Saturday, December 29, 2012

Potential Cage Match!: Teaching-Prep Time Vs. Novel-Prep Time

After celebrating the holidays with family, I've been able to settle back in to some spring teaching prep during the last couple of days. Yesterday, specifically, enabled by a quiet household and lovely family members that made food readily accessible, I was able to achieve one spate of work in which I was able to work from around 9:30 a.m. (which was when I woke up) until roughly 5:30 p.m., and then again from 10:45 p.m. to 1:45 a.m.

During these 11 hours I revised a single syllabus, prepped PowerPoints for the first two weeks of that class, and then close-read 65 pages of the somewhat-dense textbook for my other (new) class in the spring in hopes of selecting the best chapters to add to that syllabus. Thanks to staying up late doing the reading, I only have 40 pages left to go in that textbook, which means I'm close to determining a reading schedule for the other class as well.

This all reminds me that teaching (well) is a lot of work. Which, to be honest, scares me a bit, as creative writing also involves a lot of work. I'm not worried, really, that I won't get both sets of work done this spring. What I suspect/hope will happen, rather, is that the change of rhythms between the two types of creative work will become routine, each giving me a break from the other while the promise of a break from each will encourage me to work harder as to give the other some room in my headspace.

That's what I hope, at least. But there could potentially be a Cage Match a-brewing.

Here's the difference between the two, as I currently see it: early-stage Teaching-Prep Time is the one who would systematically make sandwiches, leaning back out of the reach of Novel-Prep Time's airily-waved dagger in a potentially successful attempt to avoid any blows. While it can threaten to take over and always takes more time than you expect, early-stage Teaching-Prep Time is delightfully discrete in many ways. One can easily list things one must do:

Structure the syllabus. Re-read the policy wording to remove redundancies and include any changes one wanted to make based on the particular class or recent semester experiences. Read or re-read the textbook and lay out the schedule of readings and assignments appropriately, working across syllabi to double-check one's grading load along with student workloads. (Re-)Envision how to frame the class and the material for the students and plan any supplementary readings. Begin to create or revise lesson plans and PowerPoints for each day accordingly.

One begins to sense the enormity of the task of filling approximately sixty 75-minute segments of class with meaningful discussions and activities along with planning useful out-of-class work, but--especially when one of the classes has already been taught once--it seems like a possible enormity. And when one finishes 11 hours of work in a day, one feels accomplished.

Early-stage Novel-Prep Time, perhaps because it's still a less-familiar activity for me (having only completed one Novel in a Drawer previously), but also because of its nature, seems more amorphous and even more time-intensive:

Read background works on the era and space and writing in the genre. Try to figure out how much poetic license one wants to take with one's era, location, and genre. Attempt to deal with the emotions raised by realizing one will have to deal with difficult emotions during the novel-writing activity. Re-read portions of helpful writing books that help one deal with such emotions. Re-start one's blog as a form of public accountability along with a way to process one's thoughts about process. Read through more background works looking for potential inspirations for characters and plot twists along with period and location-specific language and details to insert. Try to imagine one's way into one's characters' heads and envision some of their backstory and potential actions. Jot down ideas as they pop up, referring back to previous notes to try to come up with some sort of useful brainstorming treasure trove, if not an actual outline. Read more novels in your genre, typing in whole passages to get muscle memory for the style and to enforce close reading of the text....

Take break to try to get emotional space and claim more space for future Novel-Prep Time by completing delightfully discrete Teaching-Prep tasks. Back to sandwich-making for awhile.

I'm beginning to understand why Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Gilead, once said she gave back the money a year and a half into a paid 5-year period of full-time creative writing. I may feel differently once I get into it, but right now, I'm glad to have some more structured work to fall back on during breaks.

Yes, this could work nicely, at least during this holiday break when both activities will be occasionally broken by the other delightful activities known by labels such as Sleeping, Exercise, and Talking to Non-Work-Related People. The balance is bound to change once the semester starts and Students, Colleagues, and Creative Writing Classmates enter the picture. Hopefully I'll have gotten enough done during the break that I'll be able to handle it somewhat gracefully, but only time will tell...

I have a feeling that once the semester starts, it will be Sleep that may suffer the most injuries as a bystander to this battle between these two would-be time conquerors that are already threatening to rumble.... Stay tuned to find out.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

On Era-Shock and Other Potential for Overwhelm-ment

I was realizing today that my last month of research before plowing into writing this NaNoWriSpr manuscript might be pretty intense at times. Good thing it's the holidays so I'll have breaks, and in the spring I'll have teaching and occasional academic writing to balance it out, because I can tell already that this will be intense at times.

