After the Zoo

The Kalamazoo* experience varies, from year to year. Sometimes I have to take piles of grading along and retreat to my hotel room to grade. Other years I’m all done. Once (I think only once) I took piles of books and completed my paper just before I had to give it. Sometimes I get all energized to do research but come home to piles of grading before I can get back to writing, and sometimes I ought to be energized but am so worn out from the conference that it takes a week to recover.

I never manage to write about the conference during it. Afterwards, it seems like the proper/expected version goes “I heard inspiring papers, made new connections for an innovative collaboration, and now I’m going to do fantastic things with my summer.” Or maybe, “I heard fantastic papers, made inspiring connections, and now I’m going to do innovative things with my summer.” Pick your adjectives.

This year my adjective was “tired.” I didn’t sleep well, I spent lots of time rushing around, I pretended to have a better time than I was having (because I didn’t want to be a downer, and really I have nothing to complain about, except being tired and having too many things going on). Bardiac introduced herself and we had a nice chat. I did hear good papers, though I wish I’d been in a better headspace to concentrate on them and think about their significance. I had dinner with what are now the usual suspects on Saturday, and that was delightful. Rather than meeting new people, I mostly re-connected with old friends. I do not need any new projects, innovative or not; I need to finish some of my old ones. I bought 11 books, a fairly modest number, and left the conference cross because a paper I thought ought to have cited my work, didn’t. (It’s a conference paper; one doesn’t include all the footnotes in oral presentations.)

Once I got home, I slept straight through the night (which for me is a minor miracle) and got up at dawn to file grades. Then I started taking notes on something I have to read for the book project that I have been neglecting, and produced 800 words. Being cross may be a better spur to work than more exalted forms of inspiration.

My plan for the next few weeks is to put in one hour of research time per day, and after that hour, focus on Life Stuff, most especially packing, repairing, and doing whatever we need to do to sell this house. So it is not a good sign that I am still at my desk at this late-morning hour. I’d rather be here, I’d rather focus on the work, but in the long run, the work will be better served by a living situation that doesn’t need so much attention. I suppose that’s innovative, in its way.

 

*International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University.

Keep it for yourself

“I very much dislike prepared or repeated speech . . . . [When] prompted, ‘Do tell him about . . .’ I find an incident that was once true has become with telling both dead and abhorrent, and as if false. I lose much for myself by telling other people. . . . A factor moving in one’s thoughts is more vital, more powerful, than when it is exteriorised. This of course applies also to my writing. I can never again see hoar frost with surprised rapture since I put it into words in Yew Hall.”

L. M. Boston, Memory in a House ((New York: Macmillan, 1973), 122-3.

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.

CHAMPAGNE!!!

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.

 

Friday, fortunately/unfortunately

Fortunately I could sleep till I woke up.

Unfortunately, that was later than I hoped I’d be up.

Fortunately, I have finished writing the final exam I will give next week.

Unfortunately, I have still not finished the R&R I hoped to be done with last month.

Fortunately, now I have some time to work on it.

Unfortunately, if I work on the R&R, I will not get the undergrad papers graded today. Or maybe that’s a “fortunately.”

Fortunately, I can also grade papers tomorrow or Monday.

Unfortunately, I may have to go to campus Monday for one single meeting.

Fortunately, since it is now noon and no agenda has been posted, there is a good chance that that meeting may not happen.

Unfortunately, needing to finish writing the final exam, combined with late rising, means I didn’t go to the yoga class I hoped to attend this morning.

Fortunately, the same teacher gives another class tomorrow.

Cats who encourage tidiness

I complained about Glendower awhile back. Now Reina has developed the chewing-on-paper tendency. She used only to chew post-its left sticking out of books that had been re-shelved. She loves to hide on bookshelves, behind the books; we have open-frame shelves that make it easy for the cats to tunnel behind the books, since if we push books to the wall, (a) they fall down since the walls aren’t necessarily plumb, and (b) enormous amounts of clutter accumulate on the space in front of books. I didn’t so much mind the post-its getting chewed. I do mind having to clear my desk every time I leave the room, because now she’ll attack a whole stack of paper and chew all the corners off and fling confetti around the room. I need more drawers or cupboards, closed storage.

She is curled in her bed looking like butter wouldn’t melt, but I need to go do other things, so the current batch of print-outs must be hidden lest they be shredded before my return.

“My, how things have changed . . .

. . . for the worse since I was young.” (To be chanted, with eye-rolling.)

It seems to me that it used to be possible, or perhaps I just mean easier, to alter elements of one’s blog’s appearance. I would like to dump the all-caps format of the first line in this “theme” but I can’t work out how to do that. But the layout is simpler (again), though not so simple as the one I used for many years, and the header image is similar to the old (larger hunk of the same manuscript page), so I’m hoping this will satisfy my wish for something new, without sparking a “we fear change” response in myself or my readers.

