Reflections

There’s No Perfect Writing Process

Image result for the secret miracleMy local library carries a copy of The Secret Miracle, an edited collection of author interviews about the writing craft. I have no intention of reading the book from cover to cover, but I spent an hour late last week exploring the writing routines of a diverse array of successful authors.

And what I learned, surprised me.

I have written before about the dangers of romanticizing writing. The process is messy and hard. Yet, I often assume that all successful authors have type A personalities with strict writing routines. The Secret Miracle pokes holes in the common writing advice that I’ve encountered on AuthorTube or in the writing blogosphere.

True, most of the authors interviewed treat writing as a job with fixed hours, but they don’t all write everyday. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that few authors follow their outlines to a T or rush first drafts. Ultimately, the only “secret miracle” to writing is perseverance.

How long does it take you to finish a draft?

Rodrigo Fresán: I don’t write thinking about a first draft. I edit all the time while writing. Because the first finished version is the only one (and maybe it is the tenth or twentieth draft).

Like Fresán, I edit as I write. I used to be ashamed of my slow writing speed, but many authors, it seems, take ages to produce a polished “first” draft.

How polished do you try to make the prose in a first draft?

Susan Minot: Pretty well polished. Though I do line edit afterward. But the polish is the difference between good writing and average writing.

Claire Messud: Doesn’t everyone always try to write as well as they can, at any given moment? I can’t imagine not caring, whatever draft I’m dealing with. It’s a matter of aesthetics, as much as anything – infelicities, it seems to me, should be deliberate, not a matter of inattention; because they mean something too.

Do you outline? If so, how closely do you follow it?

Andrew Sean Greer: I write a very careful outline and then abandon it halfway through. It is always a difficult moment for me, but of course I know that it is crucial to follow the way the story has grown, even if it means leaving the road and bushwacking my way to the end.

I always have a detailed outline before I start writing an academic paper, but I realize soon enough that my outline contains massive holes. I often produce three or four different outlines while writing my so-called first draft.

If, like me, you spend ages writing a first draft because you don’t always know what you want to say or you are not satisfied with sloppy writing, take heart! You’re not alone. There is no one ideal writing process. Don’t be discouraged by the writing advice you find in self-help books; they work for some people but not for everyone. Find what works for you, and go with that. As long as you reach the finish line, it doesn’t matter that you write slower than your colleagues.

Reflections

Not Dead, Just AWOL (PhD and This Blog)

I am currently beginning the dissertation phase of my PhD. That is my excuse for neglecting to blog for the past few months, despite having read some great works. For most of the summer, I have read books related to my research interests (15th and 16th-century life writing). I have also begun turning a term paper into a journal article. “Begun” is the key word because I’ve only worked for two hours on the paper the entire summer. I tell myself that I’m early in my doctorate program, so it doesn’t matter that I haven’t worked seriously on the article all summer. Nevertheless, I need to adopt some kind of writing routine to reach all of the deadlines that I have set for myself.

But none of this explains why I have not written reviews for the books that I’ve read. The real reason is lack of interest. For some reason, I have not wanted to write reviews for by Luther Blissett or Orlando Furioso by Ariosto. I don’t think that I have grown tired of this blog. On the contrary, I have a list of posts about reading and writing that I’ve wanted to publish for the past six months. It is true, however, that I am less interested in promoting well-known classics than I used to be.

My blog has evolved over the years. I started in 2014, when I was 21 years old. At the time, the blog was called Exploring Classics. I even created a Classics Club list, with the intention of reading those 50 classics in 5 years. I’ve abandoned that project for the past three years. I am now 27, having completed a 2-year master’s program and 2 years into a PhD program. My intellectual and research interests have changed over the years. And of course, I have grown in maturity. Each time, I have adjusted the layout of the blog. Two years ago, I finally gave in and bought a domain name. So Exploring Classics is now Exploring Literature.

Perhaps, I am concerned about what people might think if I were to write about my academic writing struggles. Vulnerability is not my strong suit. But at this point in my academic career, I have experienced some challenges that I want to write about. Other academics may find them relatable. I will continue to post reviews of some of the books I’ve read, but I want to explore literature from a different angle than I have in the past. Rather than focusing predominantly on reviews, I will write more writing and research-related reflections.

I hope that making this post will encourage me to finally make the many posts that I’ve wanted to make for the past few months. Let me know if there are academia-related topics that you would like me to cover on this blog. Thanks for sticking around.

Historical Fiction, Kent, Hannah

Review of Burial Rites

Image result for burial ritesHannah Kent’s debut Burial Rites is a historical novel about the final days of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman beheaded in Iceland in the early 19th-century. Agnes is accused of complicity in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. At the beginning of the novel, the District Commissioner assigns Agnes to a family in rural Kornsá, where she must live and work until execution day. As you might expect, Jón and Margrét are not too pleased to have an infamous murderess living under their roof. Only one of their two daughters – Steina – tries to befriend Agnes. Lauga is repulsed by her presence. On her request, Agnes is also assigned a spiritual adviser named Thorvardur (Tóti) Jónsson. Though only an assistant priest, Tóti must accompany Agnes to her execution. Agnes remembered meeting him as a child.

