Weeknights

We’ve had a couple of nice evenings this week. Nothing spectacular, but nice all the same. It’s dark by 5 o’clock. Felix has found a bit of a groove cutting things up and colouring them in. He showed me how his friend taught him to draw a snake. Last night we got the craft box out and he made a helicopter and a boat out of egg cartons and paddle-pop sticks. All the while Antonia bumbled around on the floor reading herself books and building towers. Felix asked when he could learn to knit, so I made him a tomboy knitting thing out of a toilet roll. Tonight the glue was dry so I taught him how to make the stitches, and he could do it! I’m so proud of him. He’s pretty pleased with the grey and blue snake he produced.

I’d been worried about how much screen time he was having, but for some reason it wasn’t difficult to reduce it this week, and it appears to have paid dividends. Probably he’s just in a good mood but I’ll take it!

I’ve been reading up on eco-criticism and writing a conference paper on my latest literary crush – Kathleen Jamie. I have so many ideas, though writing is, most of the time, a slow slow thing. But honestly, do yourself a favour and get a copy of Sightlines.

Antonia has settled again at the barnehage this week which is an enormous relief. They told me she’s really getting into the music.

Domestic life between the adults in the house has been pretty harmonious too. There’s lots of good stuff coming together at M’s work.

Felix is learning about planets and solar systems in the barnehage so there are lots of discussions about how the moon relates to the earth, and which planets we could travel to, and how long would it take to get to the sun, and are rockets really clean, and what button do you need to press, and what about the other solar systems. Antonia is enchanted with the moon. ‘Ball!’ she declares enthusiastically whenever she sees it.

 

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A room of my own

room2

I braved a solo trip to IKEA last week, Antonia in tow, to buy a carpet and an armchair I’ve been coveting for two years. I wasn’t sure the chair would fit in the car, and it nearly didn’t. After fifteen minutes pushing and heaving and repositioning in the drizzling rain, Antonia perched obligingly on the front seat, I was just about to give up when I finally managed to shut the car boot. I raised my arms in triumph and a passing couple cheered. ‘Super mama!’ they said.

room1

I’m a bit in love with the chair and the rug, and am certain they will be conducive to writing and reading, once I work out what to do with the very lightly sleeping baby in the adjoining room…

The week before I took both kids and we got a bed for Felix.

bed1

He’s very pleased with it, and pleased as well with the little mouse he talked me into buying for him, which has slept with him every night since. He named it Antonia Elinor Celeste.

bed2

Writing now

Writing an academic paper whilst on maternity leave with two children in tow is one of my more frustrating ventures. Antonia doesn’t take a bottle, so I can’t leave her for long periods. (Disclaimer – I haven’t tried. Expressing does not appeal.) She also refuses to go to sleep for the night before about 11pm, which apparently is just what I did as a baby. Today Mum said – let me look after the kids this morning, so you can write.

Once Antonia goes down for her first nap, I sit down to begin. Mum and Felix are planting in the garden. Then my lovely aunt Anne turns up on her bike, so they all decide to have a cup of tea. ‘You can go in my bedroom if you like’, says Mum. So I did, and try working there for a while, reading over the draft I printed last night. I make some progress but after half an hour or so grow frustrated with the distracting conversations drifting in from the deck, combined with the strains of ‘Memory’ growling in from next door (my parent’s neighbour, it seems, is an amateur opera singer). There is something a little bit lovely about it all, but it’s hard to think.

I decide to move back to my bedroom, to take my chances working beside a sleeping baby. I sit on the bed. There isn’t really enough light but I ignore it. Then it is time for Anne to leave so they all move around to the front of the house so I haven’t escaped the conversations after all. The neighbour has stopped singing now and comes out the front and Mum has a chat with him about the bins. Antonia wakes up. She’s lifting her head and smiling broadly as I type, twisting her head around to peer at the window and then back at me.

Baby cuddle. Antonia is soft and snuggly and oh so pleased.

Dad and Michael take Felix to the shops. He looks so cute crossing the road with them, his little blonde head only reaching Michael’s waist. Mum takes Antonia for a walk.

Tea and toast. Back to it.

A dog barks. Maybe I should change this blog post to the present tense.

I read over a bit more of the draft and make some notes.

‘Mummeeeeeeeeeeeee!’

They are all back. Felix bounds in to the bedroom and lands on top of me. His back is strong but his cheeks are soft and he is oh so pleased.

Days

I cannot believe tomorrow is Friday again already. The weeks have been shuttling past so fast. There is always something to do but somehow there has been time for everything, time for resting, time for chatting, and even time for cleaning. In any case, there is only one week left of quite this pace – one week of teaching, and then a break for Easter, before the piles of marking will come in. To tell the truth, one pile of marking came in this week, but given that I have a paper to present on Monday that I have not had time to concentrate on before this week, the marking can wait.

Writing a paper, for the first time in so long, has been an utter joy, though of course I need to hurry up a bit now and tie up some loose ends so I have something to say on Monday. I’ll then have a month or so once teaching and marking are over to finish the longer version.

The little boy is loving not having to sleep in his ‘box’, as Michael called it. We are losing half an hour of sleep in the mornings, but it’s just about worth it to see him padding in to greet us, bearing gifts. Sunday morning he turned up with four books and announced proudly: ‘I have books!’ This morning he came with a pair of socks, a bike light, his bear for himself, Jemima Puddleduck for me, and his blue stuffed dragon for Michael. Michael had already gone downstairs so Felix propped it on Michael’s pillow for a while while he snuggled, and then carried it downstairs to present to him in person.

We have had blue skies and sunshine for hours. The world feels so different.

Marking essays

I’m currently reviewing the final drafts of the essays which I painstakingly corrected a month or so back. I meant to write something about that at the time – how marking essays is a curiously intimate thing, although ultimately (especially when there are fifty of them) mind-numbing. To read and correct the words and thoughts a student has put together in the solitude of books and a computer screen is quite a privilege (admittedly undermined by the interminable ‘I’ll help with your student literature essay’ websites). But it really is quite lovely to see that a few essays have made some significant improvements after heeding my comments. One student emailed me for more detailed feedback and emailed me straight back again to thank me. And that was nice.

As an undergraduate I could barely read the comments on my essays, I was so nervous. This process is also making me think of my phd – the tireless detailed notes my supervisors left on draft after draft, and how, slowly, after about a year and a half, I finally got what they meant.

Here

I’m afraid I’m going to regale you with yet more pictures of you know who. We’re going to Germany next week so maybe we’ll get the inspiration to take a photo of something else. Michael took these in the garden on Saturday. We were out there for hours, on Sunday too. You can follow the progress of the weather by the gradual reduction in Felix’s outdoor wear over the last few posts!

It’s pretty fun watching Felix gather up the courage to explore the garden. It reminds me of watching our kittens discover it, nearly two years ago. By Sunday he was crawling all around, pulling the little pine cones off the sticks, turning around to check whether he was allowed to eat them or not. His favourite thing is to crawl up and down the stairs to the deck. He’s getting pretty adept at it. He’s also pretty happy with the swing that Michael strung up on our tree.

I think all the sun we’ve been getting lately has done something funny to my head, because despite the even more dreadful than usual night’s sleep we got last night, I feel so happy. I have been enjoying work lately and Felix has really adjusted well to being in the barnehage. I often get to see him during the day for short periods, and he’s even beginning to get used to that, and is not crying quite so much when he spots me.

In other news I recently had an article published in Bøygen, a journal put together by some Masters students at the University of Oslo (ooh, and I just discovered that the title refers to a great troll-snake, from the Peer Gynt story). It is a really beautiful little journal. The theme of this issue was ‘place’, and they have essays in Norwegian and English about the role on place in literature in places as diverse as Norway, Israel, Australia. The essays are interspersed with black and white photographs, mainly of Oslo. It really is lovely and it’s a bit of a thrill to be a part of it.

In the small pockets of time between child-rearing, working, and folding laundry, I have been reading Anne Enright’s Making Babies, a very beautiful collection of essays, recommended by Blue Milk. And I have been knitting. I’ve started one more vest for the little guy. It’s quite addictive. It was in this cabin, just outside the Glacier National Park in Montana, that I decided I absolutely needed to learn to knit. It was something about the self-sufficiency of the little cabin in the woods that didn’t even have electricity, and seeing Felix wearing a cardigan knitted by my Nanna. I thought it would be a satisfying thing to do. I was right. It has exactly the right balance between challenging and soothing; it is heartening to see your progress even if it is slow, the texture and colour of the yarn between your fingers is lovely, and there is something entirely wonderful about seeing your own child all snug in a jumper you made for him.

Swimming

My last ditch effort at procrastinating about writing (after housework, internet, chocolate, and cups of tea), is a desire to write about the writing process, rather than to get on with the particular writing I am supposed to be doing. So I will make this short and sweet.

