Self-undermining behavior

This semester, all my classes have been grouped together so that I’m done teaching by 1. This may seem to leave a wonderland of free time for writing and research, but experience tells me that is not the case. While I enjoy Shimer classes a great deal, I am an introvert and hence I am usually exhausted by the end of three back-to-back 80-minute sessions in which I have to be “always on,” both intellectually and socially (to help manage the dynamics of the class). Serious creative work is out of the question by that point — sometimes even reading on the train ride home feels like a struggle.

Early on, I realized that translation was a much better fit for my mental headspace after class. I was pleased with this, because it allowed me to put otherwise dead time to a good use other than doing laundry. For the first half of the semester or so, I made significant progress on my translation, putting me well ahead of the pace I needed to get it finished on time.

So naturally, at a certain point I decided that I needed to try to force myself to write on those afternoons. The result would be that I would squeeze out a paragraph or so, but spend most of the time hovering on Twitter. Then I would be frustrated with myself and despair of ever finishing the writing project in question.

On one level, I understand why I made this switch. Due to my extra CTS class, I only have one free day this semester, so it makes sense to try to find other windows for writing. Yet the project that I’ve been so prioritizing is not due until a week after classes end — and since I’m not traveling for Thanksgiving, that is a full week I have free, during which I can very easily finish the piece. I then have another piece due a couple weeks after that, but again, I will have a much more open schedule.

In the end, I think I just became obsessed with being “done” with my overwhelming amount of work for the semester. But even that would have been self-undermining, because history teaches me that when I don’t have a project to work on during break periods, I quickly become listless and depressed. So the net result of this totally gratuitous prioritization of a project that could easily wait is that I have needlessly halted progress on my translation, generated a trivial portion of the article (which could have been achieved in an afternoon had I chosen more hospitable circumstances), and ranted a lot on Twitter.

What about you, readers? Have you found yourself caught in self-undermining cycles lately?

Adventures in Revision

Due to my impending travel, I’m going through a weird period where I have simultaneously a lot of downtime and no time at all. Hence it seems like a good time to “pick off” relatively small tasks. One such task is the revision of a talk into a proper article for an edited volume. I agreed to do this a year ago and then set it aside, and so I needed to reconnect with what I was trying to say in the talk. During several intense dog walks and showers, I developed a strategy of revision that would leave virtually no stone standing upon another — I’d need to expand this, elaborate that, temper this overstatement, reorganize this segment completely, etc., etc.

Then I thought, “Well, before I get ahead of myself, I should look at the abstract I sent to the editor so that I know what I actually promised.” And as it turns out, this bold new vision for the essay was… exactly what I had put in the original abstract a year ago.

“clumsiness & truth are so often intertwined we tend to take their copulation for granted.”

[Re-posting this old piece of mine — conjuring days of old in the spirit of May Day.]

Dear ________,

You misunderstand me, so let me be clear: I do not want the City to “support” the Occupy movement or its Commune. Indeed, though I risk misunderstanding yet again so soon after such momentary clarity, I think it would be very foolish public policy for them to do so. Much better, I think, to go the disingenuous route of the Councilperson whose letter you’ve attached, and insist on a vapid sympathy.

While I agree with the message of the Occupy movement and consider myself, along with all City Employees, including the men and women in our Police Department, to be part of the 99%, I disagree that occupying Frank Ogawa Plaza, shutting down the Port, or calling for a general strike against our City, is going to impact the 1% that this movement is supposed to be targeting.

What genius is on display here in one of the more nakedly clumsy co-opting of populism in my recent memory. The Councilperson doesn’t even bother to give the dignity of a period to his agreement. Here in the opening paragraph of his letter, the feeblest of commas is all that separates his agreement with “the message of the Occupy movement” and his self-consideration as “part of the 99%” from the declarative strongman of this magnificent sentence, “I disagree.” Provided the Occupy movement does not camp, strike, or shut down a port, which is to say, provided it does precisely nothing it has in actual fact done the past three weeks, he supports it completely. The only reservation he has concerning the Occupy movement is its actual existence. Would that it could be but a “message”! — by all means, a call to be dissatisfied, even angry, but to be so at home, please, as quietly as possible, yes, at least until election day, when those so called might vote for cynical opportunists like himself.

