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I am posting this as a benchmark, not because I think I'm playing very well yet.  The idea would be post a video every month for a ye...

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


My ideas about resolutions for the new year is to make is something modest, possible, and productive. Last year, my resolutions were to improve my reading knowledge of Italian and to learn more about Duke Ellington. Both are ones I fulfilled more or less. This is much better than having a resolutions having to do with refraining from a particular activity, or the typical weight-loss and exercise resolutions that fill the gyms during the first week of January.

For 2010, I am going to have 6 month resolutions, because I found that I didn't do much Italian after June. I did become a half-way-decent Ellingtonian, but here too my interest shifted. So this year I am going to increase my knowledge of the Hispanic poetic tradition beyond the 20th century and beyond Spain. January-June I will do mostly the popular tradition in conjunction with my course. July-December, I will fill in some gaps in the cultured tradition.

The Dream Book

I often times write table of contents for books that I know will probably not be written. Last night in my sleep and waking up every hour so as not to miss my flight home from the MLA, I thought of a book for a more popular audience on Spanish-language poetry. I started to think of what the chapters would be. I got this idea to choose 5 widely disparate poets from diverse places and centuries and make half the book on them--with the other half being an introduction to topics.

Now I probably will never write such a book, at least not in this form, but I probably will use some of the material I've worked on to write some sort of book. My idea is to write a version for Spanish of something like Jacques Barzun's book on French poetry for readers of English verse. I couldn't do it like Barzun, because of the differences between how French is positioned vis a vis the English speaking reader and the way Spanish is. For example, even though Spanish poetry has been more widely translated than French, I think there is a longer tradition of readers knowing something about French poetry. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think English poets have known more Ronsard or Villon than Lope de Vega or Quevedo.

Also, because I'm no Jacques Barzun.

Anyway, the idea here is to dream up impossible projects and maybe carve possible ones out of them later. Secondarily, not every idea is going to work out as planned.

Friday, December 25, 2009


Are you calm, relaxed, and a little bored while writing? Or hyped up and nervous? For me writing is a very intense activity. I wouldn't want to do it more than 3 hours a day, and two are even better. There should be a little adrenaline flowing, but the ideal should be a flow of alert but still relaxed attentiveness. It might be hard to cultivate this, because most of the time you are writing you probably won't feel this way. You still have to plug on through various moods rather than waiting until you feel this way (you might never).

What I recommend is that when you do hit that sweet flow, notice it and remember it. What made it happen? Maybe it was something that kicked in about 45 minutes in, like a runner's endorphins. How long did it last? 10 minutes? An hour? Once you've figured out onset and duration, you are in a position to exploit those states when they do come and maybe recreating those conditions. They are doubly good: they can produce good work, and also be motivating since they simply feel so good.

It is a mistake, though, to think that good writing can only flow from maximal flow states. In fact, I think i am usually not in one, yet still can produce good results. I think I am too often just hyped on caffeine and way too anxious. The trick is to have a balance between cultivating good writing moods and not letting their absence get in the way--the latter phenomenon is one of the main causes of writer's block. If you wait to feel good to write, you are making a mistake, because the good feeling will only come once you've been writing for a while.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Envisioning the Project

Writing is unlike many other activities, in that thinking about writing is actually (almost) writing itself. I often write things out in my head when I am not in front of the computer or a notebook. By doing so, I usually have phrases in mind when I sit down to write. We call writing the actual putting down the words in some written form, analogue or digital, but we also call writing the composition itself, independent of its physical manifestation.

Almost writing. Obviously if you do a lot of writing in your head and never put anything down in written form, you will forget a lot: eventually almost everything. That is why mental writing is incomplete. Yet it is hard to imagine not forming sentences in your mind as you are working on the project--reading something else about your topic, for example. With book reviews, for example, I find that I start to write the review in my head the minute I start reading.

I find it useful to do a lot of purely mental work at the beginning of a project. Imagining the book already complete and the relation of each part to every other part. This almost has to be done mentally because not much is written down yet!

You also have to develop advanced memory skills to be able to hold a lot of complex information in the mind at once. Not memory of details, so much, as of the bigger picture.

The Break-Through

The break-through will often occur after several days of intense work. This occurs when you feel you've made substantial progress in envisioning the entire shape of the project. All of a sudden, you will have written several good pages.

Guest Post by Julia

I have a very valuable trick down below.

