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!