Thursday, July 26, 2007

Greetings from the Left Coast

Just poking my head up briefly to say hello from lovely Northwest City, where I've been for the past several days. I'm visiting the folks, gearing up for Victoria's wedding, and hanging with my bro, who's up from Silicon Val for some of the same stretch of time.

But this trip isn't just about the family and the friends and the socializing--and it's not even just about covering the entire floor of the room I'm staying in with bits and pieces of my chapter. Oh no! It's also about shopping.

I usually visit my folks twice a year, at Christmastime and in late summer, and I inevitably wind up with an additional ten pounds in my luggage on the return trip, thanks to various retail pilgrimages. So far I've hit Costco (where I've loaded up on 1000 Ibuprofen tablets, 250 multivitamins, 32 ounces of saline solution, and 144 pieces of Dentyne Ice gum) and Nordstrom Rack (where I bought some lingerie, as I always do). At some point I'll make a trip to Trader Joe's, and on Monday Maman and I will hit the local fancy-shmancy mall for a few things for the fall wardrobe.

Should there be appropriate photos from the wedding, I'll post. Should there be inappropriate ones, I may also post. It's a Coptic wedding, so I'm dearly hoping for a fez or two.

Until soon~~

Monday, July 23, 2007

Break out the scissors

I guess I really am revising, now, because I'm about to enter what I think of as the jigsaw puzzle phase--or perhaps the better comparison would be to Magnetic Poetry.

Increasingly convinced that what I've got in this chapter isn't adding up to what it needs to add up to, I spent a couple of hours yesterday attempting to outline the thing as it currently stands. Seven legal-pad pages later, I had a much more concrete sense of what was and wasn't working: all those places where I double back and pointlessly duplicate material; where I've thrown in stuff that isn't meaningfully related to the material surrounding it; and where important connections that should be drawn, aren't. Doing this was helpful, and I've already made some tentative decisions for restructuring and reorganization.

But the only way I've ever really been able to restructure a piece of writing is to do it physically: I print out a hard copy, spread all the pages out on the floor in front of me, and start cutting them up. I tape together each section that seems to be a functional and essential unit--often just a paragraph or two, sometimes three or four pages--and I hack off the top and bottom margins to save space. Then I start moving things around: what would it be like for this section to come here? Or. . . maybe over there?

In the normal course of my writing I tend to have a certain amount of tunnel vision, worrying about the relationship of each paragraph to the next (and indeed of each sentence to the next), and although I obviously try to keep the shape of the whole in view, after several drafts it's hard for me to escape whatever structure I've arrived at. If I'm marching through texts linearly, say, or have organized them by their authors or their chronology--and if there's a good rationale for doing so--it's almost impossible to conceptualize some other, perhaps more thematic or topical organization. And to the extent that it's possible, it's scary: some other organization might mean that I'd lose an essential way of understanding and presenting my material.

But in spreading a hard copy out before me, I'm not committing to anything just yet; I'm playing around, freeing up my possibilities. After doing this for a day or two and arriving at something that looks promising, I start crossing out my old transitions and set-up material and writing in new ones by hand on separate sheets of paper. They don't have to be very good; they just have to provide enough connective tissue to make me believe that this organization has some meaningful and seemingly organic logic.

And honestly, it's rather fun. In my apartment in Grad School City I had a long empty wall in my kitchen, near my desk, and when working on seminar papers I'd tape the pieces up on the wall, organized beneath brightly-colored headers. I'd sit on the edge of my sink, swinging my feet back and forth and staring at the wall. Sometimes I'd jump down to scrawl in several lines by hand, other times I'd go back to my computer and type up a few new pages to swap in. I could keep this up for a week or more.

These days, I usually only go the jigsaw route once, probably because I do it much later in the process. When I'm done moving things around on the floor, I carefully number the pieces, return to my computer, and cut and paste and enter all the other relevant changes into the electronic file. Then I immediately print out a copy, and go back to revising and cleaning it up in slow, laborious longhand.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Spot the pattern

Since I've been doing a better job, lately, of starting work in the early afternoon (rather than at, say, 8 p.m.), I've had more free time in the evenings. I try to go out with friends a few nights a week, but on the evenings that I'm home I've been enjoying working my way through a bunch of DVDs.

