Friday, April 29, 2016

Writing inspiration: Hemingway again

From David Brooks's column on Hemingway's house in Cuba, with commentary in italics (I know it's David Brooks, but give it a chance):

1. When you see how [Hemingway] did it, three things leap out. The first is the most mundane — the daily disciplines of the job. In the house, there is a small bed where he laid out his notes and a narrow shelf where he stood, stared at a blank wall and churned out his daily word count. Sometimes it seems to have been the structure of concrete behavior — the professional routines — that served as a lifeline when all else was crumbling.

Worth remembering, those "daily disciplines of the job." This has been a tough week at Northern Clime, but the routines--even writing when I could manage it--have helped. 

2. Second, there seem to have been moments of self-forgetting. Dorothy Sayers has an essay in which she notes it’s fashionable to say you do your work to serve the community. But if you do any line of work for the community, she argues, you’ll end up falsifying your work, because you’ll be angling it for applause. You’ll feel people owe you something for your work. But if you just try to serve the work — focusing on each concrete task and doing it the way it’s supposed to be done — then you’ll end up, obliquely, serving the community more. Sometimes the only way to be good at a job is to lose the self-consciousness embedded in the question, “How’m I doing?”

Dorothy L. Sayers has a good point. Ultimately, you have to write what you think or know or believe is true, which is what Hemingway always talked about--"the true gen." You have to do what's right and focus on the task at hand even if some necessary unhappiness results. "Serve the work."  You're not going to be applauded, but if you're protecting others, or your work, you need to keep going.  

And if others don't like what you're doing or writing, think about it: what's their perspective or interest? Where are they coming from? Is their opinion valid, relevant, and ethically in tune with what you're trying to do? Do they wish you and your work well, or do they have a different agenda in mind? 

Maya Angelou once said,  "When people show you who they are, believe them." Their response to your work or your actions is conditioned by who they are, just as yours is. Believe who they are, and consider whether the power you're giving them over your words or actions is warranted.  

3. Finally, there was the act of cutting out. When Hemingway was successful, he cut out his mannerisms and self-pity. Then in middle age, out of softness, laziness and self-approval, he indulged himself. But even then, even amid all the corruption, he had flashes when he could distinguish his own bluster from the good, true notes.

Flashes, yes, although there's still a lot of bluster and self-pity in some late Hemingway. What he seems to have hated is that for stretches he couldn't distinguish the false from the true or, even worse, when he knew what he was writing was false and couldn't write truly (a Hemingway phrase). Valerie Hemingway's Running with the Hemingways gives a good account of some of those last years, when it seems that no one dared to stand up to him. Standing up to Hemingway might have made him unhappy, but it might also have resulted in better and truer work. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Springtime Festivus

What happens every spring? No, not baseball. No, not daffodils, although they happen, too.

Spring, and especially the end of the semester, is the time when otherwise sensible and rational academics get. . .touchy.

Minor slights become major affronts that demand action.  Discussion lists and Facebook blossom with testy demands for accountability.

Letters and petitions flourish about matters that a face-to-face conversation could solve. Sides are chosen and colleagues demand that you join them or else be held accountable for not caring enough.
Escalation becomes the norm, and old injuries, real or perceived, are brought out for their annual airing. It's a springtime Festivus.

I'm not talking about the social issues that are genuinely causes to protest, but rather things like "how come the professors on one floor get green staplers and we have to settle for red ones?"

I'm exaggerating, of course, but I get caught up in this, too.  A few years back, I recognized that it's a pattern and now earnestly try to keep my mouth shut and, if that doesn't work, to "take my hands off that" problem.

Have you noticed this, or is it just my end-of-semester crankiness clouding my judgment? Or should we be more attentive to these issues all the time instead of just in the spring?



Monday, April 18, 2016

Does luck play a role in academe? Absolutely.

Figure 1. Walter White in Breaking Bad
At The Chronicle, "Do You Know How Lucky You Are?" asks that very question. (It's behind the paywall, unfortunately, so the first piece of luck would be actually getting access to the article.)

The author, Robert H. Frank, explains that if John Cusack and Matthew Broderick hadn't turned down the role of Walter White on Breaking Bad,  the world might never have gotten the chance to see the brilliant performances that Bryan Cranston gave in that show.

Frank, a tenured professor, says that luck played a large role in his life as well, from being hired as part of an unusually large cohort of tenure-track faculty at Cornell to the success of his publications. As one proposed essay collection falls through, he submits the essay to one of the most prestigious journals in the field, and it's accepted. He extends the argument in another essay, sends it to another prestigious journal, and bingo, it's accepted, too.