The first time I went swimming after Felix was born felt really strange. It was only a couple of months ago, and the last time I had been swimming I had been pregnant. Now it was just me in the water, and my body was different – my muscles responded more directly, I cut the water more sleekly. The cool water surrounded me completely. For the first time in a very long time, I was alone.

I am currently working on some article revisions. It feels a bit the same.

Boise day 2

Yesterday I fell in love with Boise even a little bit more when I discovered this place by the river. It’s the Log Cabin Literary Center, and they host literary events and writing camps for kids. Awesome.

It’s situated on the greenbelt, right near the art gallery and natural history museum and the zoo, and miles and miles of walking tracks by the river. As Felix is a bit young for writers’ camps yet, we headed on.

We strolled along the river for a bit and then test-drove our new picnic blanket.

Good for rolling and for reading.

It’s actually quite hard to get pictures of Felix doing anything but grinning manically at the camera, because he can be entertaining himself quite nicely but as soon as you pull the camera out he gets a huge glint in his eye and decides he wants to eat it, declaring enthusiastically ‘aha! aha! aha!’

Then we were all tuckered out.

Naptime

This may be another of those ‘see how much I can write in half an hour‘ posts. But fifteen minutes has already passed – well, twenty, actually, if you count the five minutes I waited to ensure Felix was properly asleep before moving him to the crib – so it may actually be ‘see how much I can write in ten minutes’. Which I guess is not a great deal but you never know. In any case, he could surprise us all and sleep for an hour and a half, which would be lovely.

There are so many things I have been meaning to write. I want to write about children’s picture books, how the really lovely ones are just as good as poems, or better. And I want to write about the handful of ‘how to raise you baby’ books I have read, just in case anyone is interested. And I have half a post sitting in my draft box about stone and the elements in A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book. And there are a few more photos I want to upload from my parents’ visit. (Yes more, at the risk of boring you all, but it was such a special time and I miss them.) And I doubt I will have time to do any of that right now.

I could also be reading now, and half wish that I was. I have started Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions. It is my first e-book. Michael has loaned me his ipad to see how I like it. I have decided I’m definitely going to get an e-reader. Just have to decide between a kindle and the more expensive but more versatile ipad. (I fell a bit in love with the new nook color at Barnes and Noble, but you can’t buy books on it when you are out of the US, which defeats the purpose for me.) With the ipad you can read in the dark because it’s backlit, but some people find the backlit screen annoying and straining for their eyes. Hence the test-run. Advice welcome…

It’s been a tiring week (see previous post). And yes the boy’s gorgeous laughs do make up for it but sometimes they don’t. This afternoon we sat for nearly an hour under a tree outside our apartment, and he was happy, and now he is resting. (Well, I sat. He rolled around and cooed at the wind in the leaves.)

And yes it appears I can write rather a lot in ten minutes because it’s only been eight so far.

I also wanted to write some more about what’s happening in Norway because I have been thinking about it. They’ve started releasing photos of the victims. I looked at them and ofcourse they are sweet young educated ordinary people, and it is terrible. The youngest was fourteen and five days. And there are some older people too, some my age, some my parent’s age. And really what can you write about it because it is unbearable.

When we were with my parents in Salt Lake City we went for a drive up the Big Cottonwood Canyon one evening. Felix was a bit fussy (he finds it distracting when there are people next to him in the back seat), so we decided to stop by the side of the road so I could give him a feed. When we got going again we found the road was blocked not far ahead of us. There had been an accident. We waited around for about an hour, and then got word it would be at least another three hours, because of a police investigation, so we did the two hour drive out through the back of the canyon. It turns out a drunk driver had slammed head on into a car with a couple in their sixties. The last I heard the drunk driver and the other driver were in critical conditions in hospital. We felt so terrible, and so spooked. Because there really isn’t a magic spell that ensures it’s not us who gets slammed into by drunk drivers.

One thing I was unprepared for when becoming a mother was how intolerable the thought of death would suddenly become. I was not only protective of my baby, death suddenly seemed unacceptable for anyone, anywhere. The disaster in Japan happened when Felix was a few weeks old, and I couldn’t read any of the broadcasts. One day Michael was talking to Felix, and Felix’s little mobile was whirling around above his change table, reminding Michael of the circle of life. ‘This is the circle of life’, he told Felix. ‘You are born, and you will die. One day your parents will die. One day you will die’. ‘Don’t tell him that!’ I said. Because it seemed utterly unacceptable. It made me afraid. If this beautiful creature would die, if I would die, what was the point?

I talked to Mum about it while she was here. I said, ‘sometimes things are really not ok’. ‘That’s true’, she said. ‘But also they are ok.’ (In case you haven’t noticed, which I think you have, my Mum is very wise.) I think she is right. And when I think about things being ok, I think for some reason of the earth, of dirt and  rocks and stones and gravity, firm under my feet. The way I did in this poem. I do not know why. I do not like how frail and unpredictable life is sometimes. But I very much like being alive right now. Yes I do.

That, my friends, was twenty-five minutes, and it got a bit heavy didn’t it! And if he sleeps any longer, I’m going to read my ebook.

A new emotion

Watching some predictably dreadful American TV last night – now, I do want to share my US experiences but I want to be careful about engaging in American-bashing – North America is hardly a single entity and while most of the TV we’ve seen so far has been horrendous, some American TV – The Wire, for example – is some of the most amazing stuff I’ve ever seen… Where was I. Yes. Watching some predictably awful TV last night, a real life couple were encouraged to write letters to their dead son, expressing their grief to help them avoid drowning their pain in corn starch. They both read out their letters.

‘Everything they just said were cliches’, Michael said.

‘Yes’, I said, ‘it’s hard for people who aren’t used to writing to avoid cliches. They just write what they think is expected of them. There are quite simple workshop exercises you can do with them to snap them out of it.’ Not that I can think of any specific examples right at the moment, but I remember going to several writing workshops that succeeded in doing just that. I think long list-like poems are particularly good at it.

Anyway, I realised I was guilty of exactly that when in my last post I tried to describe what it feels like to watch my son roll over for the first time. ‘I’m so proud of him’. ‘He gives me so much joy’. These are true, but… I was thinking about it, and it really is a new emotion I feel when I watch my child learn, practice and master new skills. Or emotions, to be precise. Wonder is one. How this little creature, who four months ago couldn’t even smile on purpose, has after much persistence flipped over onto his belly. There’s this sort of happy joyful excitement as I cheer him on. I feel a warm ball of light in my chest. And it is a different, particular experience because he is my own child. Working in the kindergarten I’ve been amazed and delighted by the progress of the little ones, almost to the same extent. It is different not only because he is my own, but because with each new skill he acquires he becomes somehow less my own, and more his own person. Our relationship shifts. The little creature who could say ‘agoo’ but not ‘ahwaaaaaaha, googoo brshhhh!’ has in some sense gone. At the same time, his new skills give me ways of getting to know him better. So each new skill is a gain and a loss, and that is exactly how I want it to be.

See how much I can write in half an hour!

I miss writing. Even writing blog posts, which is just about all the writing I’m managing at the moment. Felix is still only sleeping half an hour at a time during the day, so unless I start doing whatever it is I want to be doing the minute I put him down, it doesn’t get done. Sometimes it’s having a cup of tea, which takes fifteen minutes; the remaining fifteen can be used for tidying or daydreaming or making lists of all the things I think I should be doing. Today it is writing. If I want to write I must not put anything away – even my teacup, even his pjs which need to go to the laundry, or wipe any benches, or put the washing on. I must not read anything, even other blogs. I must not click on facebook. I must sit, immediately, with my computer, and write.

When Michael emailed me the last batch of photos (he’s good like that), he titled them ‘Felix and Mum’. And I thought – gosh, ‘Mum’, is that me? I wonder if you’re not really ‘Mum’ until someone calls you that. Which I guess won’t be for a while. But still. I am undoubtably a mother. And I am used to it now, and used to him, but if you think for a moment about the grand, long-term scheme of things, which I can’t help doing from time to time, this is still terribly new. We think – I wonder what he will look like in a year? We think – we can’t wait until he can sit up at a table, and run around and kick a ball, and read a book by himself, and give us a hug. But at the same time, he is utterly gorgeous right now, as small as he is, which is considerably larger than when we first met him nearly twelve weeks ago. Children do something strange to time, and to the future – it feels less predictable and more exciting. A little scary, even, but it doesn’t have to be, it comes at you one day – one minute – at a time.

I’ve had a couple of low patches recently – they never lasted terribly long, not even a whole day, but I would hate to ever get stuck in one. It’s partly just how relentless it all is, and when you feel trapped by it it’s frightening to think you can’t escape it, you have to keep doing it every day for a very long time. I think part of the problem was a mundane one of eating too much sweet stuff. I love sweet stuff. And I love baking. But I feel much more energetic today than last Friday, and the main difference is that there aren’t any brownies left!