Because I don't like to plan these screenings ahead of time (i.e., to assume that I'll actually be done working and in the mood to watch a movie), I've mostly been watching movies that I own and therefore have seen before; some are quite recent, some are much older, and there's a certain variety of genres, plotlines, etc. But over the last week or so, these are the ones I've chosen:

The Philadelphia Story
His Girl Friday
The Awful Truth

Only today did I realize the pattern here. (And no, that pattern is not Cary Grant.)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Observations on the past week of my life

1. Getting out of the house really is a spur to productivity. I'm not saying that the revising that's been happening has been brilliant, but it's been happening. Albeit only in chunks of two or three hours a day.

2. I had no idea that the tiny town in which RU is located (and whose independent coffee house is the most charmed of my current writing locations) had such a large population of vaguely hippie/punk/alterna/biker/activist types. Or maybe it's the coffee shop that draws them?

3. Going for seven solid days without any in-person interactions other than with baristas and cashiers is a recipe for such crazy in-own-headness and freakoutery that I cannot recommend it. But after going out with a friend tonight and lining up activities for the next two nights, I almost literally can't remember what I was so overwrought about.

4. I'm again thinking seriously about getting a cat. The other morning, just before it was light, I was awakened by a repeated mournful noise just barely audible over the fan. In my cracked-out and disoriented state (it's been all about the sleeping pills around here this summer--but don't worry! they're non-narcotic and non-habit-forming!) I couldn't figure out where it could be coming from. Eventually I staggered over to my bedroom window and peeped through the blinds to find a small black cat on my balcony. He met my eyes and then raced down the stairs. I fell back asleep and when I woke up I had no doubt that I was finally going to do it. (Actually, I think I'll first buy some Claritin, deliberately put myself in the way of various cats, and see how it goes.)

5. I'm so over this chapter. I'm really thinking that it could be half its length (51 pages in its prior draft) and still contribute exactly as much value to the project--with the added benefit of not making those reading it want to kill themselves. Am slashing and burning accordingly. If it's not done by the end of the summer, I may have to set fire to my apartment.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The conference gods hate me

I just got the schedules for the next two conferences that I'm presenting at, one quite soon and one a long way off, and in both cases I'm going on the last day of a three-and-a-half day conference.

The problems here are:
1. Will anyone actually attend a session on the morning of the last day? (One conference ends in the early afternoon, the other in the late afternoon.)

2. Can I go out the night before--probably the most fun night at both conferences--and both enjoy myself and not regret it the next morning?

3. Will gnawing anxiety eat its way through the lining of my stomach over the course of the foregoing days?
Numbers one and two, it would seem, cancel each other out just a bit; if everyone is going out the night before, the likelihood that they'd make it to a session where I might not be in good shape is diminished. On the other hand, that just means that the serious, sober types are likely to be the only ones in attendance. And their questions can be unfun.

I'm always ambivalent about low attendance. My first, purely instinctual reaction is often, "Good!" but that's almost immediately followed by disappointment, especially once I actually get into the swing of my paper (I'm a very good performer, despite being an introvert, and I'm narcissistically in love with the sound of my own writing). Questions, though, are a different matter. I've always had a strong physiological "flight" response when put on the spot before more than two or three people, and if a question is odd, detailed, or about an issue I've never even considered, the presence of an audience means that I sometimes get so overwhelmed that it's hard for me to think a question through and respond intelligibly. I'm getting better at managing this as I grow increasingly confident about both my mastery of my material and my ability to roll with the punches--and I hate being asked no questions!--but even on those occasions when I've been barraged with questions and have done a pretty kick-ass job of responding, my heart remains in my mouth until the clock runs out on the session.

So, whatever it is that I'm learning to do to calm myself down during my actual sessions, I think it means I've mostly got number three under control. I'd rather go sooner than later, but as long as I've practiced my paper and thought through some likely questions in advance, I can probably put it out of my mind for a few days. And the advantage to presenting late is the opportunity to get a good read on the attendees, see a few crappy papers (which, when they're given by semi-established scholars, is always awesome for the self-esteem), and even discuss my work ahead of time with potential haters.

