A Nervous, Ill-humored Parrot

We are meant to read Draft #4 by John McPhee for the Bedrosian Book Club, but we’re scheduled up on books, I’m not sure when we are going to get to it, and I fanatically love writing about writing. I once remember–I don’t know what writer it was, but John Updike comes to mind–a writer who noted that writers are always asking other writers about their process, which always really comes down to the question “Are you as crazy as I am?” He felt he didn’t need that question answered. I find that I very much do need an answer to that question.

So when I got my hands on Draft #4: On the Writing Process, I put it aside, telling myself that I would wait to read it when we were scheduled, but it called to me, and bore a hole in my forehead wanting me to read it, just like ice cream calls to me from inside the fridge. And so I devoured it over the weekend.

There are so many gems in this little volume I have to share:

Writers come in two principal categories: those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure.

What spoke to me most this time out was McPhee’s openness about how much he hates to talk about what he is working on. I hate talking about work in progress. I’ve hated it since I was a consultant, and that’s a really bad setting for this particular quirk because nobody trusts you to write in secrecy, and you have to check in with a team constantly, and all of them are blathering about the writing, and touching it and commenting on it, and ruining your life that way.

This problem continued through graduate school. Now, Randy Crane, bless him, didn’t really seek out conversations with me. But Brian Taylor is super verbal and collaborative: he loved to talk with his graduate students about research, and I became churlish about it. This is highly, highly dysfunctional, and it’s all my fault. It became one of the many things leading me to neurotic and difficult as a graduate student. Brian good-heartedly taught a class on writing one’s dissertation proposal which was agony for me every single week. There were only two students in it, and the other student was a courteous, pleasant, non-insane person. And me. It didn’t help that by that time, one of my steadying influences, Jeff Brown, now at FSU, had graduated. Jeff had a very good way of dealing with my nonsense, and without him, grad school got harder for me.

I won’t relate all the embarrassing stories of what I did in the class to avoid talking about my project because these are terrible. Brian and my classmate suffered mightily. But I tried. I really, really did. And I produced a terrible proposal that Randy rejected out of hand.

The academy is a tough place for people who don’t like to talk about what they are working on. People are always asking, you have to tell people what you are going to do on your sabbatical application, you have to report your plans for the next year. It’s viewed as precious and self-indulgent not to be able to talk about your projects.

But I really, really can’t. I obviously can, but it hurts my thinking and writing a lot. God, if there is one thing I could change about my academic career, it would have been telling anybody that I was working on a book. I should have said nothing. Telling people upped the stakes for me: if people know about it, I have to deliver it, and now that it’s taken awhile, it has to be good. It doesn’t help that my colleagues, save for David Sloane (endlessly patient, bless him) and Martin Krieger, have not been terribly supportive. I get remarks like “That book is taking awhile–cha!” accompanied by a little snort that says “you aren’t fooling me; you’re not working on anything.” And “I’m just not sure you are a productive book writer.” The one university press editor I was talking to about it made a mistake, thinking he was talking about somebody else’s book (but it was apparent he was thinking about mine) and referred to it, sarcastically, as a “supposedly world-changing book.” I stopped interacting with him shortly after, which is a shame because he is an amusing man, his disdain for my book idea notwithstanding. My father-in-law, a mathematician, asks “Do I dare even ask about the book?” A friend of mine asks about whether I have finished every time we get together, which is about twice a month. Another colleague sucks air between her teeth, in the same way one reacts to descriptions of car crashes, when I tell her about an interaction I had with another university press editor: “that’s not good, not good.”

Jesus slamming Christ on a cracker, people.

I don’t need this kind of help to get scared off and neurotic about a project. People looking at it makes me get anxious, and then I start to behave badly, and then because people are looking and it’s taking me a long time, that means it really does have to be great, truly great, because if it’s not great after all this time, it will establish once and for all that I am a terrible scholar, a lousy writer, and waste of oxygen on planet earth. Q.E.D. All those comments are verifying what I have already said in my head 14,000,000 times, thanks a bunch, you poopface.

It was reassuring to read McPhee’s riffs on this problem:

When I come out and walk around, bumping into friends, they tend to ask me “What are you working on?” Which is one reason I don’t often come out and walk around. I always feel like a parrot answering that question, and a nervous, ill-humored parrot if I am writing a first draft.”

One reason I’ve always wanted to keep the writing to myself is, simply, that when I get neurotic about something, there seems to be no limit of dignity that I will sacrifice in the search for reassurance. McPhee now has two daughters, both of whom seem to represent the two, binary states I can exist in:

Jenny grew up to write novels, and at this point has published three. She keeps everything close-handed, says nothing, and reveals nothing as she goes along. I once asked her if she had been thinking about starting another book, and she said “I finished it last week.” Her sister Martha, two years younger, has written four novels. Martha calls me up nine times a day to tell me writing is impossible, that she’s not cut out to do it, that she’ll never finish what she is working on, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth and so on, and I, who am probably disintegrating a third of the way through an impossible first draft, am supposed to be the Rock of Gibraltar. A talking rock: “Just stay at it; perseverance will change things.” “You’re so unhappy you sound authentic to me.” “You can’t make a fix unless you know what is wrong.”

