Monday, October 08, 2012

The sincerest form of flattery

There was a lovely piece by Michael Erard in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago about how we tend to echo the styles of the things we read most often.  It's called "structural priming" or "syntactic persistence" (I love both these terms), and it's almost like muscle memory, how our brains form habits in relating words to each other in predictable patterns.

The author's point is that we need to cross-train, as it were, to experiment with different genres and voices so that we don't become too stuck in our own.  I thought it might be useful to think of this the other way round, though.  If I'm struggling (as I am) to craft a book manuscript, and I wonder occasionally if my writing isn't getting a little too lumpy and stiff, wouldn't it help to treat myself to regular exercises of reading the writers I most want to sound like?  The first two that come to mind are Tim Egan and Garrett Mattingly, both of whom are masters of compelling and lively nonfiction. Who would you read to teach your brain some new tricks?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


For years, I've had recurring dreams (or at least dreams around a recurring theme) of houses.  Houses of friends, houses I'm considering buying, houses I'm looking after for other people, sometimes hotels I'm staying in.  They're never real places, that is, places I can identify from real life, but in each case the import of the dream seems to be centered on wandering through the house and observing its characteristics.

Last night's house was one I had decided to rent, so most of the dream centered on my happy inspection of the house - it was old and in some disrepair, but had great space, lots of light, and gave the overall impression was that I was very happy to be there and looking forward to bringing my things in and making it my space.  There was also a sort of tangent at one point where I found out that I had two roommates, one of whom was from Africa and spoke only French, but even that came across as positive - they each had their own separate wing of the house, and the African roommate was clearly going to be a connection to an interesting and diverse neighborhood. 

But the most striking image of the dream appeared when I went out to the back yard.  I could see a couple of older houses nearby, similar to ours but with badly crumbling chimneys (which made me suddenly concerned about ours, though it turned out to be in good repair).  Just past them, on a bit of a rise, there was a tall apartment building, with a small common yard - in which someone had built a life-sized tank (yes, a World War II-style tank) out of stained glass.  And its gun was aimed directly at our house - I was somewhat taken aback by that, because it seemed vaguely threatening, even though the sun was shining through the long tube of glass and reflecting bright colors off the turret.  A stained-glass tank!  (In the dream, I was most perplexed about its connection to the apartment building, since that suggested that it was either a coordinated effort between lots of people - unusual - or that someone had convinced the whole building to let him use their common space for his art project - just as unusual.)  So I shrugged and went back inside to start figuring out the best place to put my desk.

Internet, I defy you to make any sense out of that one.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Things That Work

After much dithering and uncertainty, I joined an online writing group this semester (many, many, many thanks to Dame Eleanor Hull!) and it has made a world of difference.  The uncertainty came from my love/hate relationship with the idea of being accountable to other people:  sometimes it inspires me, and sometimes it just makes me obstinate and cranky. 

Fortunately, this time seems to be heading in the direction of inspiration.  I've set up a schedule this fall that is conducive to writing - and indeed it has to be, because I accomplished this in part by shifting some of my duties off to the spring, and I really need to make some headway.  I've been sitting on a pile of research and ideas for entirely too long, and it's time to face the scariness of building them into a book manuscript.

I wanted to briefly note down the things that have worked best for me so far - many of them are things I know perfectly well, like the importance of writing a little bit every day, even though the knowing doesn't always translate into getting them done.  But whether they're new ideas or old, it helps to write them down, stare at them a bit, and remind myself from time to time of the secrets of success.

(In case it's not obvious by now, I am not one of these people for whom writing comes easily.  Back when I blogged more regularly, once in a while a story would pop into my mind nearly fully formed, but more often I had to wrestle with ideas to get them out.  While I think I'm a fairly good academic writer, it is a slow and uncomfortable process to link all those words together in the right order.)

Things That Work

Write first thing in the morning.
OMG, how often have I heard people say this, and yet I never tried it?  I'm not a hugely enthusiastic morning person, but I'm used to an early schedule, and I always schedule my classes in the morning.  Now that I'm only teaching once a week (don't get too jealous, I'll be paying the price in other ways) my mornings are open, and for the first week of the semester I utterly squandered them in dicking around online and taking way too long to complete simple tasks.  Once I set process goals for the writing group (at least 2 hours of writing a day) I started doing those first thing just to get them out of the way. 