All that being said--if the conference gods decided to change those schedules? I wouldn't be sorry at all.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The good girls don't have personal lives

When I saw Advisor last month we spent some time chatting about other INRU grad students and recent PhDs, some of them her advisees and some not. In discussing the current project of one high-achieving woman, Advisor said, quite pleasantly and matter-of-factly, "Now she just has to finish it up. She does have a way of letting her personal life get in the way of her work."

I smiled and didn't say anything, in part because I think I know by now that Advisor tends to hedge even her compliments with negatives (and because I know that the woman in question is entirely on track and doing very good work). But I also know at least a couple of the recent events in this woman's "personal life," one quite bad and one very good, and they're events that would be time-consuming and delaying for anyone. So internally I shook my head and thought, "What's this about 'letting' one's personal life affect one's work? Who can help it?"

Well. There's what we think and. . . there's what we think. Because here I am, with the summer half gone, and I'm not at all sure what I've gotten done. I've transcribed those two MSS--which are actually for a back-burner project--and I've done a reasonable although by no means impressive amount of reading for both my current chapter and a new article. But I've only just resumed my actual writing, and although it's entirely possible that I could completely revise my chapter and pull it together before summer's end (as well as cranking out a conference paper and a couple of abstracts) that's not at all certain.

But is this about my personal life? In some ways that's what I'd like to blame, and it's true that I got virtually no work done for the two or three weeks right after my breakup. . . but then again, it was still May, and I had guests in town and travel of my own, so it's unclear to what degree that event was actually responsible. For the past month I've averaged only about one truly bad day a week, but I have felt generally lethargic, easily distracted, and unmotivated.

Is that related? Is that just summer? Or is it just me?

I'm not sure, in the end, if I'd be more okay with my (possibly) slower progress this summer if I believed it to be due to personal drama. In other people's lives, I think I’m quite understanding of the effects of emotional and psychological stress; I've been told, anyway, that I'm a sympathetic listener and a good cheerer-up. But I've never been so tolerant when it comes to my own problems--and it's not about my work ethic so much as it is about my frustration with my perceived irrationality. So I find myself walking around and talking to myself, saying things like, "What, you're crying now? That's stupid. You've been cheery for the last week. Aren't you supposed to be over this? Seriously. There are people out there with real problems."

Yeah. Sometimes I think I actually am my advisor.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Revising: advice

So I'm ensconced in a nearby coffee shop, attempting both to beat the heat (which isn't terrible in my apartment when the windows are open and fans going, but which isn't as conducive to work as it might be) and to inspire myself to new heights of productivity with a change of setting. Because, that's right: it's time to get back to my chapter--the new one, with which I intend to open my monograph (there will also, presumably, be an introduction, but that's not on my radar right now).

The problem is, I have no idea what to do with it. It's been three months since I looked at it and two months since I received Advisor's comments, and I thought I was ready to look at it with fresh eyes. . . but I find I still can hardly bear to reread it. I've revised the opening so many times that I know the sentences pratically by heart, and whether they're working or whether they're not, I'm almost incapable or reading them in an evaluative way: they just are. In theory, I continue to be excited by this material, and in theory I know at least some of what needs to be done to it--the sorts of moves that need to be made, if not exactly how to make them. But I don't know, practically, how to crack this project back open.

I seem to recall that with the third chapter of my dissertation, with which I had similar but much more serious problems, I got to the point where I basically set aside the version that I'd been writing and revising for months, opened a new document on my computer and started writing from scratch. I kept a copy of the first version at my elbow, just in case (as well as to reassure myself: I wasn't really starting from scratch! I'd already written 40 or 50 pages!). Eventually I did start incorporating material from that first version into my new one, but not very much, in the end. Had the new version not gone so well, I'd probably have been depressed about how much material and how many months of work I'd cast aside. . . but it did go well, and I continue to think that it's my best chapter.

So, I wonder if that's what I need to do now, at least with the chapter's opening (the later stuff needs work, but I think it's generally progressing in a satisfactory direction). I also wonder whether part of the problem isn't that this IS my first chapter, and I'm freaking out a little about the degree to which it needs to feel like an opening chapter, and set the stage for the later ones, rather than being a nicely self-contained and self-regarding project. But how do I set the stage when the other chapters, too, will need revising and rethinking?