This Councilperson is in the minority, I believe, in his clumsiness, but not in the desire to show support for the Occupy movement on his own terms. And while I understand perfectly well why the City, all of its administrative stars & ideological stripes, would go this route, I fear you don’t appreciate why the Occupy movement would do well to develop a strong allergy to any & all public expressions of sympathy by those who are formally in (or are seeking formal) power. It seems to me that the moment a city officially loses the “but” after its stated solidarity is the moment the truth of this allegiance has been lost — clumsiness & truth are so often intertwined we tend to take their copulation for granted. (Or, I should add, it is the day after a revolutionary upheaval. But, alas, I am not at all confident any of us have enough dying light remaining actually to see that morning. Rome was not unbuilt in a day, as a friend said to me recently, and arguably our allotment of days are insufficient to the cause, if not the struggle itself.)

So, in close, while we agree that the Commune should remain illegal, I have no interest in its relocation. I would much prefer that it be declared illegal and remain exactly where it is, in order that it might continue to test the City’s ability to uphold the consequences of that illegality. The gross flouting of the law–or at least its outright disregard–this is what seems necessary to expose its many inadequacies (& those of its administrators). In this way, the Commune’s symbolic value as a site of disobedience is also the unavoidable germ of its undoing. The present age, you’ve insisted in the past, has had very little real use for such symbols, but are either of us yet prepared to say the same of the future that remains?


More Punctuation: Mary Ruefle on the Poetry of Semicolons

Adam’s post below on commas reminded me of Mary Ruefle’s on semicolons in the opening lecture of her book Madness, Rack, and Honey (note the Oxford comma in the title). Semicolons these days have garnered something of a bad reputation, w/ a good many going the way of Cormac McCarthy and rooting them out near and far. I’m with Ruefle, though; there may be no punctuation truer to our speech.

Now here is something really interesting (to me), something you can use at a standing-up-only party when everyone is tired of hearing there are one million three thousand two hundred ninety-five words used by the Eskimo for snow. This is what Ezra Pound learned from Ernest Fenollosa: Some languages are so constructed–English among them–that we each only really speak one sentence in our lifetime. That sentence begins with your first words, toddling around the kitchen, and ends with your last words right before you step into the limousine, or in a nursing home, the night-duty attendant vaguely on hand. Or, if you are blessed, they are heard by someone who knows and loves you and will be sorry to hear the sentence end.

When I told Mr. Angel about the lifelong sentence, he said: “That’s a lot of semicolons!” He is absolutely right; the sentence would be unwieldy and awkward and resemble the novel of a savant, but the next time you use a semicolon (which, by the way, is the least-used mark of punctuation in all of poetry) you should stop and be thankful that there exists this little thing, invented by a human being–an Italian as a matter of fact–that allows us to go on and keep on connecting speech that for all apparent purposes is unrelated.

You might say a poem is a semicolon, a living semicolon, what connects the first line to the last, the act of keeping together that whose nature is to fly apart. Between the first and last lines there exists–a poem–and if it were not for the poem that intervenes, the first and last lines of a poem would not speak to each other.

Kotsko’s Guide to Commas

Few indeed are the writers who fully understand the use of commas. Part of the problem is inherent: a wide range of comma usage is, in my opinion, discretionary. It’s not a matter of knowing the rules (hence the uselessness of relying on half-remembered “rules of thumb”), but of being conscious of the range of uses for this most subtle of punctuation marks and being able to explain the reasoning behind a particular usage.

In my opinion, there are a handful of situations where a comma is more or less obligatory. The first is in the construction of a series: “red white and blue” is clearly wrong. Continue reading “Kotsko’s Guide to Commas”

How to do things with words? — Speak them and see.

Just now came back across this on my personal, mostly non-academic blog from a couple of years ago. It’s about stylized writing in general (aka, the dreaded purple prose), and definitely seems in line with some of the aesthetic concerns some have when it comes to the use of theory-speak, clarity, etc. Thought I’d re-post.

* * *

Purple, I suggest, when it isn’t just showing off, is phrase-coining; an attempt to build longish units of language that more or less replicate sizable chunks of Being in much the same way as the hiss-crack-cuckoo words mimic a sound. There is language  that plunges in, not too proud to steal a noise from Mother Nature, and there is language that prides itself on the distance it keeps itself at. Then there is purple which, from quite a distance away, plunges back into phenomena all over again, only to emerge with a bigger verbal ostentation. It is rather moving, this shift from parroting to abstraction, and then back from abstraction into what might be called symphonic hyperbole. . . .