This is a way to get yourself motivated. If you are reading this, get away from the computer. Gosh. What are you doing just sitting here? You're wasting your time, do something productive.

The Way I Work Here

is to shift back and forth between working on my project itself and meta-blogging about the process here. I think it's important to be somewhat self-conscious about work habits and the like. I'm constantly shifting what I do in one direction or another--without changing fundamental principles.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Humility and Pride

... are both just names for different kinds of ego adjustments, down or up. There are plenty of reasons to be humble and plenty of reasons to be proud of accomplishments too. You could probably tear yourself down pretty easily if you wanted, and yet you could also do the reverse just as easily. For example, I could think of about 50 people who are in better institutions than me, making more money, or more famous, etc... in my field, depending on how narrowly or broadly I defined it. Or 20 people who know more about Lorca or Gamoneda. On the other hand, I can point out that I can out-publish everyone in my department. That I've published in PMLA, Diacritics.

It's probably hard to avoid both kinds of mental activity. You might do one more than the other, but they are both forms of ego management, and I think most people do some of both almost every day. They can both be motivating, too. Nevertheless, the main focus should be on the "working ego," that is, the ego that gets things done and the immediate gratifications that come from actually working on stuff on a daily basis. In other words, past accomplishments are great to remember if you are otherwise having a bad day, and humility is motivating it you feel too complacent, but the real pleasures of ego are in the act of creation itself. In other words, in writing itself feeling good to you as you do it.

Existential Threats

... are obstacles to writing having to do with the larger picture. They can come in the form of personal doubts. Thoughts like "I'm not good enough to do this" or "Scholarship is really not that valuable anyway," or "They won't promote me even if I do write this book." They can also come in the form of serious illness, or being in a position where there is not sufficient time for scholarship (4/4 teaching load).

In my case, I was stalled for a while in the late 90s and early noughts. I kept re-configuring my project. I published articles still, but could not seem to get that next book project out. Having to commute between Kansas and St. Louis was very difficult (as it still is). I was very depressed for long periods of time. Being told that "you're only good at writing books" made me not want to write a book--perversely. The way I resolved it was to embrace my ambition rather than being embarrassed by it. A therapist I had who always told me that being productive would not make me happy... With all due respect, I am much happier now that I have found a way to be more productive. Unlike other addictions, being addicted to publishing books and articles is completely healthy. Trying to be less driven was not getting me anywhere.

If a threat is existential and self-generated, as mine was, then it is susceptible to solution. In this case it is a matter of turning existential issues into pragmatic ones, in other words, cognitively redefining something that was existential and making it a practical set of obstacles that can be broken down into component parts and resolved. If the existential obstacle really is existential, then you still need a healthy dose of pragmatism, involving figuring out whether you can still do some scholarship under desperate circumstances.

Calling off a Project

Ok. The new Lorca is not going to work as planned. I realized there wasn't enough Lorca there, in my plan, and that I didn't really want to analyze actual poetic works by Lorca very extensively, and that a reader would expect that in a book with Lorca in the title. I realized I was too swayed by the momentum of Apocryphal Lorca and by the potential marketability of the Lorca name.

So it's back to the new modernism project, which will be called something like Modernism and the Paradoxes of Spanish Literary History:.

This is really fine. It's going to be better this way. There is really no wasted work, because you need to go down a certain alley as far as you can before you realize it's not where you need to be going. I can still use most of the idea on Lorca I was going to include, but I don't have to stretch them out over as many chapters.

One of the most advanced tasks of scholarship is mentally organizing large amounts of material in a coherent way and convincing way. I just woke up today knowing that I needed to just re-arrange things enough so that they would work.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

100-1,000 words

Increasing your word-count by 100 words would involve sitting down for a few minutes at any point in the day and just fiddling around with your document. That's like 4 or 5 sentences. On the other hand, writing a thousand words would be a very good day that you wouldn't expect to have more than a few times a month. So what you would want to aim for is about 250-750 words a day, depending on whether the words were actual prose or rougher notes. A page of really good prose (250-300) words would be very good for a day's work. That puts you on track to write a book in a year of writing, 365 days. You should be able to put together that "year" in the space of 3-4 years.