The other thing is time for yourself and space to connect with friends. There is not much time for myself but there is a little bit. I have been reading and loving A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book. I will write more about that later. And after reading this post by Penni, I have been listening to The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, as an audio book. I’ve been enjoying that too. And writing… not so much. But right now I am. I am surprised by how much I have to say!

The other problem, of course, is social interaction. We had a bbq here last Thursday, with a couple of old friends and a couple of new friends, and it was nice but Felix got a bit stressed by all the people so it ended up being quite exhausting. He is best with just a couple of new people at a time. But on the weekend a good friend of mine came over to help us with putting an ad up about our car. She is Norwegian, and lives around the corner, and brought her little daughter who had a great time examining Felix, sitting in his little chair (he’s actually borrowing it from her) and trying to give him her dummy. And it was just so so nice. Then on Tuesday I met with an American woman about my Mum’s age, who is here for a couple of months but comes from Idaho Falls, where we are headed in a couple of weeks. And that was also unexpectedly lovely, and we had the most excellent conversation about pregnancy and children and childbirth, and how pretty the landscape is around here. And then on Tuesday evening I went out for dinner with two friends I met at the kindergarten: my Welsh friend (who is younger than me and adores children including Felix but is waiting for a couple of years before trying for her own), and my Irish friend (who is older than me and pregnant with a much longed-for baby, due in June). I was worried how Felix would go but he was utterly charming and didn’t mind coming out at all. And it was just so so nice. I hadn’t been out with a couple of girl friends for at least two years. I will not let two years lapse before I do it again! It has been a slow process, making friends here (Michael and I are both natural introverts, really), but we are getting there. I know these friendships will survive our eight month absence, and be here when we return.

Apart from that we have been filling in forms and dealing with bureaucrats, and trying to find someone to care for our house and our cats (please don’t ask how it’s going!) and there is a lot a lot to do before we go. Today I have to go to the police to renew our residency permits and get one for Felix. But we are getting there. And the little guy smiles at us every day, especially when Michael comes home from work, and we are loving our brand new family, we are.

Writing

In the few quiet moments I can salvage, I am trying – very belatedly – to pull together a book proposal out of my thesis. Every time I sit down to do this, I think – but no one will ever be interested in publishing a book out of my strange and obscure thesis. How do I defend my choice of authors? Why these four, and not others? But at the very same time, I’m really proud of my thesis. I know it’s well written and interesting and some of it – enough of it – is new. And why shouldn’t it be published, when it reads so well, and I know some people, at least, would like to read it. So. I cannot afford to remain blocked at this point. Which I have told myself a thousand times, and now the baby awakes.

Fragments

A very good weekend. So lovely to have Michael around. Felix seemed more relaxed too. I’m learning to read his signals a little better – when he wants to play on the floor, when he wants to lie back in his basinet and coo at his lion before nodding off to sleep. Much more relaxing than rocking him asleep in my arms and putting him down only to have him wake up five minutes later, over and over. I sort of miss the amount of cuddles that entailed, though. Will have to make sure he still gets plenty of cuddles. But it’s strange – sometimes he does just want to lie down, and if you cuddle him he gets distressed, which you think you have to solve by more cuddles, etc etc. Not to say he doesn’t love his cuddles, but he needs breaks from them too. You just have to catch him at the right time and put him down before he gets distressed, because once he is distressed, he doesn’t want to go down. And of course I pick him up again if he tells me he’s not happy! Although everyone tells me that babies keep changing – you think you have them figured out and then the rules change. So we’ll see…

This morning we went for a drive in the sunshine, past all the melting lakes. Many of them are still frozen enough to ski over, and even to drive little tractors over. Felix liked the car trip but was a little grumpy when we stopped for our thermos of coffee. I think it was too bright for him. When the sun comes out here it’s clear and cold and piercing and gets inside your head. He’s had a long sleep this afternoon and I tidied up, prepared spinach cannelloni with enough leftovers to last me a few days (Michael is away for four days this week), baked some brownies and put two loads of washing on. Michael’s been catching up on some work upstairs. It’s strange what having a baby does to the time you have to yourself – such a pressure to use it productively! I even tried to sit down and relax instead of making the brownies but couldn’t bring myself to… And now I write and write as he snuffles in his basinet. He will wake up soon. I think. He’s a little unpredictable. I don’t need a nap today because he slept like a champion last night – 9.30-5am, and then 6-8. I woke up at 3 anyway, bursting with milk.

So much learning and rearranging. I am tempted to rush things when he is asleep but I consciously relax my shoulders, breathe. Try to make the tasks that need to be done part of my time for myself rather than something that gets in the way of it. And I hope I will find time soon for other kinds of writing and reading and thinking, in the moments between things. But I am not in a hurry. In some ways I had felt I had run out of things to write about before he was born. I think he will change that. Change everything.

I love him so much. I love his sage satisfaction when he lifts his head from a feed. I love the warmth of his small body in my arms. His dark blue eyes that look straight at me, or over my shoulder at something I cannot see. His uncomplicated delight at coloured blocks jangling above him. I even love the way he kicks his legs in frustration (as long as it doesn’t go on for too long). He is a strange and beautiful creature.

A question for writers and scholars

Drafts. What do you do with them? Do you throw them all away? I throw away all my endless printed copies in all their permutations. But I have a lot of notebooks left over from my novel and my PhD. I use A4 spiral bound notebooks. And I’m not at all selective about what I use them for. So, notebooks from 2005 and 2006, for example, have PhD proposals and hesitant beginnings interleaved with the final scenes I wrote for my novel, as well as random musings and poems and journal entries. I have notebooks dating from July 2003, when I first moved to the UK. I was flicking through some of them on the weekend, and they reveal painfully intimate details of my spiritual, emotional and intellectual development, alongside early drafts of things that sometimes made it into the finished product. But they are heavy and they take up space and I don’t think I want to lug them around forever. And really, they are not the sort of thing I want anyone else to read.

What I’ve done is separate the mainly PhD notebooks from the mainly novel notebooks. For some reason I can’t bear to part with the novel ones. There’s sort of a thrill seeing the first handwritten version of scenes that made it into the final version of the story. (Well, I say final. I really should get back to seeing if it’s publishable or not.) I think I can throw away the PhD notebooks. But it’s sort of hard. In between records of my intellectual floundering and chasing the wrong leads in those early years, are snapshots of my life in York, and the first house I shared with Michael. But my memory should be enough to go on. And I really don’t need a record of all that work, because everything good ended up in the PhD anyway… And we really need to cut down on excess stuff.

So. What should I do? Do I throw them away?

In-between

I’ve always been bad at in-betweens. You know, when you are waiting for something to happen, or something to become clear. When you hesitate to put down roots in your situation, because you don’t know what’s coming next, and you aren’t sure if any investment you make now will be worth it. The effect these in-betweens have on me is stultifying. I sit and look at all the things I could be doing and don’t do any of them.

You can see it in this blog, these in-between times. It becomes harder to write, harder to think, even, so I post less frequently, or stick to photos rather than words. Like the early months of pregnancy, when I can think of little else but don’t want to write about it yet. And like now.

This has been a rather long in-between. In between finishing my PhD and …. I don’t know. A baby? What else?

We are planning on staying in Norway for the next three or four years, so in order to make that profitable for me I need to either get a research grant or learn Norwegian so I can get a more interesting job. Or both. We are also thinking of  going to the US for nine months or so while I am on maternity leave. It’s not set in stone but is a distinct possibility. I was ambivalent about it at first but now am quite excited about it. Of course it complicates the whole learning Norwegian thing. But I can make that work. I’ve got to stop thinking like that.

I guess what I am trying to say is I am trying to live richly and purposefully in this in-between time. I want to kick the inertia so that I can do that. I want to start learning Norwegian properly now, although there are only three months left until the baby is due. I want to complete some writing projects, and repaint some scruffy walls in the house. Although I’m not sure where the writing will get me, and although we might not be spending much time in this house next year. Because if I don’t do anything, it won’t get me anywhere at all.

Although I find in-betweens uncomfortable, I don’t do much to avoid them, because I don’t like to rush things. At some level, strangely, I am not afraid of them. After my undergraduate degree, I had two and a half years off, during which time I worked as a home-care worker for people with disabilities, I wrote part of a novel, and after deciding that I did want to continue with English literature after all, I secured funding to do a Masters in medieval literature at York. After the masters I had another year off, during which I finished my novel (with a little financial help from the South Australian government), and managed to get funding for my PhD.

So in retrospect, those in-betweens were quite productive. It is easy to think the past ten years have left me with not much. A couple of dusty manuscripts, and a rarified education that doesn’t count for a great deal in the real world. But those two dusty manuscripts are quite nice, even if I do say so myself. They deserve to be reshaped into forms in which they can go out and meet the world. I need to be brave enough to do this. And we shall see where it takes me.

