Faderman =? McPhee

Also from the Scholars Talk Writing series, Lillian Faderman‘s system sounds very like John McPhee‘s:

“I developed a system when I was writing my dissertation 50 years ago, and I still use it. Before I start writing a book I need to have at least the illusion that I know how it’s going to end and everything else in between.

So first I need to complete most of my research. Then I review all my research notes — which generally takes several weeks — and I decide what will be useful and where in the book I’ll use it. I’ve concocted an elaborate coding system of numbers and letters, which I give to each idea or fact I anticipate using. Then I put it all into a huge outline with key phrases followed by the numbers and letters that will let me locate the material in my notes. When I was working on The Gay Revolution, an 800-page book, I had a 75-page outline. For my Harvey Milk biography, which is about 250 pages, my outline was 20 pages.

But when I finally start writing I veer away from the outline almost as often as I follow it — which is fine. The outline’s biggest purposes are to be a sort of Dewey Decimal System, to tell me where in my voluminous notes I’ll find things; to remind me of the ideas I want to develop; and to suggest their possible order.”

I wish someone would describe the coding system, any coding system, in more detail. I suppose it’s one of those things that is more useful when worked out for oneself, but some insight into a working system would be helpful in creating/adapting one’s own.

Note that she thinks in terms of Dewey Decimal! Once I discovered the Library of Congress system, I never looked back. It all depends on what you’re used to, I suppose.


Writing links

The Chronicle has a series called “Scholars Talk Writing.” Quite a lot of the scholars (and creative writers) talk about writing for a general audience, which tends to make me cross, because I write for a very specialized audience and I’m not apologizing for that. But I liked some of the pieces quite a lot. Anthony Grafton on patience:  a writer needs “to learn to be patient enough to wait until you have an idea of where you want a piece to go.”  Ruth Behar on revision: “I’ll go through this revision process several times. What I usually discover is that I’m not done when I think I’m done. There’s always more revision to do.”

I loved Helen Sword on the various ways we have of approaching writing (not a single “right” way): “Not only did very few of the academics I talked with follow the recommended practices; many of them actually reported engaging in behaviors that the writing guides explicitly warn against, such as ‘binge writing’ or writing only when they feel like it. . . . Successful academics don’t necessarily write every day, but they’re constantly strategizing about how and when they’ll get their writing done. They don’t necessarily consider themselves to be ‘stylish writers'” but they care deeply about wordcraft. They don’t necessarily enjoy every aspect of the writing process, but they relish the challenge of communicating complex ideas to others. These core attitudes and attributes remained fairly constant across nearly all the writers I interviewed.”

When Reading Is Doing

It’s Saturday morning, sunny though cold, and I have loads of things I could pick out to do: stretch, go to the gym, pack/de-clutter, grade (the current batch of papers look quite good; this will not be a purgatorial task), work on my application for Full, work on The Last Overdue Revisions, color while the light is good, play with my kitties, futz about on the Internet (oh wait . . .), and what do I do? Put together a bibliography for an article I want to write, on a text I’m teaching, a text that hasn’t received enough attention IMHO. I’ve ILL’d one essay, and I can get several others in hard copy at my library, and there’s one book I’m dying to get my hands on that may require a field trip because there are about 7 copies in the world and they don’t circulate.

(Another obsessive un-answerable question: why are there not copies in UK depository libraries, when it was published in the 20th century in London and copies are supposed to go the BL, the Bod, and CUL? Did someone not send them? Did someone not catalog them? Are they somehow catalogued by something other than author and title? I have poked around in the online catalogues, and I do know how to use them, and this book does not turn up. My lawful-good-J side is deeply disturbed: something went wrong in the book world. I tell you, were I not an English professor I would need to be a Literature Detective.)

Someday when I’m futzing about online I really should create a blogroll. I spend quite a bit of time reading blogs by delightful-sounding women who enjoy food, crafts, gardening, restoring old houses, and similar pursuits that I prefer reading about to doing. Despite all the well-meant advice on the Chron fora and similar places about Getting A Life and Pursuing Hobbies Outside of Work, what I really want to do, what I get excited about and spend sunny Saturday mornings on, is reading, researching, and writing. I’ve tried the gardening, restoring, crafts, and so on. They sound like fun. The results look good. But I just don’t get fired up about things I can do with my hands. Except write, which is manual labor, as Colette said.

I have other projects I need to finish right now, so this putative article will go on The List (I have learned the hard way not to get distracted by the New Shiny). Someday I will get to it, and my future self will be happy to have the core bibliography assembled and some basic thoughts outlined. Maybe next spring, when I hope to teach this text again.