Usually you only need a second monograph for full professor, so basically you only need to do this year of work at least once between the time you are promoted to associate and some reasonable time afterwards. Yet this second book can be extraordinarily hard to get done. That shows that it is really more of an existential problem than a practical one. I'm going to have to think about some tips to convert existential problems into pragmatic ones with practical solutions.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Exploiting Inefficiencies

I know I have many kinds of inefficiency in my working methods. Since I live in two places, I often don't have access to the book I need when I need it. There are distractions, etc..., so that time is not always used efficiently. It would be depressing to think that I am working at 100%: that would mean that I've already done everything possible to reduce any wastage of time. I like the feeling that I'm maybe at about 40% of the maximum. That means that if I really wanted to, I could easily increase my productivity any time I wanted to. If I really need to do something in hurry, I can do it, because there is extra slack there. Also, I can take my time and exploit the fact that even wasted time spent on the project is not really wasted.

Once in while I look at some things I'm doing and try to make them more efficient, but I'm not at all obsessive about this, because I like the feeling of some degree of extra capability that I don't always have to use. Recently, for example, I unsubscribed from some email lists I was on and organized my files on my computer desktop in a more rigorous way.

So the SMT of the day: be efficient, ma non troppo. If you are already getting done what you want, you can increase efficiency in order to get the same amount of work done in less time, but you don't necessarily have to aim at 100%.

Friday, December 18, 2009


A less bellicose and more irenic metaphor for my work is building bridges. I like to situate myself in a place where I can be an expert in two different areas and bring them together. The Lorca book is an obvious example. I knew considerably more about American poetry than any Lorca scholar, and considerably more about Lorca than any specialist in American poetry. The trick was the build enough bridges to make the project work. In my new Lorca project I am going to be combine my knowledge of modernism internationally, including American poetry but not exclusively so, Lorca, and Spanish intellectual history.

The bridge has to be anchored on both sides of the river. It can't just be a pier; it has to reach the other side. It must permit two-way traffic. It has to be wide enough. It has to also not fall into the river.

No Rough Drafts

I never write a "rough draft." Nor would I ever show anything to another human being that was a rough draft. The term I use is "penultimate draft." In other words, it's not final yet, but next-to-final.

I have basically four categories. Notes, which can be in any form and have no style to speak of. They might not even be complete sentences.

Next, prose per se. I usually use three asterisks *** to separate what I've written in prose at the beginning of a chapter and the mere notes at the end. The hardest part of writing is pushing forward and creating prose out of mere notes.

Thirdly, penultimate prose: every sentence has been written over several times.

Finally, final prose, such as that which would occur in the publication itself. Every sentence is more or less fine tuned.

I would only show writing at the third stage to anyone else, because it would be an insult to them and would show me not at my best. If you want help with your work, get it to a presentable stage first, so that the help can take place at a higher level. Oftentimes the feedback descends to the level of the work itself. In other words, if there are a lot of distracting stylistic tics, the reader will focus on those rather than on the ideas.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What is your metaphor for your own work?

Mine is the idea of agon. Much as I don't want to be influenced by Harold Bloom, I see literary criticism as a struggle, a conflict. I don't think something is worth writing about unless it involves a significant critical problem. I don't even mind a polemic. I am motivated by ideas like having my ideas prevail, by competition with rivals and by struggles with the poetry itself. I want to win. Some of the negative emotions of the agon are actually motivating for me. For example, I might let my anger about weaker readings motivate me into doing something better.

I don't know if there is stupid motivational trick here. Maybe it's that you should consciously think of what your own metaphorical conception of your work is, clarify that to yourself. I think everyone has one, or should. Now once you have that clear, what are you going to do with it? What are the sources of power in the metaphor? What are the potential pitfalls?

In my case, for example, the idea of a struggle or agon allows me to excel in certain ways, to choose non-trivial critical problems, to have a stake in what I write. On the other hand, it makes me too testosterone driven, too angry and polemical. It's something that I have to consciously control in order not to let things get out of hand.

Positive thoughts

Here are some thoughts that are probably true about your project.

I have already accomplished a lot of this project.

Even if you are a beginning stage, you've done some readings, taken some notes. Maybe you've done an encerrona.

I can sit down at any time and get some substantial work done on it.

You can always add items to the bibliography, change some rough notes into prose, or write some rough notes on something you were thinking of.

Monitoring Emotions

What emotions are you feeling while writing? Frustration, anxiety, doubt, even anger might be present. On the positive side of the ledger, pride and satisfaction, excitement, anticipation. I believe the techniques of cognitive therapy can be useful in looking at how to get the writing done, because a lot of the obstacles take the form of cognitive distortions. One thing you can do is to monitor your emotional states, give them names.