Prioritize writing.
Lo and behold, my mornings got a hell of a lot more productive, and it's wonderfully rewarding to have the "hard part" of the day over by noon.  Something else I've learned is that I'm way better at administrative tasks and grading in the afternoon.  It's tempting to tackle them in the morning, because they're things that involve other people and are more likely to have deadlines, so I feel like they need my attention first.  But all the more reason to put them after the writing, because if they have deadlines, I'll find a way to get them done.  If I put off the writing, it's hard to get back to.

Keep note of what excites me. 
I spent one evening going over some articles that were relevant to my research, which reminded me of some of the ideas I wanted to write about, and when it was time to quit and make dinner, I wrote in my work log "Excited now about starting tomorrow morning on X."  Well, when the next morning came around, I was tired and cranky and my mind was full of other things that needed to get done, and when I opened the book file, I was not the least bit inclined to add anything to it.  But then I caught sight of that note to myself from the night before (which I'd completely forgotten about) and thought, wait a minute!  Last night I was looking forward to this.  There must be something fun about it.  What was that again?  ...and the more I thought about it, the more I remembered, and got all excited about it, which led to a great morning of writing when I thought I was going to be miserable.

That's enough for now.  I think on some level I knew all of these things, so I'm not sure quite what it was that put me over the edge to doing them - if I figure out that secret, it'll really be worth writing about.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


As I paid bills this morning, I was idly wondering (in that dangerous sort of way) how different my life might be if I took all the money we'd spent on the fuzzy feline roommates over the past 12 years and put it into our retirement account instead.

I know, I know, I shouldn't even go there.  It's not that simple a calculus, and they enrich our lives in innumerable ways - even though I have to shoo one of them off the coffee table every. single. night, and I know perfectly well that he jumps right back up there as soon as I go to bed.

Studies even show that people with pets are healthier:  we have lower rates of depression, lower blood pressure, we suffer less from stress (even with all the times we have to shoo cats off the coffee table).  We probably even live longer.

Which means I'll need to start putting more money into that retirement account...

Wednesday, September 05, 2012


Oh, and dang it all, the demise of HaloScan (and Blogger's insistence that I update my template, because it's been dog years since I updated anything around here) means that all of our previous conversations have poofed into the void.  That was really most of the life around here!  Apologies to all of you whose charm and goofiness made this place as fun as it was.  I probably have the old comments all filed away somewhere; maybe someday I'll publish a compendium of Crazy Late-Night Conversations at Pilgrim's.  In the meantime, we start with a fresh slate.  Y'all can go back and be funny all over again.  :)

Monday, September 03, 2012


Whoa! Look at me! I hardly even remember how to post to this thing anymore. But I'm glad it's still here.

Does blogging work as a way to get one back in a writing groove? I've heard people say that. I'm going to give it a shot. I really need to remember how to write. It's been a long time.

This semester, I've been able to set aside a fairly substantial chunk of time for writing; this, and joining Dame Eleanor Hull's fall writing group, is a way of making myself accountable for it. Sometimes this kind of accountability works really well for me; sometimes it just makes me cranky. I'm hoping for some good positive experiences this semester.

To that end, this blog may take on a slightly different tone. I've given up on hopes of resurrecting the crazy all-night-long conversations of several years ago; that was a magical moment, and I'm all kinds of grateful to those of you who made it happen, but it's not something can be manufactured at will. I'm not sure quite what this space will turn into, but for now I'm going to use it to report on my writing progress, and to try to make writing a more regular habit. (All of you are, of course, welcome to hang out, drink, burn things, distract yourselves from grading, and embrace various kinds of silliness at will.)

Where I'm at: I have about 300 pages of notes based on the last couple of years of research, in which I was just playing around with various sources to see if there was enough material out there for a book. Turns out there is. Right now these notes are a giant pile of loose ideas that need to be sorted and stacked so that I can build something out of them.

Big goal: A book draft, maybe by the end of next spring.

Goal for this semester: To get into a regular writing groove, at least 8 hours or 2000 words a week. Doesn't matter where - last summer I experimented with just diving in and writing various pieces to pull together these idea-piles, and that worked fairly well. I'm trusting that once I've done that for a while, a larger structure will start to take shape. But I don't think that can happen until I arrange some of these littler piles.

Here goes!

