Sources of inspiration

Grumbles and procrastination clearing; forecast offers a chance of further improvement.

A lot of my grumpiness has to do with facing a very old R&R. I want to be done with it. I wish my past self had just done it right away. But when the reviews came in, my past self was struggling with the MMP, and then the series editors put both feet down about the Huge Honking Translation, and what with one thing and another, including my promotion application last year, years have passed. Not without efforts toward the R&R, but now this is one of the contributing factors: I have layers of notes and outlines to review as I try to figure out what the plan was, and the mass of material is daunting.

Since I finally spent an hour re-reading these, I’m feeling more like tackling the thing and getting it over with.

I’m also looking over my shoulder, suspecting that making the effort will (by Sod’s Law) bring down the Translation Editors or some other type of interference with the work.

Yesterday when I was procrastinating/looking for inspiration, I found a couple of helpful posts. One is from a gardener. The advice sounds a lot like any planning process, but it’s useful to see that people in other areas have the same problems and solutions. Here’s what Jen in Frome says at https://doingtheplan.com/2017/04/21/planning-and-doing-the-plan/

  1. Do Stuff. Take small steps frequently to get more good things thriving . . . . Lots of little things done each day adds up to a lot done over the month.
  2. Review. Note down what was done and when, and keep observing and thinking about what’s working out and what’s what’s not.
  3. Plan. Check what’s done so far against what’s hoped for in future, and set out a few next steps to get a bit closer to your goal.

Another is Kameron Hurley on working through fear and writing fatigue, here: https://www.kameronhurley.com/lets-talk-creativity-fear-losing-magic/ Hurley says, “Much of the time I feel I’m spending “writing” is actually time I spend feeling guilty because I can’t write, or because I feel that what I’m writing is utter shit. That’s not “writing” time. It’s my time with The Fear. So much of my writing time has been taken up talking with The Fear that I couldn’t figure out why shit wasn’t getting done. It certainly felt, emotionally, like I was working REALLY HARD. But arguing with your fear isn’t working. Feeling bad for not working isn’t working. Being angry about not working isn’t working.”

Yes, and no. Arguing, feeling bad, and being angry are certainly a lot of emotional labor. Doing them doesn’t necessarily “work,” as in, make it possible to get back to work. But it doesn’t help to pretend The Fear isn’t happening, either. I wound up negotiating with mine. I put on the music I usually use for grading, spread print-outs all over my desk (so I had to see them), and set a timer for ten minutes. That was all I needed to get into the task. When the timer went off, I was annoyed and immediately re-set it for 25 minutes, and made a lot of progress in that time. I needed the short time to start, though, because 25 seemed like way too much time for demon-fighting.

Am I embarrassed about having this sort of work problem, still, again, at my stage of career? Hell yeah. I also hope that admitting to it, publicly if pseudonymously, may help some other people who might be having the same problem. You can get past it. Sometimes you can go years without The Fear. But it’s also a thing that comes back with the right triggers, the right combination of factors, the wrong encounter with someone who pushes certain buttons. The only way I’ve ever found to deal with it is Virginia Valian’s: make the task smaller. As small as you need to. Ten minutes. Five. And be kind to yourself, because the piece of work is not really the problem. It’s all the emotions that have got tangled up with that piece of work. They might be big things that need therapy, or they might be ghosts of something you cleared up long ago, or they might just be bad habits.

If it’s not a good day, if The Fear is happening to you, if you’re procrastinating, give it five minutes, write down what you did in that time, and come back to the thing tomorrow. That’s all. Five minutes, and a note about what you did in the time.

The day before spring break

That is, yesterday.

Far too much talking to people: colleagues, students, mentoring of colleagues junior to me, meetings, blah blah. Came home feeling that I Cannot People Any Longer.

Students. Both my classes had papers due last night. I required the lower-division class to have conferences with me: bring a rough draft, a thesis statement, or your notes, I said. The assignment even offered sample thesis statements that they could use without altering, so that the essay would be plug-and-chug (an exercise in developing topic sentences and providing support). Well. One student signed up, then blew off the conference completely, did not respond to e-mail. One let me know he couldn’t make his appointment. One, a junior, actually brought a very decent rough draft. All the others—ten or so—came in with various degrees of “I don’t know what I’m going to write about.” People. On Wednesday, you still had two days, so okay, sort of. On Friday, when your paper is due in 12 hours, don’t you think you could at least look at the assignment sheet while you’re in the hallway and pick a thesis statement?

In contrast, three of the upper-division class came in voluntarily. One even came twice, with different versions of her paper, and a most admirable ability to de-couple writing from ego. She’ll go far. That whole class is a lovely group of people and I enjoy them so much.

