than nothing, and what I will aim for on teaching/leave the house early days, with another 10-20 minutes before bed. And I’m going to think of it as my own personalized exercise plan. It has yoga elements, and also stretches I’ve picked up from physical therapists and massage therapists over the years, and some strengthening exercises. Some exercises I hold; for some, I bounce. I know; most people will say you shouldn’t do that, but it’s what works for me. I think calling it a personalized or individualized program will appeal to me.

On into the middle section of the semester. Maybe it will slow down a bit, now; so far, the time has gone super-fast.

You have ONE JOB!

Several big things are now off my plate: the application for promotion got finished in May (I need to make a minor update, but that will take about 15 minutes to fix, save, and send to the appropriate people); the house went on the market in June; the translation went to the editors in July. All of these things are now Other People’s Problems. Committees will review the application; people will or will not want the house, but I can’t make them buy it; the editors will no doubt have queries and corrections, but the bulk of the work is over.

The thing I most want to get done this summer is the last set of MMP revisions. This week, therefore, that will be my One Job. Will one week be enough to finish? Maybe, maybe not. The point is to focus on that one task, and not worry about All The Other Things.

Odds and ends

I cherish the fond illusion that I file/recycle/toss paperwork every 3-6 months, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Very otherwise. However, today I have tackled stacks of paper. As usually happens when things pile up for long enough, I have been able to recycle large quantities, including early drafts of two essays for which I have now corrected proofs, print-outs of conference papers given three and four years ago, and receipts associated with those conferences.

Still on my desk:

*a program from a conference four years ago, in a place I particularly enjoyed;

*instructions for my phone. which I seem to have got on quite well without;

*a two-year pocket calendar for 2014-2015;

*a postcard from Hull;

*a paper written by a graduate student for a course I taught, which I think I kept because in theory I am on the student’s dissertation committee (in practice, I don’t think the student has submitted any work yet);

*receipts from this year’s stay in Kalamazoo;

*a stack of references to things I mean to read for scholarly purposes;

*a set of newspaper clippings referring to books I have thought of reading for pleasure, along the lines of Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey and Her Brilliant Career;

*a handout from a paper at this year’s K’zoo with my notes connecting the paper to one I’m thinking of writing;

*a check re-order form;

*an important piece of paper I should have put in my safe deposit box four years ago but which at this point is probably irrelevant;

*a chapter draft with marginal comments from discussion with my writing group;

*the label with which to return printer ink cartridges for recycling;

*a certificate, in Spanish and English, testifying to my having given a paper at a conference in a Spanish-speaking country.

Snapshot of my desk/life.

 

Burying the lede in a post-break post

How did it get to be Thursday already? Not only that, but the second Thursday post-spring break? I think someone greased the downhill slide toward the end of the term (wheeeee!). I have grading to do (but of course), and yet another editorial query about the MMP to answer (please can this be the last one? Please?), miles to go on the translation (though I am past the halfway point), and visions of my other sidelined projects dancing in my head. I also have thoughts about posts on dealing with trauma around intellectual issues, and on dealing with de-cluttering and de-accessioning Significant Objects, but not enough time to develop these thoughts in writing.

Because the reward for a job well done is another job, I have about seven weeks to complete another large writing and organizing project. My department thinks I’m ready to apply for promotion to Full Professor, and I’m not going to wait around another year just because I have deadlines looming and would like to knock out the last set of overdue revisions and am trying to pack up everything Not Wanted On Voyage so we can move, not to mention keeping my fingers crossed that I won’t have to make another sudden trip to FamilyLand. I have been writing hard for the last few years, trying to get un-stuck from my long sojourn as Associate Professor, and if the department is willing to support my bid for Full, I am by all the gods going up now, not later.

So either posting will be thin(ner) on the ground for a bit, or there will be lots of it as a self-soothing and/or procrastinatory measure. You just never know.