Wise and beautiful readers, what do you do at this stage?

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Wonderments, or: why can't everybody be more like me?

Squadratomagico created a new meme based on the "eight random facts" model, and in tagging me she commented that she knows I don't like memes. This isn't strictly true, but they do inspire some anxiety; as much as I enjoy reading others' responses, I'm always convinced that my own are totally boring and self-indulgent. And yet memes seem fun, and I'm flattered to be tagged. But there's so much pressure! And so, as often as not, I don't follow through. And then I feel like a bad member of the blogosphere. So, really, everyone should remember this: I'm more socially awkward than I seem (either on-blog or in real life), so you should always assume that anything that might seem like a slight isn't, and that I've probably already overworried and overthought it anyway.

*AHEM.* All that is a way of saying that although I think this is an excellent meme, I apparently don't wonder about very many things very much, because as I started compiling a list of things that I wonder about, I realized that the subtext of almost all of my wonderments is, "why doesn't the rest of the world behave the way I do?"

1. Why do people seem to believe that those who get up early are more virtuous and more efficient than those who get up late?

2. What exactly is it that I'm supposed to find interesting about science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism? Because I don't. Find them interesting.

3. What do most Christians find appealing about Jesus? I find it relatively easy to believe in a monotheistic deity, but Jesus has never really struck a chord with me. I mean, I get the appeal of the wise man who teaches people to lead a better life, but plenty of non-divine individuals (prophets, saints, Ralph Nader) have already got that ground covered. Even my best attempts to understand the point of Jesus and to see him as a meaningful part of the godhead are intellectual rather than affective, and probably heretical.

4. Why are some people so clueless about how they come across? How can anyone be unaware that others generally find him/her to be abrasive, self-important, unfunny, and so on?

5. Relatedly: am I abrasive, self-important, and unfunny?

6. Flip-flops. What makes people claim that they're comfortable? Sneakers are comfortable. Flats are comfortable. But lemme tell you: I can walk faster and more comfortably in three-inch heels than I can in flip-flops.

7. Relatedly: why do people insist that anything that isn't "natural" or "comfortable" is somehow false, oppressive, and objectionable (e.g., high heels, not emoting all over the place, any level of discipline in the home or classroom)?

8. Are there broad generalizations that we can make about the temperaments or personalities of people who work in certain fields or on certain subjects (e.g., Medievalists, Romanticists, Victorianists)? I certainly have my own theories and prejudices on this score, but I wonder whether they have a broader basis in fact or are just the result of my limited experiences and acquaintances.

(In the interests of neither pressuring anyone nor excluding anyone, I tag them that wants to be tagged, whoever and wherever they may be.)

Saturday, July 07, 2007

This must be the place

It's been just over a year since I moved to New City, which I suppose really needs a new name but isn't going to get one in this particular post. And you know, I'm surprised by how very much I like it here: it's a decent-sized, post-industrial city with some economic woes but a great arts scene, quite a few colleges and universities, and lovely architecture and housing stock. It reminds me in some ways of Alma Mater City, in some ways of Northwest City, but in other ways of nowhere I've ever lived or visited.

When describing it to friends, I say, "you know: it's a blue city in a red county in a blue state." Or I use the description on my sidebar ("land of trade unions, mandolin repair shops, and pickup trucks"). I like that balance. I like the fact that most people here are social and economic liberals, even if they don't necessarily use those terms, instead viewing themselves as entirely sensible and traditional and family- and community-minded.

Nothing, I think, demonstrates that better than the Catholic church I attend. It's an old church, and this is a very Catholic region of the country, and some parishoners have obviously been attending for the better part of their lives. But in the parking lot, on a regular basis, I've seen a car with the bumper sticker, "If the Church doesn't want to ordain women, it should stop baptizing them!" And last Sunday, also in the parking lot, I passed a group of middle-aged women just getting ready to go in to mass; they were trim, overly tanned, with ankle bracelets and fake nails and the distinctive accent of the region. One was exclaiming to the others, "We just saw the Michael Moore, whasis, Sicko, this weekend? Oh my God, you have to see it! It's so good!"

