Sources of inspiration

Grumbles and procrastination clearing; forecast offers a chance of further improvement.

A lot of my grumpiness has to do with facing a very old R&R. I want to be done with it. I wish my past self had just done it right away. But when the reviews came in, my past self was struggling with the MMP, and then the series editors put both feet down about the Huge Honking Translation, and what with one thing and another, including my promotion application last year, years have passed. Not without efforts toward the R&R, but now this is one of the contributing factors: I have layers of notes and outlines to review as I try to figure out what the plan was, and the mass of material is daunting.

Since I finally spent an hour re-reading these, I’m feeling more like tackling the thing and getting it over with.

I’m also looking over my shoulder, suspecting that making the effort will (by Sod’s Law) bring down the Translation Editors or some other type of interference with the work.

Yesterday when I was procrastinating/looking for inspiration, I found a couple of helpful posts. One is from a gardener. The advice sounds a lot like any planning process, but it’s useful to see that people in other areas have the same problems and solutions. Here’s what Jen in Frome says at https://doingtheplan.com/2017/04/21/planning-and-doing-the-plan/

  1. Do Stuff. Take small steps frequently to get more good things thriving . . . . Lots of little things done each day adds up to a lot done over the month.
  2. Review. Note down what was done and when, and keep observing and thinking about what’s working out and what’s what’s not.
  3. Plan. Check what’s done so far against what’s hoped for in future, and set out a few next steps to get a bit closer to your goal.

Another is Kameron Hurley on working through fear and writing fatigue, here: https://www.kameronhurley.com/lets-talk-creativity-fear-losing-magic/ Hurley says, “Much of the time I feel I’m spending “writing” is actually time I spend feeling guilty because I can’t write, or because I feel that what I’m writing is utter shit. That’s not “writing” time. It’s my time with The Fear. So much of my writing time has been taken up talking with The Fear that I couldn’t figure out why shit wasn’t getting done. It certainly felt, emotionally, like I was working REALLY HARD. But arguing with your fear isn’t working. Feeling bad for not working isn’t working. Being angry about not working isn’t working.”

Yes, and no. Arguing, feeling bad, and being angry are certainly a lot of emotional labor. Doing them doesn’t necessarily “work,” as in, make it possible to get back to work. But it doesn’t help to pretend The Fear isn’t happening, either. I wound up negotiating with mine. I put on the music I usually use for grading, spread print-outs all over my desk (so I had to see them), and set a timer for ten minutes. That was all I needed to get into the task. When the timer went off, I was annoyed and immediately re-set it for 25 minutes, and made a lot of progress in that time. I needed the short time to start, though, because 25 seemed like way too much time for demon-fighting.

Am I embarrassed about having this sort of work problem, still, again, at my stage of career? Hell yeah. I also hope that admitting to it, publicly if pseudonymously, may help some other people who might be having the same problem. You can get past it. Sometimes you can go years without The Fear. But it’s also a thing that comes back with the right triggers, the right combination of factors, the wrong encounter with someone who pushes certain buttons. The only way I’ve ever found to deal with it is Virginia Valian’s: make the task smaller. As small as you need to. Ten minutes. Five. And be kind to yourself, because the piece of work is not really the problem. It’s all the emotions that have got tangled up with that piece of work. They might be big things that need therapy, or they might be ghosts of something you cleared up long ago, or they might just be bad habits.

If it’s not a good day, if The Fear is happening to you, if you’re procrastinating, give it five minutes, write down what you did in that time, and come back to the thing tomorrow. That’s all. Five minutes, and a note about what you did in the time.

Awesome idea, plus some whining

Apart from going to Mass every day (or at all), this sounds to me like a fabulous vacation, and I am going to try to do something like it after the semester is over:

https://lafemmefollette.typepad.com/lafemmefollette/2016/06/castaway.html

 

I have ideas for at least two substantive posts but I still need to Do All The Things even though I am nearly done with one Enormous Thing (style-check of the Huge Honking Translation), and I just don’t have the time/brain to engage with blogging ideas. I found a wonderfully soothing, repetitive loop of classical piano and cello on YouTube that was exactly what I needed to keep my monkey-mind distracted, or do I mean focused, both/either/whatever, while I read through 150 pages of translated medieval text. Only another 50 or so to go! Starting Tuesday I’ll be able to see if the music works for grading as well.