I don't recommend trying to eliminate negative emotions, because I think without them you aren't doing it right. In other words, if you are not concerned about how the project is going to turn out, if you don't have a stake in what you're writing, why do it? If it's super easy and pain free, you probably aren't challenging yourself enough. Realistically, you are going to feel some bad things while writing from time to time. What I recommend, instead, is acknowledging that writing can be painful and keeping some kind of equilibrium. If emotion is the reason why you're not writing, then you have to tackle the problem emotionally.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Got Prose?

Almost everything I do professionally involves writing. The few things that don't consist of reading other people's writing, or engaging in oral communication of some type. If you can't write well, you have a huge handicap that will hold you back in most humanities fields. If write superbly well, you will have an advantage over other people. This single factor is so huge that I wonder why we don't just make that the whole focus of the first year of graduate school.

A List is Not an Argument

A list is not argument--but making a list of ideas might be the first step in creating an argument. In other words, if you jot down a list of 10 unrelated ideas about a particular topic, you might then put them in a logical order, subordinating some to others, eliminating those that aren't as relevant and come up with an argument.


I'm going to the gym; I will see if I can walk around the track and do some lecture / discussion notes for my other class using the 25-idea walk method and the complete sentence game.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Preface or Introduction?

I prefer the preface to the introduction. The preface puts forward a brief summary of the chapters and says what the book is going to be about. Writing a preface is like writing a grant proposal or plan for the book. The nice thing about it is that you are writing the book while planning to write it at the same time.

Introductions are typically longer, and include more contextual and theoretical background. What I like to do is to make the first chapter do double duty: be introductory in some way, but also present substantive, non-introductory points. For example, in Apocryphal Lorca I used the first chapter to talk about Lorca himself, rather than his American imitators. I wasn't introducing the book, but writing another kind of essay that prepared the ground for the rest of the book.

I'm not saying this is the right way to do it. Your project--or your own personal style of doing things--might require an introduction rather than preface--or both. If you have both you have to keep their functions rigorously separated, which I've always found difficult.

Monitoring Your Internal Chatter

Chances are, if you are anything like me, you have an internal chatter going on all the time about your work. It is important to monitor this chatter because it is giving you useful information.

Listen, first of all, for positive messages. What are you telling yourself about your project? What metaphors are you using? For example, I found myself repeating the phrase "seamless whole" over and over again. Conceiving my project as a single long essay was motivating for myself.

Vague positive messages like "I can do this" are less helpful, I've found. They are not actively harmful, but they aren't as motivating as very specific metaphors or images. By the same token, vaguely negative messages should be brought to the fore and actively refuted. I'm thinking of things like "I don't know enough to write such a book" or "I'm not smart enough" or "I'm a lazy person." We all have those thoughts and they can be very damaging.

Very specific negative chatter, in contrast, can be helpful in clarifying specific problems in the substance of the work itself. If you keep hearing that voice in your head say it's not satisfied with your contextualization of Valente in regards to counter-reformation theology, that's significant information that you can use.

Then there is the chatter that actually contains ideas that you can write down. This is not meta-chatter, but actual thinking about the project that you should always be listening to.

So monitor your internal voices and filter out the destructive ones, using the useful information for your own benefit.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Scholarship is complicated, hence the need for simplicity

Scholarship is inherently complex: the ideas themselves involve interrelations among many different elements. Major projects entail years of work. It can be difficult to keep track of bibliographical citations and research materials over time. Hence the need for a streamlined approach: having only one major project at a time; striving for clarity of intentions and clarity of expression; making the project only as complex as it has to be. You don't want to simplify your ideas, but you want to analytically separate their genuine complexity from the spurious complications that come from unclear intentions and stylistic verbosity.

Sometimes if you strip away the excess verbiage from your thesis, you might be disappointed: your thesis is rather obvious, even clichéd. I believe a thesis for a paper, article, dissertation, or book in non-technical humanties field should be something that you could explain in clear language to your mom or non-academic uncle. At the same time, it shouldn't sound merely trivial to the expert in the field. Having a very clear thesis will help to keep your focuc over the long haul.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Twenty Five Idea Drive

Here's a technique I just invented. If you have a long drive or walk, you can plan out a lecture or a paper in your head. First think of 3-5 major topics. For each one, think of 3-5 sub-topics. Now you have 9-25 ideas. When you get to your destination, you can just jot them down. You might not remember all of them, but that's fine.

