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The lute lies rusted in its green case odor of pines is synthetic; sweeteners artificial; even salt!  our tongues crave something dif...

Monday, March 31, 2014

A Lie

It is a lie that the rhythm of haiku is based on the syllable. Actually, it is based on the mora. A syllable can have one or two morae. I'm unsure whether it can have three? So the word yube (twilight) has three morae but two syllables. So if you have been taught that certain Japanese line have to have 5 or 7 syllables you have been seriously misled.

A syllable with more than one vowel will have a long vowel, a diphthong, or the final consonant n.

The confusion comes because people don't now what a mora is, and because the 1-mora syllable is the most frequent type in Japanese.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Then There's This

Then there's this. There is a very simple point to be made here. Of course poetry is involved in nationalism, and nationalism is involved in nationalist violence. This is breathtakingly obvious.


Look how how Lorca uses words like triste / tristemente / tristeza in Libro de poemas. And how infrequently he does after that. This concordance is not 100% reliable but it is convenient.

Here is one clue, then, about how he was able to make that qualitative leap from his early work. Here is a poem that carries emotion without using words for emotion:


yo quiero ser de plata.
tendrás mucho frío.
yo quiero ser de agua.
tendrás mucho frío.
bórdame en tu almohada.
¡Eso sí!
¡Ahora mismo!

I won't insult your intelligence by translating it. Everyone should know enough Spanish to understand it, except maybe for the "We me in your pillow" at the end.

Is "Lorca Studies" a Functioning Field?*

I would say yes, on some level. The people who do basic biographical and bibliographical and textual criticism are cited by almost everyone. So everyone recognizes the importance of Andrew Anderson's definitive critical edition of Poeta en Nueva York. There is a core group of people at the center of this, like Anderson, Maurer, Soria Olmedo. I myself am not a Lorca specialist in this sense, though these people do read my work, for example.

The rest of the field is in overlapping circles, but sometimes there will not be much overlap. What defines these circles is geography (European vs. American), critical approach, genre (poetry vs. theater), etc... A narrow project will have to cite only a fraction of existing criticism. Also, there could be preferences for citing more recent work.

There will be gaps in even the best work. To cite everything in every project would be paralyzing. On the other hand, I have to cite a lot of things just to be legit in making a case for what Lorca studies ought to strive for.

I would hope that the circles would overlap enough to make the field functional.

Another question is the existence of a lot of work of really low quality in the field. I'm thinking that is not as bad a problem as it was, but I'm not sure. A bad talk in a conference about Lorca will be worse than a bad talk about anything else. A bad book about Lorca will be worse than other bad books on other subjects. This might be the function of sheer quantity, or something that makes Lorca attractive to unintelligent people. It is interesting in terms of the social epistemology of the field. What Lorca Knew means also What do we know about Lorca. How we know it, how we justify our knowledge, what we are trying to discover about him.

*To answer a question posed by Vance in comments on an earlier post.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tale of Two Poems

Here is a very nice poem Lorca wrote in 1919. He was born in '98 so he is the age of my college juniors.


¿Qué es lo que guardo en estos
Momentos de tristeza?
¡Ay, quién tala mis bosques
Dorados y floridos!
¿Qué leo en el espejo
De plata conmovida
Que la aurora me ofrece
Sobre el agua del río?
¿Qué gran olmo de idea
Se ha tronchado en mi bosque?
¿Qué lluvia de silencio
Me deja estremecido?
Si a mi amor dejé muerto
En la ribera triste,
¿Qué zarzales me ocultan
Algo recién nacido?

It's nice, but it isn't great. I've bolded the parts I find weaker. The emphasis on sadness (tristeza) is too similar to Juan Ramón Jiménez. There is conventional language like "momentos de silencio" [moments of silence] and the poetically ineffective pleonasm "agua de río." The phrase "gran olmo de idea" [great elm of idea] is not very good. The poem is restating something that was better expressed earlier in the poem. The poem is confessional, autobiographical, placing the poetic "I" in the center. Nothing wrong with that. There is some typical pathetic fallacy.

