02 March 2015

Spring Breaking and Spring Mending

The academic calendar tells me this is spring break. The all-day snow yesterday suggests that the "spring" modifier is perhaps a little ahead of itself, but the break from my everyday schedule is as advertised.

As is the case with most academics, there's not much "break" in my break, in the sense of vacation, but it is something different for a few days, and on the heels of a frigid February, that'll do. My plans for the week involve writing two conference papers and putting together my AWP presentation. Planning and writing new scholarly papers is a task both daunting and refreshing, and when I can put the intimidated feeling on the back-burner, I am reminded of this oft-quoted sentiment from Brenda Ueland:
“I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten—happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another. ”
~from If You Want to Write
I feel that way much more with scholarly writing than with my novel. That's likely because my scholarly writing must start with some defined line of inquiry; the conference abstract has already been submitted, so I'd better go on writing the paper around the idea I submitted. Perhaps it's my particular area of research—Anglo-Saxon studies, which is well-loved and well-studied, particularly with regard to the texts I love most—but I don't feel like I'm "discovering" anything. If anything, the bead metaphor is more apt still: I'm sitting beside the same box of beads as everyone else, threading them together in a hopefully pleasing pattern. Hopefully no one else is stringing together the exact same colors in the exact same sequence, but at the end of the day, the beads will be recognizable as beads, even if I've managed to find some bits of bone and shell to add, too.

This is not to categorize all scholarly writing in this way—just my own. I know I've read scholarship that felt like Byron on the mountaintop, and I'm grateful to it. My own process simply seems quieter than that. Maybe it's because of the contrast I feel when I shift between genres, from scholarship to novel and back. With the novel, even one with a historical timeline and a significant number of pre-set events, it doesn't feel like beads most of the time. Sometimes it does, mornings of quiet productivity where the manuscript is somehow two thousand words longer than it was the day before, and the scene has transitioned, and everything proceeds apace.

More often, though, it feels like making the beads—drilling through bone and shell and glass with nothing but a pen-tip—or chasing each glittering seed as it bounces across the floor (right for the dark space under the stove or refrigerator—or stringing them with eyes closed because I'm not sure how it's all going to look together. I like that feeling, too.


I was smart enough not to plan a slew of grading for the week, but I had to provide another wrinkle: home inspections for a casa we would like to buy. On Thursday afternoon, think good thoughts for me while I'm hanging outside with the home inspector and trying to pretend I'm not freezing to death.


Here are some cool things:

52 Habits: My grad school friend and digital rhetor/Writing Center Director/poet Julie Platt is embarking on a completely ambitious, wholly inspiring, year-long project of cultivating new, positive habits, and her friend Dalyn is also participating. I've been leeching motivation and great ideas from this jawn since January. Check it out.

Every Game A Story: A new series from The Classical. I've joined the editorial staff at The Classical, and here on the brink of baseball season, we're looking for some baseball-centric work. Check out the  new general guidelines, too. Send us some stuff.

15 January 2015

magic hat

This past weekend, we decided to go to a Hershey Bears hockey game (and you can read more about that at The Classical sometime next week). During the preceding days, I was on campus, working to get everything necessary for the semester settled. The process for preparing to teach four classes and direct four creative writing portfolio projects entailed three course redesigns and one curriculum revision, which was a lot, but all of it will be helpful in the long-term.

The week was also, in some ways, a trial of the everyday: timing and morning routine, lunch options, going out into some seriously frigid temperatures and not whining about it too much, getting my office in order. I spent more time than I want to admit to testing out various winter hats, too, because I didn't want my ears to freeze and fall off, and nor did I want my hair to be doing the thing it does when I've worn a hat, even for as short a time as it takes me to get from home to office. The thing that it does is what comedian Elvira Kurt does in the linked clip. (Short version: it's not good.)

The week ended, and Saturday came, and with Saturday, a meeting of the knitting group. Just before walking out the door with a just-started sweater project in my bag, I decided I was going to knit a hat. I was going to knit a hat I had my eye on for more than a year, and I was going to knit it in time to wear to the hockey game. I scrounged around for yarn that would suit the pattern, coming up with a partial skein of bulky, cream-colored wool and a ball of leftover blue laceweight. The blue, I was certain, was more than enough. For the other—the part that would actually become the hat—I could only guess. In my hand, it seemed like it would work.