A long post in which I contemplate my future

I’m trying to psych myself up to apply for a postdoc fellowship at Oslo University. It’s for four years. They’re interested in ‘culturally oriented literary research’, including ‘projects that combine theoretical reflections on historicity and mediality with the reading of concrete literary works’. So – pretty much right up my alley. I can’t afford not to apply for this. But it is really hard to make myself do it.

Firstly, I don’t think I have a realistic chance of winning it at the moment. I just haven’t got my act together in terms of pulling together a book proposal and churning out a few articles. I’ve been working full time and studying part time for the past few months so I’m not beating myself up about it. But there it is. I should apply anyway, for practice, and so they know my name. More things will come up. Norway is a very good place to be for postdoctoral funding.

Secondly, I’m finding it really hard to come up with a new project. I’m really happy with my PhD, and quite looking forward to carving a book out of it. But something new? Do I stick with medievalism or go further afield? Do I stick with Australian literature or do I branch out? I came up with quite a nice one-year-plan for an earlier unsuccessful application, but a four-year-plan is another matter.

The trouble is, my big ideas tend to have slow, quiet births. I wrote a novel, on and off, for ten years. And I thought about my PhD for years before I started it. And I’ve never been one of those super-organized types with well thought out life plans. I’ve always thought – I would quite like to be a academic, but I won’t be devastated if it doesn’t work out. I have my other writing that I can do. I write stories. That is my deep desire. But the trouble is, after finishing the novel, I haven’t written any stories, either. I was of course writing a PhD. But finishing the novel, finding a beautiful end to a story that had haunted me for years and years, resolved something inside of me. The stories suddenly weren’t urgent any more. Even if it never gets published, it is written.

I know there will be new things to write; I can’t imagine a life without writing. (This blog helps with that a lot, actually – it’s a space to weave writing gently into the cracks between things.) But I’m not sure, right now, exactly what they will be.

bleh

I caught a cold from the babbies which is making me very grumpy. The same kind of grumpy I felt last time I flew to Australia and I was exhausted and I noticed that the people at the back of the plane had four seats to themselves and could lie down but I had no space and had to sit up. Yep.

Today the sun is shining for the first time in just about forever, and it is gleamy and bright and cool in the most magical autumn way, and the leaves outside our window are already going gold. Most of the leaves about town are still green, mind, but it won’t be long.

Michael’s gone out for a ride but I’m not well enough. Might wander down to the harbour later though.

Apart from that, things have been slotting into a new routine quite nicely. At the moment I’m working three days a week at the kindergarten and two days at Michael’s work – proof reading and working on a newsletter and a website. The proof reading has been fascinating in some ways – it’s funny seeing which parts of the language slip for non-native speakers. The biggest problems for Norwegians writing in English, it seems, are conjugating verbs (you don’t have to do it so much in Nowegian), and using words which sound the same in Nowegian and English. ‘Start’, for example. It means basically the same thing, but when writing in English the Norwegians use it far too freqently, and in a much broader context than it can be used in English, for example when they mean ‘initiate’. Anyway…  I realise that their English is far far better than my Norwegian or my German!

Sorry the blog’s been rather neglected of late. I’m feeling my way into a new space, which to start with didn’t leave me much time for musings. That’s changing, though, as I get the hang of it.

Why you should still love Les Murray

I felt so tired this morning that I promised myself an early night tonight. Why is it not possible to get more done? I am making progress but I wish it were quicker.

I am working on my Les Murray chapter. I like his work very much. I’m not sure my chapter will do him justice. Actually, ‘like’ is not the right word at all. I adore his poems. He is a genius. His politics are also terribly problematic and unfortunately I have to deal with them in the chapter. But they don’t make me adore his poetry any less. (Not every single poem, but a lot of them.) I came across this beautiful review by Clive James that sums up one of the things so brilliant about him. He says Murray is an example of the way poets are ‘ unfairly interesting, as if they didn’t deserve to get so much said in such a short space’:

‘The severed trunk
slips off its stump and drops along its shadow.’

Not only do you wonder how he thought of that, you imagine him wondering too…

There is another good example in ‘The Power-line Incarnation’, a poem about how it feels to clear fallen power-lines off the roof of your house and find them to be still transmitting their full load of electricity.

‘When I ran to snatch the wires off our roof
hands bloomed teeth shouted I was almost seized held back from this life
O flumes O chariot reins
you cover me with lurids deck me with gaudies…’

The non-Australian reader need not think that there are outback Australians who call wires flumes. ‘Flume’, meaning an artificial channel, is Middle English following Old French, and comes out of the dictionary, not out of colonial usage. But the flumes, lurids, and gaudies seem appropriate here because the shock has sent the narrator back to the roots, of language as of life; the voltage has impelled a Jungian power-dive into the collective unconscious.

Isn’t ‘flume’ a lovely word? It sums up for me the electric shiver I get like get from moments like this in Murray’s poetry. Instead of writing my chapter I would like to write pages and pages about these incredible phrases. His bat poem for example. And oh, there are millions and millions. (If you click over to James’s review he discusses a few more.)

But these magic phrases are not the only thing that is wonderful about Murray’s poetry. He has all these elaborate theories about Australian identity, involving fusions of Aboriginal poetry, and Catholicism, and Gaelic poetry, and the Middle Ages, and the poor farmers, and about how he experiences belonging in the country the same way the Aboriginals do but also in the same way his Scottish ancestors did. Which of course is terribly problematic and you can’t really do that, and in designating certain groups as truly ‘Australian’ he’s alienating a huge proportion of the population.

But – I don’t think his poetry is brilliant simply in spite of his weird politics and his intense spiritual visions. I think they’re bound up together somehow, they come from the same place. So while I can unpick the unsettling way he aligns the Middle Ages with Australia, in some ways I don’t want to, because his vision is compelling and marvelous. It is a myth, yes, and there are real problems with some of the things he implies, but what he gives outweighs by far anything we can objectively say is problematic about his poetry.

And I was going to talk about how reading his ‘The Idyll Wheel’ – a suite of poems based around the Australian seasons – while holed up in my study listening to The Magic Flute in a snowy Norwegian February made me cry. But I have to go to bed now otherwise my new curfew will count for nothing and I will be a slow writer tomorrow morning. But the poem reminded me of how some weird woman on TV in England said she’d hate to have a Christmas in Australia because you’d know winter was just around the corner, and I thought – she knows nothing, winter is the least of their problems right now. Winter is unimaginable right now. As Les knows well:

Weedy drymouth Feb, first cousin of scorched creek stones,
of barbed wire across gaunt gullies, bringer of soldered
death-freckles to the backs of farmer’s hands. . .

. . .

. . . needy Feb, who waits for the raw eel-perfume
of the first real rain’s pheromones, the magic rain-on-dust
sexual scent of Time itself, philtre of all native beings

Deciding to stay

Photo credit – Michael. (Isn’t he clever?)

I had planned to fly to England today. But on Sunday night, I found myself wishing desperately that I had another two weeks at my desk. M said – why don’t you stay? He headed off to Finland today, and he’s going to Washington on Friday, without coming back here. Why not? I thought. I will. I have nearly two weeks of space and quiet to think and write and crystallize (yep, Genevieve, z is definitely prettier). Not that I don’t when he’s around. I love when he’s around. But you know.

And it feels good. Right at the end of last week, things started coming together. In a slow steady way. I sort of knew I was setting myself up for a fall last weekend when I declared I would have the most productive week ever. Because really there was no chance in Hell I could polish off three messy chapters in a week. Three weeks, now (including the one that’s gone), is another matter.

Anyway, I am still here. And it feels good. It feels like a gift. A gift of time, for me, to hang out with my thesis. To be kind to it. To attend to it. To notice its best bits and help them to shine. And this gentle attention is getting me a lot further than the panic I was in a week ago. I have realised I do not need to go fast. I just need to go steadily, and carefully, to hold many things in my mind and let a few things go. Because this thesis is mine and I love it, and even if flaws remain (they always do) it will still be a good thing.

So, for now, I am a little fish. Swimming steadily, strong but light. If I get stuck on or tired of one chapter, I will flick back to the other one, and make slow steady progress there. I must start working on my Webb chapter (the first one I wrote, the last one I will finish) within the next couple of days, so it has time to simmer and float with the others. Because really, I am quite a circular thinker.

And I will finish by the end of March. I will hand it in. For the first time I believe this.