I am suggesting that purple prose, ornate and elaborate as it sometimes is, reminds us of things we do ill to forget: the arbitrary, derivative, and fictional nature of language; its unreliable relationship with phenomena; its kinship with paint and voodoo and gesture and wordless song; its sheer mystery; its enormous distance from mathematics, photography, and the mouths of its pioneers; its affinities with pleasure and luxury, its capacity for hitting the mind’s eye — the mind’s ear, the mind’s very membranes — with what isn’t there, with what is impossible and (until the very moment of its investiture in words) unthinkable. Purple, after phrases coined by Horace and Macaulay, it may have always have to be called, but I would call it the style of extreme awareness.

– Paul West, “In Defense of Purple ProseContinue reading “How to do things with words? — Speak them and see.”

I downloaded Scrivener

I’ve been going through some real soul-searching about my writing process. It’s obviously served me well in a lot of ways, but I’m increasingly realizing that it was developed under more or less emergency circumstances (committing to a book mid-PhD) and is currently being held together with duct tape. The Girlfriend suggested that if I wanted to shake things up, I should finally submit to peer pressure and download the universally-recommended Scrivener.

A lot of my resistence to using Scrivener came from a sense that it was doing things I was already doing. Continue reading “I downloaded Scrivener”

Cart-horse reversal in writing pedagogy

I am completing my second semester teaching first-year writing-intensive courses at Shimer, and it is increasingly clear to me that much of traditional high school writing pedagogy is, to use the technical term, ass-backwards.

There is an overriding emphasis on presentation to the detriment of actual content — you need a “hook” for your reader in the introduction, you need a strongly stated (read: exaggeratedly simplistic) thesis statement, you need to aim for a broad application in the conclusion, etc. Meanwhile, very little thought seems to be given to how you select and connect the much-vaunted “three main points,” for instance, or basically anything else about how to really figure out what to say. Similarly, students need to learn all about documentation styles and proper citations and avoiding the dreaded plagiarism, but little thought is given to how they are supposed to be making sense of and using those sources — although the number they must cite is strictly enforced!

It’s almost as though all the incentives point toward making papers easy to grade at a glance, rather than laboriously teaching them how to actually, you know, construct a line of thought that’s worth the bother of writing down in the first place.

Notes on a Novel

I posted this elsewhere recently, but I was discussing it with a friend today and realized that much of it has some debt to ideas that emerged while reading Dan Barber’s On Diaspora. I’m thinking here in particular about his articulation of reverse causation. These days I’m far more interested in novels & poetry than I am philosophy, but I don’t think this latter day interest comes at the expense of philosophical influence. Perhaps the following post (in the form of a letter to a nameless recipient) bears this out.

* * *

Dear __________,

I apologize for the gaps between our correspondence. And though it will serve as no adequate excuse for such silences, your informant told you correctly: I am currently writing a novel. Or, if not writing, dwelling on the writing of a novel. Or, if not a novel, something whose ambitions are matched only by its remaining largely unread.

I’m holding out hope I can make my minimalistic plotting work. As you know very well, I’m far more interested in consequences (and the responses to consequences) than I am plots, which tend to be too forward-focused and linear for my taste. Consequences realign not simply our perception but our experiences of the past, as much even as they create an imagined future. Dare we go so so far as to say that the present is spent mostly negotiating the indistinguishable boundary between responding to these things past and anticipating those things to come? If this is so, could it be said further that consequences are a violence in & against the occurrence of the moment?

Continue reading “Notes on a Novel”

Would this actually work? My fantasy freshman comp course

When I went to college, the standard writing instruction was a two-course sequence known as freshman comp. I mercifully tested into an experimental one-semester “honors” comp alternative, but as a TA in the English department, I became very familiar with the standard approach, which I believe to be broadly similar to how freshman comp is typically implemented. The first semester taught “writing as such,” and the vehicle was primarily the students’ own personal experiences and reflections. The second semester taught more of the skills required specifically for college writing, including more argumentative papers and research papers — usually all on self-chosen topics.

I don’t think there are many people who would strenuously defend this approach to freshman comp, even though — and correct me if I’m wrong about this — it appears to be a kind of “default setting” for initial writing instruction at many institutions, particularly less selective ones. I’m going to throw out one possible change that I think may be helpful, and I look forward to my readers telling me why it couldn’t possibly work.

Continue reading “Would this actually work? My fantasy freshman comp course”