Sunday, August 30, 2015

Bit by bit

In many ways this summer has felt like a wash. Though I started out strong, with a 5,000-word paper I could pour directly into a new chapter, until a few weeks ago those were the only words I'd contributed toward the book; selling the house and moving sucked up everything in its path.

I didn't do nothing, though. As those who follow me on social media know all too well, this summer I re-read The Faerie Queene--a/k/a the longest poem in the English language--for the first time since grad school. So's not to get overwhelmed, I set myself the pace of a canto a day, or an average of 500 lines (and maybe 30 minutes of leisurely reading). With a catch-up day or two per week, I figured the whole thing would take three months.

And it did.

Now, my original plan had been to read the poem while writing my Milton chapter, but that didn't happen. Some weeks the three to five hours I spent reading Spenser were the sum total of my scholarly activity.

As it turns out, though, that was enough to keep my head in my book project, and when I found myself with a little extra time I consolidated my notes, ran EEBO searches, read around in medieval romance and the writings of the early church, and chatted on Twitter with actual Spenserians.

Periodically, I started to freak out about how little writing I was doing--but there wasn't really TIME to freak out; another stupid thing would come up that we had to track down our realtor or lawyer to resolve, or we'd run out of boxes and packing tape.

By the time we got settled in our apartment, there were only two weeks of summer left (and an office still to set up, syllabi to write, and endless orientation activities to undergo). But thinking about Spenser had led to some ideas about Milton, and I was itching to start drafting. One night I decided I could probably squeeze out 500 words before bedtime.

I did. And then I wrote another 500 the next day, and 500 the next. And then, okay: a few days of bullshit intervened--but 500 words is so small and low-stakes that it was easy to fall back into the habit whenever I needed a break from yelling at Blackboard.

The idea of chipping away at a big project by doing just a little bit each day is hardly ground-breaking, but the philosophy of "write you book in fifteen minutes a day!" has never worked for me in the past. When I'm writing, I write steadily, but I write best when it's for a few hours a day, for a few weeks or months--after which there's a rest, and a pause.

But this summer didn't enable the sustained writing I was almost ready to do, and now that I am ready I don't have the time. So I'm going to experiment with how I can keep writing under those circumstances.

A part of me, if I'm honest, is scared of this new book project, and of the possibility that I'll stall out or let it slip away from me. You'd think that having published one book would demystify the process and make the second one feel doable, and in some ways it does--but life is more complicated now, with more obligations and less external structure, and I fear being the person who just. . . doesn't . . . finish.

So for now I'm taking comfort in what even the very low bar of a-canto-a-day let me achieve: I read some things, I thought some thoughts, and--most importantly--I was still in the game, in a minimal way, every day.

8 comments:

Withywindle said...

A canto a day? What's a canto a day?
(It's what you don't want to do but you do anyway.)

Earnest English said...

Okay, Withywindle, I hear that to Mel Brooks' Inquisition, What a Show song from History of the World, Part 1, which means that you might be the coolest person ever.

And Flavia, I find this bit-by-bit work so inspiring. It sure didn't work for me with the diss, but now I'm looking at the most intense fall semester ever and am trying to figure out how to keep my head in my project. So this gives me lots of hope. Thank you.

Historiann said...

"A part of me, if I'm honest, is scared of this new book project, and of the possibility that I'll stall out or let it slip away from me."

Oh, how I know the feeling! For most of the past 8 years or so, that was my daily bread. The only solution is to keep on keepin' on. Stay in touch with your editor at Penn if you want some encouragement (and think that would be a good press for you again, that is.) Don't listen to the haterz.

Withywindle said...

EE: That's the inspiration all right. As for coolest person ever: ojal√° ...

Contingent Cassandra said...

the philosophy of "write you book in fifteen minutes a day!" has never worked for me in the past. When I'm writing, I write steadily, but I write best when it's for a few hours a day, for a few weeks or months--after which there's a rest, and a pause.

This describes me, too (probably with longer pauses,for both legitimate and not-so-legitimate) reasons, so I'll be interested to hear how it goes. Not only do different approaches work for different people (as I've stopped even bothering to say to a couple of write-every-day zealots in my department; in those cases, I think there's some fear/anxiety, and almost the sense of some sort of a magic practice that precludes various sorts of failure, some of which I may represent, involved, so such conversations don't go well), but different approaches work for the same person at different life-stages/with different projects.

I also like the idea of reading, even a little bit a day, as a way of staying in touch (or getting back in touch) with a project. That's another technique I should probably try (and I have the relevant texts lying around, just waiting to be picked up; that, I guess, is at least a step in the right direction).

Flavia said...

Withy:

Cosimo's jingle was "a canto a day keeps narrative closure away."

EE & CC:

Thanks! And I guess we'll see. (Good luck to you too, EE.)

I agree (Cassandra) that the more fanatical members of the write-every-day crowd can be weirdly kool-aid-drinky and judgey. I'm sincerely happy for anyone who has found something that works for him or her--but I haven't noticed that the 15-minute-a-day folks write or publish more than the rest of us. (Those who write for hours a day. . . yeah, they do write more than I do!)

But I definitely think it's worth revisiting different strategies to see what they might have to offer at different life/project stages, and some of the tricks I've heard over the years from write-every-dayers are proving useful, like stopping in the middle of a sentence, or otherwise in a place where I can pick up immediately the next day.

(I still don't like time goals, though, so much as word-count goals.)

Historiann:

No haterz that I'm aware of, other than my own psyche. Which is h8er enough!

Jeff said...

For what it's worth, I've been enjoying your FQ tweets. I used to teach excerpts from the poem, and you tweets make me miss it—and hope I'll have time to return to it someday...

Flavia said...

Thanks, Jeff! Alas the tweeting got more erratic, and then ended, early in Book 6 or right around the time orientation, etc., started--but it was a surprisingly useful aid to reading and remembering.

And though I'm no Spenserian (and re-reading the poem reaffirmed my desire not to become a Spenserian), it was really a pleasure to re-read it with new eyes. I'll definitely be returning to different parts of it in my future teaching and writing.