Finally.

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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!

When the light is right

I am still slogging away at the MMP. Inspired by Jane B., I have for the moment put aside the effort to compose the perfect concluding paragraph, and am working on the bibliography, since it also has to be done, and it does keep me in touch with the project. The bibliography work mainly involves combing through my footnotes, with a side order of tracking down details online.

Here I have to note that at least since early October I have been in a state of combined despair and anxiety over this project, wondering why it is such a struggle to put to bed, when I thought I would polish it off in three weeks last summer. The editors have not been nagging me, but I’m doing a fantastic job of nagging myself.

Working on the notes/bibliography is doing wonders for my state of mind. Look at that list of manuscript and archival documents consulted in the making of this essay! The list of primary sources is wide-ranging. The list of secondary sources includes work in at least three separate scholarly fields. I think altogether I cite works in five different languages. I still wish I could work more quickly, but by all the gods, I am thorough.

Sometimes I actually impress myself.

Fits and starts

One reason I haven’t been posting much lately (maybe even the main reason) is that I have been slogging through the Slough of Revisions, my vitals gnawed by Palpable Worms of Guilt and Anxiety, as I try to sharpen arguments, deepen context, and reduce verbiage. Despite my efforts at that last, the first two have resulted in considerable expansion to the MMP (whatever the number, it’s the last one), and I hope devoutly that the editors won’t decide I’ve added so much that it’s a new contribution and send it back out for yet another review.

Sometime soon, I’d like to do a reflective post on what I’ve learned from this long process. (Announcing it means I probably will never write it, sorry, don’t hold your breath.) I’m not done-done yet. Next up, I need to go through the notes and make sure all the first references are full and subsequent ones are brief, because some text has moved around, and check that I haven’t left out any key citations in the process of revising. My writing group will look at the new paragraphs that introduce each section, and check transitions, though the whole thing is way too long to expect them to read it in full (we usually submit 1-10 pages to the group).

It is almost done. I have had way too many days this fall when I haven’t managed to work on it. This sort of focus on argument and big-picture “flow” is very hard for me. Usually the time I have available for research is late in the day and I can’t tell if “See Jane Run” makes sense, let alone my own work to which I am way too close. Having written so many drafts of the MMP, I’ve lost track of what details are in which one, and it seems as if the current draft ought to be an accretion of all that went before. But it’s not. I have, for instance, resurrected a chunk of the conclusion from a previous incarnation’s conclusion, and was surprised that I’d lost it because there’s a quote I love. I’m sure it happened when I was hacking and slashing the second rejected version to meet a draconian word limit for a prestigious journal. (Reviewers thought it seemed disjointed. No shit, really?) But anyway! Last night I went to bed not too late, this morning Basement Cat woke me up at dawn, and there was my magic bullet: two hours this morning before I had to do anything else! And so now I’m down to working on notes and checking that the topic sentences really are there, and those are things I can do with only half a brain, so soon, soon, I will be sending it off again.

And then working on another set of revisions, which will, however, be easier. I think.

Merrily we roll along

What am I going to do for blog material when I finish the MMP? I can’t believe I’m still revising that article. I submitted its third version over a year ago, it was accepted nearly a year ago, I spent some happy hours this summer visiting related manuscripts in Famed British Library so as to develop one of its lines of thought a bit further, and now I’m still (still!) slogging through transition paragraphs and footnotes. Gah. To keep myself going, I have turned to Undine’s old posts, like this one about keeping track of one’s notes and this one about T. S. Eliot as editor. She also linked to Jon Jarrett (and is he ever going to post again, one wonders) on his writing process, with links to others.

I’m already living in the past, most of the time. Which century varies: sometimes the fourteenth, sometimes the sixteenth, fifteenth, or thirteenth. Now I’m trying to spend my writing life in the relatively recent past, when I felt like I knew what I was doing. Or at least, I read the blogs of people who seemed to know what they were doing, and applied their insights.

One day this will all be over, and then I’ll have to come up with some new project nicknames. Square One never becomes Square Two, just Square One squared and cubed.

Reta Winters

Reta Winters is a writer, in Carol Shields’s novel Unless (HarperCollins, 2002). She lists the items she has written, with commentary, beginning with

  1. A translation and introduction to Danielle Westerman’s book of poetry, Isolation, April 1981 . . . . I am a little uneasy about claiming Isolation as my own writing, but Dr. Westerman, doing one of her hurrying, over-the-head gestures, insisted that translation, especially of poetry, is a creative act. Writing and translating are convivial, she said, not oppositional, and not at all hierarchical. Of course, she would say that. My introduction to Isolation was certainly creative, though, since I had no idea what I was talking about. I hauled it out recently and, while I read it, experienced the Burrowing of the Palpable Worm of Shame, as my friend Lynn Kelly calls it. (pp. 3-4)

I’ve met that worm. What a good name for it.

Can’t. Even.

I used to dislike the phrase “I just can’t even.” I’d snarl about needing a main verb. Over time, though, I’ve come to find the phrase very useful, expressive precisely in its lack of verb. W/r/t national news, I can’t even. WTF. OMG.

So today I bring you some very, very local news.

