Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Writing Lessons from Groundhog Day


 Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don't forget your booties because it's COLD out there today!

So remembering the "writing in the morning is best" mantra, you beat your head against the stone wall of a few paragraphs for several hours until they loosen up slightly.

You do this over and over again.  Eventually, your eyes are watering so much that you can't see the screen.

You check your email, having turned it off as part of the "good writing demands concentration" mantra. You realize that a whole conversation is going on between a couple of your collaborators, who are never, ever off email, ever, and that they've been demanding answers from you for a couple of hours now.

You look at the list of stuff you failed to do today and that you cannot do tomorrow because of being on campus. Fail, fail, fail.

What can you do?

First, you can give up and watch Groundhog Day, since you can't see to write any more anyway.

Second, you can take a lesson from the movie.

No, not this one, although it certainly feels true every February: "It's going to be cold, and it's going to be gray, and it's going to last you the rest of your life."

It's this: if you make incremental change, even just a tiny bit every day, eventually you will get there.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Random bullets of oh-please-don't-let-it-be-nearly-February

  • Historiann nails it, as usual, by calling out the gendered mommy politics of "Hillary, can you excite us?".  I am sick to death of this "yeah, but she's not exciting" argument. "Not exciting," even if it's true (it's not), is a refreshing change from the Trump wackaloonery spectacle--or, as John Scalzi calls it, the "howling sampler box of Dunning-Kruger that is the current GOP field."  I'll be happy with any of the three Dems--there, I've said it--but would remind the "exciting" crowd that George McGovern was exciting and inspiring to hear, too, in 1972, and that got us the infamous "four more years" of Nixon.  Nader voters got to be all pure and pious in 2000, and I don't have to remind you how that one went.
  • I am so far behind with projects that I need a time machine (a Tardis?) to catch up. I got up at 5 to write but wanted to write this blog post instead. That will inspire me, won't it? 
  • I recently read the comments on my student evaluations, which were down slightly on the numbers in one class. The written comments were mostly really good, though, except for some that dinged me for telling them that they needed to write in complete sentences and use punctuation. Their other teachers think this is completely bananas and that only ideas should count, I was informed. So noted.
  • Time to get to work.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Procrastination: not the thief of time but the generator of creativity

At the New York Times, Adam Grant suggests not being a "pre-crastinator" but a procrastinator. He used to write everything weeks or months in advance but was convinced by a study that procrastination can actually help your creativity.

The short version: if you know you have to do something but put it off for a bit (but don't wait until the last minute), the ideas that emerge are likely to be more creative.

And some epic procrastinators are in this boat with you:
Steve Jobs procrastinated constantly, several of his collaborators have told me. Bill Clinton has been described as a “chronic procrastinator” who waits until the last minute to revise his speeches. Frank Lloyd Wright spent almost a year procrastinating on a commission, to the point that his patron drove out and insisted that he produce a drawing on the spot. It became Fallingwater, his masterpiece. Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter behind “Steve Jobs” and “The West Wing,” is known to put off writing until the last minute. When Katie Couric asked him about it, he replied, “You call it procrastination, I call it thinking.”
I'm hoping this works, since I've been taking care of a family member all week and haven't touched email or writing, despite deadlines. Time to face the music and dig in--but here's hoping that today, when I do, the ideas will be all the better for it. 

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

More writing inspiration from three prolific and popular authors: Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Scalzi

Here's some writing inspiration from prolific and popular authors, from what I've been reading during my lunch breaks. Lunch reading cannot be work reading, and that's when the library's electronic books are a godsend.
1. I've just finished Stephen King's On Writing, and it is as good as everyone has said it is. The only Stephen King novel I've ever read was The Shining, years ago in The Land of No Internets, but even if you're not a horror/suspense fan, the evocation of his early life and his writing life are really interesting.  A few specifics:
    • Write every day--and don't do anything else until you get your targeted writing completed. He writes every morning and aims for 2,000 words a day, which he generally achieves by lunchtime.  Afternoons are for exercise, chores, etc. and evening is for reading.  He gives a long list (updated in this edition) of people he's read and considers to be good.
    • King says that if you don't write every day, you risk having the thing go stale. Press ahead even if you don't know about the background; you can check on that later. 
    • Once you have the manuscript done, during which time you've shown it to no one but may have an ideal reader in mind, leave it in a desk drawer for 6 weeks. Go work on something else until you've almost forgotten it. Then take it out of the drawer and read it with a fresh perspective.
    • For one of his books after the accident that nearly killed him, King used what he called the best wordprocessor in the world: a Waterman cartridge fountain pen. Pen geeks among you will be disappointed that he didn't say which model, but still: fountain pen!
All this sounds really flat, but he says everything more entertainingly in the book.