For example, on my walk today, I developed part of a lecture on improvisation for my jazz course.

I. Relation between composer / song and improviser.

The compositon does matter / favorite structures / the idea of "standards"

II. Performativity

Jazz a performer's art / zero degree of improvisation can still jazz-like

III. Types of improvisation.

embellishment or ornamentation / paraphrase / blowing over the changes / licks and clichés / "free jazz"

IV. Structure of a solo

Telling a story / Beginnings / endings / development and climax / compare contrast with classical styles

V. Examples of improvisers

Stan Getz / drum applications: Max Roach / Art Tatum and the ornamental style

I didn't come up with 5 subcategories in each major division, or else can't remember them, but I essentially organized my ideas. Each subtheme, then, would be something that could be explained fairly briefly. I started in on my ideas about rhythm too, but then I arrived back at home.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Scholarly Base: Making an Inventory

Making an inventory of your scholarly base is something to do between projects or at major junctures of your scholarly career. Your base is everything that makes it possible to produce scholarship. The sum total of your expertise and cultural capital, your unused ideas or archival material left over from previous projects, your talent for researching and writing, your access to time, materials, and to the expertise of others, your experience traveling to foreign lands, etc... The inventory will be a 5-10-page document in which you list everything you can think of on the positive side of the ledger that constitutes this base.

What can you do with this information? In the first place, it can be motivational, if you realize that your base is quite solid, then you have the wherewithal to write. Congratulations! On the other hand, it may point to reasons why you haven't been writing. What part of the base is missing? Sometimes, for example, I realize I just need to read more, or develop a better network of colleagues in other universities. You might decide your base is pretty much inadequate. The good news is that simply reading a lot is the best way to improve it.

Two or three points: the scholarly base is necessary but not sufficient. You might have a strong base but not have the drive to use it. Secondly, it needs to be maintained and improved; it is dynamic not static. Lastly, there are many parts of the base that will never be used in any explicit way, that will never be visible to someone reading your scholarship. I think that in my book Apocryphal Lorca I came as close as I could to using a lot of it. (This is Hemingway's iceberg theory of writing.)

Ok, a fourth point: using it does not use it up, but rather serves to replenish it. The more you use, the more you have, because the best way to keep up a good base is to write books and articles. That is one reason why quantity, intelligently managed, produces quality. It's kind of unfair, because if you've written a lot you will get opportunities to write more: jobs with time off or skimpy teaching loads, research grants... Nobody will come along and say, oh, since you haven't produced very much we'll give you time off to write more.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ask for Help

I am not very good at asking for help. For example, before I have someone read something for style, I have already revised it to a point that there are not a lot of stylistic suggestions left to be made. I don't believe in showing a "rough draft" to anyone else. What I like to do, however, is to consult with people in my field without wasting too much of their time. So I wait until I have a significant question or two. I almost always say yes when someone else consults with me in a similar way; that way I accumulate good will and have people I've done large and small favors for. I never do this at the last moment, when I need an urgent answer within less than a week.

Today I sent two paragraphs of my introduction to my current project to 4 people, all of whom would be predisposed to help me for various reasons.

Some requests for help are ways of saying: let's have a dialogue, I want to be talking to you about my project. In some cases, the question you are asking is kind of a pretext. Most people will welcome serious interlocutors. If they don't, they are jerks.

Setting an Internal Standard

One guy I know in the field, but who is not my close friend, told me once: "[Blank} was an influential professor for me. He was not at all a good classroom teacher, but he told me not to publish in [journal title] but only in [journal titles.]"

That sounds obnoxious and snobbish, but I'm going to suggest that what a good professor does is not to teach in the classroom in an orthodox way, but to give an idea of what the standard should be. The student should internalize that standard of quality from the example of the mentor's work and basic attitude. At the same time, he or she should also believe that this standard is achievable for the student, that success is possible. He or she should suggest basic techniques and stupid motivational tricks that allow for success, such as I am doing here.

I have certain imaginary people looking over my shoulder as I write. That could be paralyzing for some people, but I view this imaginary audience as my internal standard. Would [name redacted] think this is well written?

