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.

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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.

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.)