It's not the writing that bothers me. I'm pretty sure I can do the writing. It won't be perfect all the time, but past experience has shown me I can produce large chunks of text.

Here's what worries me:
  • Era-shock: This novel's set in a different place and time. I've lived in other cultures for months at a time before, and it can be exhausting to process all that difference. While I'll have respites from this other culture and time, I'm trying to think my way into this different world, and that's going to be overwhelming at times.
  • Emotional Contagion from Main Characters: As often happens in fiction, things will go wrong for my characters. Regularly. That often happens in Story. I'm going to have to work through their emotions with them. That's going to dredge some stuff up. They'll probably drag me down with their bad moods some days.
  • Dealing with Ongoing Conflict: Story is made of conflict, and I am required to think my way into what my characters will think and feel about it. This means there will be emotional labor associated with it. Must. Mentally. Prepare.
  • Characters Will Likely Die: Let's face it--beyond at-times-unlovely lives, some of my characters might not make it to the end of the story. As someone who bawls every time Beth died in Little Women, I can tell this is yet another source of emotional labor.
To my characters: You better be thankful I'm willing to sacrifice to make you live, dangit! This process will be rough at times! Rewarding? Absolutely! But yeah.

Some extra support over the next few months would be great, folks! Cheer from the sidelines if you can!

Friday, December 21, 2012

On Successful Style-Switching

By some miracle I wrote 300 pages in a spring semester two years ago--but it was a dissertation, not a novel. And I fear my subconscious will have trouble making the switch from the diss to this NaNoWriSpr novel-manuscripting project and not recognize that this one, too, is a novel, rather than a dissertation. It simply must recognize that.

One of my biggest concerns for this new novel project of mine, for which the actual writing starts in less than a month, is that my recent requirements to write highly academic prose occasionally broken by creative non-fiction essays are unfortunately likely infect my novel's tone. That despite my best efforts to the contrary, 5 syllable words will worm their way into passages that are meant to be highly emotional or suspenseful. That my subconscious will add topic sentences to paragraphs. Etc. 

I've been a bit concerned about this process ever since I heard Camilla Gibb give an excellent talk a few years back at the University of Saskatchewan about her own long process of transitioning from writing a dissertation in anthropology to writing fiction, and writing it well. I really want to avoid a long transitional process if it is remotely humanly possible.

I have a few tips and tricks up my sleeve to try to hasten the transition. On a recent Way with Words podcast (love this linguistics podcast--it's been helping me re-focus on the joy of words this fall), Martha suggested a technique for switching among styles which simply involves copying the works of a master in whatever genre you're shifting into. I'm planning to try this over my holiday break--and probably still in the spring whenever I'm switching from teaching tasks and/or academic writing into the DNiP* project.

I've also bought a couple of useful reference books for writers to help me de-academicize my prose as well. Perhaps the most useful is called The Emotion Thesaurus, which arrived in the mail a few days ago. It will help me make my language about my characters' emotional states more concrete by giving me external and internal descriptions of things regularly associated with each of 75 emotions. With that and other writing reference books at the ready along with some time spent literally copying classic novels in my genre, I should be able to keep my prose both better honed and more novel-esque.

Here's hoping it works!

*Dear Novel in Progress

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

On the Beginning of NaNoWriSpr

I've wanted to do NaNoWriMo (that's National Novel-Writing Month, in which people try to write a 50,000 word novel during the course of November) for a long time, but at the same time I always thought it was a little crazy. A novel in one month? How could one imagine enough depth of character, enough plot twists, enough atmosphere and symbolism for a whole book in such a short period of time? After all, my dear Novel In A Drawer took 18 months of painstaking midnight labor sessions to be birthed, and that only after 6 visits to the location and lots and lots of research. A month always seemed a little ridiculous.

Here's the exciting news: I'm writing a new novel manuscript this spring--likely not in one month, but hopefully in 3-4. I meant to announce this earlier, but I got sidelined by my gratitude as I summed up the gradual rebirth of my writing life and associated writing stamina. I feel profoundly privileged to have the opportunity to do this, and I'm ridiculously excited about it at any point that I'm not overwhelmed by it. It's a manuscript I've been researching towards for almost as long as I did for my earlier project, and I feel this one might have actual market potential, which is an exciting thought.