{Name redacted] was famous as an encouraging teacher. S/he made people feel great about their work, and won a lot of teaching awards. The problem I have with [ ] is that s/he produced students whose work is not good (according to my own internalized standard). They have that voice in their head, that person behind their shoulder, but what is the voice really saying?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


1. f. Situación, preparada de antemano, en que se coloca a alguien para obligarle a que haga algo contra su voluntad.

4. f. En algunos exámenes, oposiciones, etc., ejercicio que consiste en la preparación, durante un tiempo determinado y en un lugar aislado, de un tema que luego habrá de exponerse ante el tribunal.

6. f. Taurom. Lidia de toros en privado.

The "encerrona" is an exercise you might try. Basically, it means a "shutting in." Definition 4 is the most relevant definition but I like 1 and 6 as well. [ A situation prepared before hand in which someone is placed in a position to do something againt their will; a private bullfight.]

"In exams, competitions, etc... the exercise of preparing, during a predetermined time and in an isolated place, a theme that then must be presented to the judges."

So the idea is to lock yourself in where nobody else can reach you and just write as much of your project as though you were taking an exam on it. No internet, no books, just yourself and a computer or pen and pad, for 3 hours. This is a jump start method most appropriate for the beginning of a project. You can also do it all day, with breaks. If you have the luxury of an encerrona of a week, that would be great. Most of us have families and other obligations that prevent that.

Intellectual Curiosity

This is a difficult one. I really should be interested in everything, but in practice my interests turn out to be quite restricted. Usually I'm reading something for a very specific reason, to answer a very specific question, rather than being motivated by some diffuse notion of intellectual curiosity. For example, I want to know how scholars have defined the "counter-reformation." The material is as interesting as anything else, but what really interests me is one specific thing about it. So for me intellectual curiosity is very goal driven and guided.

On the other hand, I always allow for a certain randomness too. I read scholarly articles totally outside my field--at least the first few pages. I let my mind wander. Usually when I am in an intense work mode everything I read ends up helping me think about the project I am now working on--even totally irrelevant things.

Jump Start

At the beginning of a major project you'll need to spend a full day just doing as much as possible on it. Open up a blank word document and write the title page, a table of contents, some notes for the acknowledgements, the first sentence of a preface. Then just write notes for any aspect of the book that you have ideas for. Put in bibliographical items in the proper format. Basically, you have one document that is your entire book in germinative form. You can return any time, any place to this document and add stuff to it. You will always have a sentence to re-write, or an idea to jot down in rough form. Just always be working on this project.

If you wait until you have abundant time, like a vacation, you will get less done than if you had always been working on it, because the first day of your abundant time will simply be a continuation of ongoing work. That is why I did my jump start on my current project during the busiest time of the semester.

Monday, December 7, 2009

My Very Good Year

In 2006 I thought I would write an article every month, or at least start out the year by doing that. I made a list of several ideas, and got to work. In January and February I wrote an article on a book called Intravenus, which was rejected by Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos, another on Valente and Beckett, which was turned down by Hispanic Review and then accepted by Comparative Literature. In March I wrote a conference paper on Lorca and Kenneth Koch to give at the AWP. All of a sudden I realized that the Lorca project had to be a book rather than an article. I scrapped my article a month project and wrote up a grant proposal for the NEH, which I was awarded in December. I finished the Lorca book during the 07-08 academic year, somehow got my other book accepted around the same time, and had two books come out in 2009, as my promotion to full professor took effect.

Somehow I attribute all that "good luck" to starting off 06 with an ambitious plan and frontloading the year with some very intense writing. I could have ended the year with just a few articles, a few rejections, and been perfectly happy. Instead, I got my groove back and had a run of four calendar years of high level scholarly production and success. If I could somehow figure out how this happened then I could derive a realistic method that other people could follow too. For the time being I would say that the only lesson I can draw from this is to study successful people and see how they do things. Evaluate how they work and try to find realistic ways of applying those methods, even if in very modest ways.

I have a problem in that I associate success (for myself) with traits that I view as somewhat negative: my competitiveness, excess of ego, grandiosity, desire for fame and fortune, etc... I view ambition itself as somewhat unseemly and want to be perceived as a "nice guy." Yet if I don't publish as much I tend to get even less nice because I am miserable. I've tried to hold my ambition back but it doesn't work.