Because Burial Rites is told alternatively in first and third person narrative, the reader encounters Agnes’ stories through several perspectives. In addition to giving us an intimate portrait of one woman, Hannah Kent introduces us to life in 19th-century rural Iceland. Daily chores include gutting sheep, preparing and cooking blood sausages, and stoking a fire with dung. The novel is powerful and intimate without being overly sentimental.

I can’t believe that I’ve put off reading historical fiction for so long! It is really the perfect genre for a literature student who works on stories from the archives. And Kent’s novel brings the past to life. The setting, the characters, and the dialogue are so compelling that I did not want to put the book down. Agnes’ host family may not be facing execution, but their lives are far from uneventful. They face heavy snowstorms and violent illnesses. Yet, nearly all of the characters are literate; Agnes is described as a lover of the sagas despite being a poor farmhand. Kent reminds the reader that Iceland has had one of the highest literacy rates in the world since the 19th century.

Female executions are rarely discussed in fiction or real life. Burial Rites deserves all of the acclaim that it has received. This work is beautifully-written and thought-provoking in its simplicity. I look forward to reading other works by Hannah Kent.

Reflections

5 Things I Learned From Presenting at a Language & Literature Conference

The Great Benefits of Attending Academic ConferencesI presented a paper at a major language and literature conference in the region. It was a great experience! I met scholars and was introduced to new texts in my sub-discipline (Late Medieval/Renaissance France).

Here are 5 things that I learned from the experience:

1) Never underestimate the importance of giving background information in a presentation. After spending nearly four months working on Louis de Berquin – the “Protestant” translator whose trial accounts I analyzed at the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference (KFLC) – I falsely assumed that Berquin was well-known to most Renaissance scholars. Thankfully, I provided a lot of background information about the political state of France in the early 16th-century because the early modernists in my panel had never heard of Berquin.

2) Present your argument clearly and near the start of your presentation. Listeners will be lost if they do not know what your argument is. In the first draft of my paper, I put my argument at the end of my fourth page but a fellow graduate student told me to move it to the first or second page. I’m glad I heeded his advice.

3) Bring a visual (either a handout or a PowerPoint). Not only does a visual keep people awake, it helps with the presentation of complex plot structures and ideas.

4) Speak slowly. Better to speak slowly and go under time by a couple of minutes than to speak quickly and barely make the time – or in the case of one presenter, get through only the first half of your paper and go over time by three minutes .*sigh*

5) Listen to questions and suggestions. Audience questions and comments can be valuable. It’s OK to disagree with someone’s claim, but please be respectful and open to suggestions. Talking over an audience member is rude and counter-productive. Conferences can be great opportunities to grow as a scholar, but you cannot grow if you are unwilling to listen and learn from others. Yes, comments-veiled-as-questions can be irritating, but even more irritating is the speaker who doesn’t know when to stop speaking.

If you have presented at academic conferences, what have you learned from the experience?

Reflections

Stop Saying That Good Writers Are Born

Image result for self-defeatismI strongly dislike the debate over whether a good writer is born or made. It fosters a defeatist mentality. Why do we feel the need to ask this question in the first place?

I particularly dislike this debate because it’s so hard to evaluate. Who do we consider a “good” writer? Because this debate often comes up in writing circles, my assumption is that a good writer has been published and has won a few literary awards. But are all successful writers good writers on an aesthetic level? Are all unpublished writers bad writers? Do all good writers get published?

I can name many authors who have written New York Times bestsellers but who would probably not get As from their English teachers. But their books are published and have been optioned for movies. Isn’t that the dream for many writers? There are equally as many writers with MFA degrees that have never published a single book. Are they bad writers?

To statistically determine whether good authors (however defined) are born or made, we could conduct a large-scale study on the childhood interests of such authors. Maybe all of them were prodigious writers at a very young age. But I doubt it. Time and time again, we hear stories about critically acclaimed authors who took up writing late in life. My favorite children’s author Roald Dahl was ridiculed by his teachers and told that he would never amount to anything.

And yet, so many people feel the need to say that writers either “have it” or they don’t. What’s the point? If success is defined by publication or prize, then an unpublished writer always has the potential to be published. An unpublished writer could become a published writer whose story sets the tone for how other unpublished writers see their own work.

There’s no point in asking yourself whether a good writer is born or made. No matter who the writer, writing requires discipline and practice. Unless you are on your deathbed, you – the unpublished, unrecognized writer – could become a published, recognized author. But only if you write and finish a project.

Let’s stop promoting the defeatist belief that artists are born, not made. In Academia, we use the term “impostor syndrome” to refer to that false belief that you do not belong in a graduate program or the professoriate. Impostor syndrome is particularly sinister when it is cultivated in us by our friends and mentors. Stop allowing other people to define success for you or to limit your potential. Stop self-sabotaging your own career or hobby. Work on improving your craft.