Now obviously, as Louis Pasteur said, "fortune favors the prepared mind," but luck plays a significant role as well.

Maybe you send an article on, say, the aesthetics of lawn-mower blades to the Journal of Lawn-Trimming Aesthetics and the editor has just said to him/herself, "You know, we haven't done an issue on trimming tools for a while."  Is that luck, or is it the zeitgeist, or maybe both?

Or you meet someone at a conference who happens to be putting together a collection.

Or your manuscript is turned down by one press only to be published by a better one.

Of course, Frank only talks about good luck, not bad luck.  I still wonder what would have happened way back in 2007 if I hadn't been rushing off to class when Major University Press contacted me. About what, you ask? I never found out.

Can you think of times when luck played a part in your career?

Friday, April 08, 2016

The Masked Avenger: an extension of "A Good Little Girl"

I was blown away by xykademiqz's fabulous post "A Good Little Girl," which I had somehow missed the first time around. Go read it. You won't be sorry.  Here's the heart of the matter:
The good little girl is in danger of a) doing much more service then necessary, b) doing much more or more laborious teaching than the colleagues who are not good little girls, c) generally being misinformed about what all that teaching and service really do for her career, because everyone expects her to act as a good little girl and, at the same time, thinks less of her for doing so.
nicoleandmaggie point out in the comments that women do this because study after study shows that they are punished more for not doing all the extra service, etc.

Now, this is hypothetical, because all my colleagues are and have ever been lovely human beings, but I've alluded a few times here to those who would impose, if possible, by making excessive demands for service, or would make life complicated because they are very special and shouldn't have to answer emails, or would, in an "office commons" situation, manage to be so unpleasant that others would give in just to shut them up. (We have offices at Northern Clime, so this is truly theoretical.)

But there is hope because there are Masked Avengers out there, and I am one.

The Masked Avenger is a senior-in-rank person who wants to see justice done. Ze is not going to be bullied, in part because ze is senior and has no more--well, you know--to give. Ze is unimpressed by rudeness, even by "God, PhD."

And the Masked Avengers are on a mission. They--I--want to see equity and fairness, even in the petty things, where often times unpleasant behavior pays off when people give in so that the unpleasant person will shut up and go away.  They take it on so you don't have to, maybe taking on administrative or service tasks that allow this protection of juniors to happen.

We Masked Avengers can't make your life massively better, because we don't always have that power.  But we are out there, and we are legion, and we have your back.

Are you a Masked Avenger in your department? Do you have one in your department?

Monday, April 04, 2016

Dear Ms. Undine does not tolerate April fools

Dear Ms. Undine,

Why do people like to play April Fool's Day pranks? Especially computer pranks, like Google's failed mic drop?

Signed, Pranked

Dear Pranked,

Ms. Undine has never quite understood this.  Mark Twain said (in Pudd'nhead Wilson) that on this day we're reminded of what we actually are during the other 364, but that's not a good enough reason.

Frankly, Ms. Undine thinks that the computer manufacturers play enough pranks on us every year, making us play hide and seek to find the features we depend on with each new iteration of software (looking at you, Microsoft Office) and with each new version of hardware (looking at you, Apple.  I have enough Mac dongles to make myself a hula skirt by stitching them together, and you just introduced a new connector?). If we had one "stable computer day" every April 1, now there would be a holiday to celebrate.

As for the other pranks: well, apparently human beings love humor better if it is crude and/or cruel, which is why we invented the internet after we made bear-baiting illegal.


Dear Ms. Undine,

I think you are a hypocrite.  After making fun of the awesome Cue Cat, you bought one recently. Why?

Signed,
Inspector Gadget

Dear Gadget,

Because all the lovely commenters on that post said it would be good for LibraryThing, that's why.  I haven't tried it yet, but I have already rounded up little catnip toys for it to chase.  It's the only non-rectangular thing on my desk and is already a fine distraction. Go Go Gadget Paws!


Dear Ms. Undine,

You write about mid-century male writers sometimes.  What did you think of Gay Talese's recent comment that he couldn't think of any women writers that inspired him?

Signed,
Surprised and Outraged

Dear Surprised and Outraged,

Figure 1. Supposedly Frank Sinatra, but maybe Gay Talese.
You should only be one of those (outraged), because how could you be surprised?

Ms. Undine admits that she had classed Gay Talese in her mental memory bank as a 1960s Esquire writer, sort of a ring-a-ding-ding generation Jonathan Franzen, who wrote something about wife-swapping way back in the day. He was brought up in a generation when it would have been a manly point of pride not to have read any women authors, and a look at his Google books just now suggests that that hasn't changed much.

