Saturday, July 14, 2018

Writing inspiration: last archive day

Waking up at 4:30 a.m. when the local Starbucks (closest food) does not open until 7:30 a.m. isn't ideal, but it did give me some time to reflect on a few things after seeing the work of my betters.
  • These people took care of business. When I was sitting there reading folders full business letters and contracts, I had to stop and think that this was just one side of what Author A (let's call his/her/gender neutral them "A") was doing every day. Let's not forget the usual things: building or making or buying houses, gardens, boats; getting the plumbing fixed, etc.
  • And they took care of friendship. Reading another whole set of letters, I realized that they were not about anything consequential to researchers because that's of course not the point, is it?  But the letters were about things that were absolutely, vitally important to A and their correspondents' lives: family doings, asking about mutual friends, civic engagement, shared tasks, gifts, ill health, visits and travel, and oh, incidentally, work. It's easy to miss the forest for the trees in this and try to cherry-pick one reference to what we see as A's "real" work, when actually, their life can't be separated out any more than ours can today. When you read them as a whole, you see a fabric of human connection being woven.
  • And they kept things and kept track of things. Notebooks, story plans, drafts, scraps of paper, newspaper clippings, diaries. It's heartening to see that A sometimes starts a notebook and then leaves the rest blank, since I'm guilty of this, too. But did you ever stop to wonder what would happen if someone needed to research you and your work? (Not likely, but still.) What would they find? I'm not the first to comment that the electronic age has changed what we keep and discard, and recycling has probably taken the rest. Would any of us even have an archive?
  • And they wrote. Every day, sick or well, rain or shine. As you see the authors get older or, in the case of younger authors, become ill, it seems--well, gallant is the only word for it. In the midst of all of the above (and all that's not included there: eating, sleeping, exercise, excursions, being with friends, reading, domestic or romantic crises, tragic losses) they put words on paper, not on Twitter and FB (I'm sniping at myself, not at anyone out there). Sometimes they didn't succeed in finishing something but kept the scraps anyway. It's a good reminder that even the things that didn't work out were part of the process for something else. 
Anyway, this is a "note to self": do better, and remember that if you don't keep at it, it won't get done. 

Friday, June 29, 2018

WaPo: "Leisure reading is at an all-time low"--but what's left out?

The Washington Post reports that "Leisure reading in the U.S. is at an all-time low," which is one more piece of news that doesn't sound good for the humanities.  It's a good piece overall, and the main part is this:
That steep drop means that aggregate reading time among Americans has fallen, from an average of 23 minutes per person per day in 2004 to 17 minutes per person per day in 2017.
Even prior to 1995, before computers/online entertainment/social media took a huge share of the market, reading levels were declining due to TV.

But I wondered about this:
"Numbers from the National Endowment for the Arts show that the share of adults reading at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the prior year fell from 57 percent in 1982 to 43 percent in 2015." 
  • Is this the only kind of reading that counts?  What about nonfiction--history, biographies, even true crime?  Is the NEA counting airport novels and things like that?
  • Are they counting listening to audiobooks? That's a huge reading market, but some people don't consider that reading.
  • Are they counting people who read on their devices?
  • Are they counting like flash fiction, the humor at McSweeney's, long-form pieces in traditional or online magazines (medium.com, LA Review of Books), or, yes, blogs, for entertainment?
  • Are they talking only about new books in the  "I will sit down and engage with this serious but difficult (i.e., Literary with a capital L) fiction" mode or are they counting a comfort-read like Little Women or Harry Potter?
 In other words, are they considering the following?

1. The genre of the leisure reading (at least broken down by fiction/nonfiction);
2. The medium of the reading (audio, computer- or device-based).

I guess what I'm trying to say is that maybe this is like the alarm that routinely goes out about people not writing much these days. Au contraire--people write all the time: texts, captions, comments on online pieces, Facebook posts, Twitter, etc. It's just that they're writing--and now, maybe consuming--forms for pleasure that we don't consider reading for pleasure.



Off topic: Thank heavens someone finally told the New York Times that it's the Darwin Martin house and not the Martin Darwin house in Buffalo. Maybe The New Yorker could lend them some factcheckers?  I routinely notice grammatical errors and typos in the NYTimes (you probably do, too) that wouldn't have happened 10 years ago, so maybe that's not a priority for the paper, especially on leisure pieces, when the country's on fire. On the other hand, at least they're not reporting it as simply "upstate," which is what every other news organization writes about anything in New York state that's not NYC.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Random bullets of just past Summer Solstice

  • There's still lots of summer left, even if the days are getting shorter.
  • The writing is sort of moving along. I met a couple of (overdue) commitments, am working on others, and turned down some invitations for new projects because I will eventually learn not to overcommit.
  • Archives always say "no need to contact us!" but you really do, because the collection you want might be inaccessible for some reason. Somehow those are hard emails to write, though, and waiting for an answer while watching the travel prices go up isn't fun.
  • A survey recently asked about public engagement on social media for university faculty. They want us to engage, but I'm guessing that research, service, and teaching demands won't lessen. Instead, we'll be expected to drum up business in the form of outside lectures, interviews, etc. on top of everything else--and it'll be a standard to meet or be punished, not an extra to be celebrated.
  • I'm not going to bring up the political horror show here (donated, wrote to congresspeople already) but instead will concentrate on breathing in the cool summer morning air. Lilacs are past, but the honeysuckle is out. 
  • Today's a big anniversary for Spouse & me, so we'll be going out to dinner. I won't say which one, because some colleagues at my former university made fun of us for being married young (barely out of university) & and I'm still wary about revealing personal information after that. But yay for anniversaries!