All week, I’ve been looking forward to the break and thinking about Dr Medusa’s description of the Spring Break Professor House: “Do they still have the MTV Spring Break beach house or party house or whatever? If MTV were to do a Spring Break professor house, there would be a lone dishevelled woman in strange outfits (which I, like many of my comrades, tend to wear when I write), books and papers everywhere, a bored chihuahua, maybe something like The Maltese Falcon on the television, and several bottles of red wine in various states of fullness–one on the desk, one by the bedside, one by the table. Every once in a while in the MTV Spring Break Garret, the dishevelled prof would rouse herself from the laptop, put some Led Zeppelin or Violent Femmes on the iPod and dance wildly. Then it would be back to the writing.” This sounds great to me. Substitute cats for chihuahua and sherry for the red wine, and I’m there.

I just have to do Three Things in the next week: translation, grading, house. That’s it. Three things.

Um, except then I remembered another Three Things: letter, assignment, taxes. Dammit. So maybe this morning I will try to knock off at least a couple of those, and say that I’m still on the Day Before Break, until maybe noon, and then I can start my Spring Break Professor House Party with Three Things.

More brilliance from the past

In my remembrance of things past via visits to defunct (or merely suspended? like the Seven Sleepers, perhaps the right impetus will awaken some bloggers) blogs, I have been relieved when some writers actually quote large chunks of text from other webpages, rather than just linking. Links, sadly, break. Thus, having found a clear exposition of Z’s amazing and admirable process in comments at Undine’s, I’m copying and pasting here. I’m not this hardcore, but I agree about the need to think, and that writing before you have thought is “just stewing.” That is, sometimes I write to help myself think, but I have to be very clear that that is what I am doing, and not have any expectation that any of those words will be good, keeper words.

The rest of this post is Z, not me:

*

People say just write, write, write and this will make you see what you are doing. Through the so called process of writing you will figure out what you mean, they allege. I think that is completely crazy, at least for my case … writing is just stewing and will only ruin your thought process unless you have already decided what you are doing. Until such time as your first line comes to you unannounced, and you know what the content of your last paragraph is going to be, you are much better off just meditating as far as I am concerned.

If I do that, all I come up with are a whole lot of great first pages. I could do that for months and even years – and HAVE done it for that long sometimes – and never finish a single piece.

*

My most classic example of this, to which I have alluded before:

When I was in college and graduate school I had a typewriter, not a computer. (In college and through my Ph.D. exam it was a manual one; for my dissertation I bought a self-correcting one by Olympia.) For all papers I kept handwritten notes and would then write directly on the typewriter, no revisions. My dissertation director couldn’t believe my dissertation draft, she said it read like a book, how could this be, but she would have just DIED had she known I had composed it directly like that. She had been yelling at me because I had said I was only writing one page a day, with Sundays off, and would write the whole thing that way in a year. She nearly fainted when this turned out to be true.

Of course in order to be able to do that I had to sit around and think about it for several months first. It took seven months to come up with a dissertation prospectus. Then it took ten months to think. Then it took nine months to write, and four months to have the committee read it and then for me to enter it into my very first computer and print it out on acid free paper. This adds up to 30 months during which I also moved to a new country and took a full load of graduate courses in a new subfield, in a language I was not (initially) very proficient in.]

*

This methodology is the only one which works for me, and/but I warn everyone that even it only works if one is actually working on one’s ideas (not stewing, not rushing, not worrying, but WORKING) in a calm, organized, but *concentrated* way in the meantime. That is what will, in good time, make a first line come into one’s head … and one knows it is the RIGHT first line because with it comes the content of the last paragraph.

Spontaneous haiku

Because I’ve already done an hour of Dead Language, and need to start Actual Real Urgent Work On Revisions, of course I took a break in someone else’s archives. Inspiration: Haiku in the Raw Meme: Look out of the window. Write a haiku about what you see.

Snow lying on rooftops
Two trunks of oak tree divide
Apple tree’s bare branches.

So I’ve done some writing today. Seventeen syllables, plus the blog post. Oh all right. Actual real work coming up.

 

Peri-writing

I’ve lamented nostalgically about the Lost Age of Blogging before, and mentioned that I spend a certain amount of time trawling archives of both defunct and on-going blogs. Hey, I spend most of my professional life living in the far-distant past, somewhere between the twelfth and the fifteenth century; spending my leisure 10-15 years back puts me in the current century!