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.

Day 7: finally awesome!

Finally, a day on which I both felt well and did not have any social or other commitments.

I even woke up extra early and couldn’t go back to sleep, so I started the day soon after six, always a bonus. I sat, the first time in ages; may it augur well for future mornings. I read a section of the scholarly book I’ve been working on, stretched, studied a little of a dead language, worked through a large hunk of translation and uploaded a chunk, and did a little tinkering with the copy-edits of the MMP. Alas, the document I received earlier in the week was not, in fact, proofs, but an earlier stage in the editing process, with a few requests for further citations and details. (Once I felt that I could not quit this project; now it will not quit me.) I visited a library to check one of these references. I got my hair cut, went to the bank, bought vitamins, and visited the gym. I have added the library reference and sent the document back to the editor . . . who is out of the country on a research trip. I am envious. But at least I’m back to the MMP being on someone else’s desk rather than mine.

I still need to pay bills, rather urgently now. Maybe this evening while we’re watching more Enterprise.

The MMP and some thoughts about lists

If you thought I was done with the MMP, you’d almost be right. I finished it. And then I did revisions, and put together the huge honking bibliography, and wrote an abstract. I was asked for more revisions, and I have just finished those and sent the thing off again. I hope not to see anything more about it until I get page proofs.

After a brief look at the last round of revisions, I thought they looked very manageable, and spent most of February not-doing them. That is, I was constantly aware that I should be working on them, and always found something else to do, partly because there really are plenty of things to do, and partly because I am so tired of hacking at that Octopus. A few days ago I untangled one of the most gnarly paragraphs, a Frankenstein’s monster of a paragraph that had pieces from two or three different iterations smashed together (and I’m not sure how it survived my last re-write, but these things happen). This morning I spent four hours not-working on the MMP: some productive procrastination, and some pure online sulking/avoidance. In the end, the actual work took the two hours I thought it should. I just . . . I don’t know. I think I was afraid of finding some enormous glaring mistake or omission if I looked at my essay again.

Anyway, done. And now I can do taxes, or grade, or some other useful thing. Ugh. I wonder if I procrastinated this morning so that I could do One Main Thing with my day, rather than cramming in many many useful pieces of work. The one-item list is so clear, so focused, so satisfying. I like getting big things done: sending off a submission, grading a whole set of papers. Many tasks have to be chipped away at, over time, and some of them feel like death by a thousand paper cuts. Even though I have plenty of evidence from my own work and life that chipping away over time produces results, it never feels as satisfying to say “I have done today’s stint” as it is to say “I am DONE.”

Some things really do have to be done all at once. Painting the basement stairs, for example, which I did a couple of days ago. Who’s going to paint one step a day?

I had a bunch of stuff on my February list that I realize is just not likely to happen until summer. It’s important, desirable, useful life stuff that I’m never going to get to while teaching, writing, translating, doing (or not-doing) tax prep, and getting my house ready to sell. Something has to give, and it is going to be those things.

Writing rituals, crankiness; “Are you paying rent?”

I like writing (or translating) early in the morning, before other people are up (or expect me to be available), mainly for the sense of uninterruptable time. If I can get at least a little done early, and then leave the document open on my computer, I can often add a little here and a little there, later in the day, even with interruptions. The work stays “present” in my mind, if I have that morning foundation. Changing venues also helps with moving from “interruptable” to “not available to anything but writing.” One semester, I got quite a lot done in the afternoon by moving to a coffee shop some distance from campus, before returning for office hours and a night class. A colleague once showed up and expressed interest in what I was doing, and I pled an imminent deadline so as not to have to talk.

A couple of days ago, I received an e-mail message about a book, or maybe it was workshops, I’m not sure, called “Shut Up and Write.” Wow. Really? You think I’m going to respond to an unsolicited message that rudely suggests that I’m talking instead of writing? I get enough rudeness from real people around me, thank you just the same. It’s true I often need to quiet the voices in my head in order to write, but I have found that treating them patiently and kindly is much more effective than being rude and impatient.

Writing is hard, I wrote in the last-linked post, because “to do it, you have to sit down and be quiet. You stop rushing around juggling tasks, stop talking to (and listening to) students, fellow committee members, partners, children, friends, and you try to turn off the task list in your head that says ‘grant proposal, answer e-mail, laundry, what am I going to wear tomorrow, what’s for dinner tonight, a cookie would be good right now, how many papers are left to grade, overdue book, gosh this room is a mess.’ Once you get quiet, anything lurking at the back of your mind will come out. It may be sadness, disappointment, anger, worry, even excitement about a good thing; but it will come out and try to get your attention. The Thing in the Back of Your Mind does not like being ignored or told to shut up. Well, really, who does? So it gets louder, and it calls up all its friends and supporters, like the Mean Censor and Self Doubt, so they can all gang up on you. The most concrete current Things are in some ways easiest to deal with. You tell them yes, this is a serious problem, and you are going to call the insurance company as soon as you have put in this half hour writing. Assure the Thing that it will get your full attention in its proper turn. This politeness will usually get it to ease up for 30 minutes or so.”