I guess that that's what I like most about this area: it doesn't conform to liberal/conservative expectations, and it seems free of the educational and cultural elitism of some of the places I've lived (and which has always made me uncomfortable) without being at all anti-intellectual.

Of course, it wouldn't be such a great city if I hadn't already made some friends here, but I've been lucky enough to have done so and to be meeting more cool people through them.

If location were the only consideration, I could contemplate staying here for the rest of my life--or certainly the next decade of it. Will I? Probably not. But I could.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Eight random things meme

If it's summer, it must be time for more memeage. I got tagged for this one by The Combat Philosopher, and although I had some anxiety that everything remotely interesting about me has already been put on display here, I think at least some of these are new (whether they're interesting is another story).

1. I had a longer and more serious unicorn phase than most girls (lasting into junior high school)--despite the fact that I was never a particularly girly girl.

2. I virtually do not watch t.v. (I only just got a tiny one last year), but that's not a principled position, and I enjoy many shows when I see them; watching t.v. just isn't something that it occurs to me to do when I'm alone. On the other hand, I have NPR on all the time and will happily listen to repeat broadcasts even of programs I've just heard.

3. Among my friends, I have a reputation for knowing all the words to every remotely familiar song. This is an exaggeration. However, I am a little obsessive about knowing what's being said so that I can sing along. (The real problem here is that I can't carry a tune.)

4. I own some totally random luxury goods: a beaver-skin top hat from the turn of the previous century; a cigarette holder made out of amber and tipped with gold; a mink coat and a fox-fur stole; hotel silver from the Waldorf-Astoria. I also own 16 champagne flutes, two pewter flasks, a cut-glass punchbowl, more than 20 handbags, and an Underwood typewriter from the 1920s. It never occurs to me to wonder why I have these things.

5. If I didn't spend at least five minutes, every single day, tweezing my eyebrows, they would be noticeably out of control within 48 hours. Within two weeks, they would have nearly tripled in size.

6. According to people who know me, I have a wide range of highly individualized noises that I make to express frustration, displeasure, distress, and so on. They're the equivalent of "gah," "arrgh," and "meh," but less recognizable as human sounds--they've been compared to bird calls, crying baby animals, etc. I don't believe I would have noticed this if it hadn't been pointed out to me, and I'm somewhat self-conscious about it.

7. I'm pretty sure that I require fewer calories a day than the average person. If I'm not paying attention, I might only eat a granola bar before dinner, then make a sandwich, and call it good. I enjoy very good food (as well as yummy crappy food), but most of the eating I do is strictly to sustain life.

8. I was registered as a Republican for about two years, circa 1997-98, although I'm pretty sure I've never actually voted for one. (Oh, wait--except for Mike Bloomberg.) I just thought it would be funny, and maybe interesting to try on that identity.

Monday, July 02, 2007

I always knew I was a crackpot

I've taken the Myers-Briggs personality test innumerable times, first in high school, and I've always been a clear INTJ--but back then I was very strongly each one of those components, and now they're more moderated. Still, I enjoyed this assessment:

Your Score: Crackpot - INTJ

30% Extraversion, 65% Intuition, 60% Thinking, 73% Judging

People hate you.

Paris Hilton hates Nicole Richie. Lex Luther hates Superman. Garfield hates Mondays.

But none these even rates against the insurmountable hate people have for you.

I mean, you're pretty damn clever and you know it. You love to flaunt your potential. Heard the word "arrogant" lately? How about "jerk?" Or perhaps they only say that behind your back.

That's right. I know I can say this cause you're not going to cry. You're not exactly the most emotional person. You'd rather spend time with your theoretical questions and abstract theories than with other people.

Ever been kissed? Ever even been on a date? Trust me, your inflated ego is a complete turnoff with the opposite sex and I am telling you, you're not that great with relationships as it is. You're never going to be a dude or chick magnet, purely because you're more concerned with yourself than others. Meh. They all hate you already anyway.

How about this- "stubborn?" Hrm? Heard that lately? All those facts which don't fit your theories must just be wrong, right? I mean, really, the vast amounts of time you spend with your head in the're just plain strange.


If you want to learn more about your personality type in a slightly less negative way, check out this.

