Sunday, February 28, 2010

Department of whoo-fucking-hoo

It must be true! Actual scientific scientists have studied the matter:
[Social psychologist Joe] Forgas said he has found that sadness correlates with clearer and more compelling sentences, and that negative moods "promote a more concrete, accommodative and ultimately more successful communication style." Because we're more critical of what we're writing, we produce more refined prose, the sentences polished by our angst. As Roland Barthes observed, "A creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem."
(Yep. Still working on that essay over here. More later.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The slow prose movement

I've always been a slow writer, probably because I'm both a slow thinker and a maniac about rhythm and sentence construction. When I'm drafting I force myself to write without looking back, just to get words and half-formed thoughts on the page--but the rest of my writing process is a slow and laborious series of revisions. I try not to get too hung up on sentences until late in the game, since a beautiful sentence that does fuck-all for my argument will just get deleted in the end.

But since writing sentences is how I think, it's hard to tell the difference, sometimes, between what sounds good stylistically and what sounds right argumentatively. I don't have a thought, which I then put into words, which I then tinker around with a bit to clarify. I just start writing something that includes a few key concepts or half-baked ideas, and only through the process of rephrasing, recombining, and substituting that word for this do I come to any real knowledge of what I might mean.

I've more or less made my peace with my process, and feel confident that it will eventually produce the results I want, but it's hard when I'm on a deadline. Last night I sat down to revise the first two or three pages of the essay I'm currently working on--in other words, THE MOST IMPORTANT PAGES--and was seized by the sense that things just weren't right. Not terrible; I'd already worked over those pages several times, and they read clearly enough, but they felt wrong on the sentence-to-sentence level. It wasn't adding up, somehow.

I began my usual process of interlineating changes by hand, but it got too messy for that, and I could feel myself beginning to panic. It's dispiriting to be stuck on the same page for hours. So I took out my legal pad and started rewriting each paragraph in longhand, incorporating changes as I went, but also copying out in full the phrases or sentences that I was letting stand. I have nice handwriting when I try, and I enjoy writing in longhand, and slowing down allowed me to think about each word, clause, and idea as it passed through my pen. It was like being in an extraordinarily focused meditative state.

And I remembered that I used to do this with poems I loved in high school and college--I'd copy them out repeatedly by hand, registering each word and image and slowly memorizing them, although memorization usually wasn't the point.

Is this my final round of revisions? No. But it was a really good one. Maybe next time I'll re-invent the alphabet.

Friday, February 19, 2010


It's the bleak middle of February. Last weekend my gas oven emitted a fiery whooosh, singeing my eyelashes half off and frying parts of my hairline. Tuesday I came down with what I think is my third full-blown cold of the winter. I'm stressed and panicked about my current writing project as I haven't been about any project in a long time. And yep: today I turn thirty-five.

But look! Here I am at age three, sun-tanned and bearing flowers:

Lemme tell you something about that photo. It may be the only photo to have captured me in the flower-girl getup I wore for my uncle's wedding. I'm not in any of the official wedding photos, and probably not in any of the unofficial ones, either. Because I did not actually participate in the wedding.

Reason one is that I got scared when I saw all the people in the church, and refused to go down the aisle. But reason two is that my uncle's wedding occurred during a several-month window during which I had decided that I was a frog.

I'd declared myself to be various other animals at various times, usually just for an afternoon or a day or two. But I really liked being a frog, and I was a frog for a long time. When I was feeling contrary, I'd ribbit back when people spoke to me. I'd refuse to walk, and hop around on all fours. And at my uncle's wedding, in addition to refusing to walk down the aisle, I hid in the bushes during the photo sessions, insisting that frogs didn't do that.

So, yeah: it's been kind of a crummy week. But at least I'm not still a frog.

Monday, February 15, 2010

No interiority, no inwardness

I'm busting my ovaries over here to write a 30-page essay for pre-circulation for a seminar I'm participating in a few months from now, but for which I have a very urgent deadline. At the moment, however, it's shaping up as a catalogue of things I have no interest in--things I'm not doing and don't want to argue. A hate list, basically.

Among the things I currently hate:
Genre theory
Narratives of origin (specifically, of genres)
I hate all those things, but I REALLY hate interiority. Please please no one write about Renaissance interiority again, ever.*

Thanks. Knew you'd be there for me.

*Same goes for inwardness.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Sussing out the M.A. student

This semester I'm teaching my first grad-only class--and in the fall, I'll be teaching another. It's been more of an adjustment than I expected.

It isn't the students, or at least, not in the way you might expect. The problem is that I don't fully feel that I know what I'm doing with them: how to pitch the material, what their skills are, and what we're building toward. Sure, I designed what I consider to be a smart syllabus, with assignments that isolate and focus on the skills they'll need for their final projects (and, ultimately, their M.A. theses)--but that's not the same thing as feeling comfortable, on a daily basis, that what we're doing in seminar is what we should be doing.

I've never taken an M.A. class, is part of the issue, and I've almost never reflected on my own graduate coursework in pedagogical terms: what my instructors could have done better, how I could have acquired skills in a more conscious or logical fashion. By contrast, I've been thinking about undergraduate teaching since my first or second year of graduate school, and doing it since my third. And at this point, I'm confident that what I do in the undergraduate classroom is effective and pitched exactly right for my current student population.

But with my graduate students, I keep second-guessing myself: am I presenting the material with enough historical context? Doing too much close reading? Incorporating secondary sources effectively? And, I suppose more fundamentally: does my usual teaching persona work for students at this level?

Still, although I feel a little off-balance, it's not a bad feeling--and it's a nice contrast to the (sometimes overly) well-oiled-machinery that is my undergraduate Shakespeare class. I like my grad students, and I'm interested in them, and in what they need--and I'm thinking harder about what our M.A. program actually is.

I've got 16 students. The median age is younger than I'd have expected--I had three of them as undergrads, and none took more than a year off--but there are also two students in their 50s or 60s. I have a high school teacher and a middle school teacher, a practicing psychiatrist, a couple of poets, and at least three students who are thinking seriously about Ph.D. programs. And both individually and collectively, they're great: smart and talkative and well-read. They do all the work, they're eager to learn more, and a surprising number already have a decent background in Renaissance literature.

And, yes: I still have serious reservations about the fact that several of them are thinking about Ph.D. programs--but I love that those students are smart and focused enough that, at least on the basis of their skills, it wouldn't be a totally unrealistic goal. And I love even more how intense and intellectually curious the public school teachers and the psychiatrist are.

And it strikes me--surely not for the first time, but for the first time with any real emotional force--that our M.A. program is doing something analogous to what our undergraduate program does: gives a damn good education, at an affordable price, to people who are my neighbors and fellow-citizens. Indeed, having a graduate Milton class populated by smart, eager, adult professionals may be a happier scenario than having one populated entirely by would-be future academics.

Friday, February 05, 2010

That I hail from the West Coast is not a mystery to my students

"And seriously: 'Never was a story of more woe'? Are we supposed to buy that? Dude, next week: Titus Andronicus. TOTALLY more woe."

But you have to admit that I know how to wrap up a class.