Catherine Howard’s hat

Last weekend I picked up Henry and had a go at Catherine Howard’s hat. She’s the one on the right. I have been avoiding the hat, as it is fiddly. And stitching brown thread is boring. But it will look good when it’s finished. It’s purple on top. With a feathered plume. After twenty minutes of happy stitching, I realised I was using the wrong colour. The symbol for colour I was using was a sideways ‘M’, when I needed to be using the upright ‘M’. So I dutifully unpicked it all, got the right colour out, and started again. And then I realised the last colour I’d done was wrong too. So I stopped. I need to decide whether to unpick the last thread, or just sew the two different coloured browns the wrong way around. I put it away.

A friend once told me her mum always said: ‘unpicking is progress too’. Which is true, and when you think about it like that it’s less painful. But still painful.

My Les Murray chapter started to come together today, very nicely. I realised the reason I had been stalling on it was the amount of unpicking required. I finished this chapter in a long night of rainbow-coloured fish, quite some time ago. My supervisors were very keen for me to produce a whole chapter, with arguments that built up, rather than just a collection of  ‘oh look he’s referencing the Middle Ages’ fragments. So I poured my all into it, and stiched it together, and forced it a bit. And they were pleased with it. They said yes, you’ve finally got it now. And I was happy, and I knew I could go on and write my next chapter with no problems at all, and I did, and they loved it first time.

But when I reread my Murray chapter at the end of last year, I was horrified. It was filled with grand statements that I didn’t really back up. It didn’t engage terribly well with secondary sources. It was awkward and naive. Ugh. Not all of it – some of it’s quite nice. But it kept glossing over really interesting things, rather than exploring them.

All it has needed is some unpicking. Some loosening of threads, to fit in some more details, some cleverer observations. And it’s been nice. Quiet, gentle, slow. Because this kind of attention is slow. But I think I will like it by the time I’ve finished it.

PS. To see the cross-stitch in larger than life detail, click on it twice, and zoom around. It’s pretty cool.

Ice crystals

I took this on the weekend. Not sure the past three days could be accurately described as my most productive days ever. Have put aside my loathed theory chapter for now (just wish it was less flimsy), and am getting back to one of my poets. Hopefully keeping feelings of hate and wretchedness at bay. (My poor books have even been copping it – I’ve been yelling at them when they hide on the shelves. Of course they’re always in an obvious place but with a different coloured spine than I remember.)

Today it is snowing, again. The sky is falling and falling.

Now quietly – as quiet as the cold – I will crystallise the last words and paragraphs into stars and pathways, and it will be enough.

Chapter 3 is done!

57 pages, 215 footnotes. I had it practically finished last night, apart from one monster footnote I just couldn’t face. There’s also about twelve footnotes I need to check once I get to Leeds, but I’ve listed them neatly on my ‘things still to be done’ page, and it shouldn’t take too long. I am tempted to go over the whole thing again and make a couple of things more explicit, but I’m forcing myself to put it down for now and get on to the next thing. This is my best chapter. It’s fine. If I have time at the end I will tweak it a little, if not, no problem.

Now for the hard part… Chapters 1, 2, and 4 are in much worse states.

Chapter 5 is done!

It’s now 58 pages, not 55. I hope I won’t have to go back and shrink it. And it has 245 perfect footnotes. Well, perfect enough. Now for chapters 1, 2, 3 and 4. Oh, and the conclusion. My giddy joy and anticipation as the number of pages left to check through grew very thin and very light has now been replaced by well-earned tiredness. But – it was a nice feeling. I would like to have it again. Soon.

Chimneys and words and packages

Here’s another view of the Bingley chimneys. And the semi-frozen canal. The ducks promenade around here much as they do in Halden. The thesis chugs along. I reckon I’ll get it finished in early February, or possibly late January. I got my chapter one (extension of intro) nearly written. I felt like I was juggling so many balls so beautifully, and then I tripped and dropped them all, and couldn’t fathom the energy to pick them all up again. But it is nearly nearly there. I have sent it to my supervisors and will meet with them both individually this week – one tomorrow, and one on Thursday.

Over the past couple of days I’ve been getting back to the first chapter I wrote – the one that’s always caused me the most trouble. I still feel like I’m somewhat awkwardly hanging my argument on my textual analysis, rather than boldly using my textual analysis to advance my argument. The problem with this poet is that he says one thing and then he says the opposite – it’s really hard to pin him down. Anyway, pinning poetry down isn’t my ultimate aim, is it?

My technique this weekend has just been to write the paragraphs that need to be written, without wasting too much time about whether they fit on page eight or page twenty-eight. It’s been working, this close attention to detail, but I’m beginning to feel like printing it out and coming up for air. Tomorrow.

Vic has been a great encouragement. She keeps reminding me that I love this stuff, really.

And it is nearly Christmas which I am very very pleased about. Michael’s coming over to the UK on Wednesday, and we’ll have a few days here before heading across to Germany on Sunday. Good good good. (He’s had some horrible adventures in Norway this week – the valient snuggle-car does NOT like the cold. It got frozen, snowed under, and refused to get going in the Oslo airport carpark, but it’s ok now. I think in winter we’ll keep it to the temperate south from now on.) And oh – Mum and Grandma – all your parcels/cards have arrived in Germany safe and sound! Thank you thank you thank you! Apparently the postman was very excited to be delivering parcels from Australia.

December in Halden

Is quite lovely really. It’s pitch dark by four, and pretty dark by half past three, so I try to venture outside while the sun shines and the ground sparkles. I solved the final structural problems with my introductory chapter today, but my brain is too tired right now to fill in all the gaps. Tomorrow morning will do. Am frustrated with how long this is taking, but if I compare it to my usual progress it’s coming together quite quickly I suppose. Anyway, I’ve turned a corner with it. (Must only think about one bit at a time, if I think too hard about everything that still needs to be done I freeze up completely.)

It’s funny, structuring. For me, it’s never something I can fully come up with in advance, or impose with too harsh a hand. These days I usually have an idea of a structure, but it often morphs into something slightly different. Finishing the chapter requires a combination of hard slog and quiet contemplation. If I am rushed it feels like I’m trying to force pieces of a puzzle together that don’t fit. But if I rest for a day, and come back to it slowly, not hating it, reading it carefully instead of wishing it looked different, the pieces slide into place almost without effort.

Of whales and caterpillars

I’m having recurring dreams of whales. They bob around happily, with faces like hippos. Frolicking on the cote d’azur. Nosing up to me as I swim beside a cliff at Victor Harbour. And, most excitingly, snuffling around while I am a superhero who flies through the air and zooms through the water, friend of whales and foe to sharks who hunt in packs. Ahem.

I think it must have something to do with the thesis. Great lump of a thing that can nevertheless swim gracefully through the water. That’s the goal, anyway. I had a facebook conversation with a phd friend about this, and she said that whenever she’s gestating an idea, she puts up a profile picture of a foetal elephant. That sounds a bit funny I know, but it’s quite a lovely photograph. Here it is, in lieu of my dream-whale-hippo:

elephant

They have something in common, no? Heavy and awkward and light and beautiful all at once.

Tomorrow is my last day in the library before I go back to Norway for two and a half weeks. I’m looking forward to the uninterrupted writing time – there are so many ideas zipping around! I’ll have to be very focussed collecting the last essential books and articles. It’s strange, because each chapter needs something doing to it (some more than others) and somehow I’m holding it all in my head, all at once. I used to have trouble holding a whole chapter in my head, and now I’m holding a whole thesis! My brain has turned into a phd machine. All this focus means that it never switches off – if I have a shower, or walk along, or wash the dishes, or lie in bed, the ideas keep bouncing back and forth, crashing into each other, reflecting each other, building on each other. If I notice a significant theme for one of my writers, my mind immediately says: does it work for any of the others? And it tries different angles and pathways, to see if it fits. Or, to use a creaturely metaphor (which I am fond of doing, as you well know), my brain feels like a caterpillar who won’t stop munching. Munch munch munch on the ideas and the images and the connections.

I spent the day tracking down references. There is so much left to do and I am trying to do it all at once. So tomorrow is the last day of gathering, and then there will be many days to write and to think.

Rare Sunshine

It’s mostly been low clouds and rain you can walk in.

Meeting went well today. They liked my introduction. We went through it together, in detail, and they had lots of minor suggestions to make it better. But they are small things. Stylistic things. (I need to keep an eye on the ends of some paragraphs and where I pick up again after block quotes.) But they said it is good. It is all there. And they really loved the first three pages, which I had revised over and over every time I read through it. Eek! Eek! Eek! (Very pleased with myself. My thesis-zone last time I was in Norway paid off.)

And they think I can make December. I told supervisor two that I didn’t want to hand it in if it isn’t ready. She said it’s never ready. Just do it.

They are very pleased I am staying in the UK next week too and have offered to meet with me again, individually.

Everyone is being very nice to me. Offering me beds to sleep in. Lending me money when the bank refused to give me any without my passport (long story – will bring passport tomorrow). Supervisor two even offered me money (which I refused) and told me I can stay with her if I need. Can I say again, she is one of the nicest, best, cleverest people on earth. (I’m pretty sure they don’t read this, but it’s still true, even if they do.)