Take The Brutally Honest Personality Test, from OkCupid

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Research and "real" scholarship

As I mentioned in my previous post, and despite my early fears that I'd taken on a job too big for the time available, I completed both my manuscript transcriptions while in England--and I have, as a consequence, been feeling rather self-congratulatory.

I’ve also had some interesting conversations about my work, both with academics and non-academics. My conversations with the former have been useful in all the expected ways--I’ve gotten ideas and additional references for this project--but in some ways it’s the conversations with the latter that have made me think the hardest about what it is that I’m doing, and what it is that I do.

Whenever I mentioned that I was going to the U.K., I described the purpose of the trip as "research." But when asked further about what exactly I’d be doing, I sometimes started to get that imposterish feeling that I usually experience only around actual academics. Was what I was doing research? In the way that the average person understands it? After all, I wasn’t rooting around in an archive, hoping to stumble upon something new and exciting; I wasn’t tracking down dates and locations, establishing which version of something had been published first, or investigating what the author was doing during some unaccounted-for period of his life. No: I had two manuscripts to look at, manuscripts that I’d already examined and whose contents I more or less already knew. My task was to transcribe them as swiftly and as accurately as possible (and hopefully get microfilm or digital copies as back-up). If I noticed anything interesting as I was doing so, great, but it wasn’t my task, just then, to look for patterns, worry over unusual details, or compare one part of the MS with another.

After I'd described this work to Mr. and Mrs. Ex-Pat, Mr. Ex-Pat asked, "why is this something that you have to do? Can’t the library just hire a temp to do it?"

And that's a reasonable question: in the business world, it’s the low-ranking people who do the equivalent of this fairly mindless work. Is transcription really any different from data-entry?

Of course I explained that not even the librarian at this particular archive knew how to read seventeenth-century handwriting, so a temp certainly wouldn’t be able to, and I added that there are so many manuscripts out there, the contents of which are largely if not entirely unknown, that--even if the financial resources and the demand were there--most archives simply wouldn’t be able to make informed decisions about what needed transcribing and what didn’t.

And in this conversation, as in the other three or four that I had, not only did I start to realize that I actually had some relatively tangible scholarly skills (nothing says, "I earned my Ph.D." like displaying a page of cramped Secretary script and proceeding to read it aloud), but I also discovered, to my surprise, how interested in the process non-specialists become. Now, I've always suspected that I do a much better job of describing my work to non-specialists than to people in my field (maybe because I'm a totally reductive thinker? or because I'm deeply insecure about my abilities?), but something about the physical, material process of the kind of research and editing that I'm doing or contemplating doing gets people interested, in the same way that facsimile copies of seventeenth-century texts get my students to think differently about the works we're reading. The same student who couldn't care less about the multiple possible meanings of a word in a given soliloquy, or about why some of its lines might rhyme while other don't, can look at a facsimile title page and suddenly produce all kinds of theories about how and why the play is being marketed the way it is. It's as if once there are objects and people involved--books, not just "texts"; an author and a printer and a bookseller and an imagined reading public, not just words on a page--non-academics can suddenly relate and feel invested.

I wonder whether this is something peculiar to English as a discipline. Many people I talk to--even academics in other fields--profess great surprise at how "historicist" or "non-theoretical" the projects that I and most of my friends work on are. This is always said by way of being a compliment, although I'm not sure that it is (there's no necessary opposition between the theoretical and the historicist, after all), and I wonder whether those people whose only experience of English comes from lower-level classes don't think that all we do is look really really closely at texts in order to produce subversive readings--readings that they perceive as being in service to some larger philosophical or theoretical agenda.

So, when it turns out that I'm going back to an early text, and comparing it to later texts, and trying to recover something like the author's intentions (okay, you can just shut up now: it's all about the intentional fallacy around here, and I do so too have special access to the psyche of long-dead authors), the layperson gets interested. Maybe I should call this the History Channel Effect: the reflexive respect for something that involves musty old papers and travel to foreign countries, but that doesn't always have a lot of patience for the ambiguities and multiple possible meanings of words on a page.

On my best days, I think that I can show my students (and non-academics) how the two are related. I just wish that I could do so all the time.