In other words, Ms. Undine thinks this is a tempest in a gin bottle.  She recommends that women writers forget him right back and quit worrying about it since  there are bigger fish to fry, like this year's VIDA count. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Conferences and other things

  1. When you go to a huge conference that you've never been to before, where your field is only a small part of the conference and there are multiple panels devoted to things you never even knew people studied, it's wonderful.  You don't feel obligated to attend every possible panel but can wander around and enjoy the city.
  2. You can also drop into some of those panels totally unrelated to your field and just enjoy the presentations that sound interesting. You might learn something about Fountain Pen Studies or Wookie Genealogy or the Numerological Symbolism of  Divination Techniques that will be useful, but you don't have to. It's a wonderful feeling. 
  3. Here's an etiquette question: say you're one of 4 people in an audience, and the other three are obviously friends of the three presenters.  A question gets raised about a work you know well, and the presenters and audience are all agog with the implications of this question, which they've obviously never heard about before, though it's a routine one in the criticism. Do you (1) raise your hand and explain this or (2) sit on your hands and keep your mouth shut, since you know they'll figure it out if they research it? I chose (2) because I didn't want to be That Person, but I wonder if I did the right thing. 
  4. Because of the conference and other matters mostly relating to the book, my writing streak is seriously broken, but I'm getting back to it today.  
  5. Huffington Post distilled the New Yorker piece on writing inspiration down to a 10-point listicle for the TL;DR crowd, but I can't link to it because I have never clicked on a HuffPo link that went where it said it was going to go. HuffPo is as bad as the other aggregators with the click-n-switch annoyance, so I don't want to subject you to the same frustration. 
  6. The Amazon Dash, the "awesome Cue Cat of 2015" that I wrote about last year, is real, and Amazon is extending it to things like breath mints (insert your own joke here) and cat litter. By the way, I think there is a market for packaging cat litter in smaller packages, because elderly people have a hard time lifting the 35-40 lb. packages that the rest of us carry around. Even if they can get it to their cars with the help of the grocery store baggers, they can't carry it into the house. 
  7. One of the sessions listed in #2 is something I actually attended.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Writing inspiration: dreams, creativity, and process edition

Some writing inspiration ahead.

First of all, Maria Konnikova's "How to Beat Writer's Block" at The New Yorker sums the research up in a nutshell. Here are two especially good parts:
“I think one must trust the writing process. Understand that creativity requires nonlinearity and unique associative combinations,” he says. “Creative people do a lot of trial and error and rarely know where they are going exactly until they get there.”
That, in the end, seems to be the main message of research into writer’s block: It’s useful to escape from external and internal judgment—by writing, for instance, in a dream diary, which you know will never be read—even if it’s only for a brief period.
 I'm glad to hear this. I started keeping a dream journal of sorts about four years ago, and while I can't prove that it's helped, simply writing things down seems to have made things better. I don't write the dreams down here, usually (some exceptions: the Mad Men writing group, hiking dreams, and blog wonderland), but a lot of times I dream in movies--that is, watching a movie that I wrote and directed. Sometimes they're just comic skits but more often whole movies. Move over, Stephen Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.

Seriously, though, the stories I tell myself in my dreams have, I think, gotten less formulaic and more creative since I've been writing them down, and writing while dreaming has to help with writing while not unconscious.

And recently the whole work process has gotten easier--lots of ideas and a willingness to work on them.  There's still a little dither and blather early in the morning, but this week (spring break) I've been moving from writing on Thing 1 to revising Project A to drafting Project B to editing project C. And I want to work on them. That's the most amazing part.

What's working?
  1. Reconciling myself to the idea that, rain or shine, the only time I want--really want--to write new and creative things is after 7 p.m. and deciding that it's okay to do other things (edit, revise) before that. If you sit down to do it every day, who cares if it's 7 p.m. or 7 a.m.? 
  2. Building in little breaks with Pomodoro. Sometimes when I've been concentrating on a paragraph or sentence, even a couple of minutes of distraction (news sites, a glass of water, putting in a load of laundry) sends me back to it with a fresh perspective. 
  3. Logging the work, in the spreadsheet and in a little time notebook that I've been keeping. 
  4. Getting the reward of an X in the box at 750words.com. 
Nicoleandmaggie have the second in their series of writing productivity posts up; go read it.  Unless someone forces me, I'm always going to fail on two of the measures: (1) drinking coffee (never learned how) and (2) writing in the morning. But this week is showing me that those aren't the only ways to go.