2. Next up is John Scalzi, who wrote this today in what he probably wouldn't have tagged "writing inspiration"--but it sure is. Those of you who follow Scalzi know he's a prolific Twitterer, blogger, etc., as well as a novelist, so this marks a change for him:
I also think it also has to do with a certain amount of habituation, i.e., if I’m checking email, by brain just goes “Oh, we’re on the Internet now,” and just fires up those parts of my brain that work on the Internet. These do not, by and large, correspond to the novel writing parts of my brain.
How to deal with this? Well, I’ve made a new rule, which really isn’t a new rule, but kind of an update rule. And the rule is: before 2,000 words or noon, whichever comes first, no Internet at all. No blog, no Twitter, no Facebook, no email, no checking the news. When I sit down at the computer (usually around 8am), I disconnect it from the network. I leave the cell phone in the other room (and unless you’re my wife, daughter, editor or agent, if you call the landline, it’s not going to get picked up, either). No Internet. At all.
 3. What to say about Joyce Carol Oates, whose productivity puts us all (except maybe Anthony Grafton) to shame? I've just started her memoir The Lost Landscape and will report back soon. Until then, here are some bullet points from a video I wrote about before in which she discusses writing:
--She can "basically write all day long."
--She writes every day, as soon as she can, even before 7 a.m.
--She looks out the window and her cat keeps her company.
--Revision is "exciting and relaxing."
--Writing is "thrilling."
4. And finally, a different sort of writing inspiration: reading inspiration. Hugh McGuire, at Medium, identifies a problem:
And so, the problem, more or less, is identified:
1.  I cannot read books because my brain has been trained to want a constant hit of dopamine, which a digital interruption will provide.
2. This digital dopamine addiction means I have trouble focusing: on books, work, family and friends
Problem identified, or most of it. There is more. 
And his solution:
And so, starting in January, I started making some changes. The key ones are:
  1. No more Twitter, Facebook, or article reading during the work day (hard)
  2. No reading of random news articles (hard)
  3. No smartphones or computers in the bedroom (easy)
  4. No TV after dinner (it turns out, easy)
  5. Instead, go straight to bed and start reading a book — usually on an eink ereader (it turns out, easy)

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Happy New Year, writing inspiration, and the boulder in the cellar

Happy New Year! The resolutions and memes are still going strong:
Planning a process for planning another process. Bickering over semantics in a committee meeting, or worse: group-writing policy statements (LIGHT ME ON FIRE NOW). All of these steal our time.
 I didn't write as much last year because most of the year was taken up with smaller projects, a collaborative project, and the Laocoon manuscript, which meant lot of rewriting and revising but not as many new words.

As this blog's long-suffering readers know, the Laocoon manuscript took years of writing, editing, and fretting. It's now at the publisher (page proofs are coming next month), so it'll be out this year.

 But having that boulder of a manuscript meant that I always knew what I was supposed to be doing next.  There's an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show where Rob and Laura Petrie want to buy a house that seems perfect -- until they see the giant boulder that's in the cellar. It can't be moved and is a fixture in the house that they see every time they go into the cellar. It's an obstacle, true, but it's their obstacle, and they learn to structure their cellar around it. That's the Laocoon manuscript: the beloved obstacle that allowed me to focus on it and structure my writing space for the past few years.

But now, the Laocoon manuscript is gone, and this leaves me with the problem of the empty writing cellar. What do I do when I go to the writing space? Which project should I work on first? I have some promised essays to work on, some with deadlines that are quite soon, but I had those alongside the Laocoon manuscript, too. They don't take the place of the boulder, so to speak.

