Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dear Internet (a request) [Updated: the internets reply!]

Dear Internet,

Do you take requests? Because I would very much like you to make a photo-based website called: "What the hell is wrong with my houseplant?" Because seriously: I go to the nursery and say, "Show me your indoor plants that cannot be killed." Then I take it home and give it fresh potting soil, water (once a week), sunlight, misting the ones that seem to call for it, even plant food. And still, in a matter of weeks, my plants look like this:

No, that's not flash glare.  The middle of the leaf is corpse-white.

Or this:

Note the curled, dry leaf edges, as if I'd been holding this plant near an open flame.
The rest of the leaves mostly aren't doing this, but they are rolling themselves up like 
little hedgehogs, which worries me.

I like living things! I'm a yoga-practicing vegetarian daughter to a woman who had a house full of thriving plants and a vegetable garden! I even went out and bought a water meter... but the damn thing insists, two hours after I've watered a plant, that they are bone dry, so I have little faith in it.

Seriously, internet.  Please send me a website (or, failing that, one of those reality show makeovers where a host and a film crew comes in, makes snide comments, makes me cry, then shows me how to make everything better and I cry again at the end but this time happy tears) and I promise to be extra-good for the rest of the year.

Yours truly,

Notoriously Phytocidal Dame.


Dear NPhD,

Thank you for your inquiry. Yes, we do do requests, but as we are currently swamped with requests for pictures of cute baby animals, and politicians or celebrities doing horrific things, it may be a while before we get to your request. In the interim, we have forwarded your request to the publishing industry, which points out that people never appreciate it any more, and this is why it's going out of business, and even supposed "scholars" just want a quick fix... well, you see why we don't contact them much. But after they got finished kvetching, they mentioned (with a deep sigh and an eye-roll) that this book has existed for three years now.  It seems to be more about outdoor plants than indoor ones, but you should look at it. And you might tell them thank-you for making the book... though I'd recommend you send them a note, rather than call. 

Best wishes,

The internet.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Another Week in Writing, days 2/3: What's that that goeth before a fall?

Figures. As soon as I start trumpeting the virtues of daily writing, I miss a day. In my case, it was Sunday: I have yoga class at 8:30, and decided that getting up at 6:30 on a Sunday to work for two hours when I couldn't even eat (eating before intense yoga, especially in the heat, can make you feel a bit oogy) was obscene, so I thought "I'll do it later today."

You can guess what happened to that.

This morning was a new chance to start over.  Got up, made coffee, put some food and a vitamin in me, fumbled around for a bit longer than I should have (damn you, home internet!), then got to work. Nothing new on the actual paper, but I do have another reverse-engineered outline, and I'm starting to feel like something might be emerging from the fog. That alone is worth the 90 minutes this morning.

COMPLETELY UNRELATED UPDATE: thanks to Historiann (via e/j), who posted a link to a new-ish tumblr that translates MLA job ads for you.  Now, if someone would just get on with doing one for AHA ads as well...

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Another Week in Writing, Day 1: A Mantra for Daily Writing

I posted on my Facebook account recently the following (provisional) mantra:

250 words a day is an article a month.

Now, we could nitpick the holy crap out of this, of course.  If it were really that easy, we'd all be doing that, and the academic world would be drowning in articles.  We know that anywhere from 15-85% of the words we write go straight in the shredder. And once you reach 8,000 words that are "keepers," there's still the business of revising. Fine. Granted.

But that mantra reminds me that I can set an achievable goal for a day, and if I stick to it, I'll be at my big goal more quickly than I'd believe.

Some reaction to my post echoed my thoughts for so many years: How can you write every day? What if you don't know enough yet?  You'll just waste time writing crap. I'm here to tell you: Writing crap every day is never a waste of time. And here's why:
  1. In that crap, there will likely be some good stuff that I'll come back to months later, after having forgotten I've written it.  
  2. Even writing crap every day is part of forming a habit. And that, in the long run, is what's gonna get me to my goal.

Or so I keep telling myself. But the fact is that I've found some of that old freewriting, pasted it into the draft of what I already have. It's now a Franken-Article, with bits and bobs and holes and behavior issues.  But it's over 6,000 words long, which is enough to make me think that this actually could be a grown-up article by the end of the semester.