I still subscribe to this theory. Be kind to yourself. I guess if you need to be told to shut up, or need to treat your voices that way, then that’s your thing; do what works. But it’s not going to work for me any more than lighting candles as a pre-writing ritual. I don’t like scents, I don’t like smoke, I once had very long hair (fire hazard), I still have cats (fire hazard), I really do not understand the whole candle thing: candle-lit baths, for example, though I love baths; you can’t read by candlelight. Oh, hey, yesterday I did drink sherry in the bath while re-reading Protector in the middle of the day, and I did not drown in a drunken stupor; in fact I got out after an hour and did some work and some grading. It really was very nice.

So, I’d love to have a ritual to help me write . . . or would I? Actually, I think I’d rather be Julia Cameron and just “drop down the well” any time I have a few minutes and a blank page. Or an already-open document on the screen. I think I’d like a mantra or motto that would help me close the mental door on Things that want attention, or people who don’t actively need attention but who annoy me and take up mental space. Maybe ask if they’ve paid their rent, since I don’t like to let anybody take up my mental real estate unless they’re paying their way. There we go. I have written my way to a new mantra. “Are you paying rent here?”


The creek did not rise, the Lord lent me a long-handled spoon, the Palpable Worm of Guilt died (or at least hibernated), and this morning I submitted the revised version of the last hunk of the Macedonian Marginalia Project, MMP for short. In one form or another, I’ve been working on this thing for close to ten years. I hereby thank various online writing group members who offered encouragement on various iterations of it (in various iterations of writing groups). You can search the blog for “MMP,” and here’s a selection of quotations from past posts about it:

The bad news is that I have piles of books on the floor, because before returning them I want to be certain that books I think I will need again when I return to the Old Current Project (jeebus: I hereby re-christen that thing the Macedonian Marginalia Project, MMP for short) or to the previous Putative Book project (MaryAnn Ginger! the Big Volume on a Manuscript, or BVM, how’s that?), anyway, I say, I want to be sure those books are noted in the appropriate notes, bibliography, or “dump file,” especially those that are somehow obscure, or came to me via ILL, so I can get them back easily. And no, I will not re-write that sentence.

I hate cold, winter, and the December holidays, and since I can’t spend the entire month in Morocco or Malaysia, I’m going to distract myself this year with the Macedonian Marginalia Project, an article I had hoped to finish over a year ago. Younger self: just go to Mexico.

I don’t want to be a conversation-starting scholar. . . I don’t imagine there will be a huge conversation about the MMP. I don’t have the writing-personality to start one, and the skills required to do this kind of work are too rare to get a lot of followers. What I can do is take the time necessary to make my article solid, accurate, and reliable. So it’s already taken more than two years. If I do it right, it will still be useful in 50.

As I work toward finishing the MMP, which I have been working on for 3 years now, I can’t really see why it took so long. Should I not be farther along than creating topic sentences for all my paragraphs? And yet, I do see what took so long: synthesizing the details, figuring out what they offer a larger conversation, working out how to get from larger to smaller and back again, figuring out connections, thinking about what work each paragraph needs to do. Three years! What a good thing I had no idea it would be 2018 before the thing saw print.

The MMP began life as an exploration of Thing One and Thing Two because they had something in common with Thing Three . .  last summer I was pretty sure I had got Things One and Two (my lively eels) wrapped tidily round each other in an attractive twist. There were just a few little bits to work on . . . and then Thing One grew a tentacle. . . picture, here, a small two- or three-masted sailing ship, on a calm sea, under a sunny sky, sails happily belled out by a brisk but pleasant breeze, and Dame Eleanor, in period costume, rearranging piles of parchment on the poop deck, holding them down with deck quoits, while behind her rises the Giant Octopus of Doom, stretching its suckers toward the little ship. Comrade Physioprof liked “octopusing” as a verb. So do I.

I would really like to hurry up and finish the MMP (or, rather, the MMP-1 and MMP-2) and publish them and get on to the next thing and get to be a full professor before I retire.  How many of my colleagues have to get to transcribe or at least read 78 x 3 lines of early modern law-Latin in an Anglicana hand before they can get on with writing their articles?