I'm starting by transcribing (to 750words & hence the research journal) a lot of the handwritten material that I wrote in the Moleskine notebook last year, omitting anything that went into the book revisions. It's the fancy kind that supposedly works with Evernote and is searchable if you take pictures of the pages, but I have never been able to make it recognize my handwriting.

I used to save the Moleskines for special notes and then realized I never wrote in them. Last year, I took to carrying the Moleskine everywhere and putting everything in it--schedules, conference notes, to-do lists, comments on books and movies, and daily records. Not all of it is going to be useful, but maybe it'll help as I look for the next boulder in the cellar.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

New Year's Resolutions: Read better stuff. Work better. Live better.

Both GetaLifePhD (" How to become more creative, focused, relaxed, and productive") and Fie have recently posted New Year's resolutions, so I'm inspired to do the same. Basically, they're all in the title of this post.

1. Read better stuff. When did reading an actual book turn into a commitment rather than a pleasure? Was it reading for work in grad school?

Somehow, clicking on one more internet listicle news seems to ward off the work of opening a book, when the book makes you feel better, is more informative, and is less likely to result in rage at rampant stupidity, bad facts, and worse grammar.

Some books are work, true, but it's more the commitment of time than anything else that leads to stupid internet reading. "I only have 5 minutes, so let me check the news," I say, but how much better spent that 5 minutes would be if I read something real instead of fake--or something that, if it's real, makes me feel enraged and helpless in the face of the events.

2. Work better. After the big push of a collaborative project in the fall, I haven't done much for the past couple of weeks. It's time to get moving--back to the gym (did so today, so hooray) and back to writing. How is this working better? A new year, a new Moleskine, and a new shot at a 750words.com 30-day challenge about writing every day, maybe, will help with those January deadlines.

3. Live better.  The simple version of this is pretty basic: move more, eat less, sleep more, fret less. But maybe it's even simpler than that.
  • What makes you happy? 
  • What makes you feel creative?
  • What are you proud of being able to do, even if it's something no one else would care about?
  • Was there some incident or you came through with flying colors? Keep it in your mind as a talisman against worse moods or bad times.  
  • Someone's being a jerk? Take your hands off that man.




Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Post-holidays roundup

    • Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
    • Turning into a cooking and cleaning machine for a couple of weeks is my favorite part of Christmas, except for seeing family, which is, of course, the reason I do it. Honest.  I love seeing people eat what I cook and bake. I love doing laundry and picking up.  I love the idea that if I don't bestir myself, there'll be hungry people milling around the kitchen wondering where dinner is and that nobody can get out of the driveway if I don't shovel it every day.  They offer to help, but I choose to do it. There's a beginning and an end point to it, and it's just very satisfying, probably because I can go back to wrestling with writing refreshed at the end of the two weeks. It's a good workout, too--I am really tired at the end of the day-- and, unlike the also invisible work of administration, people are grateful that you do it. 
    • You can think about all the foods that you don't have to make or eat any more when you sing holiday songs. "So bring us a figgy pudding"--uh, no thanks. 
    • It's easier to ignore the news and (justifiable) endless outrage on Twitter, if you're too busy to look at it. 
    • Ditto for ignoring email, which I've been happily doing for more than a week. Grade-grubbers? Contact me in January, for you are not getting a response to the email you sent on December 24. 
    • Sometimes I dance a little happy dance at the thought that I am not going to MLA this year. 
    • Speaking of MLA, it does not have good tidings of great joy this year. From Inside Higher Ed:
    "The MLA's annual report on its Job Information List has found that in 2014-15, it had 1,015 jobs in English, 3 percent fewer than the previous year. The list had 949 jobs in foreign languages, 7.6 percent fewer than 2013-14. This is the third straight year of decline in jobs listed with the MLA. And those declines have reversed the gains made in English and foreign language jobs after the severe declines that hit the disciplines after the economic downturn that started in 2008. The low point for jobs in that economic downturn was 2009-10. But the job totals for English this year are 7.7 percent below the English positions of 2009-10. The job totals for foreign languages are 7.3 percent below those of 2009-10."