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

In praise of distraction, or how to counter snobs who say "I don't own a television"

Inspired by gwinne's recent post about productivity and television, let me say this: I am too (experienced, old, productive, tired of academic bulls***--choose one or all of the above) to listen with a straight face to people who claim that they never watch television (including Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and the rest).

If you tell me this, I will laugh. I'm polite, so I'll try not to laugh in your face, but I will laugh.

Sometimes the further discussion reveals that while they would never watch TV, they do listen to This American Life on NPR. Or the BBC. Or play video games. Or read mysteries, a favorite among the academic crowd. Or they make an exception for PBS, because PBS. Or they go to the most recent depressing and obscure foreign film that they can find and brag about it. (Which can be good, but the bragging? not so much.)

Folks, it's all the same. Here's the big secret:  One is not morally superior to the other. All are ways of giving the brain a vacation, of distracting it so that it can stop beating you up for a while about the work you're not doing and give you a breather and fresh ideas so that you can do it.

But seriously--if you're not giving your brain a distraction, you're not giving it a rest. The productivity police may think that rest isn't necessary, but they're writing self-help, not creative work. 

One of the best takedowns of this attitude I've ever seen, and the reason I refer to this attitude as "I don't own a television machine," is from an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show called "I'm No Henry Walden." The premise is that a Robert Frost-type poet named Henry Walden* has had Rob and Laura Petrie (Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore) invited to a high-toned literary party where no one knows who they are or understands what they do.

If you want to see the whole thing, including a brilliant double-talk performance by Carl Reiner that I swear I have seen many times given as a paper at MLA, the link is below. If you just want to get a flavor of it, including the immortal "I don't own a television machine," go to 11:33.




*From Henry David Thoreau & Walden Pond. Fun fact for the Orson Welles crowd: Henry Walden is played by Everett Sloane, who was Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Writing inspiration: overcoming burnout and the Orson Welles syndrome

Figure 1. Orson Welles, wunderkind.
At a conference recently, I talked to a few people about their careers and about the wall of writing burnout I hit recently, asking them if they had experienced the same.

How bad was the burnout? Think of trying to get a balky toddler to eat a lima bean-spinach-kale casserole: that's how I was approaching writing. Those lima beans weren't going to taste any better cold--that is, after the deadline--but my brain toddler, unlike any real toddler, has to eat them anyway and get that writing done.

The people I talked to said that they were looking about three years ahead instead of to the next deadline. One was looking to get a book finished in that time. Ze had hoped to be finished by now, but life happened. A second, one of my collaborators on the big project, is shaping zir career around that for the next 5 years. A third is looking at gradually tapering off scholarship in preparation for a phased retirement. When I protested "but you're so productive! Don't you want to write another book?" ze said that there was no economic incentive and that ze would rather spend the time rock climbing.

Although they have different perspectives, they all had the same advice for me: be selective, because if you agree to do too much, you'll always be behind. Write about what you really want to write about. And take a break once in a while. If this sounds familiar, like advice that you and I and everyone else has given on their blogs, it is, yet it had some more force coming from people I'd known a long time.

It's probably unfair, but I'm thinking of Orson Welles, the genius writer-director-producer-actor who made radio history with his "War of the Worlds" broadcast in 1938 (inventing fake news?) and cinema history with Citizen Kane. He followed that, sometimes acting instead of directing, with The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, The Stranger (which he thought was formulaic but that I liked), Touch of Evil, and a host of other movies, some of which, like The Other Side of the Wind, he worked on for years.

The knock on Welles, dating from The Magnificent Ambersons, was that he didn't want to finish things, which apparently wasn't true. He did spend most of his career after Hollywood trying to get financing to fund the projects that he loved, like the Don Quixote film that remained unfinished at his death.

But what many may remember him for is the talk show circuit and his magic tricks, or the Paul Masson commercials where he solemnly intones "We will sell no wine before its time." He tried to do too much, often for financial reasons, and ended up not doing what he wanted to do (Orson Welles syndrome, TM Undine).

Now, Welles was a genius and could keep more balls in the air than most of us, yet you wonder what he might have done if he hadn't had to squander time and attention in making money with commercials, voice-over work, meetings with investors, etc. Would he have made more and greater movies? Would he have been able to make movies without resorting to that awful dubbing that makes some of those late movies (for me) unwatchable?