Friday, July 15, 2011


I ought to be more upset about the sausage than about the names.

The sausage was taken away from me in the airport, you see, by the ever-vigilant Customs and Border Control folks, along with a lovely little can of morcilla paté. Husband and I had purchased both in Europe during our last weeks there, planning to eat them for one of the frequent dinners we call “Bread and Things,” meaning a crusty baguette and an assortment of whatever goodies we fish out of the fridge and cabinets: cheese, olives, mussels, serrano ham. But the last few days got away from us, and we decided to try to take the unopened sausage and paté home with us instead. I did a quick check online and found no apparent opposition to such things, and since the sausage was cured and vacuum-packed and the paté was canned, I thought we might have a fighting chance.

Looking over the pale blue customs form, though, I found a checkbox for “I am (we are) bringing fruits, vegetables, food, meats, animal products.” Dammit. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do these things; just that one has to declare them. The odds were that no one would have known about the sausage if I’d kept my mouth shut and checked “no” on the form, but I’ve gotten myself through any number of bureaucratic hassles by smiling brightly and following the rules, so I decided to fall back on the tried and true remedy of being obedient. I checked “yes,” and the first CBC agent said there probably wouldn’t be any problem with the sausage and paté as she waved me on towards the second checkpoint. The guard at the second checkpoint wasn’t so sure, and sent us to a separate area to have the products examined. (Here, not for the last time, I kicked myself for being obedient.)

The CBC agent in charge of determining the fate of our treats looked pinched and sullen and decidedly as though she had never enjoyed a dinner of Bread and Things and didn’t think anyone else should either. She read the paté label. “Asturias. That’s France, right?” “No, ma’am, it’s northern Spain.” She made a half-hearted show of flipping through a folder, deciding whether or not our food was worthy of entry into the U.S., and then she double-checked our passports and turned back to my husband and me with a sudden accusatory interest. “Why did you only fill out one form?” I was puzzled; I knew I’d done at least that part right. “Because they always tell us to fill out only one form per family.” She glared at us, nose wrinkled in distaste, holding up our passports. “But you have different last names.” She then proceeded to have another agent pull everything out of all four of our checked suitcases, even though we had already presented the offending food items.

Seriously? You’re going to mess up my stuff and throw away my tasty paté and sausage because you’re upset that I don’t follow outdated patriarchal American naming conventions? We’re still a family, lady. I bit back several unsavory comments, and reminded myself to be obedient. “I’m sorry, ma’am, I thought those were the instructions. We always fill out one form, since we’re married. Should we fill out two next time, because of the names?” She grumbled an unintelligible answer about how the previous agents should never have let us through with just the one form.

I brushed it off at the time, because it seemed like such a petty and small thing. But it continued to bother me, precisely because it was petty and small – of all things, why get upset about the fact that our names are different? We’ve been married for twelve years, and in all honesty, this is the first time anyone’s cared. But she seemed awfully insulted by the fact that we dared to impersonate a normal married couple when we were clearly some sort of subversive communists, unworthy of enjoying tasty dinners.

To be sure, I’m cranky about the sausage too, and not least because the agent made a big display of dropping it into a container marked “Foreign Trash.” (I made a mental note to use this against my husband the next time we get into an insulting match.) But next time, I’m still only filling out one form, and I’m going to hide a whole bunch of extra sausage in my bag and not declare a damn thing.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Almost home

As many of you know, Husband and I - did I ever come up with a pseudonum for Husband? I do not remember, which is a sad indication of how long I’ve neglected this whole blogging business – anyway, we generally spend two months each summer in Husband’s Home Country. This is absolutely wonderful in that it’s a place that I love, with excellent food and museums and culture and friends, and also the archives where I get all my research done.

But it is also trying in that its culture relies on a much higher degree of mutual interaction and obligation than I’m accustomed to. The most relevant element of this is that we are expected to stay the entire time with my in-laws in their 700-square-foot apartment, which is uncomfortable for us and inconvenient for them, but anything else would be a Public Insult on our part and a Grave Failure of Generosity on theirs. I’m not well prepared for this – as a little kid I rattled around alone in a big house with my parents, since my older siblings were mostly out on their own by the time I was old enough to notice, and I lived alone for most of the 13 years between when I left home and when I got married. So all of this Living with Other People business isn’t a bad thing in itself, but it’s something I don’t have a lot of practice at. My sister said over email that this was a situation best managed by engaging in plenty of long walks and heavy drinking, which I think she meant as a joke, except that unbeknownst to her it’s been pretty much my MO for the past several weeks.