I saw the sunrise. It was pretty. Maybe not red, but very bright pink. Sure enough, within a couple of hours we had a brief rainsquall, thus proving the old adage: “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” (Substitute “shepherd” if you live inland.)

Glendower continues to prefer minced turkey to other types of cat food, and ate up his breakfast promptly.

Reina knocked down a spring-loaded curtain rod and freaked out, but once I re-hung it, she returned to looking out the window.

I have loaded my car with items to take to Goodwill later. The vet tech to whom I am going to give some items for her community theater group is off today, so I won’t drop those things off until Thursday.

I expect to go visit an old neighbor this afternoon, to help give Neighbor Catboy subcutaneous fluids. Poor Neighbor Catboy is not in good shape, and I am sad about this. I have to keep reminding myself that he is 12 or 13, has had a loving home since he was a kitten, that he got to spend his whole life with his littermate, and on the whole has had a good life. Has he had the standard of vet care we provide our cats? No, but by most people’s standards he has done just fine. For longtime readers, this is the cat that Basement Cat always hated. In “Breaking Cat News” terms, he’s Tommy to Basement Cat’s Elvis, although since our BC never got out, they never achieved the rapprochement that Elvis and Tommy managed. (“Breaking Cat News” is now at GoComics, so if you are unfamiliar with this delightful comic, you can read it there.) Anyway, I can at least provide both sympathy and practical help to Neighbor Catboy’s person, who is distraught about his failing health. That’s a small, local bit of bad news that I can actually do something about.

Yesterday was a good writing day: 500 new words and a lot of editing of about 1000 old ones, for a decent new introduction to an essay I’ve been revising. Now I have to insert all the new pieces into the old essay and massage the transitions and check the notes very carefully to make sure I’ve kept all the important references while jamming in a batch of new ones.

Last night on my way home I stopped at Trader Joe’s. I bought one item, a bottle of wine. The guy in front of me had one item, a pint of ice cream. The woman behind me had one large chocolate bar. It looked like we all needed a little something to get through the evening. I expect later today I’ll be the one stocking up on chocolate. It’s important to have on hand in case of exposure to Dementors. In fact, we should probably all be dosing ourselves regularly as a preventive measure.

Holding environment

From a New Yorker article about Martha Nussbaum:

“When Nussbaum is at her computer writing, she feels as if she had entered a ‘holding environment’—the phrase used by Donald Winnicott to describe conditions that allow a baby to feel secure and loved. Like the baby, she is ‘playing with an object,’ she said. ‘It’s my manuscript, but I feel that something of both my parents is with me. The sense of concern and being held is what I associate with my mother, and the sense of surging and delight is what I associate with my father.'”

Rachel Aviv, “Captain of Her Soul,” The New Yorker, July 25, 2016, 34-43, at 40-41.

Given some of the things the essay says about Nussbaum’s parents and her relationship to them, I’m a little surprised that writing is so comfortable for her if she feels they’re with her then, but never mind that. Maybe what’s with her is her sense of the ideal parents. The quotation did make me wonder how to create such a sense of delight and playfulness. I’ve had it at various times, but it comes and goes. It seems strongest when I write every day.

Sleep begets sleep. Writing begets writing.

I scrapped the 450 words I wrote yesterday, but they made today’s 494 better words possible, and now I’ve written two days in a row, and starting to feel some enjoyment in place of the dread that was building up.

Emma Beddington on blogging:

It turns out I love writing. It is such a pleasure, so much so that it seems bizarre to me that I haven’t ever tried it before. . . . it has always seemed like a distant dream or an idea for retirement. Being a writer is just a fantasy, impossibly difficult and inaccessible, something you daydream about. How do people do that? . . . . But of course, the Internet has changed everything, cracking open a closed shop: online writing is exploding. The blogs I read are almost exclusively by people who have no professional writing experience and they are fresh and unguarded and funny. . . . I feel caught up in that excitement and I write all the time, in notebooks and in my head, late at night and on my lunch break. I am full of words.

We’ll Always Have Paris: Trying and Failing to be French (Macmillan, 2016), pp. 264-5.

Sadly, this book is not (yet?) available in the US. I got it this summer in the UK. Highly recommend! You can order it via Amazon.co.uk.

Margaret Forster:

For years I’d been trained the way mothers of small children are, not to waste a moment of child-free time, and so I’d always got straight down to it, and the habit had carried on even after there was no real need to be so concentrated. But now, I was tired. I couldn’t do it, couldn’t produce the ten A4 pages in a morning which I’d been used to. I tried to persuade myself that, through being so slow now, every word would mean more, be more tellingly crafted. Not true. My old, rapid, if careless, style of writing was better by far than the halting, lame stuff I was turning out, crawling hesitantly over one mere page in three hours. Why bother doing it? Why expend precious energy, of which there was so little, on writing, when it would be better conserved for other things? Yet each morning the lure of the desk and the pen drew me up to that room, and I gave into it. Sometimes, sitting was painful, which made sticking to the writing ridiculous. It wasn’t even as though I thought I was turning out anything special enough to justify this regime—it was simply that for some strange reason I wanted to be there, doing it.

My Life in Houses, pp. 254-5.