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.

The flip side

As in, “See you on the flip side.” I’m on it. My life has flipped to UK mode, a new time, a different setting, a life with students and colleagues but no husband or cats, a life with work and walking but without housework or gardening. The time is going all too quickly and I know I’ll be back in my US life before I know it, but in the meantime there is that amazing library, interspersed with sight-seeing (old churches) and cultural events (live music, theatre).

I really must create a blogroll in the space for it at the bottom of the page. There are the ones I’ve read for years and those I’ve read for months and some others I discovered only weeks or even days ago. Another Eleanor said “Nowadays, I use the academic style to hide behind. I have lots of things to say but they are not always acceptable. I stifle the urge to write publicly because what I have to say is inflammatory, to me and to others. Betrayal, loathing, exclusion, hate, love. Academic writing is a mask.”

I have found my own academic writing to be surprisingly revealing. Coded, certainly. I doubt it would say the same things to other people that it says to me. I never realize, at the time I am working on a project, what it really is about, what I am working out by writing such and such an article. Each time, I believe instead that I have finally finished working out my issues and am at last doing scholarship that just interests me. When articles appear in print, years later, and I re-read them from a later perspective, I find that, after all (as Z said in this thread), my unconscious was working on my behalf.

I am enjoying seeing my students’ worlds expand. They are observant, thoughtful, determined to experience as much as they can while they are here. I want to emulate them. I have work to do, but I will not spend all my time in the library (though I love it there).

The right to concentrate

In a thread at Jonathan’s about procrastination (or whatever not-working is), Profacero said “one needs to feel one has the right to concentrate, and to the time that goes into struggle with material.”

If one doesn’t naturally feel that, one needs reminders, internal or external.

I don’t think I had trouble concentrating, or feeling that I had a right to concentrate, when I was in elementary school, high school, or college. My parents emphasized that school was my job, and let me do my homework in peace. So at least for me, this is not an early trauma (I don’t think), but one that developed during a particular un-peaceful time in my life, which was also a difficult time for my mother.

Between college and graduate school, after several months living in another country, I returned to my parents’ house. My mother was needy and possessive. She had missed me. She was going to miss me more. Although I didn’t know this at that time, my parents’ marriage was particularly rocky at this point. I was very anxious, waiting for acceptances from graduate schools, working several part-time jobs, studying Latin in my few spare hours, because I knew it would be important for my graduate work and I had exaggerated my competence on my applications.

My mother interrupted me frequently when I was trying to study. She did not respect my time. She no longer thought, apparently, that school (or preparation for it) was my job. My job, in her eyes, was looking after her. I was 22 and I thought I was all grown up. I wanted to be compassionate. I was somewhat flattered that she wanted me to be my friend, although I also wanted to live my own life and have her live hers. I tried to answer her patiently and compassionately. I always wound up furious and then self-reproachful for losing my temper.

I wasn’t even trying to write, just to study. I still find studying languages soothing and I think I am less likely to self-interrupt when reading in another language or working on vocabulary than I am when researching and writing. But when I read Z’s comment, that was the time in my life that I immediately zeroed in on as a source of my intermittent sense that I do not have the right to concentrate, that I am to be at other people’s disposal. I’m not sure how to get back that earlier sense that studying is my job, but I wish I could feel that way again, as a regular thing.

This may be a silly idea, but perhaps it could come via clothing . . . long ago, maybe at one of Dr Crazy’s blogs, there was a discussion of writing costumes (special writing outfits, whether super-comfy or dressed up). Maybe if I dressed as my teenage self or even my childhood self, I could sink into that happy, absorbed “now I am doing my homework!” feeling. How much do external cues help? I would hope that the more I access that self, the more accessible it would become, without costume.

(I am so tired of dealing with my mommy issues. It seems to be the case that when my life changes in significant ways, the issues that seemed to have been resolved come back for another round, and the “new me” has to work through them again.)

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.