Those are my two states of being, all or nothing, Jenny and Martha, and a grumpy parrot with wet feathers to boot. Randy Crane,I suspect, intuited this fairly early on. He tried to be supportive of my Martha problems, but then he began to see that was a bottomless pit of need for reassurance, and he made me knock it off. And, bless his heart, he generally stayed out of my creative process: he read things I sent him, but he was either smart enough to know it wasn’t good to get me talking about it, or he was just too busy to bother. Either way, his ignoring my work let me sneak up on it, too.

So let’s talk about the books we’ve read, the movies we’ve seen, the traveling we have done, and the leaves falling from the trees, the garden, home improvements, or the sun crashing into the earth someday. I’m going to go work. On something. Maybe.

Michael Ondaatje on poetry in captivity

I am great fan of Ondaatje in general, and I am reading Running with the Family, his memoir of his family and experiences in Ceylon. It’s not a conventional memoir at all; it combines poetry, discussions of colonial histories, intermarriage, alcohalism, Protestantism, and the place itself. He’s such a marvelous writer that all these things live, vibrantly, on the page.

This paragraph caught my eye this morning:

When the government rounded up thousands of suspects during the Insurgency of 1971, the Vidyalankara campus of the University of Ceylon was turned into a prison camp. The police weeded out the guilty, trying to break their spirit. When the university opened again the returning students found hundreds of poems written on walls, ceilings, and in hidden corners of the campus. Quatrains and free verse about the struggle, tortures, the unbroken spirit, love of friends who had died for the cause. The students went around for days transcribing them into their notebooks before they covered with whitewash and lye.

Other people’s writing days vs mine

In the “reading about writing rather than actually writing” department, the Guardian has a series called “My Writing Day” where they interview English writers about their routines. I read this column every time it comes out, for two reasons: one is simply voyeurism and the other is that they feature writers I’ve not heard of, and that’s always nice.

Nonetheless, other people’s writing days look something like an ode to virtue and cosmopolitanism:

Rise at dawn

Exercise like the awesome, well-adjusted person they are

Eat a breakfast of diet air and coffee

Write brilliantly for many hours, stopping only for 4 1/2 unsalted raw almonds for elevensies

Go for a ramble across the moors in the afternoon

Settle in their book-lined study to revise

Dinner with friends prepared by dutiful spouse or at a posh restaurant

My writing day many days before a deadline

Wake up whenever a dog decides I’ve slept enough by barking or shoving a slobbery wet toy onto my head.

Tell myself I am not going to faff not the Internet, wind up trying to read the entire Internet. Come to my senses after I find myself on a website that says “Celebrities you didn’t know have embarrassing birthmarks!”

Leap upon the coffee like a bear going after a salmon

Eat PopTarts

Tell myself I might exercise but put that off, saying that if I budget enough time for a walk to the train station that can count as some exercise

Write, finding endless problems with things I’ve written before that I really have to fix before going forward. I’ve never been able to just forge ahead. What’s there has to be right. It sucks, but it’s the only way it works for me.

Finally get into a groove, only to see the clock and find that I’m a good 20 minutes past where I should have hopped into the shower if I wanted to walk to the train station, thus have to decide whether I go to work unshowered or whether I groom and have spouse drop me at the train station.

Inevitably get dropped off at train station with my head in the writing yet, perhaps showered, perhaps not.

Go to class, teach, get distracted from writing by all the ideas we worked on in class. Find some food on campus.

Tell myself I should shut my office door in the afternoon and work, but then my mind lands on how much it saddens me to see all my colleagues’ doors shut on the third floor of RGL, of how, when I was a student, I loved to walk by the open office doors of the professors in the Classics department at the University of Iowa, when it was housed in the warm, wood-paneled halls of Schaeffer Hall. (It is now in the Jefferson Building, in which I took my American Studies classes.) I didn’t even stop in talk with any of them, except for kindly Professor Jackson; it was just nice that they were present. Departments should have a there there; so much of our department is hidden in suites. It is one of the contradictions of academic life that planning faculty will write about the need for incidental contact in cities but do just about everything possible to avoid it themselves.

So I try to work with the door open, and that suggests hospitality and openness, and that means interruption, which was the point of leaving it open in the first place, and it’s nice to visit with people even if it’s not productive in a way that my provost would count. I am fortunate in that my excellent neighbor, LaVonna Lewis, also tends to be there and leave her door open.

Some days I get a treat, and I get to see David Sloane.

I usually revise or read in my office; I’ve always needed privacy to compose, and I do get quite a bit done there in between interruptions. Today I am planning to finish a review for JPER, working with hard copy, pen, and paper.

About 4 o’clock I need coffee coffee again. If USC really loved me, it would send coffee to my office via a trolley like they have on the Hogwards Express, but no. More proof that institutions don’t love you.