I knit like a fiend at the meeting, and I knit through one and a half televised hockey games. Around the second period of the Bruins vs. Flyers, I started to get nervous about the amount of yarn I had left. While Pekka Rinne stonewalled nineteen of the first twenty—and eventually thirty-seven of thirty-eight—Minnesota shots, I got really nervous.

Fifteen minutes before we had to leave, I wove in my ends with this much yarn to spare.
Doesn't have to be a lot. Just has to be enough.
The hat itself has proven to be exactly what I wanted it to be, so much so that I am considering making one in another color. 

I don't usually make things that can be done in a day. I gravitate toward fussy things on small needles (socks, lace) or large things on whatever size (blankets, sweaters). For all that they're the first things most people think of, I've knit perilous few scarves and hats, and Saturday's project felt strangely like magic. In the morning, I wanted a hat. In the evening, I had one, and it was one I'd wanted for ages. 

I need to keep remembering how uncomplicated that process can be. All I needed to do was decide. All I needed to do was start.

08 January 2015

resolve: verb

1 : obsolete :  dissolve, melt
the frozen feeling that stays me, the resistance that is not resistance but is fear and not a reference to a Disney movie and not a reference to the weather although it could be and I want that too.
2a : break up, separate ; also :  to change by disintegration
that which I do not want, which is calcification: I will be vinegar when I must, and scour.
2b :  to reduce by analysis
I observe. I assess. I proceed.
2c :  to distinguish between or make independently visible adjacent parts of
myself: I do not need to be all things to all people. I do contain multitudes, but let me know which and when and splay us out like cards from which I choose my own hand or slide us all together, neat edges all decked and whole.
2d :  to separate (a racemic compound or mixture) into the two components
alchemy in reverse: is separation an act of creation?
3 :  to cause resolution of (a pathological state)
This I don't fully understand. I am a novelist. I can lie. I understand. This is resolved.
4a :  to deal with successfully :  clear up
I teach communication in varying ways. I should learn from me, who is more often definition 3 than 4a, which is, at best, B+ work.
4b :  to find an answer to
I tell my students to ask and ask and ask. I am good at the finding, which is far, far easier than the asking.
4c :  to make clear or understandable
myself, to myself
4d :  to find a mathematical solution of
hours and pages and how many more because I want to do more and 1 was the first thing on the list so check it off and solve for x because you knew once how to do that, how to calculate your own algebra and doubt was not a factor then.
4e :  to split up (as a vector) into two or more components especially in assigned directions
can be achieved through trigonometry. draw boxes. know what goes in each. hold only one at a time, except when it is better to hold two or three or stack them into a ziggurat because the edges are square where you've drawn them to be. the angles are true. they don't have to remain two-dimensional or separate because this is only a metaphor and you only need this reminder sometimes.
5 :  to reach a firm decision about
caffeine / running / why I keep trying to like broccoli / what happens at the end 
6 :  to declare or decide by a formal resolution and vote
that I'll make metaphors that will hold water, even inverted, that are as solid as the seams of a freshly careened ship, and it's gotten away on me again
7 :  to make progress from dissonance to consonance
in all aspects
8 :  to work out the resolution of (as a play)
for play is the thing.

31 December 2014

year-end clearance

I spent December digesting what I learned from my November, my mini-NaNoWriMo. In that month, I wrote around 25,000 words, which is only half of the true NaNo goal, but that was fine because I said, quite truthfully, it wasn't my aim to get the full fifty. But I plugged away, and with a correct sort of dedication, and I thought I was really getting somewhere.

In true keeping with my process, what I understood at the month's end was that I'd written most of that chunk simply in order to find the starting place I really needed. From what I'd done in November, I kept some broad strokes—conceptual, plot-based things—and bundled the rest safely into a holding pen with the rest of the false starts.

