Summer of real life

Some time ago, I wrote this in a draft post: “I miss real life. So much of what I do already involves staring at a screen: writing, grading, even quite a bit of reading, as more books get published electronically, and as it’s really not worth printing out every article I need to read. I’m going to have to start writing on paper and figuring out what other activities I can move off-screen, because I need more reality, not more screen time.”

I think I’m going to have to have at least one more Zoom meeting (but not more than two) in order to wrap up something for a professional organization, and then I can ditch online meetings for nearly three months. In order to do this, I’m taking the summer off from my writing group. Instead, I’ll be meeting with grad students for writing dates.

The garden is going to get a lot of attention this summer. I want to move the iris into a sunnier bed, thin out the hostas, clear the vegetable patch of weeds and plant veg and herbs, and plan a native-plant bed, possibly on a fairly grand scale. (I may not do the planting of that one this year.) I need to mulch a lot, and put weeding on my list of “habits,” things I do 3-4 times a week if not daily.

I have two road trips planned. Both will involve seeing Actual Live People as well as places that are either new to me, or which I have not seen in twenty or thirty years. We also have plans to have monthly dinners with another couple, and some other get-togethers with friends are already scheduled.

Writing on paper hasn’t been going particularly well for me, partly because so many of my notes (and spreadsheets) are already on the computer. I don’t know how people used to write as Derek Pearsall (for instance) is said to have done: longhand, page after page straight on from beginning to end of article or book. Maybe that worked because he was Derek Pearsall: I mean, once you get invited to contribute to things because you are a Name, perhaps editors don’t ask you to do a lot of revision. I still suspect that decades ago Oxbridge, or the schools that prepared people for Oxbridge, taught their students in ways that made thinking, organizing, and writing more straightforward, especially on purely literary subjects. Varying topics and approaches can make things simpler or more complex. Jon Jarrett’s recent post on the long and winding road to one publication made me feel much better about my own such quests. But I digress. Working out organization, and revising tricky paragraphs, are both things I can do on paper, even if I continue to do a lot of writing on the computer.

I want to go swimming, even if that means getting up at dawn to hit the local pool during their hideously early lap swim hours. Submersion in water feels very real.

There is a lot of unpacking and settling in to our “new” house remaining to be done. This is definitely a real-life project. I have finally painted the guest room, which means that room can now get properly organized. We may need to put some more bookshelves in there! I’d like to open all the boxes in the garage: some can be unpacked, some may be things we want to purge, some might be re-packed for storage. Speaking of storage, I want to do some house-related shopping, in real-life antique stores and junk shops. Another wish is some sewing: the guest room will also be where I set up the sewing machine.

It’s hard to get completely away from screens, even for an old-school curmudgeon like me who has no social media accounts apart from this blog. Apart from the writing and reading previously mentioned, I need to prepare the online sites for my classes, and there are some games I play online. Sir John and I like to watch TV/movies, and you better believe I’ll be watching the Tour de France starting on 1 July. But I’m definitely going to try limiting screen time to the extent possible. I crave experience and sensation. I used to think I lived more in my head than most people. That may even be true. But I’ve hit my limit.

Still more Bowen

“I wrote by hand, as clearly as seemed possible–as when at school, two or three years before, I had been making a presentable copy of an essay. A bottle of blue-black ink stood on a saucer; I used a ribbed brown pen-holder with a ‘Relief’ nib. The writing block, which had cost ninepence, had lined pages: this I found an aid to clearness of thought. The importance to the writer of first writing must be out of all proportion to the actual value of what is written. It was more difficult then than it would be now to disentangle what was there, there on the page, from the excitement which had given it birth. There could be but one test of validity: publication. I know I shaped every line in the direction of the unknown arbiter. When I say that had I not written with the idea of being published I should not have written, I should add that I did not so much envisage glory as desire to know that I had made sense. I wanted proof that I was not prey to delusions–moreover, publication was the necessary gateway to being read. I know that I wrote then with no less, though also with no more, difficulty than I do today: as an occupation writing enthralled me, which made it suspect, but also killed me, which made it in some way ‘right.’ The thing was a struggle. I saw no point in killing myself for the sake of anything that was not to become an outright reality. For me reality meant the books I had read–and I turned round, as I was writing, from time to time, to stare at them, unassailable on the shelves behind me. . . . I had engaged myself to add to their number.”