Please tell me I am not the only sorry procrastinator who still has not taken tax-related stuff to the accountant. But if you file E-Z on the 15th don’t tell me, we need the accountant and at this point I am procrastinating in part because I feel so guilty about giving them more last-minute work. I have a stack of documents. I have the checklist from last year. I can do this.

And then the rest of the Things will not seem so bad. Right?

Day 5

The break is accelerating, definitely, and Day Five was another day on which I was productive yet did not do all the things I intended to do. Possibly this is an exercise in figuring out how much time things really take. Possibly I should stop doing crossword puzzles between tasks.

Anyway, yesterday, day five of the break: I struggled with a tricky Greek passage and made excellent progress on the introduction to the translation. All that remains is to sort out a couple of paragraphs based on my own original research and overly compressed by the author of the first version of the introduction.* I brushed the cats’ teeth, which I try to do twice a week; since the beginning of the year, I’ve skipped only once when we were at home, so yay me, and yay cats for putting up with it. I went out and bought paint, stain for the front porch, a light bulb, and some other household items. I changed the light bulb. I walked about three miles. I did a little more cooking, and went to a Wednesday-night gathering with friends.

I did not do any grading or tidying-up/putting away of Stuff.

I was of at least two minds about that gathering. Staying home and going to bed early seemed like a good idea, as did staying home and doing something crafty and useful**, or cooking something fun***, or doing some tidying up. OTOH, even when I’m not teaching on Wednesday nights, I often skip because I’m too tired, so it seemed like a good idea to go while I’m on break. Furthermore, it seems really pathetic to go through all of spring break without any social plans whatsoever. So I went. This is a regular gathering of people who know each other from another activity; how much I enjoy any given night depends on who is there, and that is unpredictable. When the quiet people I like are there, we all sit around like companionable cats and it is very nice. When the loud people I don’t like are there, several l.o.u.d. conversations happen all at once, my ears start ringing, and I huddle under the bookcase in a corner wondering if the loud people will leave before I have to. I am a cat without whiskers or tail.

Last night was a loud night.

So on coming home, I needed some quiet time to decompress, so I was up late, slept badly, and Day Six is not getting off to a super start. Gah.

Today so far I have done morning pages (an irregular activity but good for re-aligning my brain, or chakras, or whatever the hell the woo-woo people re-align), sat around reading blogs and drinking tea, messed around with bits of cardboard, cloth, tape and a stapler, and started tidying up. This mostly meant spiraling around the house: card table and stepladder went to the basement, special box for special vase came up so vase could be packed, then the box went back to the basement; assorted things from the ground floor moved upstairs, items from a drawer moved to a box, books moved from one room to another, and I packed up my SAD light and took it to the basement, one of those important seasonal markers.

Things that still need to happen today: gym workout. Catch up on two days of Paris-Nice before Sir John leaves for an evening with his friend. If I’m very focused, this might mean I have two hours left for work. Or clearing away clutter.

I swear I will not fritter it on crosswords, but I can’t promise not to return library books on the way to the gym and find myself lost and imprisoned in the stacks before finally staggering to the exit.

*I thought I might do that this morning but the day is getting away from me.

**Done this morning instead, because I had that bee in my bonnet. It may need further attention, but the basic idea works.

***Likely to happen tonight, since Sir John is going out and I can putter on my own.

Day 4

It’s going too quickly. Day four was productive, but I definitely did not have time for all the things I wanted to do. Or maybe the problem is (at least in part) energy levels, or attention management (another great Undine concept), rather than time as such.

Things I did: made progress on the revisions to the translation’s introduction with about 1.5 hours of work, in which I cleared comments on maybe 3 paragraphs—it’s hard to gauge progress, since fixing one footnote can take an hour or more as I look things up, and other comments are quick and easy fixes. Graded six papers. Parsed and translated a hunk of Greek. Went to the gym and put in 35 minutes on the treadmill. Cooked for Sir John. Watched two hours of Paris-Nice, commentated by Steve Schlanger of the twang and Christian Vande Velde; they’re good on the action but have nothing to say about the history, architecture, or cultural significance of the towns and countryside through which the race passes. The camera would linger on a chateau, I’d say “Tell us about that chateau!” and they’d go on talking about the riders and race techniques. I miss Paul and Phil. They made the European cycling races a multi-faceted experience, with their deep knowledge of France. Maybe Steve and Christian will get there. Maybe NBC will hire someone who does know the countryside. I know Paul’s family and friends miss him far more than the fans do, but all of us feel he went much too soon and want more time with him in our living rooms.