It does look like a nice format for doing Quotes About Writing and that sort of thing. Maybe I should run another writing group with Inspirational Quotations.

It’s not like I have anything else to do in the spring, just teach three classes plus a pair of independent studies, and get back to writing my book, assuming I can get out from under the two R&Rs I’ve been struggling with during the fall term. One is, I think, very close to done: that is, I’m in the stage where it seems hopelessly messy and impossible to finish, which probably means that with a few more days’ working sessions it will be suddenly done. That quantum leap always surprises me, even when I surmise that it’s coming. I’d like to be better at gauging how long it will take to write, or re-write, an essay. The writing isn’t so bad. It’s the thinking that is unpredictable.

Lawrence Durrell, morning writer

Watching The Durrells in Corfu prompted me to return to the novels of Lawrence Durrell, which I enjoyed when I was in my teens (I moved on to them after devouring Gerald’s memoirs, and was surprised to find them so different; but I loved the lyricism). It was very strange to re-read books that I once knew so well, and to have a completely different perspective on them now. When I was young, I was definitely an immasculated reader: able to read in sympathy with a male narrator. Now, not so much. And now I am not only older than most of the characters but also older than the author of the Alexandria Quartet. That also changes my perspective, as does being trained as a literary critic. As a teenager, I was completely uninterested in the political intrigue of the Quartet, which distorted my understanding of the work. Now I see better what Durrell was doing, and while I admire his female characters less, I see why, as a writer, he needed them to behave in certain ways.

I am particularly skeptical about Leila, the older woman whose vanity, after smallpox ravaged her once-beautiful face, kept her veiled on her Egyptian country estates rather than moving from Alexandria to Paris or London. I think she would have said “the hell with what people think,” moved anyway, dressed exquisitely and been accepted as a jolie laide. But then, I am the product of ’70s feminism, and in my London and Paris, there are women who veil. And the novelist needed her on the scene, as both mother and former lover; she wouldn’t have been effective as an emotional force in the novel if she were in Europe living her own life.

I moved on from Durrell’s own work to biographies and to Michael Haag‘s study of literary Alexandria during/between the World Wars, where I found this quotation about the way Larry worked while living on Cyprus in the late ’40s:

“With his teaching day beginning at seven in the morning, Durrell would rise at four-thirty and over a mug of black coffee add a few more lines to his novel, writing in longhand in his ‘Caballi’ notebook so as not to disturb his sleeping household, before driving thirty miles round the shoulder of the coastal range and onto the plain of Nicosia. In those dawns and in the lengthening shadows of his return drive to Bellapaix he was composing his novel in his head; these were the passages he set down by candlelight the following morning in ‘The Caballi’. At weekends he would type out the fifteen hundred words he had written there; it was a slow process of distillation. ‘Never have I worked under such adverse conditions’, Durrell wrote to Miller in October, but also ‘I have never felt in better writing form’.”   Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory, pp. 319-320.

 

The revision process

Today’s main task was working on an R&R.

First step: outline the paper as I wrote it, because I couldn’t find the original outline. I’m sure I had one, but it’s not in computer files, not in research journal, not in notebook;  all I can find are primary quotations and an annotated bibliography.

Next step: in the outline, strike out everything the reviewer thought I should lose, then highlight in yellow the parts to develop, and in blue the parts that now need to move somewhere else.

Step three: wonder if there is anything left of my paper.

Step four: start an outline for the revision, which includes quite a lot of material supporting the opposite point of view to the one I’m arguing. I almost convinced myself to argue for that point of view. But I can’t quite get there. I still like my original point.

Pause to consider whether this is because I’m an atheist and cannot be convinced by any religious/supernatural explanation of events when there’s a rationalist one available. Probably. This is somewhat problematic when dealing with medieval texts.

Further pause to contemplate the broader implications of this problem. Obviously a scholar needs some distance, but at what point does the distance become so great as to generate confusion rather than objectivity?

Remember Jill Mann and feel comforted.

Contemplate the distance in achievement between myself and Jill Mann, and slump again.

Think, not for the first time, that if I could meet the people I study, I would probably not like them, and they would certainly find me almost incomprehensible.

Return to the outline. Compare two things and try to draw conclusions from the exercise. Find a number of similarities that seem like they ought to mean something, but which somehow don’t add up to much.

Give up and get ready to go to the gym. Have insight! Scribble it on a yellow sticky. Work out. Fix dinner. Type in the insights from the sticky note.

Discover that they, too, somehow fail to add up to much.

It’s an R&R, not a rejection. There must be a pony in here somewhere.

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?