The thing is, most academics actually have that opportunity if we have jobs--to focus our attention and to choose projects--without having to take on too many side projects to keep the projects we love going. My conclusion is to try to take my colleagues' advice and assess what I really want to do next.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Chronicle asks again: Faculty offices? Who needs 'em?

Oh, Chronicle, Chronicle, Chronicle. You brought up this "no faculty offices" idea in 2010. I guess you figured it was time to revisit it, yes? https://t.co/GSmdZYUD97

If you want to know how popular open office spaces are, check out the threads at Askamanager.org.  Hint: they are exactly as popular as decreasing the sizes of airplane seats--in other words, beloved by the executives being paid $$$$, who all have private offices, and not so much by the people who actually have to work in them.

Herewith, from 2010, since I don't want you to have to click the link, a vision of how this would actually work:

New office commons: a day in the life

Scene: The shared office commons now being touted in the Chronicle. Faculty sit at tables, their brightly-colored rolling carts by their sides. An elaborate Starbucks-like coffee counter is in the corner, its machines hissing and burbling. Students hover around the outside, waiting to see faculty but not wanting to break into the herd, so to speak. A few have braved the crowd.

Professor X: "I'm glad you came to see me, Stu Dent. I've noticed that you haven't been coming to class much lately."

Stu Dent: "mumble"

Professor Y to student at the next table: "I can lend you a copy of that--oh, wait, I don't have any books on campus any more."

Professor X: "I'm sorry, but I couldn't hear you. Can you tell me again?"

Stu Dent: (very quiet voice) "It's been rough at home, because my mother has ca--"

Barista: "MOCHACHINO UP!"

Stu Dent looks nervous, but continues: "cancer, and she hasn't been doing well lately--"

At the next table, a cell phone rings, and Professor M answers it: "HELLO? REALLY? SHE THREW UP AGAIN? I THOUGHT WHEN I DROPPED HER OFF THIS MORNING THAT SHE'D BE ALL RIGHT."

Professor X, trying to be encouraging: "That must be really hard. Well, on the assignment you missed the other day--"

Professor M: "DOES SHE HAVE A TEMPERATURE? ARE YOU SURE? OKAY, I'LL BE THERE IN HALF AN HOUR TO PICK HER UP."

Stu Dent: "I wanted to talk to you about that one, because [words drowned out in the noise from the steaming machine]"

Professor X: "I'm sorry, what?"

Professor N, who's been watching The Daily Show on his laptop with the volume low, now erupts in laughter.

Barista: "LATTE UP!"

At this point, Professor Y and the student are trying, but failing, not to look at/listen to the conversation of Professor X and Stu Dent.

Stu Dent: "Never mind. See you in class."

And--scene.

Disclaimer: This post in no way is meant to insult mothers, coffee drinkers, students, Daily Show watchers, professors, or baristas, but you get the picture.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Writing Inspiration: Squad Goals


All across the country, academics are saying "there, that's done!," turning in grades, looking up, stretching their arms, and saying "Writing? Bring it on!"

Or some version of that. Because we're an academic squad, yes we are, and we're ready to get moving.

I don't want to make a list here of all that I want to get accomplished because (a) I don't want to bore you all and (b) as xykademiqz so eloquently pointed out a few weeks ago, a list like this would make me run screaming in the other direction.

So what are some more general goals?
  •  Limit your email time. I know, I know--this is advice we get and give anyway. But in the summer, unless you're teaching or have an admin job, you really can do this. As much as you can, ignore it.
  • Think about this: who's paying you this summer? If you're on a 9-month contract, YOU are paying you this summer, in the form of savings or however you've managed to figure out finances so you can live.  You are paying yourself to do the writing, and you are your own boss. So don't forget: all those lofty statements about "we can work on this departmental initiative over the summer" or emails that might as well have the header "let's discuss this contentious issue in long, irate, time-consuming threads" are asking you to stop working for pay (for yourself) and asking you to work for free. 
  • Write when you feel like it as well as when you're supposed to.  Boice, Silva, et al. make a big point of telling you to get writing at a regular time and then stop. But what if your ideas are still flowing at night even after you know you have to go to bed? Take out that notebook and do some writing so you won't forget it tomorrow. I read one time that George Sand, after a full day of strolling around Paris in pantaloons, negotiating contracts with her publishers, attending literary parties, and spending some time with her current lover, used to leave poor Chopin or whoever sleeping in her bed while she put on a dressing gown, went to her writing table, and wrote for a while. Let George Sand be your inspiration. 
  • Identify your rewards. Too much carrot-and-stick planning makes writing feel more onerous, but surely there's something you can promise yourself if you get done with what you'd like to do. Writing the word count down is a small reward, but maybe something like reorganizing books that desperately need it (an activity that's totally a procrastination strategy if you don't watch out) would be a good one. 
What would you add?