I've spent this second half of December restarting, again. I want to say that this, this is the correct starting point, but that will only jinx me.


At the end of November and into the beginning of December, just as the semester's end was approaching in its whirlwind wind-up-cool-down push-pull that it always is, I read Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries and was saved, as I have been before, by reading the exact right book at the exact right time. I set one of those reading goals on Goodreads last year, a target number of books to read, and I didn't make it. I don't know if I'll set a target number this year, but I think I will finally settle back down with The Greenlanders because Catton gave me back that thirst for good, big books.


I will probably end up making some manner of resolutions post sooner rather than later, because I like that kind of thing, even when it's predictably ineffective. The hope is sustaining, for a little while, and I've learned that I can talk myself into recreating it again, usually in mid-February, and again toward the end of April, and so on. It's cyclical in my life, the energy for positive change, and I'm starting to recognize that wheel better. (It's a bit ironic that it's taken me this long, being a medievalist and being well-acquainted with Fortune's Wheel and all that, but, well, forests, trees, visually obstructive noses, and so forth.) 

Some of the upswing is mandatory: the spring semester begins in slightly less than two weeks, and there's much to be done between now and then. The resolution game, the cycle, is also part of a scheme to use well the time that I have. My spring usually includes two conferences, the all-absorbing AWP and the smaller, quieter CEA, both of which give me opportunities to present my creative and pedagogical work, to test things out with an audience of comfortable peers. Due to an overabundance of enthusiasm in the fall, I'm also adding NeMLA and the Kalamazoo Medieval Congress to present some new Anglo-Saxon scholarship. All four of these events take place in a six-week span, which overlaps with the last five weeks of the spring semester. The timing isn't exactly ideal, but it's exciting (and a little terrifying) and I will start the rituals for good weather then right now.


Tonight, we're celebrating the turn of the New Year pretty quietly at home, though I am going to make lamb chops for the first time, and individual chocolate cakes with dulce de leche because David Lebovitz has never steered me wrong.

23 November 2014

nostalgia and big stories

There's lots of talk about Dragon Age: Inquisition this week, and while I don't anticipate playing that particular title, it did get me thinking about video games, and every time I think about video games, I think about the Final Fantasy series. It usually happens that I want to immerse myself in an RPG when the weather gets cold, and right now, I'm thinking of Final Fantasy XII. It's not a perfect game, mostly because SquareEnix made the choice to tell the story through another whiny teenage narrator (paging Tidus from FFX) instead of one of the real hearts of the story, but the trappings of it are still so full of imaginative potential that I'll forgive it most things.

It was, too, one of the games that I think wrung every drop of the PS2's graphics ability from the system, and it had a marvelously expansive world. Many people don't want to sink a hundred hours into a video game, but I definitely do, when I play. The difference may be that I don't play often (and I don't play often because I want that expansive, all-encompassing experience, which is completely incompatible with the semester-as-usual + writing a novel). But a well-envisioned world—complete with a thousand side-quests and a well-defined map—is something I will always love. (And, Square, if you're listening, I'd still go see the movie version, from the Fall of Landis all the way through the game's end, at least a dozen times, so you know. And Chris Hemsworth will soon be the right age to play Basch. Just saying.)

Maybe that's why I finally picked up Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, which I got for Christmas last year. I'm not terribly far into it, but I'm already feeling the insulating fiction of it all wrapping around me. Quite a bit of that, I'm certain, is due to the really excellent deployment of an omniscient narrator that has effectively sold me on the 1866 setting. The omniscient narrator, too, has revealed itself as a we, the full identity of such we remaining to be seen. The world of the novel is unfolding slowly and deliciously, and even where some of the character dialogue is predicated on them drawing stories out of each other, it feels appropriate.

I feel awed so few pages in, and I hope the feeling continues.

I'm not sure it was a great idea to start a book of more than eight hundred pages when I've got a Thanksgiving break coming up with a very tall stack of grading in it coming up, but I've made worse decisions.