Don’t worry, I do smack myself every time I get too whiny about having a free place to stay in a gorgeous European city. I steadily lose little slices of my sanity over the weeks we’re here, but they grow back. It’s more than worth it, and for as much as I dream of getting back and lounging around in my big quiet peaceful house, by the time we get back, it seems awfully dull and empty without the sports news on at full volume and my father-in-law snoring in his armchair and my sister-in-law gleefully repeating everything she just read on Twitter.

Besides, here are things we have seen and done over the past couple of months, the things I will miss the most when I’m back to my quiet lonely peaceful house: striking landscapes, very very old churches, tasty food, and curious creatures of all sorts.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Random bullets of Hey, I'm back!

  • I know, I've tried this before with not a lot of luck. But I also keep seeing all this advice about how the best way to get back into a writing habit is to, well, have a writing habit, and I definitely need to get the writing parts of my brain back into shape.

  • And I haven't set anything on fire here for a while. And I miss all the cool people who used to come hang around this odd place.

  • I don't know how many of you are still wandering out there in the blogosphere (though I'm delighted with those of you who are still writing!), and I'm not making any promises to be particularly entertaining, but I'm going to at least try to string some words together every now and then, and you're all welcome to pour yourselves a drink or light up a peep and join in.

  • I feel like there used to be a lot more words in my head than there are now. Maybe they've all wandered off to more promising territory. Mostly what I want to do is to create a friendly place for words here, and see if I can lure some of them back.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Oh, wait... mean I was supposed to do this more than once a year?

I like the idea of blogging, and I'm glad to stick with those of you who are still writing, but it's harder for me to write these days. I think I'm more in research mode these days than writing mode, and I'm also spending much more time in close quarters with other people than I usually do, which takes the edge off any need for communication. But I love it when you guys hang out here, and I need to come by and sweep out the cobwebs every once in a while, so if nothing else I'll toss out a few random bullets of crap.
  • This sabbatical semester, in terms of the living-in-close-quarters-with-others issue, is going so much better than I had feared. I like a lot of privacy and alone time, and I'm pretty much guaranteed not to get much of either for the next several months. I was seriously worried about going batty from that, but we're a month in already and it hasn't been half bad - partly because I'm constantly learning to adjust more successfully, and partly because my in-laws have been unusually gracious in creating more space for us and tolerating my odd little quirks (like enjoying going for a walk by myself once in a while, which is deeply mystifying to people in this hyper-social culture.)
  • We have a giant leg of ham in the kitchen. I love this because I'm just Spanish enough to appreciate good ham, and just touristy enough to find it highly amusing that we have a very recognizable animal leg in a wooden stand on the kitchen counter, that we gnaw on every now and then. I promised seabright I'd post pictures, and will as soon as I get the camera and the netbook in the same room.
  • The clear fashion trend for women 25-50 here is to wear long tunic-sweaters over leggings with boots. Or very narrow pants. All my nice floppy-leg pants are not going to fit in so well. Good thing I gave up on fitting in several years ago.
  • The day after tomorrow, I get to start digging into the Inquisition archives. Harder to read, but so much fun.
  • The students who are housesitting for us back at home keep telling us everything is going fine. I mostly believe them, but once in a while I worry that the house burned down two weeks ago and they're not going to tell us until we get back.
  • I've been very entertained lately to watch the slow evolution of the social networks... I met most of you via the blogosphere, and then for a while we were all running around on Facebook, and then a bunch of folks headed over to Twitter, and now there's a group over in Fallen London. It's not all precisely the same group, of course, and I'm sure there are a bunch of people hanging out in some cool spot I haven't found yet, but it's interesting to see the trends and to wonder where I'll see you all next year.
  • Oh, hey, the Superbowl's starting! People here are largely mystified... they know it's a big deal, but they were doing man-on-the-street interviews this afternoon, and the most common response was "Yeah, I know it's today, but I've never been a fan of baseball." Still, I'm pulling for the Saints.
  • Enough random bullets for tonight. If I quit trying to come up with Thoughtful Entertaining Posts I'd probably write a lot more. In the meantime, it's time for bed. 'Night all!