But look how he is writing just a few years later:

Empieza el llanto
de la guitarra.
Se rompen las copas
de la madrugada.
Empieza el llanto
de la guitarra.
Es inútil callarla.
Es imposible
Llora monótona
como llora el agua,
como llora el viento
sobre la nevada.
Es imposible
Llora por cosas
Arena del Sur caliente
que pide camelias blancas.
Llora flecha sin blanco,
la tarde sin mañana,
y el primer pájaro muerto
sobre la rama.
¡Oh, guitarra!
Corazón malherido
por cinco espadas.

There is no late nineteenth century sadness, simply "weeping" or "sobbing." The poetic fact is there as a fact, rather than being described. There is no need for a poetic "I" anymore, because the emotion just is. Of course, he had to write a bunch of conventional poetry before he even thought about writing something this revolutionary, in which the pathetic fallacy becomes something so radically modernist.

If we want to learn about Lorca's biographical angst, maybe the first poem is more useful, no? Someone is cutting down his wonderful forest, his love has died, and something new for him is born in the brambles. If we want to understand why we revere Lorca as a poet, then the second poem is more useful. Presumably we only care about Lorca in the first place because he was able to transcend the mode of expression of his early work and write something so awe-inspiring.

Monday, March 24, 2014


Lorca studies are curiously fragmented. Because of the vast amount of material, most articles, books, etc... won't be cited in most other articles, books. There is no way the average article could have a bibliography of 20 pages to even cover the minimum necessary. So people are free to cite quite selectively or sometimes hardly at all. Take Cifuentes '86 book La norma y la diferencia. It isn't cited much in Soufas's 96 book Audience and Authority, or in Paul Julian's Smith '98 book The Theatre of García Lorca. There are a few citations among these three books, if memory serves me, but there is no real dialogue or exchange of ideas in three excellent books on a similar topic. If a Lorca book is really bad, and I am not kicking its ass just to prove a point, then I won't cite it at all.

But I do think excellent scholars should cite one another.

Things to Do in 15 Minutes

Suppose you only have fifteen minutes to work on your project today?

1. Go through your bibliography and see if there are incomplete entries. Mark them with an *. Correct any typos you see.

2. Order a book you've been meaning to order from interlibrary loan.

3. Order some books from the library to be picked up later at circulation desk.

4. Make a list of tasks you can accomplish when you have more than 15 minutes.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A First

I recently reviewed an article that cited a poem from a web site like this. That is a first for me. That's what I was saying about competence the other day. (I found another similar site to protect the guilty, but it is pretty much the same.) You just don't do something this.

Even that was not an automatic disqualification: if the article had been good in other ways, I would not have rejected it outright. This was just another sign that the author was not familiar with the norms of scholarship. Another was not having a thesis, citing theoretical from secondary sources rather than from primary ones, etc...


How hard is it to pick a bracket for the basketball tournament?

Suppose it were blind; that is, if you had to choose the outcome without knowing the teams or their seeds. Then the likelihood of picking one game would be 50%, two games 25%, etc... There are 32 games in the first round, so that means you have to cut 1 in half 32 times: 1/2, 1/4, 1/8/ 1/16, 1/32, 1/64, 1/128, 1/256 etc... These are equivalent odds to tossing a perfectly balanced coin 32 times and having it come up heads.

Suppose you did that, then you would have to repeat the process for the 16 games in the second round, and so on. The problem is that if you've made some mistakes in the first round, you no longer have your exact teams in the second round: errors are compounded. If you had predicted the first round corretly, you would then have a 1/256 chance of predicting the results of the second round. So if you got 256 of your closest friends together, after the first round, and had them bet on the second, each one with a unique combination, one of you would win.


Of course, you don't pick your teams blindly. Instead, you choose based on your estimations of the probability of winning. So a higher ranked team will, more often than not, beat a lower one. This improves the odds from 50% for most of the games. So for those 32 games in the first round, four were "upsets."

Now suppose you have really fine-grained knowledge of basketball, so you can guess better than the selection committee, and see where they have ranked a team lower than they might deserve. Then you can predict the upsets. As the rounds go on, you get teams that closer in rank playing each other, so you need to be an even better predictor, but here the odds shift slightly more in your favor, because there are fewer contests that you have to predict.

It looks like the seedings are slightly lower than a 90% predictor of outcomes in the first round (four out of 32), so you need to be better than that, picking the correct upsets. So far in the second round, there have been two upsets: Kansas losing to Stanford, Syracuse to Dayton. Stanford and Dayton were already supposed to have lost in the 1st round.

