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.

Spring Break, day 8: bins

Still awesome: sat again, read more of the scholarly book I’ve been working on (am nearly halfway through now), reviewed a large chunk of translation, stretched, did 35 minutes of cardio at the gym. Then Sir John and I tackled the basement together. We filled the garbage bin and the recycling bin, and when I took a carload of things to Goodwill, the nice young man who helped me unload had to bring out a second wheeled bin after we filled the first one. Now I am tired and would like to be done for the day. Sir John is doing the grocery shopping, so when he gets back, I’ll need to help put stuff away, and then cook.

I wish the whole break had been like today and yesterday. That was what I was planning. Had all the days been like this, I think we’d be ready to have the house photographed. As it is, we may still need another week, and that’s if I can get all my professorial work done on campus and spend my home days doing house stuff.

Also, taxes.

At least I paid the bills last night.

Okay, a little grumpy

I’ve been looking at planners, though I will probably go on with my self-designed entries in little Moleskine pocket-sized notebooks. I like setting up a page that is just what I need it to be, though it does take a bit more time than working with a pre-made one. I’m definitely wedded to paper. I like the act of writing things down, and seeing when a page fills up: no, I really can’t add another thing to that day.

I have long known that I am a difference-sorter, and a rebel. I don’t like being told what to do. “Inspirational” planners make me want to sit in the corner, pick my toe-jam, and sulk. Despair.com has my number, and in fact I have ordered a 2018 calendar from them, starting with “Dysfunctional.” Unfortunately, they only have monthly calendars, not a weekly planner. So in the despairing spirit, here’s my template for the Sulker’s Planner:

I can’t manage to make the picture display at a decent size. Please click to enlarge, and feel free to adapt for your own planning if it speaks to you.