16 November 2014

halfway to something

It's mid-November, and for all of the folks diligently plugging away with National Novel Writing Month, that means 25,000 words. Maybe it means having reached that mark and a little bit of triumph or a sense of security against less productive days or weeks. Maybe it means a renewed sense of determination to catch up to that fleet wordcount bird. Whatever it means, NaNo swabbers, sail on.

In the first sixteen days, I do have a count for what I've done so far: a little more than 18,000 words. Like I said before, I'm not really trying to hit the 50K mark in earnest, and I'm certainly not aiming for a complete draft, but simply having the everyday connection to the project has made a huge difference. I've even hit the point at which I get impatient for the next bout of writing as soon as the current day's is over.

One cost of that is feeling like I'm wishing time away, something I try very hard not to do. For one, time is already speeding along, every year seemingly faster than the last, and while in a conversation with the young woman who cuts my hair, we decided that every year feels that way. Every year is going to feel that way. There is no point at which the clock finally seems to settle. For the other, I need those daytime hours; it's mid-November, the tipping point of the semester.

(I actually counted the other day: we have only twelve more actual class days before finals week. It doesn't bear thinking about.)

Though the leaves are still stubbornly sticking here and there in thick clumps of gold and red—a stubbornness I much appreciate—there's no pretending there's much autumnal left. Some Thursday "raindrops" drifted down and spattered small crystals across the windshield, and some high enough hilltop nearby sent out cars dusted white on Friday morning.

I talk about the weather all the time. I complain about it, too, because I'm always cold, the kind of cold that doesn't warm up, no matter how many layers I add, no matter how I move. But even when the weather is hot and lovely, even when the weather is so room-temperature benign that the very air is beige, I want to speak of it. It fascinates me. Maybe, too, at this time of the year, I want to make conversation from it and find what's interesting in the alchemy of moisture and temperature and the wind's list so I won't hate it so much. If I'm busy looking at how the first wet flakes fracture, I'm not as busy feeling something shiver loose in my chest. Every year is a struggle not to lose each long night entirely. I try, again, to take Annie Dillard in her winter at Pilgrim Creek to heart:
It is winter proper; the cold weather, such as it is, has come to stay. I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting. 
There's nothing that will get me to write at night, I think, but the same happens in the chill, dark mornings, when the only sounds are sleepy cats moving to take my warm spot on the bed and the shower kicking on in the next apartment. Some days, too, what blooms in that cold morning space grows on through the day, picking its way clear in the minutes between meetings or while I drink an afternoon tea. It's important to remember: the novel is both greenhouse and plant, as am I.

09 November 2014

achieving some greater better

Earlier this week, my commute-music shuffle dropped Southeast Engine's "Try" on me, and so I'm stealing their lyrics for a title and a jumping off point here.

Because I graduated from Ohio University in 2005, it wasn't possible even for me to miss that Southeast Engine existed, and I saw them play live, I think at Casa Nueva. More importantly, I left Athens with one of their CDs, Coming to Terms with Gravity, and though I haven't really kept up with them since, I'm always glad to hear them (like on NPR's Mountain Stage). 

While I was driving, it was misty, as so many of this autumn's mornings have been, and I thought a bit on my time in Athens, where the fog rolled in off the Hocking in similar white waves. As an M.A. student, I definitely did my work and kept my head down. While there, I certainly had some great classes and professors and some marvelous colleagues, some of whom are still among my favorite people, but I stuck to my comfort zone, wrote the short stories my workshops expected. Despite having the opportunity to take workshops in creative non-fiction and poetry, I just couldn't take the chance at doing so. What if I was terrible? I'd written essays and poems as an undergraduate, had gone through rather rigorous workshops with exacting and inspiring professors, but I definitely didn't identify as an essayist or as a poet, and so I couldn't gather up the bravery to make the leap. I was only there for two years; what right did I have to encroach on another genre's territory?

When I got to my Ph.D. program in Binghamton, I did stretch myself at least so far as to take a poetry workshop, but it was largely generative, rather than with an intense critique component. So I wrote poems, and I shared them aloud, and when the semester was over, I put them away and didn't think about them again. 

