Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Do I repeat myself? Very well then, I repeat myself

At long last, I have completed the revised version of my book introduction. It was hard work in all the ways that you might expect, but also in one way that seems, if not unique to me, at least fairly rare among my writerly acquaintances: I just couldn't make the thing longer.

Sure, I added stuff; I added whole sections, important historical and theoretical framing, and discussions of works I hadn't mentioned before. But as I added, I also subtracted. When I sent the book out in August, the introduction was barely 14 pages (4,600 words, counting notes). I felt it was strong for its length and gave a good sense of the project as a whole, and I knew I'd be expanding it later. But it took tremendous effort to get to where I am now, at 22 pages or 7,300 words--and the limited increase in page count doesn't reflect the amount of new material.

This is a problem I've always had. I'm not one of those people who writes painfully slowly, sentence by sentence, polishing each phrase as she goes; I've learned well how to produce shitty first drafts just to get something on the page. But revising, for me, always involves a lot of cutting. Sometimes there are sections that really do become irrelevant, but I also have a mania for eliminating redundant sentences and tightening sections so they move more quickly; I hate to retread too much old ground, and I don't want to bore my reader.

But as frustrating as losing pages can be, I'll admit that I'd always considered my method beyond reproach. My scholarly prose is tight and well-crafted, stylistically interesting, and obsessively well-organized. Frankly, I felt most writers could learn a thing or three from the way I revised.

However, I live with a writer who writes very differently from me. When I first started reading Cosimo's work, I was continually slashing out repetitions and recombining sentences for him. "You said almost exactly the same thing earlier in this paragraph! They're both well-phrased--but you don't need TWO sentences that do the same work!" He'd patiently explain that it was deliberate: he was highlighting or tweaking a key point, or putting it more pithily, in order to make sure the reader got the importance of a particular claim. (And, you know, he's got an MFA, so maybe he knows something about prose style.)

So it's been dawning on me that not just my writing voice but my whole approach to writing is deeply personal and idiosyncratic. And one of my idiosyncrasies is a visceral, even irrational hatred of repetition. When I was younger, being asked to repeat myself by someone who hadn't gotten what I'd said the first time--or who had let his attention wander for a minute--would make me so suddenly angry, and so suddenly sad, that I often had to fight back tears. It felt like I'd been slapped: whoever I'd been talking to hadn't been paying attention to me. I wasn't worth paying attention to.

And then Horace posted this link on Facebook, and under my own Myers-Briggs type I found my "efficiency" listed as a potential writerly pitfall:
[You] tend to be good at weeding out information that isn't pertinent to the project. Be sure to keep audience needs in mind, however. Concise is good; terse is not.
I'm a true believer in the MBTI--at least as a tool for understanding how people process information, make decisions, and solve problems--but it's not something I'd ever thought to apply to my writing. And this jibes uncomfortably well with what I'd been beginning to wonder myself.

So fine. I'll try it. I'll try to be a little less tight-fisted with my prose and a little more expansive with my ideas. I'll try not to assume that every reader can grasp the full extent of my brilliance in a single sentence. It goes against my nature. But then, we INTJs are a deeply misunderstood people.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Photographing life

Last week we spent most of an afternoon at MoMA. It was midday and midweek on a sunny day, so the crowds were manageable, but there was one inconvenience: people standing in front of the art taking photographs.

I'd seen a certain amount of this in recent years, but never thought that much about it. Some people, I supposed, just didn't want to pay for the postcard in the gift shop--and others might be actual artists who wanted a digital image so they could blow it up on their home computer and scrutinize the brushwork or whatever. But at MoMA there was an epidemic of photo-taking, and as best I could tell, most of the visitors were not taking photos of just a few favorite works, nor were they trying to prolong their pleasurable experience in the museum. No. They were going from painting to painting, taking photo after photo (often two in succession: first of the painting and then of the text on the wall beside it), spending no more than 10 seconds looking at each painting with their unaided eye.

This baffles me. I don't have an especially sophisticated critical vocabulary for talking about the visual arts, but even someone with no training can experience art--and that experience is why I go to museums and exhibitions: to see differently and to feel differently. There's a reason that I always visit a couple of paintings at the INRU art gallery when I'm in town: what affects me can't be reproduced photographically. I have to sit quietly in front of them, and feel whatever it is that they make me feel.