Peri-writing is a great term from the incomparable Undine. I disagree strenuously with the commenter who said it is the enemy of writing. No. It is research. It is the humanities equivalent of running experiments, of putting in lab time, seeing what you come up with. Writing is the writing up of results, and if you do that first, you’re in danger of cherry-picking your evidence and reporting false results. Writing just to write, even just to see where your “holes” are, is a great way to waste time and dig yourself into a huge pile of words you’ll just have to trash. Much better to make notes, look up things you should read, and then at some later point think about those things: can you get by with reading reviews of books, or chapters, or skimming the TOC and index plus some key passages? Are you better off reading the popular overview and then judiciously extracting the original research from the cited works? I agree that the peri-writing stage can be frustrating, but it is necessary, it is work, and we should not be sending the message that there’s some way to skip it. Thinking is the important part, and there’s really no way (that I know of) to shorten that process.

Name almost in print

Yesterday I received a pre-publication PDF of the largest and most tentacular chunk of the MMP, which I promptly sent off to everyone I could think of. The volume is still in production, but it’s coming. One of my dissertation committee members actually read my essay (or at least skimmed it intelligently) as soon as it arrived, because within hours I had an e-mail calling it “intriguing and satisfying,” and praising some of the tentacles elements I worked hardest at integrating.

Also the translation editors have responded about the revised introduction, which I also worked very hard on, saying nice things like “cogent” and “does its proper job.”

So I am feeling very happy about work, writing, research. I’m good at these things I enjoy so much! And if this sounds like I’m full of myself, you know what? I think it’s a good thing to take pleasure in one’s own accomplishments, rather than thinking “I got away with it” or “I should have improved that little thing” or “but what about all these other things that I should be doing/ didn’t do/ did badly?” “or “so and so has done so much more than I have.” I used to be far more neurotic and thought things like that, instead of enjoying the feeling of having Done A Thing and done it well.

And since I do a fair amount of grumping here, it seems only fair to share the good news as well. So have some virtual, calorie-free chocolate and/or champagne, or whatever your favorite celebratory thing is, because if you were here IRL I would celebrate with you!

Also, here are my favorite cat-related posts of the week. If you need cheering up, have some kitties!

https://katyboo1.wordpress.com/2019/02/02/cat-stuff/

Back at Home

Ups and downs

This morning’s forecast is cheerful with intermittent grumpy.

Looking up: it’s the weekend, so no driving, or at least no farther than the gym. I found my missing stripy scarf, buried in the guest bed. I think I must have napped there, unwound it when I got hot, and forgot to look for it when I awakened. (How I would love to think of this as a good omen for a happy or at least peaceful outcome for the other things making me grumpy last week.) I still don’t have any significant grading to do. I’ve worked through about one quarter of our last (? please let it be last) sweep through the translation to tighten phrasing and improve style. There’s a bit of sunlight today to supplement my anti-SAD light. I had quite a nice note from my oldest friend, in reply to birthday wishes. We have an up-and-down relationship, being very different sorts of people, but there’s a lot to be said for knowing someone literally all your life even if you don’t always get along. (This is probably the sort of relationship many people have with their siblings.) Due to more weather, I will probably be able to stay at home at least one day next week when I would otherwise be driving to campus.

Grumps: would you believe, I’m unhappy because there is not enough snow in the forecast? Yesterday it looked like we’d have significant snow during the Monday morning commute, such that I would feel justified in having class online again, even if the university opened. Today, that weather band has shifted north, so I will probably have to tackle the drive, classes, and a committee meeting on Monday, after all. On topics other than weather/climate, I am fretful because I’ve had to work on the translation instead of on a conference paper or on the long-delayed last set of MMP revisions (and have recently discovered a 2018 book that I now ought to cite in that paper, sigh, this is why one should put everything aside and do revisions ASAP instead of trying not to lose momentum on all one’s OTHER on-going projects). I’ve had a few nights of poor-quality sleep, despite spending suitable amounts of time in bed. The furnace keeps popping on just as I’m dropping off; I can sleep through it if I’m properly asleep, but the noise wakes me if I’m at a delicate moment in the falling-asleep effort.

But I have a working furnace (actually, two), an anti-SAD light, lots of tea, a new hot water bottle, and a couple of cats who sometimes sit on me (Glendower does not believe hoo-mans make good cat beds), so I’m well-equipped for Arctic blasts and an effort to move on to new/old/different writing projects.

Blogroll

I have finally created one.

It’s an alphabetized jumble, without categories for academics, ex-pats, writers, gardeners, readers, travelers, or friends-of-blogfriends, and some of the blogs haven’t been updated for awhile. Nonetheless, I recommend their archives and continue to hope that their authors will return to regular blogging, or at least give annual updates, or something. As a somewhat irregular blogger myself, I’m in no position to criticize!