“Encounters,” in The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, ed. Hermione Lee (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), 119.

More Bowen, on the writer’s subject

“The essential is that he be not imposed upon. He must know his own—that is, when it comes to subject. Truth is in his eye, in that roving eye: there are, and should never cease to be, unmistakable moments of recognition. Yet such moments may be daunting and unacceptable—’Must this be my subject?’ the writer sighs. He is not so young, perhaps; he foresees with dismay endless demands and challenges . . . .”

“The Roving Eye,” originally published as “The Search for a Story to Tell,” in the New York Times Book Review, 1952. I found it in The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, ed. Hermione Lee (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), 64.

Pronouns are those used by Bowen. In light of the weight pronouns have acquired in recent years, I find myself wondering to what degree earlier women writers felt empowered, rather than dismissed, by the “universal” masculine pronoun. I am certain that in writing of the writer’s subject, Bowen was drawing on her own experience. Did she think of her writer-self as a masculine alter-ego? Did she feel a mischievous pleasure in cloaking her woman-writer’s experience in masculine pronouns and making the readers of the NYT Book Review imagine a man who was actually herself? Or was this just what she did, a practice no more to be questioned than the use of articles?—not that a writer might not also question whether to use a direct or indirect article, or none at all, but that’s a very subtle stylistic point, I think.

Elizabeth Bowen on writing

She focuses on the creative writer, but I think much of what she says here is applicable to scholarly writers, as well:

“How, and why, does the writer find the subject—his subject, which germinates into play or story, poem or novel? Is this a matter of chance, or of expert calculation? . . . Writers are not secretive, but they are shy—shy behind the façade they learn to put up, and most shy about what is most simple to them. The fact is, they are of a childishness which could seem incredible, and which is more than half incredible to their thinking selves. The childishness is necessary, fundamental—it involves a perpetual, errant state of desire, wonder, and unexpected reflex. The writer, unlike his non-writing adult friend, has no predisposed outlook; he seldom observes deliberately. He sees what he did not intend to see; he remembers what does not seem wholly possible. Inattentive learner in the schoolroom of life, he keeps some faculty free to veer and wander. His is the roving eye.

“The Roving Eye,” originally published as “The Search for a Story to Tell,” in the New York Times Book Review, 1952. I found it in The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, ed. Hermione Lee (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), 63. Another book that hopped off the shelf into my hands!

Twelve minutes to the End

“Presently I begin to look ahead, to see the end of the journey . . . . So it comes, the day that was invisible, the moment that I never thought to live. Nothing can stop this being the day when I shall print THE END again . . . . but there have been interruptions, even on this day. . . .

“From nearly a thousand pages of Rough, I had at last distilled the Smooth: not more than three hundred pages in all. And I was racing towards THE END; three pages to go. I should be a little late for lunch.

“‘I said—oughtn’t you to be getting ready?’

“Dragged back, I blinked upon my friend. ‘We are lunching with Dash and Blank,’ said my torturer.

“‘You go,’ I said, ‘Say I’m sorry but—‘

“‘You can’t do that. It’s a party.’

“‘I can’ I said, with some expletives let in. . . . I surrendered. . . . I changed my clothes. . . . Six more guests were well ahead of us on the terrace. Pulling myself together, apologising politely, I tried to behave. And, halfway through luncheon, received my reward.

“‘How much longer will you be working on your novel out here?’ asked the civilised gentleman sitting opposite.

“‘Never a bit of luck like this again,’ I reflected as I answered thoughtfully, ‘Oh—about twelve minutes.'”