Multiplication of elements

A critic proposes to read Wallace Stevens's poetry

“more obliquely, as an instrument of analytic leverage that can help to articulate a critique of those gestures whereby criticism refuses or denies its own positioning within a framework that a gay theory might enable us to read”

That's just the end of a very long sentence. We have a noun phrase

"an instrument of analytic leverage"

then a relative clause beginning with three verbs:

"can help to articulate"

the object of this phrase:

"a critique of those gestures"

another relative clause

"whereby criticism refuses or denies its own positioning"

another prepositional clause

"within a framework"

another relative clause

"that a gay theory might enable us to read"

The multiplication of elements, eight nouns and eight verbs for example, makes the sentence difficult to process, though the gist of it is clear enough. Ineffective writing? Not really; it perfectly suits the sort of metacritical tone that the writer wants.

Cryptography / quinto evangelio

There is a whole school of Lorca criticism that sees his work as a secret code to be deciphered. Eutimio Martín thinks that Lorca's project was to develop a "fifth gospel" of a humanist messianic-quixotic type. Martín thinks he is rescuing Lorca from "folklore."

My refutation is very simple: if that's what Lorca was about, how come he didn't say so? Why encrypt such an important message? At the risk of being somewhat literal minded, I think that Lorca is about what he seems to be about. There is some Christological stuff in his juvenilia, true, but he left it behind him for good reasons. The mature Lorca didn't really want to be Jesus any more.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Mayhew Kicks Some Butt

Here is me kicking some ass:
Lorca’s canonical status has often led to rank confusions between life and art, in which trivial external factors acquire disproportionate weight. The tiresome insistence that Bodas de sangre was inspired by a journalistic account of a superficially similar event is one telling example. Closer examination reveals that very few of the most significant elements of Lorca’s play are found in the newspaper story. In the real-life account, the equivalent of Lorca’s Leonardo dies by an un-Lorquian shotgun blast, not by knife wounds, and does not kill the bridegroom in turn. Missing, then, is the symmetrical death of the two young men. There is no family feud, no sense of a tragic inevitability. One of the strongest characters in the play, the bridegroom’s mother, is not even mentioned in the journalistic account. It is inane, then, for the newspapers to report, sixty years later, that the “real bride” of Bodas de sangre has died.
Really, that is my function. Every paragraph should kick some ass.

Of course, that is an easy example, because here I am being directly critical of something. On a deeper level, even a seemingly anodyne paragraph should still kick some ass. It should show other critics how to do it right, kick the reader's ass too. If you are a literary critic, then literary criticism should be what you do best.

The Genius of Mere Competence

By this I mean something very specific. The source of imaginative or creative thought in criticism is competently noticing what it actually there. It is not so much going out on a limb with stretched interpretations. The genius of writing a good sentence consists of making it say the precise thing you want it to say.

Sounds easy? But what if "mere competence" were actually something that very few people can achieve? My own most ostensible failure come not from failing to brilliant, but from failing to be competent. Everyone is smart enough to do it (almost everyone) but we fail through lack of attention to detail, through mistaking the object of inquiry or not seeing something painfully obvious.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Catfish Hunter

In my dream I was going to look at a restaurant owned by Catfish Hunter, the baseball pitcher, to see if I would buy it. It was a decrepit and very small building, in Davis where I grew up. It was more or less where fluffy donuts used to be, though it was a detached building and not part of the mall where the donut shop actually was. (Hunter was a pitcher for the Oakland A's when I was a kid, though in my dream he said he confirmed to be that he had pitched for the San Francisco Giants). He was supposed to give me $75 just for agreeing to look at it, and was selling it for a suspiciously low price of $5,000. I was thinking to ask whether he rented or owned the building, and asking to taste the food. I wanted my seventy-five in cash, not a check that his wife was trying to give me. I remember thinking irrationally that if this were a dream it would be better to be paid in cash!

The interior of the restaurant was cramped and crowded with shelves of dusty knickknacks. I argued with them, mildly, about whether their interior design was good, which it obviously wasn't. The visual detail in the dream was more precise than I've ever experienced, though now it is a bit of a blur.

Catfish was a very nice man in my dreams, with a folksy manner about him but excessive pride in his horrible looking restaurant. He even looked more or less like the real Catfish Hunter did as an old man, though I probably never thought about him in more than 30 years.