Then I got a job in Wyoming, and maybe because I was teaching multiple genres of writing to my students, maybe because I didn't have to answer to a workshop anymore, maybe because no one was going to grade my attempts, maybe because of the high altitude—whatever the reason, I wrote a few poems. I wrote some essays. I found the guts to pitch a few essays, and then to simply submit, and someone even asked me to write a piece

And so I've gone along, up to my elbows in two novel manuscripts (one finished, one not), and still sometimes writing other things, while the novel percolates, while a draft rests, or when I simply can't not write the somethings else. 

In the past several days, it's been the somethings else that have brought the most exciting news. 

A poem I wrote while at the American Antiquarian Society was selected as the Writer's Block Poetry Contest winner. The judge was Rebecca Morgan Frank, founder and editor of Memorious, and I'm just so pleased about it. The poem will appear in a future issue of Memorious. In the meantime, you can read an interview about the poem at the Louisville Literary Arts/Writer's Block blog.

An essay I'd been working on for more than a year, too, was published at The Rumpus. "Leaving Early" was churned out of an experience I had while actually gathering material for my Brandon Nimmo/Sand Gnats piece. The essay is about baseball, sort of, though it's more about fear and living in the world. "Leaving Early" also makes use of something I read while I was at Ohio University in David Lazar's History of the Essay course, which seems strangely fitting, given my own cowardice when it came to actually signing up for one of David's essay workshops.

I'm still pretty peeved with myself for not taking better advantage of those other writing experiences I might have had when I was younger, simply because I didn't want to fail, didn't want to risk a B on my transcript. But I don't have to be myself at twenty-two or twenty-five anymore, and I'm glad I sent this work into the world. I'm glad it's getting easier to simply write without worrying about what it means that I have written X or Y or Z. I'm glad it's easier to simply write. I'm glad, too, that these things found homes. I'm starting to feel the same. 

02 November 2014

time warp!

This week seems like a good time to post about my own daily time warping, given the overnight clock shenanigans.

Around midday on Tuesday, I was finishing up class prep for my English Literature I class and I'd just done some reading for a conference paper I'm working on. Early that morning, I'd spent my writing time on my novel, and it was very much an ordinary type of Tuesday, a good Tuesday, one in which I'd felt I used my time wisely and well, on the whole. Still, there was something big and breathless-feeling in my brain, everything just trying to catch up—to what, I wasn't sure.

It took longer than I'd like to admit to figure it out: it was just trying to get settled in crossing eight hundred years of historical context and detail in the space of six hours. My novel is set in the early eighteenth century, and the process is immersive, drawing on the huge body of research I collected at the American Antiquarian Society this summer, and I've been mentally hanging out there for a good long while now. When I got to my office, before the building really started buzzing with activity, I settled in with a volume of conference proceedings on eleventh-century Archbishop Wulfstan. I spent about two hours switching my brain over to Old English and the niceties of transition between Æthelred and Canute, as well as the particular language of academe. (I tend to think medievalists avoid some of the worst lit-crit buzzword bingo offenses, but as I'm not a professionally trained linguist, I bring my own set of challenges to this kind of reading. Luckily, I also bring my OED.) After that, I put together class notes for our first day discussing Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, easily my favorite play, and though those came together rather quickly and happily, there was that final gasping feeling.

I wrote a quick e-mail to a friend, essentially making a joke about the temporal whiplash I was feeling. It's not new for me—my teaching responsibilities have always meant switching between time periods and subject matter, and working both as a creative writer and a literary scholar demands that, too—but I don't think I've ever been doing work so tightly pinpointed and demanding in such diverse periods before. My last novel project was contemporary; while I definitely did some research, I felt pretty well qualified in describing clothing and hair and food in twenty-first century America. When I dabbled in medieval studies, that was the only leap I was making at the time, and that certainly fed into the medieval lit course I was teaching at the time. The novel before that, my dissertation, was set in the same period as my scholarship: more Anglo-Saxon England, but that was half a decade ago, and I wasn't confronting a whole new set of texts.