Plans for Day Five are pretty much more of the same, except I have to get to some of the House things I didn’t do yesterday: buy more paint, buy a replacement light bulb, take some things to the basement, box up other things, tidy everything in sight.

Day 3, and some things I forgot

Reporting with a day’s delay is making me feeling like I have more time than I do; but I stay off screens in the evening (mostly), so here we are.

Things I forgot to mention: the day before break, a colleague who is on a scholarship committee told me that I “write a good recommendation letter.”

On day one, I had e-mail or text exchanges with three different friends.

On day two, I remembered in the nick of time that Paris-Nice was starting, so Sir John had time to tell the DVR to record the whole thing. We’ll watch it a day or so behind, so I’m trying to avoid cycling news. It’s not going to be the same without Paul Sherwen.

Day three: not fabulous as to productivity, but very different from my usual term-time Monday (drive, meeting, classes, meeting, drive), so I’ll take it. The painter came to do a small repair and was done by 11. Our real estate agent visited briefly. I registered for K’zoo and booked a hotel there, wrote a note to Lady Maud, read and took notes on three essays from a collected volume relevant to the translation, set up a comments template for one set of student papers, walked four miles and consulted another relevant volume, did a little cooking, finished re-reading Tremontaine (season one). I did not drive and I did no administrivia. I went to bed a bit late, after eleven, but slept pretty well and got up at 7:30. I’ll need to work on shifting bedtime back an hour or two.

Six days to go, counting today. Long lists of things to do. Think how good it will feel to have finished them.

Day 2

It was a fairly normal Sunday, with less urgency about preparing for Monday.

No real progress on any Things, although I did clear some papers off the guest bed. However, they’re still in the guest room awaiting filing or other action. I put in 5.75 miles on an elliptical machine at the gym, read a bit more of Tremontaine (season one), and posted over at TLQ.

In food experiments, I made the unhappy discovery that although I can eat a couple of thin slices of avocado on rare occasions, twice in a week is too often. I slept badly as a result. Antihistamines tamp down the reaction a little, but not as much as I’d like. So I expect to feel a bit ill and tired for another couple of days.

If nothing else, day 3 has house progress in that the painter has come and done a small job already. Also I have done some reading in a very useful essay collection, and taken 12 post-its of notes on it.

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.

Peri-writing

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.

Name almost in print

Yesterday I received a pre-publication PDF of the largest and most tentacular chunk of the MMP, which I promptly sent off to everyone I could think of. The volume is still in production, but it’s coming. One of my dissertation committee members actually read my essay (or at least skimmed it intelligently) as soon as it arrived, because within hours I had an e-mail calling it “intriguing and satisfying,” and praising some of the tentacles elements I worked hardest at integrating.

Also the translation editors have responded about the revised introduction, which I also worked very hard on, saying nice things like “cogent” and “does its proper job.”

So I am feeling very happy about work, writing, research. I’m good at these things I enjoy so much! And if this sounds like I’m full of myself, you know what? I think it’s a good thing to take pleasure in one’s own accomplishments, rather than thinking “I got away with it” or “I should have improved that little thing” or “but what about all these other things that I should be doing/ didn’t do/ did badly?” “or “so and so has done so much more than I have.” I used to be far more neurotic and thought things like that, instead of enjoying the feeling of having Done A Thing and done it well.

And since I do a fair amount of grumping here, it seems only fair to share the good news as well. So have some virtual, calorie-free chocolate and/or champagne, or whatever your favorite celebratory thing is, because if you were here IRL I would celebrate with you!

Also, here are my favorite cat-related posts of the week. If you need cheering up, have some kitties!

https://katyboo1.wordpress.com/2019/02/02/cat-stuff/

Back at Home

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.