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.”

“If your reporting is right, tell them to f#*k off.” Ben Bradlee on ire

I’m never really willing to get engaged in outrage over who has been fired from exec positions because you never really know what is going on in an organization from the outside looking in, but I have been enjoying reading through the various entries on how difficult it is to run a major newspaper as a woman. So far, two of my favorites are:

Editing while female by Susan Glasser of Politico:

And that’s the point: The leaders who succeed are the ones who are allowed to make mistakes, who have the time and space and breathing room and support from their bosses to push and prod, experiment and improvise until they get it right.

And from Kara Swisher at re/code Dear Jill: From One Pushy Media Dame to Another, an excellent summary on how you have to be pushy (duh!) to do your job, including this very nice memory about Ben Bradlee of the WashPo who nurtured along a lot of young reporters:

I actually learned that skill when I was a really young reporter at the Washington Post, when the legendary Ben Bradlee still held sway over the newsroom. He was every single fantastic thing people think of him as: Tough, smart, profane, funny, difficult and, yes, often very pushy.

He hardly knew who I was, of course, but one time when I was working in the business section covering the rapidly declining retail landscape in the Washington area, the lifeblood of the Post’s business, he did me a solid I have never forgotten. A major mogul who paid for a lot of the bills for the newspaper was haranguing me — via phone and via peckish lawyers — for being too hard on him in my coverage of the spectacular meltdown of his family business.

It was a mess through and through, and I had not backed off so far, but I had to admit I was scared when the heat from the mogul got a little stifling. Bradlee — who loved my stories of this retail version of “Dallas” and now and then came over and asked, “Whatcha got today, kid?” (he actually said “kid”) — was there when such a call came through and could see I was distressed.

After I explained the situation, he took only one second to give me a piece of advice that I have been following since: “If your reporting is right, tell them to f#*k off.”

Words to live by in scholarship as well.