I have been thinking about distant friends. Including one who is not well. She had better be ok.

Been thinking about my Mum too. Would be nice to drink tea together. Next year will do, I guess.

And my brother’s art exhibition.

And Michael, teaching in Stavanger.

It was my Grandma’s birthday yesterday. Happy birthday! There were lots of fireworks here, just for you.

I am happy-gleeful-joyful about the election. But not about prop 8.

And now I am calming my buzzing mind and beating heart and preparing to look again at the intro, and thread in all their suggested changes, and look again at my weakest chapters before I meet with them next week. Pity I can’t just smile at the thesis and watch it grow wings. But it will get there. It will.

Writing/Dreaming/Flying

Yesterday morning when I checked my blogroll, everything pointed me back to writing. Well, not everything, but enough. Penni is applying for an amazing sounding PhD (amid writing a hundred other amazing sounding things), and Dr S is refocusing bird by bird (can’t link to the specific post, Oct 26, but that’s the book she links to). And fifi has been doing some pretty serious writing/painting/dreaming too.

Actually, now I think about it, all these posts mention birds.

And so, after zooming and twisting in the sky like a bird myself (more on that soon), I sat down to focus on the tracks and patterns of my thesis chapters, finding the links between them, finding the weak points that need fixing. And it will be done, it will.

(Oh, and on a tangentially related note, my cousin reminded me of some incredible icebergs we saw as we flew over Greenland on the way to New York a few weeks back. Beautiful. )

On my desk

I thought I’d get in on the action. Basically it’s an odd assortment of books about medievalism and Australian literary criticism. Mostly Australian literary criticism, but when that started giving me a serious headache last night I went back to the medievalism. I’m looking at how they fit together. And how they relate to my thesis. Anyway, back to my desk. Several drafts, in various states of being scribbled on. Tea, which is necessary hourly. And there are also creatures. Never underestimate creatures.

Sign-posts

I have been taking photos of autumn leaves but can’t locate the camera adapter just at the moment so you’ll have to wait till tomorrow. They are falling down and cover the boardwalk by the river. I have been spiraling back into my thesis. It has felt, at times, like abseiling into a black hole. Re-reading my introduction was horrifying (oh the pain of editing!) but I am working out how to fix it. Vagueness, be banished! Structure, be found! Tonight, I combed through the opening and closing pages, crossing out sentences, underlining the ends of sentences that start well but end badly, circling terms I don’t really mean. Often writing has its own energy, an insistent rhythm, and I finish a sentence a certain way just because it sounds good. Now, it’s nice if it sounds good, but only if it says exactly what I mean. Only if the terms are essential, and useful, and point the way.

I’ve been thinking of the beginning and the end of my introduction as sign-posts. The sentences and terms I use must direct my argument. Before I started fixing them, the sign-posts clambered all over each other and pointed in myriads of directions. I have been straightening them out, one word at a time. Adding a sentence here, clarifying a phrase there. I’m sure this micro-editing will assist with the broader, looser structural changes I need to make to the body of my introduction.

So. Feeling slightly more positive, after a shuddering and painful transition into writing and thinking after blissful weeks spent floating in the wind and eating pancakes (don’t tell my supervisor). (Well, I came to Europe five years ago for adventures as much as education. And adventures I have had.)

Also trying to figure out my movements for the next two months. Initially I had planned to rent a room in Leeds for six weeks to really knock this thesis on its head. But it’s soooo nice here. Aside from being with the one I love, which is a definite bonus, I have my lovely desk here, and all my books, and my thick folders stuffed with photocopies, and a comfortable desk chair, and a thick duvet, and a kitchen I don’t have to share with five people, and, and… Camping out in a student room with only the bare essentials to keep me going, sharing a house with strangers, is not terribly appealing. I’m meeting my supervisors in Leeds in three weeks time, but maybe I’ll come straight back here after that. I’m sure I can get the thing basically finished with four weeks solid concentration, even here.

Words and harbours

The painted harbour huddles against the grey. Now I know why they choose these colours. My brain will be word-befuddled by the end of the day, so I thought I’d write now, before I get started. We have been working hard and writing lots. My introduction will have grown from a scrappy 5,500 words on Monday to a much more respectable 10,000 words tomorrow, if I keep the pace up. Can I say though, that it is much nicer working from 5000 words than from none at all. Especially when they are scrawled with helpful comments. M has been busy too – conference papers and workshops and teaching preparation on the other side of the country and not one but three (successful!) funding proposals. I’m in the wrong business.

Introduction-writing certainly is a curious thing. I’m slowly beginning to understand what it is I’ve been doing for the past three years, and how it fits into the broader scheme of things. And I’m thinking that I’ve come up with some interesting stuff. Not earth-shattering, but interesting all the same. And maybe it will make a book of some sort, in the end. We shall see. Been feeling much happier about writing it since my England trip. I’m happier to take it one piece at a time, rather than stressing that it’s not all there yet and it’s not perfect. I’m finding I work to a rhythm – an hour or an hour and a half on, then half an hour off. (Or more, depending…) There is a way of building distractions and lapses of concentration into progress, rather than letting them sabotage it. Anyway, better stop writing about writing, and get back to the real deal.

In other news, we’ve been watching Stephen Poliakoff in the evenings (thanks for the tip Kirsty!). We loved Shooting the Past but our favourite so far is Perfect Strangers. It made me cry. I’m still a bit in love with Timothy Spall. And I have a new favourite Norwegian chocolate – Walters Mandler (the as always seriously creamy utterly delicious Freia milk chocolate, blended with fragments of roasted, salted, caramelized almonds. Swoon…). We’re off to New York on Saturday – hooray hooray hooray!

Done

Chapter five, that is. At least for now. The conclusion is still a bit hazy, but it’s better. Much better. I also wrote a third of my conference paper last night. Work on the conference paper is reserved for evenings. (Goal – to finish it early so I have time to rehearse it. I’ve done enough unrehearsed conference papers for the year.) During the day, I am going to make spectacular progress on my introduction, so I have something to show by the end of the week. Go, go, go!

(And the sun is gleaming in the cool bright air and the sky is fiercely blue, and although the trees are mostly green, I am reminded that autumn days are prettier than summer days, prettier by far.)

And then I read this

Above all remember this: that magic belongs as much to the heart as to the head and everything which is done, should be done from love or joy or righteous anger.

And if we honour this principle we shall discover that our magic is much greater than all the sum of all the spells that were ever taught. Then magic is to us as flight is to the birds, because then our magic comes from the dark and dreaming heart, just as the flight of a bird comes from the heart. And we will feel the same joy in performing that magic that the bird feels as it casts itself into the void and we will know that magic is part of what man is, just as flight is part of what a bird is.

Susanna Clarke, The Ladies of Grace Adieu

Could that work for writing too? I know academic writing comes mostly from the head, but other times, writing about dragons or volcanoes, I have felt this frightening and exhilarating flight. My PhD feels old and worn and tangled, but I will straighten its lines, and ease air into its cells, and who knows what will happen next.

Reflections

A picture for the punters. It doesn’t really look like this at the moment – this was taken a couple of months back on an evening stroll with my Mum. May and June really are the prettiest months around here. In comparison, things are a bit worn and hazy right now. Walking back from the supermarket this afternoon, it was raining very finely, and the tall islands looked like whales in the mist. Sometimes, though, the reflections are uncanny:

You can see the fortress upside down from any angle you like. Cycling back the other night, the lakes shimmered every shade of pastel. In context, this is what you’re looking at:

Did another six hours today, and I really really think this chapter is on the brink of coming together. (Now I say six hours. But I sat at my desk in earnest at 9:30am and was still there at 9:30pm. Breaks for meals, waffles and grocery shopping. Keeping note of the actual time I spend working is enlightening indeed. And a couple of  those middle hours weren’t entirely free of digital daydreaming. But still.) The reason I resist structuring and clarifying is that it takes so long. But I teased out another structural issue, and I think everything is where it’s supposed to be now. It’s even giving me some ideas for my overall conclusion. I’ve printed out my new draft, and tomorrow I will suture up the gaps. I’ll polish it until it’s as clear as the river on a glassy spring morning. Or just about.

Progress Notes

I started writing my ‘why the Middle Ages’ post but I’m too tired to finish it at the moment. Yesterday was not so good work-wise – was seriously frustrated with myself by the end of the day – but today I was back on track. The ideas are gelling and dancing in front of my eyes. Unfortunately this is not quite the same thing as slotting themselves into neat pages and paragraphs. But I guess it is a lot better than them not being there at all! Did another solid five and a half hours and was going to do more this evening but other things came up. Yet more customs issues to sort out (they want money. they’re not getting it). Being a foreigner is not always straightforward. We made waffles to cheer ourselves up. No cycling today but I’ve been sticking to four thirty k rides a week since I got here, and am up to 410k.