I've never taken photos of museum art, but these days I take a lot fewer photos, period. Facebook has made me conscious of the degree to which my own photo-taking is and always was an act of artificial self-construction. At some point when I was 23 or 24, Lulu and I went out on the town with a couple of friends and took a disposable camera with us. We took shots on the street, in the bar, in another bar, in the taxicab. "Damn!" Lulu said, looking at the photoset later. "We look amazing! This is so much more fabulous than our actual life."

For years after that I took a camera to every social event and on every weekend trip. And there my friends and I are, perpetually: over brunch, over dinner, over drinks, at weddings and houseparties and barbecues, striking antic poses and smiling big, happy, open-mouthed smiles.

But these days, taking photos feels increasingly like a duty: I must preserve this memory! I must get a great shot and then crop it just so! I must post pictures of my trip because friends and family will want to see them! When we arrived at our hotel last week, I had a moment of regret that I hadn't brought my camera, before realizing: dude. I lived in this city for six years. What would I photograph?

My friends, obviously, and me and my fiancé being fabulous, and great weather, and maybe a couple of places I hadn't been before. But, eh. I'd rather have the experience.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Interruption in blog service

Sorry for the bloggy silence, folks--I've been trying to finish up revisions to my book introduction--but before that got done, Cosimo and I fled town for his spring break. Back in a week or so.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

In memoriam

John Shawcross, the eminent Miltonist and Donne scholar, has just died. He's the third prominent Miltonist I've known who has died in the past two years. As with the previous (and more untimely) deaths of Al Labriola and Rich DuRocher, the Milton and Donne lists I subscribe to have lit up with tributes and remembrances, all of them testifying to the deceased's extraordinary generosity.

With Shawcross, the stories all sound like my own: I met him on a plane en route to my first academic conference ever. He was the one who struck up conversation and drew me out about my dissertation, and to whom I confessed my nervousness. At the conference he introduced me around and checked up on me periodically, and when I finally delivered my paper (in the last time slot, on the last day, to a packed room), he watched me intently, smiling with great satisfaction as I hit my major claims and then fielded difficult questions. At every subsequent conference that we both attended, he went out of his way to say hello, often when I hadn't noticed him myself: he'd cross a crowded hotel lobby, briefly excusing himself from whomever he was talking to, and for two or three minutes give me the impression that I was the person he most wanted to see.

Even before his death, I'd heard dozens of stories like mine: John made sure to meet and know everyone, but especially graduate students, contingent faculty, foreign scholars, and those otherwise regarded as on the margins of the profession. To meet him even once was to feel that he was a friend.

We like to mystify and cordon off intellectual brilliance, believing that each stage of academic success means gaining entry to a series of increasingly exclusive clubs. John Shawcross's life and career are reminders that the best minds are the most open and the most inclusive.

Rest in peace.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Et in arcadia ego

When I heard that Tom Stoppard's Arcadia was getting a Broadway revival, I was puzzled. I'd seen it in New York the first time! Wasn't it too soon to be in revival? Some quick math revealed that it had been sixteen years since the original Broadway production--and after I got over how ancient that made me feel, I set about finding a pair of half-price tickets and booking a trip to the city.

In anticipation of that trip, last weekend I re-read the play. It's probably been a decade since I last read it, but I still have the same dog-eared copy that I bought in 1995, on the walk back uptown from Lincoln Center after the Saturday matinée. It was summer, and I was twenty, and the play had hit me with the force that things do when you're twenty.

A lot of things had been happening that summer and would continue to happen over the next year, things that I'd categorize, generally, as an attempt to figure out who I might be as an adult and how I wanted to live in the world. It was the first summer that I hadn't spent living in my parents' house and doing temp work; instead, I'd stayed in Alma Mater City to intern at the university press and was subletting a tiny, sweltering apartment. Since none of my friends were around, I spent my evenings and weekends writing lots of letters and reading lots of books: Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis and Oscar Wilde, as well as Madame Bovary in French (my French wasn't really up to it, but my sublessor was a French grad student, and her bookshelves were irresistible). I also resumed going to church, which I hadn't done for some years.