Done! (Again)

I have finished re-writing the introduction to the translation, and sent it off to my collaborators for editing. It may well need cutting: it has doubled in size, in my hands. I think I have responded to all the concerns the editors had with the earlier draft (written mainly by one of my collaborators), but I don’t know if they hoped to keep it shorter than it is now. Since my last post about writing in 2018, I added another 4000 words, although a lot of them moved in directly from earlier drafts, and a significant chunk was a quotation and translation, the base of a piece of explication de texte. I probably wrote around 1000 from scratch in the last three days.

I’m sure there will be more work on this project. Comments from collaborators, comments from editors, queries from the press. Someday, proofs. We’re not done-done. But I am definitely celebrating this particular step in finishing off this project, and I am looking forward to getting back to things that have been long set aside in its favor.

So happy new year, and happy work on new/old projects, whichever you’ll be taking up!

End-of-year writing reflections

Finally, this year, I have managed to keep up my writing spreadsheet for twelve months! I started this method of keeping track at the end of 2015, but in 2016 and 2017 I forgot about it during the summer and never resumed making entries. My research journal records some word counts for the months in which I was not using the spreadsheet, but I also use the research journal to “park” projects that have to be put aside, to work through problems that come up, and to do certain kinds of free-writing or data recording, so it’s a bit of a job to go through it looking for word counts.

Leaving aside the writing I did for my promotion application, the spreadsheet shows that I wrote about 18K words in 2018. This seems about right, as a lot of the work I did this year was on the translation (recorded as lines translated or reviewed). I’ve written two conference abstracts, a sort of place-holder document for an essay I hope to write in spring 2019 (maybe), done some work toward a set of revisions that I have repeatedly put aside because of more pressing deadlines, and, most recently, re-written the introduction to the translation. That is, I’m still working on that last, but the end is now in sight. I’ve also reviewed two sets of proofs; one of those articles is now in print, and the other will appear in 2019 (sigh . . . annuals).

For 2017, I recorded about 6000 words of writing before I forgot about the spreadsheet in June. I wrote far more than that, because that was the year I revised the most complex part of the MMP, which involved adding 3000 words and 25 footnotes to the beast. The way I work, that 3000 words probably started as at least double that number. In 2017, I also revised the article that came out this year, under pressure from an editor who is also a friend. I wouldn’t have done it without him leaning on me, because I was very worried about my aged father, but that work provided a very helpful counter-irritant to the family drama.

One thing that helped me keep up with the spreadsheet this year is that I set it up for the entire year in advance, rather than doing a month or so at a time. It probably also helped that I did not travel in summer 2018, so that my work habits didn’t suffer any large disruption or shift in place. I did neglect it during June, when our house was first on the market and I was also often feeling unwell, but my personal journal shows that I did keep working on the translation that month.

The spreadsheet is a means, not an end. It’s better to write and not keep track than to obsess about tracking at the expense of writing. Some years, the research journal is probably more helpful than a spreadsheet. There’s a lot more to research than just writing words; there’s reading, taking notes, planning, outlining, mining online databases, transcribing wills written in Secretary Hand, to name a few activities. I do have columns for “pages read” and “other” in my spreadsheet. I like the spreadsheet because it shows at a glance where my research time has gone. (I’m wondering if it might be similarly helpful to start one for teaching duties. I often put off grading because I just don’t want to get started; seeing blocks of days on which I’ve done nothing might motivate me to get on with it.) I like the research journal because re-reading it often gives me good ideas, or reminds me of old ones.

I’ve set up two years’ worth of writing spreadsheets, so now I’m covered for 2019 and 2020 (2019 is fully formatted; 2020 just has the basics, for now). We’ll see how it goes. I still have a bunch of things hanging around that I would have liked to have finished by now. But I am going to get back to my book in 2019. The two conference papers I am going to give are planned as parts of one chapter, although one of them could be a spin-off: we’ll see what happens. That “maybe” article is about a text I’m teaching this spring, so I’ll see what I can do about the article while I’m talking about the book with my class. If I make some progress and then put it down again, that’s okay.

I never feel that I am as productive as I would like to be, but the evidence shows that I’m making progress. Long-term projects are gradually coming to completion, and smaller ones also are getting done. Jonathan’s idea of mediocritas has been very helpful to me. Sometimes it’s frustrating to keep chipping away and never feel that there is much progress, but 18K words is a lot of words: even if they have to be boiled down to half that, that’s a substantial article’s worth right there.