And it's 9 a.m., and I've accomplished my writing goal for today.  Time to get on with my weekend!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

My Week in Writing, Day 4: Back to the Drawing Board, and Back on Track

This morning, I reset my word counter for the week to zero and dove back into the old conference paper manuscript. I squished down thoughts of how much or how little I was excited about the paper as it stood, and instead honed in on one area that I knew I could actually improve on. I've already related the story of my discovery here.  But I never plugged it back into the conference paper, because I thought that line of inquiry was dead.

So, today I did the plugging, and about 50% of the explicating.  That got me to 752 new words for the day (about half of which, I'll admit, lies in two rather chunky footnotes -- so much for writing with a non-egghead audience in mind). It's significant.  And it's just shy of the 800 I should be at if my "write 200 words a day" goal had been a straight line of progress.

I don't know if this track is leading anywhere, but I'm on the train, and it's moving, so I'm just going to ride it for a while.

(Still, I'd like to be inspired.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My Week in Writing, Day 3: Ebb Tide

Today is international Talk like a Pirate Day.  Arrrr.

Coincidentally, pirates figure big and important in my paper, which ought to make it inherently exciting. Yet my paper is not.  In fact, in my musings today (which was really all I wrote), I wrote this sentence: "This is full of pirates, FFS!  How on earth am I managing to make that boring?!?"

And then I heard an interview with Jill Lepore on NPR, and I thought, "Love her work or hate it, but she knows how to write in a way that people want to read."

(I should note that this comes one day after I found out that my sister-in-law found my book less than gripping, and two days after receiving some rather dismal sales figures for the book for the last year.  My confidence in my ability to interest readers is pretty low right now.)

And so I once again trashed what I had written, and went back to the conference paper I presented.  And tomorrow, I get up, and try to think like a reader, like my sister-in-law, like Steve fucking Inskeep.  Because I know this can be interesting.  I'm just not there yet.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

My Week in Writing, Day 2: À la recherche de l'écriture perdue

As I noted in an update to my previous post, my "Week in Daily Writing" got derailed early on: no sooner had I triumphantly announced that I had hit my goal, completed a section, and logged almost 800 words (including 350 or so from the weekend) than I, in a laudable attempt to Back Everything Up All The Time, managed to delete everything I had written. To make matters worse, I deleted the thesis statement that had finally come to me over the weekend, after wrestling with it for so long.

My reaction went something like this:


"Oh no." 



[dramatic pause/several fruitless attempts at recovery]


It was like that.  I missed the words less than I did the thesis. Because I have been struggling pretty hard with the "So what" question about these very neat documents, and I thought I finally had something.

Eventually, I came to two conclusions:
  1. Sometimes freeing yourself from old writing lets you escape an unproductive rut. [corollary 1a.: If I can't remember a thing about it, the thesis may not have ever been that great]
  2. I've lost some words, but it's not that many, and if I just sit around moping, I get to stay at zero.
So, this morning, though I didn't get up "early" as I wanted to, I did manage to write for over an hour, and knocked out the first 650 words... again.  I still don't know where I'm going, but for now, I'm just going to try to write my way in and see what happens.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Creaky: A writing post

A couple of weeks ago, I joined a writing group, because I wanted to get an article cranked out.  Did I mention that I haven't published anything on the new project yet? At all?

In any case, my goal for the last week was simple: read/skim three "classics" on the Big Picture Topic, and write a 400-word synopsis. The reading took a while, five of the seven days. And then, for the last two days, I sat down to write.  400 words.

And I couldn't make it.

What the hell? When I came back from my first big research trip, I was habitually setting daily goals of 600 words and whizzing past them without even trying, doubling that on most days.  This week, I couldn't get a lousy 400 words in two days.

Is it because it's new material? No, it was even newer back then. Is it because I'm trying to Write An Article, rather than shitty-first-drafting? Well, perhaps that's part of it. But mainly, I think it's because I'm creaky and out of shape. It's been a long time since I've written every day.  And yet I know from experience that "Write Every Day" actually works. Just let go of the need to be perfect, and write.

So, in the spirit of an Autumn of Modest Goals,[1] I've set myself three goals, provisionally for this week only:
  1. Get up early
  2. Write 200 words first thing every day -- even if they're crap.
  3. Make sure before going to bed that I have the next day's writing task laid out for me.

And this morning, I got up early (for me, anyway), meditated, made coffee, and wrote 260 words -- plus scratched out a few notes for a later section.

Let's see how this goes.

UPDATE:  Crap crap crap!!!  I went to back up the writing, and somehow... I managed to overwrite my copy with something last updated ten days ago...  And the newer copy, with all that work, is nowhere in sight.  Nowhere.  What. The. Hell.