Generalities About Specialization

Here's my idea about specialization and the mistaken notion of being a "generalist." Even if you are very specialized, you will still need a scholarly base of general knowledge. You will still have had a general education in college, and will have pursued other minor interests.

On the other hand, if you set out to be a generalist, you will have no focus. You can't set out to be an expert in everything, because the task is defined too diffusely. At best, you will know more about a few more things than the specialist does.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

You Only Know How to Write Books

"You only know how to write your books." "Is poetry the only thing you study?"

I've heard those words before. Here's the thing. Research is specialized by its very nature, and even projects that attempt to appeal to slightly wider scholarly audiences, like my recent book on Lorca in the US, are the product of very intense specialization. You can define a generalist, in the sense of knowing a little about a lot of things, but the narrow specialist probably is as good a generalist as you are. I haven't known people intensely specializing in some small aspect of something who weren't also possessors of a wide general knowledge. I'll explain why in another post.

As far as only being a good researcher, and not good at other aspects of academic life... My suggestion is that you do everything well, but excel in research. Think about that word "only." Favre "only" knows how to throw a football. Is that all? What is his cello playing like?

SMT--The Book

This will eventually be a book called Stupid Motivational Tricks: Scholarly Writing and How to Get it Done. It will start with the idea of the "scholarship base" and go on from there, to deal with problems of starting and continuing, ending with questions of ending. I know there is a lot of material out there that is similar, but I think I have my own particular twist on things that could be useful.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Protestant Work Ethic

The whole tradition of motivation, self-improvement, etc... is one I view with great suspicion. Maybe that's why I have to apologize for it with the word "stupid." I am also ambivalent about "work." Some things have come very easily to me, with little apparent work. I can see my colleagues look at me and wonder why I can publish so much. I think you should have a work ethic, but not necessarily a protestant one. De-emphasize the idea of the hardness of the work, the sweat. I'd much rather you be working smart rather than hard.

LIghtbulb Flashes

These happen for me, mostly, when I am actually already working. In other words, inspiration occurs in the context of ongoing writing, rather than preceding it. On a good day I might get two or three flashes--good ideas central to my project or to some small aspect of it.

Usually those flashes take the form of seeing a connection between two elements of my project with greater clarity.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Eight-hour Day

The idea today is to work from 7:30 to 3:30, basically an 8 hour day, stopping for lunch or coffee break. During this time I will work only on teaching and research, without conducting any personal business or even blogging (except right now). The idea is to avoid any "bleeding" between work and non-work. Often we don't know how much time we are spending working, because work bleeds into personal time and vice versa. That in itself might not be a problem, if we are comfortable working like that. The problem comes when we might come to think we are overworked, with work invading every spare moment, and yet still relatively unproductive. I want to adjust labor to trabajo. The 8-hour day is simply a tool.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Trabajo, labor, obra

These three words means "work." Trabajo is effort, sweat. Labor is craftmanship, work as value. Obra is the work as product, oeuvre. When you think about your "work," what are you really thinking about? For me it's mostly the second term, labor. The obra is just evidence of previous labor. With trabajo there is too much evidence on the sheer effort involved. Ay qué trabajo me cuesta / quererte como te quiero.

If they furlough us, as they keep threatening to do, they cannot effect labor or obra, only trabajo.

The Scholarship Base

Kenneth Koch had the concept of the "happiness base" and the "poetry base." The happiness base, for example, consists of all the elements supportive of happiness, like good health and relationships, a good attitude toward life, enough material comforts, etc...

Today, I'd like to consider the "scholarship base." This consists of things like your "cultural capital," the excellence of your training and education, your knowledge base, your access to a good library (plus the quality of your personal scholarly library), your ongoing activities and participation in networks of other scholars, and the momentum from previous scholarly projects: unused ideas and knowledge, logical next steps in your scholarly trajectory. A lot of the "work" we do serves simply to maintain the scholarly base, and thus is work that doesn't lead directly to publication. Nevertheless, an excellent base makes everything else far easier. I think of the base as about 75%, with the actual writing being the remaining quarter. Some refer to this as the iceberg theory. We are judged by what is above the surface of the water, but the iceberg itself is mostly submerged.

For example, suppose a teacher at a liberal arts college who doesn't get any research done during the academic year has the summer off. Probably the whole summer could be devoted simply to restoring the base to decent shape, without any articles being written. At the end of the summer, it is time to go back to teaching again. You wouldn't expect more than one article to be written every three summers on such a schedule. An active researcher at a Research One university with an excellent scholarship base might write one to two articles, on average, in a summer, finishing up one begun during the Academic Year and writing another from scratch. If you are already doing research it is easy to keep doing it.