I guess these minute details of my painfully slow thesis-finishing don’t make for scintillating blogging, but it feels good to mark out my tiny steps forward. It gets dark earlier each day. I’m trying not to notice.

Strategies

Tried a new work strategy today of writing down everything I did and how long it took me to do it (hat-tip to galaxy). Not counting breaks and procrastination, I worked solidly for five and a half hours. That’s a bit embarrassing, but there you go. I’m tired now. My brain doesn’t want to make any more connections. The first thing I did was read over the last third of chapter 5, and identified the problem I was skirting and needed to be solved. I then re-read a few chapters/articles to help me clarify what I needed to understand. I then made a list of possible arguments/conclusions/implications. This cut through the block I had, as previously I had felt that I needed to come up with the answer straight away, couldn’t do it, and so avoided it. This time, I let myself think: ok, it might not be this, but it might be. And it might be this… Otherwise you manage to talk yourself out of all possible arguments and you never get anywhere.

Then I went back to another major critic and tried to clarify some more things. Realised that the problem I was having in chapter five was linked to some major contextualisation and positioning work that I need to do in the introduction. So wrote a list of things that I want to address in two to three paragraphs tomorrow, which will go into the introduction.

I’m still feeling a bit wary of theories and methodologies, but it’s got to be done. And attacking it through a problem that needs to be solved in my final chapter will (I hope) give me the clarity I need to start bringing it all together. I ended up with eleven scrawled pages of notes, and a couple of paragraph fragments that might make it into the thesis somewhere.

Even though this is still slow-going, at least I worked in a sensible, methodical manner today instead of throwing my hands up in despair. One day at a time!

Also, luckily, it’s raining. Rain is good for writing, good indeed. From my desk, I can see it channel down off the tin roof and hear it land in the courtyard puddles.

Chapters, sunlight, flowers

As may be apparent, it’s been a bit hard to concentrate on my phd lately. I managed to read through the whole thing two weeks ago. Barring one chapter, it’s actually not all that bad. The Webb chapter still needs an illuminating spark, but I can almost touch it. The Murray chapter, which opens the thing, is packed with interesting ideas, and is definitely the right place to begin. The other writers I look at refuse to use medievalism to create an Australian identity in quite the way he does. My Randolph Stow chapter, which was such a joy to write, is still my favourite, but at 24,000 words it needs to lose 5000. It will do this quite happily, as the second half is a little drawn out. The dreaded Webb chapter is third in line. And Kevin Hart is a good way to finish, though – again – the last third of this chapter also needs some smoothing, straightening, redefining.

Overall, the experience of reading the thesis was like listening to an orchestra tuning up. All the instruments are crying out, and there is exciting potential, but they need to be brought together, tuned, made to sing. And then there will be music indeed.

I got back to Leeds on Tuesday, and exactly three weeks from then I will be moving to Norway. Yes I’ll be back two weeks later for the Medieval Congress, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the next two and a half weeks I have to empty my room and my house, post all the important things to Norway, and dispose or donate the rest of them. So. One box at a time. And next week I will think hard about my thesis and my introduction, and scour the library shelves for anything I’ve missed, and check my folders of resources for missing pages and mistakes. And all will be well.

In Halden right now everything is in bloom. Suddenly. In the week we were gone, pink and purple flowers swarmed the hill to the fortress. Now lupins crowd the roadsides like birthday candles. And what are they called – those round things that you blow on and the seeds float away – there are flocks of them glowing like moons, waving all their wishes in the evening light. My head is still full of mountains and green fjords and endless sun. Yes, all will be well.

Encounters and epiphanies

Sometimes a latte and a very chocolaty muffin really do solve the world’s problems. Well, maybe not the world’s problems, but definitely my own stubborn writerly problems. After slogging away at my chapter all day (with, admittedly, fluctuating levels of concentration), by half past three I couldn’t bear another moment at my desk. I trecked up to Headingley with my notebook and my printed draft, but without Webb’s Collected Poems. I have more than enough textual analysis, and always fall into the trap of doing more and more. Anyway, after ten minutes browsing in the second hand bookshop (without buying anything, phew), I settled down with aforementioned treat.

I made some lists. I ate some muffin. I wrote down some questions. I smiled at the babbie on the next table. I wrote a short paragraph comparing Webb with the writer I talk about in my previous chapter. I stirred my coffee. I was looking for something to tie this chapter together. I first wrote it two years ago, and my work on it over the past six weeks has involved chopping out vast portions of it, writing at least 8000 words of new stuff, and condensing four rambly pages into one rather nice paragraph. It was coming together, but it wasn’t there yet. I needed something else, something new, something that would bind the different sections into a coherent whole. Something that would enable me to engage in a productive way with the very good work that’s already been done on this poet. I wrote down my key words and looked at them sideways.

And then I realised. ENCOUNTER. It had been there all along, but I just hadn’t been able to see it. Hiding within my ghastly old conclusion (that one of my supervisors had been kind enough to describe as possessing a ‘certain eloquence’) were the words: ‘above all, they are moments of encounter…’ My other supervisor had already mentioned that this term might become more important, but it just hadn’t clicked.

My old chapter title was ‘Difficult Epiphanies: Francis Webb’s Middle Ages’, and I quite liked this. In fact, I was inordinately proud of it. What a lovely term, I thought. It gave me shivers. But this old title caused all sorts of problems. What has annoyed me most in my attempts to rework this chapter is the naive way I wrote about temporality, epiphany, revelation. Yes the poems do strain towards epiphanies, but they more often than not don’t get there. (And sometimes, when they do, they’re not quite convincing.) This was why I’d called them difficult epiphanies. But encounter is so much better because it encompasses so much more. And as soon as I’d latched on to it, I realised it works for every single section. Because he writes about all sorts of encounters: temporal, spatial, cultural, religious…. And there’s some really good stuff that’s been written about ‘encounter’ in an Australian context. I read it a couple of years back but it didn’t sink it. ‘Difficult encounters’, here I come.

I made some more lists. Happy, springy lists that refused to stay put on the lines. I drew smiley faces in my margins. I finished my coffee. And grinned like a Cheshire cat, all the way home.

Yet another writing metaphor

Today, the current chapter feels like trying to put up a big tent – the sort of tent you need at least two people for – by yourself. You just get one pole propped up when all the others tumble down. And then the wind picks up and blows the canopy away. And then you can’t find the tent pegs. It’s driving me balmy.

Writing a PhD

is like climbing a mountain. Only you have to build the mountain as you go, from handfuls of rubble. You have to poke at it until it sticks, and holds, and you can climb up to the next bit. But how satisfying it is, after weeks and weeks of gathering rubble and packing it together, to climb up on top of it and see further than you could before.

The chapter formula

Elizabeth wants me to spill the beans… Well, you just give yourself space at the beginning to engage with what everyone else has said about the topic (this should help formulate your own ideas, as well as identifying any gaps in the current scholarship). Then you arrange the rest of the chapter into linked sections (maybe about four of three thousand words each, depending on the length of your chapter), which outline your ideas on the topic as well as developing an argument along the way. Then at the end you link it all together, and there you go!

Pretty straight forward really. I think what stumped me at the beginning was knowing how to position my findings in relation to everyone else’s. You need to get an idea of the critical background and critical history of the topic you’re researching. Only then can you begin to understand how your own ideas are interesting and relevant. You have to decide who you’re talking to, I suppose, and then make sure you understand them.

The big problem I had with my first chapter was a complete lack of understanding of where the critics were coming from. I had the added confusion of trying to write about a seriously difficult poet, without really understanding the field of postcolonial medievalism I was trying to read him alongside. We decided to start with an author-based chapter rather than a theoretical one as my supervisors hoped themes, ideas, structure and approach would emerge from this. They didn’t. So in my next chapter, my supervisor forced me not to talk about poetry at all, but to read and summarise all the relevant theorists. It was painful. But it helped. Now, when I go back over that first chapter I wrote, the shortcomings are painfully obvious. I do talk about other critics at the beginning, but I don’t arrange this discussion in an ordered way. I mention that the critics say certain things, but I don’t explain why – I don’t explain what groups they fall into, and how what they say relates to the time when they wrote it. It’s not so hard to fix this up now, and it just makes everything clearer.

Ok so it’s not so much a formula as a series of realizations. And it relates to an English literature thesis – yours might be a bit different, Liz. If anyone has an article formula, can they let me know?

Words and numbers

He’s programming. Typing in code, and out come graphs of colourful lines. Like kite strings. Like the tube map. You tick a box, and the lines change – the colours, the contours. They tell stories I can’t read. You can feel the concentration in the air around him. You can almost see it, this magic fortress beneath the screen, a castle built of air. Precarious, swaying, strong.