[1] Autumn of Modest Goals appears to have happened accidentally. In August, I quit smoking.  Nothing else but that. In September, I appear to have managed to cut my diet soda consumption down to one 12-ounce can a day. It's actually kind of satisfying.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"Show me your largest, heaviest books, please."

No, that's not quite what I said in the library today.  Yet I came out with four books, two of which are 800+ pages.  They are both, by the way, by early medievalists (Wickham [2005] and McCormick [2001]).  So, ADM, Jonathan... If I throw out my shoulder, can I blame you somehow?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

An Encouraging Conversation with Voice of Reason

Voice of Reason [1] stopped by my office today. She has been, like me, working on an article project (though her work is about three to four months more advanced). And like me, she's apparently been producing a lot of words with very few great thoughts to hold it all together.

We've been talking a lot about our frustrations with writing, and how they're producing doubts about the new projects we're working on, respectively. The underlying theme to all these discussions is: "Why can't I be smarter?"

And somehow, over this weekend, we both realized an important truth: the first book project -- the one that made us feel like we knew something -- didn't start out as a first book. Before that, it was a dissertation, and an article or two along the way. And before that, it was three years of research, reading, fumbling, and following dead-end roads. The lesson here is that bumping into walls is part of the process.  And it's part of the process that you have to repeat with every damn thing you write.

"You mean I have to keep feeling dumb every time I do this?" I ask myself.  Well, yes. And that's going to suck.  But knowing that it's part of the process is kind of like the doctor saying, "Now, this is going to hurt." It doesn't stop it from hurting, but it lets you know that the pain is normal, expected, and most of all, temporary.

[1] To those new to the blog, Voice of Reason is a friend, colleague, and former neighbor who reacts to situations with an equanimity and grace that I stand in awe of. She is who I want to be when I grow up.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Union Makes Us Strong

My faculty union is far from perfect. It often focuses on the wrong things. It misses crucial opportunities. It's sometimes tone-deaf. But it has managed to bind together several campuses, embrace lecturers as well as tenure-track faculty, and make us a force to be reckoned with, rather than steamrollered over.

In the roughly ten years since I have been at Grit City U., we have had two contract negotiations.  Both times, the union has had to vote to strike before we could get a serious contract.  But still, at least we could organize. We are currently ratifying a contract that doesn't include any raises at all, or really, anything to make up for the last three years of stagnation. But we're also protected against losing anything that we've gained, even though the state economy has been in serious trouble for a long time.  In this situation, no loss is very close to a win.

As we celebrate this Labor Day, I think of my friends working in Florida and other states like it -- states where somehow, state university employees have to work on the one day a year dedicated to the worker.  I think of the struggles of the twentieth century, and hope they won't be undone. And I celebrate and support workers (yes, even intellectual laborers!) everywhere. 

The fight is beginning again.  United we stand.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Morning Person, Redux

Reflections on the first week coming soon, but here's what's on my mind today:

I have always been a morning person by nature.  When I lived in an apartment in downtown Puddletown, I loved getting up at six to walk the mile to the gym before school, or at seven to walk around, latte in hand, in the morning drizzle and quiet before the city woke up.  I liked already having accomplished stuff before most people were awake.  I liked having the city to myself.

Something happened during my 2007/08 year in Fellowhship City, though: I became the kind of person who sleeps in.  Maybe because it was cold.  Maybe I stayed out later.  Maybe because I was, at that time, sharing my mornings with another person who was anything but a morning person.  Maybe because the "I need to sleep more to recover from the last four years of pushing myself" became a habit.  Whatever it was, it became a struggle to get out of bed before 8, and things kind of stayed that way.

This month, the good habit to cultivate is to create a good morning. For me, this means getting up early, meditating (even for 10 minutes), and working on my writing.  Maybe not every day, but five days out of seven.  Why do this? Because I've done it before, and I've noticed that it makes me a happier person. Also, because I've joined Dame Eleanor's writing group, so I need to make sure to carve out time for this.

So, maybe taking on one thing at a time is good for me.  Last month, I managed to quit smoking.  True, I managed to gain 7 pounds in a month, because I mostly sat on my butt watching TV (distraction!) and stuffed my face with carbs and sugar to smother the cigarette cravings.  But I'm okay with that, and I've turned the corner a bit, I think. Now, I'd like to see if I could do it again.  We shall see.