Pamela Frankau, From Pen to Paper, New York: Doubleday, 1962, pages 29-31.

Portability; or not

“The Rough illustrates perfectly the fact that writing is a portable profession. I can carry on with it anywhere. I have written it in dentists’ waiting rooms, in casinos, in trains and at the hairdresser’s; in a B.B.C. control-room with ‘Woman’s Hour’ coming through from the studio, biding my time for the operating-theatre, sitting in a bar, watching by a deathbed.

“But the Smooth demands a long solid surface of desk or table, with a rigid attendance upon the notebooks, the Rough and the clean foolscap before me.”

Pamela Frankau, From Pen to Paper, New York: Doubleday, 1962, page 28.

Frankau’s Smooth

“Things have changed. Among them my state of mind, my approach to work and my time-table. Four hours a day could content me while I worked on the Rough. Now the minimum is six; more often I write for eight or ten hours. Because of my handwriting and the impending typist, I must go at it as neatly as possible. This slows the pace. But the longer day and the complete confidence give the Smooth a predictable lifetime: five months at most. As I work, I realise that the Rough was more fun than I thought; there wasn’t the obligation to keep my eyes on—as it might be—two saucepans and the oven at the same time.

“Usually I digest and memorise the immediate notes before I begin. They are severely practical, impersonal notes now. They will include the results of factual research. . . . But, by and large, magic has taken over. The discoveries go on. Again I find that some random, seemingly-pointless part of the Rough has acquired authentic value. It relates to the book in a way that I could not have foreseen.”

Pamela Frankau, From Pen to Paper, New York: Doubleday, 1962, pages 26-27.

Pamela Frankau on Writing

I was minding my own business in the stacks, looking for other books entirely, when Pen to Paper wriggled out of its place and fell into my hands. I had never heard of the novelist, though she was a prolific writer. (Some day, I expect, in my pursuit of obscure mid-twentieth-century women writers, a book will turn out to be one I read as a girl, while working through the stacks of my local library, but that day has not yet come.)

At any rate, Pen to Paper is not a novel but a sort of memoir, or how-to book (subtitle: A Novelist’s Notebook), how Pamela Frankau wrote, and it includes delightful passages about process. “I acquired the two-draft habit after twelve years of tidying up as I went along. . . . What I slowly discovered was that the impetus of the story slackened with the tidying-up process. . . . At first I was plagued by all the mess. The scribble, the gaps, the balloon-attachments, the spatter of X and ? in the margin haunted me. . . . Mr Butler [a delivery man] [asked] ‘you write all that out by hand?’

‘Yes; twice.’

‘Twice?’

‘Well, the Rough and the Smooth, you see.’ It hadn’t struck me until this moment that for every book a hundred thousand words long, my hand must write two hundred thousand.”

And then she proceeds to describe “the way of the Rough.”

“Should somebody penetrate the barbed-wire entanglements of my handwriting and read my Rough, it would make little sense to him. He would find bewildering changes of time and place. The people would confound him with sudden new characteristics. Some would change their looks. Some would be whisked away without explanation. Some would put in a late appearance, yet be greeted by the rest as though they had been there from the beginning. He would find, this reader, traces of style followed by no style at all; pedestrian phrases, clichés, straight flat-footed reporting. Here a whole sequence of scenes complete and next some mingy, skeleton stuff with a burst of apparently contemptuous hieroglyphs on the blank left-hand page beside it. Nor is the left-hand page reserved for ‘Exp’ (meaning Expand), ‘X’ (meaning Wrong), ‘//’ (meaning much the same as X only more so), and ‘?’ (meaning what it says). The left-hand page is likely to be a shambles, taking afterthought insertions for the right-hand page; paragraphs whose position may not be indicated at all. No; a reader would have no more fun with the Rough than the writer is having.

“My advice to myself in all the weeks and months of the Rough is to keep going, keep plodding along.”

