by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Writing”

I'm All Written Out

Posted 7 July 2008 in by Catriona

Finally, for no reason that I can determine, my putative journal article has decided to stop resisting me and has fallen, more or less, into easy lines.

Is that a mixed metaphor? I don’t suppose it matters much here. At any rate, I’ve added today around three thousand words to what’s feeling as though it might be a passable draft.

I’ve come to terms, more or less, with the fluctuations of my writing process.

I know enough now to never resist those moments when everything suddenly falls into place and it’s simply a matter of whether you can get the words on the page before the inspiration passes—but those moments never do come regularly enough.

I know that there’s always a sticky place for me at the beginning of any project: a point where the words simply won’t come and the writing has no cohesion, where I can’t even see the shape of the argument in front of me.

I know, too, that that moment inevitably passes, but that I can never force it to pass. It’s not a sign that I haven’t done enough research; I can feel now when that’s the problem. It’s a different stumbling block—perhaps a form of writer’s block?—and I know neither what causes it nor anyway to get around it other than perseverance. But the perseverance is never a pleasure; it’s pushing against an immovable object or, if I can draw from mythology (or Albert Camus, perhaps) for a moment, endlessly trying to roll a boulder up a cliff face.

But then, the process has shifted so frequently in recent years that I can only assume that this, too, will pass.

I did two good things for my writing, neither of which was initially easy: first my Masters degree, then teaching academic and professional writing.

I don’t think, to be honest, that I was a poor writer before I began teaching those courses. I have a better opinion of my boss than to believe she would continue to hire me if that were the case.

But I’m a significantly better writer now than then.

(Don’t necessarily judge me on the quality of the blog. Unless you think it’s fabulous. In which case, judge away!)

But this is a new challenge. I’m not writing a journal article that feels from the start like a short, self-contained work. I’m boiling down a 17,000-word chapter into a shorter, tighter argument—and it was a pretty tight argument to begin with. (At least, I certainly could have blown it out in several areas, but restrained myself.)

No: it’s not even as simple as that. Because anyone reading that chapter would already have the background material from three preceding chapters and my literature review. (Oh, literature review. How I hated writing you! But we found a way to make you interesting, didn’t we? Thanks to a Jonathan Rose article.) So I’m selecting material from those, as well, where it’s necessary to the argument.

And the thesis itself was big enough; I did keep it as tight as I could, but with over one hundred works by my author, I had to exercise restraint in selection and take the fullest advantage of the word limit.

And, of course, I’m fretting constantly that I’m not providing enough context. That’s the downside to working on an unknown author: it would be much easier to work on an unusual aspect of Dickens’s career, though perhaps not as satisfying. (When was the last time an unknown Dickens work was added to the canon?)

So this has been a new challenge. Not a new challenge in the same sense as live-blogging, but hopefully one that will be more productive in the long run.

Unless there’s some way that I could make a living live-blogging Doctor Who.

I love my current job, but that would be, dare I say it, fantastic.

Further Frustrations for the Working Day

Posted 2 July 2008 in by Catriona

Listening to Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez is blocking the noise of the gravel shovelling and calming me down.

My cup of coffee is hyping me up.

As a result, my brain is vibrating helplessly between the two states, which doesn’t aid the construction of lucid, elegant prose.

The process is something like this:

CALM: What a soothing piece of music. Ah! I remember! I need that section from chapter two to make this argument flow more smoothly . . .

HYPED: No! That’s ridiculous. Hey! Hey! Hey! No, pay attention! Hey! Hey! D’you know what would be fun? If we played tennis! That would be fun, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it? Ooh, shiny thing. No, wait—it’s not that shiny. But that’s shiny! That’s really shiny. Wait, was that a noise? Was there a noise behind me? Was it a spider? I bet it was a spider. Hey! Hey! No, pay attention! Hey! Want to play tennis?

It’s like having a toddler in your head.

I’m sure I used to be productive. I’m fairly sure, in addition, that that period of productivity was only last week.