Since it's not the right time for the social support that comes with the official NaNoWriMo, I'm thankful to be able to take part in an upper-level fiction-writing seminar class at my university this spring that will serve the same purposes. Keeping me on track. Holding me to the deadlines I would be creating for myself anyway. And in addition, helping me with craft and giving me feedback on whether at least parts of the thing are, well, any good.

I probably won't tell you much about the specifics of the genre or plot of Dear Novel in Progress--which I think from now on may occasionally be acronymed DNiP (or on days I don't like it as much, as SNiP=Stupid Novel in Progress)--but I hope to share process and progress notes in this blog along the way as another form of public accountability. I'd love it if any who read this blog would also provide cheers from the sidelines, as it were. Thanks in advance for your support.

It's a big project, this NaNoWriSpr of mine. But one I'm thrilled to have the time, energy, and resources to undertake. So incredibly thankful.

Monday, December 17, 2012

On the Writing Life and Seedlings (Re)Born

So I've posted about it briefly on Facebook, but I truly haven't mentioned here why I've restarted this blog. Here it is: I've finally entered a season of my academic life, for the next few months at least, when it will be possible to actually balance my writing life, both of the academic and the creative varieties, with my teaching life.

It could have been possible over the summer, but I had to move and was pretty burnt out (still recovering from a very full load of teaching so soon after finishing the diss, so regeneration was needed before this semester, which involved a new school and new classes and all the adjustments that come with that.

Despite all that, though, over this summer and into this past semester I was able to crack slowly back into my writing side, like one of those seeds from childhood school projects beginning to germinate and push back up through the dirt surrounded by the inevitable styrofoam cup.

It started small, as it should: a couple of more articles written for the ever-delightful catapult magazine; finally cleaning up a chunk out of my MA thesis from years ago and sharing it at a conference this fall for some great feedback; and then finally revising a couple of chunks of my dissertation intro and extending out the ideas in semi-new directions. I'm grateful to note that both conference papers have been accepted for spring academic conferences. And in the midst of the semester I jotted down some ideas for a diss-related journal article and for turning my diss theory into a book down the road.

Without even talking about my projects for this break, next semester, and the spring (I'll save those for later posts), now that I look at the list of "small" starts, that it's pretty miraculous that I think of this list as small, because my pre-PhD self would have thought of it as a huge list. I won't lie--the PhD process and the dissertation were painful, and I protested much in the midst of them and afterwards. But as I've mentioned here before, my writing muscles have become strong, and my writing stamina grew tremendously from those challenges. I'm delighted by this, and am delighted to be back, firmly planted and with my writing life's metaphorical seedling head again above the soil to the point where it seemed obvious that I would restart this blog.

Sometimes that whole instant gratification thing is overrated, and as my students and I discussed the other way, the work itself--regardless of what happens with it--is valuable. I'm so thankful I was given the strength to stick it out, or I wouldn't be ready for new challenges!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Narrative, Newtown, CT, and Compassion in Particular

And...I'm back. Hopefully to post here again more often. Lots of contradictory emotions today: giddy from being done with a semester of teaching and on to a month of writing before another begins, while at the same time U2's Psalm 40 keeps going through my head. Have been thinking a lot about all the suffering that's always going on throughout the world, some of which doesn't get reported in the news as much as the recent Newtown, CT tragedy--perhaps involving people in more urban areas with different kinds of people where maybe violence isn't as surprising. Or in other countries that seem more distant where it's harder for us to understand the situation.

And yet I'm remembering John Durham Peters' reminder (in his book Speaking into the Air) that we are called to have compassion universally but that ultimately our humanness involves a need to love only in particular. And juxtaposing that next to Jerome Bruner's words (in Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life) about how the narratives a culture repeats and worries at interpreting and retelling often tell us so much about the dialectic between precedent and what we believe to be the unexpected. And of course, because that brings it back to my area of study, all connecting it to our societal need to detect the answers to criminal acts involving mortality as a way to deal with our own mortality in a society that doesn't like to admit we die. While coming back from abstraction into grief and grief. A day, then, of wrestling with paradoxes and with a large variety of world and individual griefs and what they entail, mixed, strangely enough, with giddiness and more opportunity to write soon, all of which draws us to the big mysteries: birth and death and pain and tragedy and compassion and beginnings and endings. Light and darkness indeed. The Advent waiting continues.