“I have written a Rough in three months; I have likewise taken nearly a year on it. The working-hours vary: anywhere between four and ten hours a day. Two absolute rules abide.

“Discipline is the first. Self-discipline . . . . the devils inside are the worst. Sheer listless reluctance; pain; worry; the flat morning mood; a sudden lust for new clothes; deep melancholy; wild happiness; bad news; good news; all contrive to threaten the second life that I must live from day to day.

“The number of people who have said to me since I was nineteen, ‘I imagine one can only write when one feels like it,’ merely sets me wondering if I have ever felt like it. . . .

“The other absolute rule is protection. Every Rough I’ve written has needed protection and not only from the devils. . . . Certain company should be avoided. The company of the devitaliser, that friend who takes from life rather than enhancing it, the mental blood-sucker, the strong marauding personality. The early-morning chatterer on the telephone. The disorganised chaos-bringer. The one who wants a long, serious talk.”

Pamela Frankau, From Pen to Paper, New York: Doubleday, 1962, pages 17-22.

Six on Sss…sunday

Late again! I took my photographs yesterday. Then I put away a load of laundry, did some weeding and watered the potted tomatoes, took an eBay return to the post office and did some other errands, went for a walk, ate dinner, and watched a stage of the Vuelta. I suppose I could have done a blog post during the TV-watching, if I had remembered, but I didn’t.

It seems to be the time of year for white flowers, again: here’s #1, Honorine Jobert, in bud.

And again like last year, the garlic:

For #3, the autumn clematis, now in bloom:

#4, the hydrangeas (Annabelle, I believe), not yet white, but they will be:

The sedums are pink, but some of the little flowerlets are still whitish:

#6, on the other side of the clump of sedums, is the one dwarf marigold I have this year. I do not know what happened to the marigolds. Last year they bloomed like mad, both in front and in the veg patch. I figured at least some would come up from seed on their own, but I also saved seeds and tried to start some in little pots, and threw some around the veg patch again. Not one of the dozen that I carefully planted came up, and neither did any of the others, till this one. I am glad to see it:

In non-gardening news, I met my writing goals for the week, and graded two sets of short assignments, one from each class. I hardly recognize this efficient self . . . except that I haven’t done most of the other things on the week’s list, so I guess it’s still me. At least I’ve done the most important things!

Six on Saturday, which is supposed to happen on Saturday, is hosted by The Propagator. He also has Honorine and Annabelle this week.

Where the day went

Before I started work, I fed the cats, did yoga, ate breakfast, watered and fertilized the tomatoes, watered the African violets, brushed the cats’ teeth.

Checked e-mail and answered a couple of messages. Declined an “opportunity” that would interfere with time I want to use either to do research or to prep my grad class, though technically I’m “free” at that time.

Wrote 567 words.

Commented on all the undergrads’ discussion board posts. Assigned points to both classes’ posts. Discovered that I have loaded to Blackboard all but one assignment for each class (I thought I was missing more than that for one class, so this made me happy). Made notes toward the two assignments I still have to write up in detail.

Attended a committee meeting online. Volunteered for a subcommittee.

When the meeting ended early, I used the “found time” to swing by the grocery store (half an hour) and move some boxes around in the garage, then started unpacking one box of books (another half hour). ILL’d a book I need, only to have the request cancelled because the book is already checked out of one of the libraries that has it; another is a non-circulating library; the third claims to have it but in fact hasn’t ordered it yet. Thppppbtt.

Dead language group meeting, online.

Talked to Sir John while completing the unpacking of that box of books. Sorted out a stack of books to give away. I’m pretty sure that box of books never got unpacked in the last house, so it was easy to distinguish between the books I was glad to see again and those that made me wonder where and why I got them in the first place.

Checked in online with my dissertating students.

Ate dinner. Went for a walk. Unpacked a new batch of masks from Etsy that arrived in today’s mail.

While watching the Vuelta, answered more e-mail and started reviewing an article I’m teaching tomorrow.