My own stories feel rather shell-shocked. There’s an article I want to write. The concept of making a seven thousand word article from a twenty four thousand word chapter is simpler than doing it is proving to be. (Even though the chapter itself needs to shed at least 5000 words.) I want to squeeze all my ideas in. Ahem. No. I just need to choose the best ones. The newest ones. And streamline them. Cut down on my examples. I must do it. It will be good for me.

I’m searching for a formula. There must be one. There must be several. It took me so long to crack the chapter formula, and now I look back longingly at all that lovely word length – such space to breathe! An article needs to be sharp and clever and gleaming. Perhaps I want too much from it. I think I need a point of view.

I’m not me, I’m my friend

I was talking to a good friend from Adelaide the other night, and she asked me the dreaded question: what are you going to do when you finish? I took a deep breath to stem the customary flow of panic. I have a new technique, I told her. When I think about my future, from now on I’m going to pretend I’m not me, but someone I know. Cos when I’m talking to a friend who’s panicking about their future, I look at them and think: you’re talented, hard-working, educated, nice – it’s going to work out for you in the end. Maybe not tomorrow. But sometime. (I’m thinking about one friend in particular who was desperate last year but has now landed a great job in publishing.)

This works for me when I’m editing my writing, too. I love helping other people with their essays. But I get sick of staring at my own work. And nervous about finishing it. But if I pretend the writing belongs to someone else, it suddenly isn’t so threatening. Speaking of which, I’d better get back to it…

Lots of good stuff

Pink clouds above the red terrace.

I am very excited. On Monday it finally started to sink in that I’m going to Australia. I’m heading down to London tomorrow night, and we fly out on Sunday. We have a day and a night in LA, and six days in New Zealand with my parents, before heading to Adelaide for Christmas. After Christmas, we’re going up to Queensland to hopefully get some paragliding in. Not only do I get a slice of summer and Christmas with my family, but I’ll be will the lovie for a whole month. Hurrah!

I taught my last writing workshop today and it was great fun. We discussed the students’ essay plans. Actually the disparate topics had some interesting connections: one was on ‘ancestry’ in slavery narratives, and one was on ‘modern heroism’ in Lord of the Rings. Both to do with interactions between the past and the present – my specialty. Fun fun fun. Tolkien taught at Leeds for a while. Apparently he hated it, and jumped on the train to Oxford at every opportunity. In its ‘dark satanic mills’ he saw an image of Mordor. Bah, I say, bah. Studying and teaching at Leeds has made me realise how completely brilliant it would be to do an undergraduate degree in English here – so much choice!

Anyway, if I teach essay writing workshops again, I’ll do more of this kind of hands-on approach to the students’ own work, and getting them to help each other. It’s often easier to see how to improve someone else’s essay than your own. I’d quite like to teach this again, because helping people to write is exciting. Such a nice change from staring at my own words.

A good work day. The trinity of computer, note-book, and printed draft seemed to go together well – three different places to write.

The other completely brilliant piece of news is that my supervisors loved my Stow chapter redraft. It’s too long now, and needs to lose about 5000 words, but when I’ve done that next year, it will be a pretty spiffy chapter. I’m exorbitantly pleased with it, and just so happy that all my hard work paid off. Reworking it took longer than I thought it would, but now every bit of it is interesting, and it hangs together, and I was able to refine my ideas and develop some new ones. Three cheers for clarity. That’s what I told my students today – keep an eye out for hazy statements and generalizations – it’s when you think carefully about what you really mean that you come up with the best ideas.

With that in mind, my Francis Webb chapter (the first one I wrote) will be in for a pretty hefty rewrite next year. I had a brief look at it yesterday, and it’s full of hazy metaphors likening time to chiming bells. Hmmmm. I’m glad it was enough to get me through my upgrade procedure, and supervisor one says he’s impressed with the way I read Webb’s poems (admittedly pretty complex stuff), but I can see why every time I showed it to them they told me it wasn’t quite there. Bring it on, I say (after my holiday, that is).

Now I just have to concentrate my mind enough to shave some rough edges off my Kevin Hart chapter, and send it to my supervisors before I leave. It’s not a whole chapter draft – more like two thirds – but I’ve worked through some of the difficult bits, and at least I’ll come back to a solid piece of work to build on. That’s 50,000 words I’ve written this year, including two chapters which are pretty much done apart from some minor tuning and pruning. And I’ve worked out what a chapter is really supposed to be – something I didn’t know nine months ago. I’ve almost got the whole thing in draft form. Next year will be a lot of work, but all going well, I will definitely be finished by this time next year. Hurrah!

Okay, enough gloating. Back to work…

Earliest memories meme

Pinched from Jabberwocky.

My earliest memory is wrapping myself in a blanket and rolling around the floor while my Mum nursed my little brother. I must have been about three. I think even at the time I was aware it was pretty silly.

Because my earliest memory is a little boring, here are a couple more. I also remember learning to read – my Mum stuck words all over the house. And I remember being absolutely thrilled when I first read without moving my mouth.

Ariel from Jabberwocky’s first memories are of two books she made, so here are the first two books I made. No idea how old I was, maybe five, and they’re pretty spiffy productions so I must have had a little help. I remember sitting at the kitchen table and drawing the pictures. The first is about a birthday party, in the shape of a birthday cake. The second is my favourite. It was called The Stegosaurus Twins, and it was about, er, stegosaurus twins. It was in the shape of a stegosaurus, and I covered the front cover with tiny dots to simulate the texture of its skin. The stegosaurus twins were lonely because all the other dinosaurs had died and they had nowhere to live. A brother and a sister (human ones) discover and befriend them. Then it’s the stegosaurus twins’ birthday, and their present is, guess what: lots of trees. (So they have a forest to live in.)

Here’s a stegosaurus.

This idea of doubles (twins, friends, orphans) is quite intriguing. Ariel’s story relates to it in a way, as does a novel-in-progress Penni blogs about at Inside a Dog.

I was obsessed with dinosaurs, and, by the sounds of it, birthdays too. I remember writing an invitation to my birthday party to one of my favourite cousins.
‘Mum, how do you spell Richard?’
‘Just how it sounds.’
‘Okay.’
Dear Witcheard….

He remembers too. Unfortunately my spelling hasn’t improved significantly since then; thank God for spell-check.

I’m not tagging anyone, so help yourself it you feel like it! Let me know if you do it and I’ll come and have a look. The rules of the meme are:

1. Describe your earliest memory where the memory is clear, and where “clear” means you can depict at least three details;
2. Give an estimate of your age at the time;
3. Tag five other bloggers with this meme. (Or, do as I’m doing and just extend an open invitation)

UPDATE

I have decided to tag some people after all: Penni, because she writes so well about children, Fifi, because I’m sure she’ll come up with something magical, Mikhela, because her imminently appearing little ones will be forming their own first memories soon enough, Highly Eccentric, because (I think) it’s her birthday, and Richard, just for fun. And even if you’re not doing this meme, what’s your earliest memory? Go on, tell me…

Teaching structure

I only have two writing workshops left to teach, and I’ve been wondering how helpful they actually are. They must at least be a bit helpful, because (most of the time) the students turn up, and it’s entirely voluntary. Because of the workshop format, we don’t have time to give a lot of one on one attention, which would probably actually be the most useful thing. We talk about structural ideas and grammatical rules, and look at examples. Next week we’ll discuss how to approach exam questions, and hopefully in the last week the students will bring along some of their own essay plans, which we’ll be able to look at with the group.

I know it’s been helpful for my own writing to read through some of the student writing guides, and think about how to best communicate some of the ideas to my students. This week we talked about structure: introducing an idea, pushing it along, and arriving somewhere. John Peck and Martin Coyle’s The Student’s Guide to Writing explains this idea really well, comparing writing an essay to describing a scientific experiment. My students were initially a bit confused about this idea, thinking it too prescriptive. The idea isn’t to pretend your essay is an experiment, however, it’s just to get you thinking clearly about what each section of your essay is doing. Peck and Coyle then talk about taking it further, or, as they put it: ‘set it up, push it along, then push your luck.’ Their point is that if you introduce the topic, and develop it clearly, it’s often nice to introduce a new element or angle about two thirds of the way through, to push it up to a new level.

I really like this idea because I can see that’s what the most interesting essays and articles do. Writing that does that is exciting to read. I’ve always found it difficult to pin down a mass of swirling ideas into a linear form. I’m too impatient to get to the point. One of the things I’ve had to learn in writing my thesis has been to slow down, to give ideas time and space to develop. To set up the basic points of my argument clearly before diving into the new stuff. Otherwise I end up mistaking vague, unsubstantiated statements for poetry.

So… This might end up helping me more than it’s helping them. But hopefully it’s also helping me to help them better. And I think in the end writing’s a bit like riding a bike. You can talk about it all you like, but it’s not till you jump on that you start to get somewhere.