I politely refused to buy the restaurant, saying something like "This is more than I can take on right now." I remember being very proud of my tact and the way the sentence was the perfect response to the situation. I never did get the money, since of course I woke up and none of this was real.


Obviously this takes me back to my childhood, when I watched him pitch for the A's and lived in Davis and went to Fluffy Donuts. The idea of taking on another responsibility right now is frightening to me. The cramped space resembles my home office (and my campus office) where I am working long hours. The promise of a small sum like $75 can be childishly satisfying, whereas $5000 is about as much as I could spend in an emergency. Dreaming this felt both unpleasant and satisfying. I was creating a narrative in my unconscious mind with disparate elements that ended up having a definitive shape to them, in their new Gestalt.

If he said he played for the wrong team it was because I wasn't sure, and he simply confirmed my own mistake. Of course, I knew he had pitched for the OTHER Bay Area team once I was awake.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Ok. Now the ideas are flowing out. I now only have to write one chapter, "Queering Lorca," and complete footnotes and bibliography for two more. There's an epilogue, I guess.

All the blog readers that comment regularly here are in the acknowledgments. Andrew, Thomas, Leslie, Olga, Vance. Prepare to be thanked.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Here is my plan. Numbers refer to chapter numbers. February seemed very productive, but that was because I just needed to do a few little things to some of those items. My plan changes almost every day. I switch things around and shuffle the cards so as to get a more reasonable plan. I want to have enough time to get everything done, but at the same time, I don't want the illusion of abundant time to lull me into a false satisfaction.

I've front loaded it and given myself one and a half months of extra time at the very end, which can be used to tie up loose ends, revise, or do nothing.

Completion Plan for What Lorca Knew

February, 2014:

Send query to Chicago
1. Introduction
2. What Lorca Knew
5. Anatomy of Influence
6. New York Variations


3. Thirteen Ways (writing complete)
4. Grain of the Voice (complete the writing of).
4. Grain of the Voice (translations and footnotes complete).


3. Thirteen Ways (translations and footnotes).


7. Queering Lorca


8. Epilogue
Extra time


Extra time
Submit manuscript


I'm busy with two extra classes, MA exams which I'm administering, faculty senate committees, So you'd probably think that I'm not working on my research, if you didn't know me.

But you'd be wrong. I put work on my research on my to do list every day, and I do it. Why? It is actually easier to get it done when I am busy. I am in the office more, for one thing. My hours are longer so I just put in a half hour at some point.

Here was my to do list for today:


Return netflix videos
Grade essay on 453 exam and enter on grade sheet
Email Antonio’s classes
Print out and xerox exam for Spanish 522
Sign letters for MA exam
Email advisors
Faculty senate meeting
Work on Lorca
Crossword for Wed

(This list does not include teaching hours.)

You'll notice I put things that are just for me, like the New York Times puzzle, and meditation, on the list as well. My list for Monday looked bad too. I had to finish a tenure evaluation, for example. I still meditated and did the crossword.

Sunday, March 9, 2014


I might be picking up two extra classes for the rest of the semester to help out the dept. and s hospitalized colleague. Then I will see what it's like to do four courses at once. I guess I feel good about it, though, because I will get a nice benefit in the future in exchange, and I am almost finished with the first draft of another chapter, leaving only "Queering Lorca" to go. Now that I think about it I know pretty much exactly what I am going to say in Queering Lorca too. It will take some research to tie it down, but I do know. Or I will know once I sit down to do it.

Friday, March 7, 2014


In his biography of Lorca Ian Gibson says that Lorca exaggerated the importance of black arts in New York. Hello! Harlem Renaissance anyone? How can you exaggerate the importance of that?

"The poet, poorly equipped linguistically to assess the level of contemporary American culture, tended to overestimate the importance of Black art in the United States..." (278).

All but two chapters!

I have written drafts of all but two chapters now. One of these does not yet have all the references complete, but I only need to write two more:

The Grain of the Voice: Poetry and Performance

Queering Lorca

The rest of March will involve footnoting "!3 Ways of Looking at Cultural Exceptionalism" and cycling through The Grain of the Voice, which has 6,000 words already. April, I will finish "13 Ways" leaving Queering Lorca for May. The epilogue will be easy after that.

Yes, I still have it. Bow down before my excellence.