I have no idea what my first sentence is going to be, or the last. The MMP-1 is taking shape from the middle section outward. Its shape is an hourglass. (Well, that’s what I thought in 2013.)

I sorted and labeled all the photocopies with different-colored sticky notes for Literature, Manuscripts, Reading Practices, Book History, Biography, and Theory. I also labeled the piles of printouts: MMP-1, MMP-2, MMP-3, and listed what was in them (notes, tables of data, early drafts, feedback from RL writing group, usw). I’m not sure where all those stacks are anymore. Buried in my office? Can I recycle it all now?

I [hacked] and [slashed] the second rejected version to meet a draconian word limit for a prestigious journal. (Reviewers thought it seemed disjointed. No shit, really?)

For (mumble) years now, I have been living with its protagonist. When I’m working on this project, I stare at Google Images of his tomb and his lands (as they are now: so far, I have not convinced Google to cough up overhead shots from earlier centuries, though there are some nineteenth-century images of his parish church and nearby bridge). Last summer I visited his tomb and said some prayer more or less for his soul. And took my own photographs of said tomb.

Sometimes I feel delighted to send an essay out into the world. This time, I’m hopeful but wary. If projects are children, the MMP-1 has had a hard time in adult life, and has sucked up a lot of my resources; some of the younger kids have suffered because of the attention this one needed.

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.) Oh, yeah, revisions. They couldn’t possibly take six months.

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.” Adding two more literary manuscripts, 25 footnotes, and 3000 words might account for the six months. I guess.

The list of secondary sources includes work in at least three separate scholarly fields. I think altogether I cite works in five different languages. But who’s counting?

It’s the end of an era. Happy New Year!















900: Falling off the face of the Earth

In the middle of last month, I realized that my next post would be #900, which seemed to call for some special notice. I was mulling over a post about metaphors for writing and why I like to read blogs about restoring old houses in France (which is definitely one of those reading-not-doing items for me). I hoped to write the post before leaving for the Thanksgiving break, but figured after, or even during, would work just fine.

Then we went to visit my family for Thanksgiving, and all plans went to hell in a handbasket. My father, reportedly doing very well following a hospitalization at the end of October, was supposed to move from a rehabilitation facility to “independent living.” My soon-to-be-ex-niece-in-law (I had understood) had done a lot of the necessary organizing and everything was set for an orderly transition. There were just a few little loose ends that could be easily wrapped up.

Mmm-hmm. I’m not sure if I should say that the loose ends unraveled or that pulling on them led to a massive snarl of yarn. Either way, it was a mess, and I didn’t really work out how much of a mess until I had about 36 hours before I had to leave for the airport. I moved mountains, and was briefly proud of myself, and then the mountains collapsed, after all (volcanic eruption? I really should leave the metaphors alone). A week later, my father was in the hospital with pneumonia, all his work in rehab undone.

To make a long story short, he is now in a nursing home, where he seems likely to stay for the rest of his life. He is one of the highest-functioning patients there, both mentally and physically, but he’s still not in good enough shape to tackle even assisted living. He might get there, but at his age, just making the move from one situation to another would be enormously stressful and likely to lead to another setback.

At any rate, my life seems to be back on track now. Grades are in. One of my greatly-delayed sets of revisions, the easier one, is done and submitted, thanks to the editor leaning on me. And I really do mean thanks; I would not have got them done without the kick in the pants, but the work provided a useful counter-irritant to a whole lot of calls and anxiety about my father. The editor for the last chunk of the MMP has extended me mercy unhoped-for. I have to pound out a revised intro and conclusion, but I think I’ve fixed everything else, and if I can keep a clear head and finish off in the next ten days or so, the largest and most elaborate piece of the MMP will see daylight in 2018. God willing and the creek don’t rise, with the help of the Lord and a long-handled spoon, and any other such folk sayings we can come up with (please leave them in the comments).

One happy side-effect of living on adrenaline appears to be that I am not suffering from SAD this year, at least not so far, and so you are spared my usual grousings about winter and the holidays. I am actually looking forward to a sane and ordinary get-together with Sir John’s side of the family, and to a nice calm dose of ordinary work instead of having to apply my skills at gathering, organizing and communicating information to elder-care. I guess another happy side-effect is realizing how useful these skills actually are in real-life situations.

Roll on Christmas excess. Sir John impulse-bought a lovely bottle of lovely Spanish sherry last week, and I have been lapping it down at such a rate that I think I need to get him a new bottle for his stocking. Ding-dong, merrily get high!