Still, despite the strange flurry in my brain most of the time, the interplay of times and topics is helpful to me, particularly to my teaching, because this particular cocktail of timelines keeps me very mindful of the connections between history and literature and the evolution thereof. And, for better or worse, they're sparking other connections, especially in my creative writing. The next-novel queue is a firm four texts deep, and I'm actively adding to their Evernote catch-all files whenever I encounter something helpful.

Earlier today, I was making fun of myself and my inability to sort interesting things into just one box because I'd found a somewhat snarky response to Wulfstan from Ælfric. It might be useful for my scholarly project, but I was more interested in it as a dramatized moment, and I filed it away because it might be particularly relevant to Second-Novel-in-the-Queue. Still, it's easy for me to overwhelm myself.

Having a good system to hold onto those diverse pieces helps. I use Evernote. I also have physical notebooks for certain projects, and I make a point to transfer whatever handwritten bits and pieces end up in my daily everything journal to some electronic source because I spent way too much time during the last move dutifully typing up hundreds of scraps. (Though laborious, it was better than the prospect of hauling another box of paper up to a third floor apartment.)

What do you use to keep track of these things? Do you follow the Joan Didion admonition to keep a notebook, even if it's digital? Or do you trust that the most important things will stick in memory, that if they're really the lightning flash they feel like at first, they'll stay burned in the brain?

26 October 2014

a work in progress

By the week's end, it will be November. Writers the world around are gathering themselves for National Novel Writing Month, and I, like I've done for years, am circling it. I've already started my new novel, and it doesn't fit into the 50,000-word template. I know my own process well enough to know that trying to bash through beginning to end in thirty days isn't going to work. I write big, then pare down, and that takes time. The National Novel Writing Month frenzy isn't about writing big—it's about finishing a draft. I'm not worried anymore about not finishing. 

But, like I've said before, I'm a huge fan of getting high off everyone else's NaNoWriMo fumes, and I'm always in favor of energy turned toward writing.

The novel I'm working on now was revolutionized during my time at the American Antiquarian Society, and I've spent a good bit of the writing time since my residency re-envisioning it. Some of that is in my mind: having to think of a novel with a different opening and some different central premises than those it's had for two years is difficult, and having so much more—and better—research in the balance is having similar effects. Some of it is quite literal: I'm setting up this project in Scrivener because of the sheer amount of research I gathered and because Scrivener allows me to see all of the pieces that I need to see at once. I can also hide things when I don't need to see them, and I can do it all without the kind of window-swapping rage inducement Word causes me. (Also, my last manuscript in Word started to take nearly twenty seconds for each save, during which I couldn't continue working. Yes, it was long, but just a pile of perfectly plain text should never require so much fuss. Thus far, with more than a hundred pages of notes and so on, I've had no such issues with Scrivener.)

Apologies for the software commercial, but this project is quite different from my last. The cast of characters is still gargantuan, but the timeline is a challenge, and since the work is historical, making sure I don't get things flat-out wrong is important to me. But the real reason I'm sharing this now, on the edge of the NaNo bubble, is that the energy devoted to that novel-in-a-month project does get at something I've been thinking about a lot with this project: consistency. Presence. And I think of Annie Dillard and one of my favorite passages from The Writing Life:

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, "Simba!"
A project like this really does go feral overnight. I've already found that to be true, even when the time away from the actual writing part was productive (actually giving the work time and thought to reconsider its structure) and necessary (packing, moving, starting a new job). The details drift away, and the details, for me, are everything. The every day necessity of NaNo, the staying-in-the-room, helps to keep that wildness in check.

It's also much more difficult to be scared of or intimidated by a large project if I'm seeing it every day. A week into it, the sense of even writing a novel fades away. It's simply spending time with people I like. I can see the work growing, and the work becomes its own living thing, a plant to water, rather than a finish line to reach. Yes, the NaNo push is toward a very definitive finish line of fifty thousand words and a full draft, but the writer who can hang onto the NaNo habit even after reaching that line (or despite not reaching it) will be able to keep the project in hand.

In the coming weeks, use the ambient writing push to help you. You don't have to sign up. You don't have to be a novelist. You don't have to do fifty thousand words of anything. But show up to your keyboard or notebook or recorder. The thrill's in the air. Breathe.