Sometimes at 6 I ride the train home; most days, Andy and I are too anxious to see each other to wait for the train to take me, and so he drives to campus. Being married for 25 years doesn’t seem to matter; in this, we’re still like newlyweds. By the time I’m home, there’s something in the garden or the house that wants doing while Andy, bless him, cooks or we wait for the delivery to come.

And at night I read or listen to records or watch a movie with him, play with dogs, catch up on rescue stuff.

My writing day just a days before a deadline

Furious binge writing from my laptop in my bed, refusing to wear anything besides pajamas, getting wired on coffee, and passive aggressively asking for more time to revise because I am a bad, bad person.

St. Augustine on Writing

I’m done reading Aristotle and have moved to St. Augustine, and I am currently reading Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo. In some places, it’s so, so great. In other places, I feel like he’s digressing, badly. Even so, I’d consider myself lucky if I ever finish a book half as beautifully written. Amazing prose stylist.

I am, however, very unclear on the citation protocal he is using. I just don’t get it. I think it might be unique to Augstine scholars. I’m just not familiar with many of Augustine’s writings. Thus, I am not clear as to where this comes from. The citation is: de cat. rud. ii, 3.

No. Clue.

But this is a lovely quote anyway.

“For my own way of expressing myself almost always disappoints me. I am anxious for the best possible, as I feel it in me before I start bringing it into the open in plain words; and when I see that it is less impressive than I had felt it to be, I am saddened that my tongue cannot live up to my heart.”

Comrade. I, too, have ruined many, many good ideas by trying to write them down.

Committing plagiarism is easier to do than people think

I work with plagiarism all the time as a college professor, and I send my *own* papers through Turnitin.com because I think it’s far easier to plagiarize by accident than people realize. Now, I am not a fan of Melania Trump. As I said on Fboo, I’ve always seen her as the mean girl at Durmstrang who joined the Death Eaters as soon as she possibly could, and this little teapot tempest is especially delicious granted that Mrs. Trump got her similar material from Michelle Obama and gave the speech, to yells and cheers, to a group of people who have treated Michelle Obama with so much unmitigated, unwarranted, and blind hate they should be ashamed of themselves.

The fact that all “First Lady” convention speeches are always the same “family valooos, my man is a Good Man, Daddy loves the Kiddies” blah blah means that I have to take my hat off to whoever first recognized the similarities.

Obviously, computers have done quite a bit to change plagiarism. Of course, detecting it is a million times easier. When people were just typing out of books or articles, it was harder to find. Now it’s easy to find.

But even easier to do, I think.

I still take notes by hand on notecards. My students think I am insane. Why would you do that when you can just type notes or cut and copy those notes from the original. That just strikes me as really dangerous on multiple levels. The first is that unless you really force yourself to put the concepts from the original piece in your own words, you may not really move much beyond the authors’ ideas and into your own ideas. You want to fairly represent what they author says, but for me, it’s important that I summarize the ideas in my own words so that I get a stronger grasp of how those ideas fit in with my own and others that are floating around. The second is simply making a mistake by not flagging what you have typed as a direct quote if it is a direct quote, you might forget and use it later in the writing.

Now, I think it’s possible to do notes and summarizing by typing. I just don’t do it that way, and these reasons are why.

The other reason I work by hand is to slow down and really think about the words and the concepts. I type so fast that I am not thinking much when I am typing.

I also have to watch myself. I have a good memory and I love bon mots. I’m also conceited enough to think I came up with a clever turn of phrase when actually I didn’t. I still check Turnitin even though I also try to plagiarism-proof my notes.

Slow scholarship….

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“as empty as an unremembered heart”…reading Mervyn Peake

Ay ay ay ay ay–

I am supposed to be starting up my summer work, but all I want to do is keep reading on Titus Groan. Such amazing prose work. Amazing.

“Half-way up she was able to lift her bundle above her head and push it on to the balcony, and then to swarm after it and find herself standing with the great stage below her as empty as an unremembered heart.”

There is something so artful about the word choice here, and in particular, “unremembered” rather than simply “forgotten.” Forgotten is so many things. It suggests perhaps unintentional failure to keep somebody’s affections in your mind, or a momentary lapse, a pre-occupation with other things. Unremembered, however, suggests an act of will on the part of the memory-holder, perhaps even a rejection of the memory—a knowledge love offered, but so painful and unwanted that the person refuses to even allow the memory to enter her mind.

On handling negative criticism

Flavorwire compiles a nice listing of what writers do to deal with rejection and criticism. Me? I sulk like Achilles flopping around in his tent, whine like a swarm of gnats on Facebook, and harbor ill feelings forever while pretending not to harbor ill feelings.

But I suspect that’s not healthy.

Today I am trying to write a response to reviewers where I think the reviewer has utterly missed what we meant to do. One should always see that as a challenge to enhance clarity. Yet, let’s not be ridiculous: we know full well that sometimes, reading comprehension isn’t very good, and you find yourself in the middle of responding to reviewers thinking “Hey, I feel no need to dispute your straw man claim of what I said because I never bloody said that.”