Clarke, Susanna, Fantasy/Sci-Fi

Review of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Image result for jonathan strange and mr norrellAlthough I had planned to finish Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for Bout of Books 24, I only finished it a couple of days ago. It is a massive book – clocking in at anywhere between 750 and 1000 pages, depending on the edition. I couldn’t lay it on my lap without crushing my legs into oblivion. After reading the first half in hardback, I finally caved in and borrowed an electronic copy through my library’s Overdrive.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke is a historical fantasy set in England during the Napoleanic Wars. The eponymous Mr. Norrell is the only practical magician in the country, even though there are hundreds of theoretical magicians who research the history of magic. Theoretical magicians cannot perform a single spell. In 1806, two members of The Learned Society of York Magicians ask why practical magic is no longer encouraged by the society. After much bickering, the leaders agree to write to Mr. Norrell to ask him to attend the next meeting. But the only practical magician in England has no patience for theoretical magicians and their ridicule of “true” magic. The Learned Society of York Magicians must agree to disband if Mr. Norrell proves that he can perform magic. When the statues of the York Cathedral suddenly begin to speak one winter day, the Society members are forced to concede defeat.

Thus begins the public career of Mr. Norrell, a clever but narcissistic magician. He starts his own journal of magic and offers his services to the king. One of his closest friends is a Cabinet member, Sir Walter Pole. Pole is engaged to a woman who is deathly sick, although her mother refuses to acknowledge her infirmity. When Emma Wintertowne –  the fiancée – dies before the marriage day, Mr. Norrell offers to raise her from the dead. But to do so, Mr. Norrell has to summon a mischievous fairy.

Image result for jonathan strange and mr norrell illustrations
Illustrations by Portia Rosenberg

The second half of the book mostly follows Mr. Norrell’s student Jonathan Strange, an equally arrogant and accomplished magician. He and Norrell do not see eye to eye on anything. Strange is a devoted follower of the Raven King – a magician who established his kingdom in Northern England and trained a number of prominent magicians during the middle ages. Mr. Norrell, on the other hand, thinks that nothing good can come of fairies. He’d know.

But if they can’t get along, how will Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell address the evil that the gentleman with the thistle-down hair has been brewing in England?

Despite its length and copious footnotes, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a page-turner. I was impressed by the accuracy of Clarke’s imitation of 19th-century English prose. At numerous points in the novel, I thought I was reading a Victorian novel. Yet, Clarke subverts in significant ways the clichés of gothic fantasy.

It is also  the perfect book for readers who enjoy fantasy about the history of magic. Susanna Clarke has invented an entire history of magic to accompany her novel. There are numerous, lengthy footnotes that accompany the narrative. Because I love research, I did not skip a single footnote. I found that they added to my reading experience. Nevertheless, I don’t think you will miss much if you choose to skip them.

Although there were a few scenes that could have been edited out, I was sucked in by the novel’s spooky atmosphere. This is the perfect book to read in fall or winter. The gentleman with the thistle-down hair is a morally-complex character, despite the damage that he wreaks in the lives of the magicians’ friends and family members. More than once, I sympathized with his diagnosis of Mr. Norrell’s enterprise.

It may be a bit old-fashioned of me to say that I prefer fantasy about magicians, wizards, and the history of magic. The fantasy genre is breaking new grounds and abandoning its “wizard’s apprentice” origins. But I am a sucker for those fantasies. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was a very satisfying novel, and I look forward to reading more by Susanna Clarke.

Augustine, Religious

Master/Slave Language in Augustine’s Confessions (Trans. Sarah Ruden)

Image result for sarah ruden confessionsI just tweeted my initial impression of Sarah Ruden’s 2017 translation of Augustine’s Confessions. Thanks to Spooler for making the unrolling of my thread possible. I hope to write more in-depth blog posts about this translation at a later date.

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Currently reading and loving Sarah Ruden’s recent (2017) translation of Augustine’s Confessions. Her decision to translate dominus as Master rather than Lord is most appropriate for 2 reasons. 1) Augustine’s contemporaries associated dominus w/ the head of a household and slaves. 2) Augustine considers the relationship between God and humanity as a relationship between a Master and a slave. It is this slavery that Augustine believes leads to true freedom. Humans are either slaves of sin or they are slaves to God. There’s no in-between. This is Pauline.

Of course, master/slave language is very off-putting today. Augustine owned slaves, while we rightly condemn slavery. Furthermore, most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as slaves to God. We want to have free choice.

Now, I’m not going to get into Augustine’s teachings on the human will (it’s complicated), but suffice it to say that Augustine does not believe post-Adamic humans have libertarian free will (a will free from all determination). God’s role in human salvation – and conversely, original sin’s role in human damnation – leaves little room for personal autonomy. According to Augustine, conversion entails the exchange of one master for another.

Tl;dr : Sarah Ruden’s translation of dominus as Master and servus as slave perfectly captures Augustine’s theology of salvation.

Because Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey appeared in the same year, Ruden’s translation was overlooked by literary critics. Her translation has received virtually no buzz. That’s too bad. Ruden’s translation is excellent, and everyone should read it!