Research tidbit of the day: Lorca would refer to vinegar and oil cruets sarcastically as "Ortega" and "Gasset." Like: please pass the Ortega and the Gasset. Hilarious. !!

Why I am Not a Social Scientist

I am not a social scientist, I am a humanist.
Why? Well, sometimes I think it would be cool
to be a social scientist, but I am not.
I was talking to my friend
Thomas, the other day. He
told me a sociologist wanted
to forget about his paper the moment
it was published. I would love
to have people take my
work apart and cite the hell
out of me, but they don't (always).

This guy
thought it was a burden on
"young scholars" to have to
answer questions about their methodology
or results. Someone suggested that
"maybe they shouldn't cite you
either after six months either" and
this was taken as horribly sarcastic.
Well, yes! That's why I'm not
a social scientist, I guess.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Flow (2)

This is what came out in exactly one hour this afternoon. The sentences just flowed out. I attribute this to meditation in the morning, and over several days now so that it is getting habitual. To continued work on the project beginning in February, so that the writing process itself is getting habitual. I set the timer for an hour to clean my house. Then for another hour to write. While I can't expect results like this every day, it is elating.

In fact, I only meant to pick up Perloff's article and make sure it was in the bibliography, and maybe do some other reading. Once I started, though, the sentences formed in my mind with almost no effort. They will need revision, but they are complete and say more or less what they need to say.

As Clarissa notes in a recent post on her Seinfeld chain, the first month is not going to be the easiest or most productive. The real results come when you have been doing it for a while.

It didn't hurt to get encouraging email from a critic I admire in Spain, very recently.I also have the opportunity to talk about Lorca at "Nerd Night."

Marjorie Perloff’s now classic essay “Pound/Stevens: whose era?” notes the widely divergent aesthetic assumptions of those who view Ezra Pound or Wallace Stevens, respectively, as the paradigmatic poet of literary modernism in the English-speaking world. It turns out that a critic like Hugh Kenner (the author of The Pound Era) and Harold Bloom (the champion of the post-romantic poetics of Stevens) share almost no common ideas about poetry. A similar exercise would pose the question of whom to place at the center of Spanish modernism: Ortega y Gasset—the most prestigious Spanish intellectual of the Silver Age—or Federico García Lorca—the most canonical playwright and poet of the same epoch. How does our view of Spanish modernism change if Lorca displaces Ortega at the center of this movement?

Some might conclude that the modernism of Ortega and that of Lorca are not so far apart in the first place, since Lorca’s work exemplifies the theories of modernism put forward by the philosopher. Both writers, as we have seen, are theorists of Spanish exceptionalism. More generally, the poetry of Lorca’s “Generation of 1927” is often thought to illustrate the Orteguian idea of the “dehumanization of art.” Lorca published his signature book, Primer romancero gitano, with Ortega’s Revista de Occidente. Yet viewing Lorca as a figure antithetical to Ortega will bring his status as modernist intellectual into sharper focus.

To the best of my knowledge, Lorca was uninterested in Ortega’s writing. Ortega, in turn, took little or no discernible interest in Lorca. It is hard to see how the philospher could have advanced his central intellectual projects by making active use of Lorca’s experimental theater, his neo-popularism (in Canciones or Poema del cante jondo) or his anguished reaction to modernity of Poeta en Nueva York. Even poets seemingly closer to the Orteguian notion of “dehumanization,” like Jorge Guillén, distanced themselves from Ortega’s aesthetics. Lorca’s tragic consciousness, so different from that of Guillén, was even further from this idea. Ortega famously saw dehumanization as a detachment from any affective reaction associated with the “subject matter” of art. While some avant-garde fiction of the 1920s by other Spanish modernists seems to illustrate this idea, Lorca’s work moves in the opposite direction: toward a greater, not a lesser emotional engagement.

The idea of using modernist techniques as a means to separate the massses from the élites—central to Ortega’s idea of dehumanization—is equally antithetical to Lorquian poetics. Sociologically speaking, Lorca often sought to fuse popular and élite art, bringing classic Spanish theater to small villages through his student theater company (La Barraca). He gained popularity by revitalizing popular genres (songs and ballads) with avant-garde metaphors and elisions. Although he wrote avant-garde works not directed toward a popular audience, he ultimately sought a synthesis of his own deeply personal modernist poetics and folk traditions. The duende lecture, I would argue, is itself such a synthesis. He first gave this lecture after writing the avant-garde poetry of Poeta en Nueva York. The lecture is not a justification for a facile neo-popularism, but for the radically modernist poetics of his mature work.