HK spent that summer interning in the silver department at Christie's, and she had lucked into a house-sitting gig on 103rd and West End. As I recall, she was making $75 a week and paying a few hundred dollars a month for the run of somebody's mother's rambling two-bedroom, so she ate a lot of rice and watched a lot of free t.v. But the place had A/C and was lined with books and ugly original artwork--the mother in question being a professor at Hunter or City College--and as west coasters and financial aid kids, we were fascinated by the place and the life that it hinted at.

I visited HK there several times. Mostly, we ate at diners and walked around the city to save money on subway fare. But we figured we had to see something on Broadway, something literary, maybe Hamlet? Ralph Fiennes was playing the lead! Alas, Hamlet was sold out. But I knew Stoppard from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and whatever blurb I'd read about Arcadia sounded promising. Also, Robert Sean Leonard was in it.

We didn't really know what to expect, and while I can't speak to the specifics of HK's reaction, I remember us as both being a little stunned: by how good it was, and by what it was. Arcadia seemed to resonate with everything that was going on in my world and in my head. A semester of Milton followed by a summer reading a bunch of Anglo-Catholic writers meant that I'd been boring all my correspondents with letters in which I meditated on fate and free will, and I was captivated by the play's treatment of time and the irrecoverabilty of the past; my copy of the play bears tidy marginal brackets and double scores next to otherwise unremarkable passages about the unidirectionality of time ("everything is mixing the same way, all the time, irreversibly, until there's no time left. That's what time means").

Perhaps the best explanation for the play's effect on me was that it managed simultaneously to validate my prior obsessions and stimulate what felt like new ones. It seemed to confirm my entire recent life: this was why I was an English major! This was why we studied the Western Canon: to get the jokes and to understand the references. The fact that I understood the play's ongoing debate between rationalism and romanticism as a historical and aesthetic one, not just a matter of temperament--that felt tremendous to me.

I also believed that the play showed me what academics actually did, and why one might want to do it. It wasn't just reading books; it was trying to understand and recover the past, knowing in advance that even success could only be partial. As the writer Hannah Jarvis says late in the play, trying to reconcile Valentine the scientist with Bernard the humanist:
Comparing what we're looking for misses the point. It's wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we're going out the way we came in. That's why you can't believe in the afterlife....Believe in the after, by all means, but not the life. Believe in God, the soul, the spirit, the infinite, believe in angels if you like, but not in the great celestial get-together for an exchange of views. If the answers are in the back of the book I can wait, but what a drag. Better to struggle on knowing that failure is final.
For my money, that's still one of the two best passages in the play, and it captures (possibly it originated) my own emotional response to the scholarly enterprise.

Finally, there's the fact that Arcadia was the first professional production of a contemporary play that I'd seen. It's not an especially experimental play, but I was dazzled by the final scene, where the characters from 1812 and the characters from the present are all onstage together, each set of actors ignoring the other set as they enact two different but overlapping scenes. Whatever plays I had seen up until that point, this one was my first real intimation that theatre operates differently from film, and I wanted to know and see more.

In short, the play interpellated me as at least a quasi-intellectual and a quasi-academic (it wasn't the only thing that did it, but in retrospect it seems the neatest symbol of a larger process). I wasn't sure that I wanted to be a Hannah or Bernard or Valentine, but I definitely wanted to be the kind of person who lived in a city and read books and went to the theatre--the kind of person who bantered wittily and aggressively, who knew stuff about stuff.

I also, apparently, wanted to be the kind of person who owned a pet turtle: I bought one later that summer and endeavored to keep him in my dorm room for the next year and a half. It didn't end well. Et in arcadia ego, indeed.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Things that should go without saying, but obviously do not

After signing a contract to accept a tenure-track job, you should not subsequently back out.

I now know of two people who have done this. And seriously, dudes, what's so hard to figure out? If you weren't sold on the institution, you shouldn't have accepted the offer. If you were waiting to hear from another school where you had a campus visit, you should have told the offering institution that, and asked for more time. But if you thought you were out of the running someplace else, and then they came knocking--or if a fancier job appeared in the spring job list and you applied anyway--you kinda suck.