I wish I could remember how I did that.

What Ivory Tower?

Posted 2 July 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve made the point a couple of times—as have, of course, many people before me, as I mentioned in that post—that far from existing in an ivory tower removed from reality, much academic work takes place among a myriad of irritations.

Take today, for instance. So far, my attempts to continue an article on adaptations of nineteenth-century serials to the mid-Victorian suburban stage have gone something like this:

Wake up. Don’t enjoy waking up, but it has to be done. Still, a cup of coffee is always a good way to go.

Have a cup of coffee. Think about having another cup of coffee, but realise I haven’t finished the first one yet, so it’s probably a bit soon.

Work off some excess energy (from all the coffee) by playing Wii Tennis for fifteen minutes.

Play around on my social-networking sites briefly, trying to find a raincloud for a set in Packrat, as well as moderating and responding to comments on the blog.

Start a debate with Nick on Pownce about whether it would be advisable to have the same actor playing the Doctor for twenty years of Doctor Who. Since we both think this would be a bad idea, the debate is rather futile, but that’s all right—it segues into a fairly snarky discussion of who knows what about folkloric beliefs regarding human eyes.

Have another cup of coffee.

This is standard morning routine, and I’m ready to work by about 9 a.m.

Settle down to the draft—hovering at a fairly useless 1300 words—and realise I need to put a load of washing on.

Choose bed linen, because I’ve just realised I have to clean out the spare room—currently a repository for electrical equipment—and make the bed up before my parents arrive next week.

Come back to the draft, which hasn’t grown any longer in the interim.

Realise there’s a man next door doing something with an enormous pile of gravel, which makes an irregular but frustrating noise when he starts shovelling it.

Reach a possible breakthrough on reorganising the chapter.

Get a message on Facebook, reiterating this argument about whether French dictionaries are boring. Answer brusquely but resolve to ignore any responses.

Realise the washing machine is beeping, meaning it’s developed a problem.

Go and fix the problem.

Come back to the draft. Decide where to put the reorganised material, and decide I need to print the draft out to look at it properly.

Realise the washing machine is now chiming, meaning the cycle is finished.

Put the washing out, put a new load on.

E-mail my draft to myself so I can access it from Nick’s machine and print it out. Wonder why I can’t print from my machine.

Hear the man with the shovel and the gravel move around so he is now directly under my study windows.

Answer a phone call from my mother, who wants to know if I want the papers stored in her spare-room wardrobe. Decide it’s best simply for her to bring them all up next week and sort them out here.

Realise the damn washing machine is beeping again, but I’m still on the phone.

Start to worry that my mother is going to run through every item in the wardrobe over the phone, so ask her to stick everything in a box and bring it all up.

Hang up, and worry I’ve been brusque with my mother.

Restart the washing machine.

Get back to printing out the draft. Safari won’t load, so I can’t access the e-mail. Force quit Safari, and realise the washing machine is beeping again.

Restart the washing machine.

Print out the draft.

Realise the damn washing machine is beeping again.

Curse the washing machine, the person who invented washing machines, the manufacturers of this particular washing machine, and the people who sold it to us.

Realise I’m going to have to fill the washing machine manually, with a bucket.

Sit down with the draft.

Washing machine beeps again.

Restart the machine again. Contemplate running away to join the circus—but not as laundress.

Sit down with the draft, locate the section where I want to add more material, write “Furthermore,”.

Hear the washing machine beep. This time, it can’t decide between hot and cold water. Hit the “Warm” button: machine starts working. Wonder why it couldn’t figure that out on its own; realise its CPU has been exclusively devoted to a range of irritating beeps.

Think about having another cup of coffee.

Decide blogging is a safer alternative.

Of course, a lot of this comes about because I’m working at home and trying to do a little light housework on the side. Much of this could be avoided if I were to work in my office—but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

But if anyone finds an ivory tower—at a reasonable rate, of course—would they let me know?

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