Geographically, Lorca’s imaginative vision of the Andalusian landscape is also at the opposite pole from Ortega’s distrust of this same region, voiced in his 1927 Teoría de Andalucía:

Durante todo el siglo XIX, España ha vivido sometida a la influencia hegemónica de Andalucía . . . España entera siente justificada su existencia por el honor de incluir en sus flancos el trozo andaluz del planeta. Hacia 1900, como tantas otras cosas, cambia ésta. El Norte se incorpora . . . Enmudecen las letras y las artes del Sur. Mengua el poder político de personajes andaluces . . . No hay probabilidad de que nos vuelva a conmover el cante hondo, ni el contrabandista, ni la presunta alegría del andaluz. Toda esa quincalla meridional nos enoja y fastidia.

Ortega here is following the intellectuals of the Generation of 1898, who saw Castile as both the past and future of the Spanish nation. Yet the most canonical poets of Lorca’s generation, with the exception of Salinas and Guillén, are predominantly Andalusian.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Flow Trap

It might be a mistake to put too much emphasis on mental states. The "flow" will not be there every day, or even most days. If you expect the production of scholarship to be consistently ecstatic you will be disappointed. Also, the ideas will frequently flow, but the prose might never just come out easily. You'll have to accept that.

On the other hand, the experience can be mostly positive and productive, on most days, and over the long haul as well. The idea that writing should mostly be a painful process is also mistaken, and a dangerously self-fulfulling prophecy. It can lead to the avoidance of writing. Most procrastination in scholarly writing is due to those two factors:

(1) Not be able to achieve a flow. The writer has it backwards, usually, not realizing that the flow is inherent to the work process itself, not something that exists before you sit down to write.

(2) Avoidance of anxiety. Writing is associated with frightening negative thoughts.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

On a Smaller Scale

On a smaller scale, positive and negative thoughts will be simply signposts. The positive ones will be small satisfactions: "oh, that paragraph makes sense now." The negative ones will be small frustrations: "oh, doesn't make sense, not yet!." They won't have tremendous emotional power, because they won't take the form of sweeping statements (I'm brilliant / I'm lousy). You still have to listen to them, because they contain useful information. You want to know if the sentence is good or not, after all. What you really need it the freedom not to be afraid of a sentence that isn't good yet.

The kind of ego that shows up in negative judgments is even worse, in that respect. It is egotistical to think you are bad at something when you haven't earned the right to say you're bad yet. I can't play violin at all, have never picked on up, but I've only earned the right to say I'm bad at it if I've practiced for hours for a few years and then still can't play.

Talent or Attentiveness?

Some academic writers are so insecure about their ability to create meaningful written utterances in their native language that they are almost paralyzed. What a talent for writing really is, though, is a kind of attentiveness. The ability to notice when a sentence isn't quite right, to learn one's own bad habits and learn how to compensate for them. One of the main talents I have is to look at a sentence I have written and see whether it says what I want it to say, exactly; whether it flows from the previous sentences and into the next ones, etc... I don't think the first sentences I write are any better than anyone else's. Here is a paragraph I found in something I am writing:
What if Spain really is different? Neurosis into ordinary unhappiness. A mystified, romantic notion of Spanish identity with the knowledge that its problems are very similar to that of any other part of the word in the crucible of modernity. In other words, it is a difference that simply is what it is. I am asking that differences not be fetishized for mystified (it is not accident that one of the tropes of Spanish identity is mysticism itself).
This is mind-bogglingly crappy writing, complete with incomplete sentences. Nobody but me would know what I mean by any of this.

So this kind of talent is at the opposite extreme from the conception of talent as being able to write the sentence or paragraph perfectly, every time, the first time around, with little effort. I don't know any academic writer who has that talent!

This means that writing is a kind of attentive reading. Aha!

Positive or Negative?

So to summarize, the dynamic of positive and negative thoughts is quite similar. Both distract from the work itself. Both types of thought can be accepted and summarily dismissed.

A negative thought might contain some useful information, if it is directly related to the work. So, for example, I might say, "that sentence doesn't say what I wanted it to say." But then, that negative thought is not really about my ego, or my ability as a writer, but just a useful observation. The same way, a positive thought might be, "yeah, that paragraph is done now" or "that sounds right."

So the opposition you should think about is: what thoughts are about the work itself, and which ones are irrelevant judgments that have to do with your ego? It is easy to see that a negative thought about the work itself, "gee, that sentence is not very clear" could lead to the thought: "I am a bad writer." The latter thought, though, does not lead to anything particularly productive.

If those ego thoughts are less prominent in your writing session, you will find that the writing will flow better. Afterwards, if you want to congratulate yourself on how smart you are, or worry whether you are good enough, that is fine. Well, it isn't ideal either, but it won't interrupt you as much.

I've found that trying to prevent those thoughts from occurring, or trying to make the positive ones outweigh the negative ones, is useless. I know I will have negative and positive thoughts related to my own abilities as I'm writing.

The entire academic process, after all, is built on judgment. We get grades from our earliest years for our school work. We are judged even as full professors, through systems of peer evaluation. We are called upon the grade students and to judge our own peers. It is surprising that anyone could sit down and write without a whole host of anxieties besetting her.

Saturday, March 1, 2014


I almost always use the word "interesting" when it isn't. It is a negative word, always followed by a "but." It merely softens the objection that is coming. I've seen many professors use it this way when a student says something wrong or extremely limited, or interesting in a kind of off-topic way.

The Poverty of Positive Thinking

Positive, or even manic thoughts, might also come to me as I'm writing.
This book is going to be really great.

I am brilliant.

I am having a lot of good ideas today.

Boy, I like that sentence. I am a good writer.

Thomas Basbøll is going to really like this.

I still have it!

I could write dozens of books like this.

I've written a lot today, and it is good.
I might get such thoughts, also, dozens of times as I am writing, on any given day. It is also good to notice and acknowledge those thoughts, and move on. There is nothing harmful there, I couldn't repress them even if I wanted to, and they make me feel good. But what I am really aiming for is a total absorption in the work itself, not an ego trip about how good my work is. I have to keep my attention on the concrete problems I am trying to resolve, like "that paragraph doesn't quite belong there." The most useful thoughts are neither negative, nor positive, but pragmatically focussed on the actual work.

That is why "motivation" in either negative or positive senses is kind of misplaced. I can't be focussed primarily on a potential punishment (no tenure!) or a reward (distinguished professor!) as I'm writing. The motivation is in the focus on the work itself. The absorption. Without that it is impossible to do good work.

More Anxiety

I figured out how to do a keyboard shortcut for a footnote in MSW. I also changed to formatting for the footnotes so that it would be the way I want it, with the right font. This turned out to be very calming for me. Now I can simply hold down the keys I have designated and there is a magic footnote, already indented, in Baskerville, my font of choice nowadays, and I am ready to go.

I only save a few seconds per footnote, versus going to the insert menu, scrolling down, and clicking on footnote. But it seemed mentally taxing to scan the menus with my eyes, remember that footnotes are under "insert," and then scan down with my eyes until I find "footnote." I would feel the anxiety surging in me whenever I had to do that. Then I would have to reformat each footnote the way I wanted it. Of course, I could have done all that at the very end, but I like things the way I like them from the beginning.


So the lesson here is to listen to your own anxiety as you write. All the problems we have writing stem from negative feelings, inadequacy, anxiety and fear, frustration, boredom, etc...Suppose you have feelings while you are composing that "I wonder what Christopher Maurer would think of this?" Or "This is not going be accepted by the Cultural Studies Crowd," or "I have been working on the same thing for 20 years and my ideas are not that new." "It's been five years since I published a book, maybe there will be no such thing as a university press book by the time I finish this one." Those are all legitimate concerns. They are very real possibilities! I have such ideas literally dozens of times each time I sit down to write. I imagine people less self-confident than I am have even more doubts. You don't even have to refute them in your mind, or call them irrational. That's because they really are not irrational in the least. Maurer and Labanyi could decide they doesn't like this book as much as they did my first Lorca book. The problem comes when those kind of doubts shut down production, or make it needlessly painful. What I've learned from mindfulness meditation (the little I've done) is to recognize those thoughts, give them a label, and move on. So when I get that little adrenile surge with the footnote, I say, "Oh, that's my little Microsoft Word phobia." The beauty is you don't even have to cure this phobia. You might always have it.