That some researchers in very good institutions do not produce very much shows how difficult it really is to sustain a research program over the long stretch.

Quantity, intelligently managed, produces quality

You've all heard of the professor who doesn't publish much, but his/her work is of high quality, etc... That's always seemed counter-intuitive to me. Such people do exist, as well as the proverbial academic who turns out huge quantities of bad material. But the general human pattern is that if you do more of any activity you'll get better at it. If you're good to begin with, you'll get better. Even the mediocre overproducer will probably get better over time. The brilliant person who writes one or two articles will never get to the that 10th or 20th article that is even better. So my second stupid motivational principle of the day is that quantity, intelligently managed, produces quality.

Why do we need "motivation"?

Good question. (By the way you can send me your questions at jmayhew / ku / edu.)

Part of the problem is that gratification is so much delayed in this insane profession. Monetarily it involves years of working at very low salary. Eventually you might make some half way decent money--or not. A review might appear 3 years after publication of the book, and thus 6 or 10 years after you first had that brilliant idea. The work itself is gratifying, though difficult and rather solitary. In many departments (though thankfully not in mine) the colleagues are insufferable and the infighting fierce. The people most in position to judge and appreciate your work are few in numbers, geographically scattered, and might be your rivals. Even other researchers in the humanities often act as though research in the humanities were pretty much worthless, so don't expect the general society to hold it in high esteem. It's seen as something we do for ego gratification.

The main reward, then, is getting to keep the job that lets you continue to do it. We need motivation in order to keep going in the short term, where any kind of extrinsic rewards are nebulous and delayed. The attraction of blogging is that it allows people to read what I write minutes after I write it, and possibly respond or comment. I really need that day-to-day stimulus.

Going for the High Note

Imagine a brass player going for a note in the upper register; a diver about to attempt a difficult dive; a wide receiver out for a pass. In all these cases there is a certain necessary confidence. You have to think you are going to make it, because tentativeness will make you fail and possibly hit your head on the diving board or get gored by the bull. In other words, confidence itself is an intrinsic part of the action. There is an unavoidable component of ego involved. Think of the proud body language of the flamenco dancer. Without this posture the dancing will not be convincing.

Yet advising someone to be more confident or egotistical is usually not at all productive. Confidence all by itself does not allow you to hit the note, it merely prevents tentativeness from getting in the way. In other words, confidence only kicks in when mastery is already present. At the same time, you might imagine the dance instructor to tell you to hold your body in certain way even before you have actually earned the rights of arrogance.

Excessive arrogance is socially unacceptable, yet excessive self-deprecation does not work either, except in limited doses as a rhetorical captatio benevolentiae. Your writing needs to project a certain amount of strength in order to be taken seriously.

My own internal language about confidence is very masculine. I am very competitive; I think in terms of kicking ass, proving my enemies wrong, rising to the top, etc... Some of this is probably excessive, but some element is intrinsic to the act of writing itself. The excess part is not necessary, but it is motivating to some extent.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Anything Can Be an SMT

This blog itself is a Stupid Motivational Trick. I am using it as a stimulus in order to get to work on my new project, Lorca and Modernity: [Catchy and Informative Subtitle].

Iron Will

I see the first hour of work in any given day as a way of maintaining the project and making minimal progress. Anything after that is the "bonus," where the progress will be substantial. So if I am able to work an hour, that's great. An hour and 45 minutes is like an hour of maintenance and 45 minutes at time-and-a-half. This method allows me to snatch significant moment throughout a busy day just to get up to my hour, and then everything else is just extra.

Progress will seem slow when judged by hours and days, but rapid when judged by months and years.

Words have a power of their own. For example, I found myself using the ridiculous phrase "iron will" about myself, as in "I have an iron will." Obviously I don't, and the phrase sounds silly. Yet somehow that phrase worked for me and allowed me to persevere on a day when it seemed otherwise unlikely that I would do so. Some people derive power out of affirmations of weakness, abjectness, and powerlessness, I've never understood it, but there you go. If that works for you, go for it.

Why "stupid"?

Why are these "stupid" motivational tricks? Why not intelligent ones?

Basically, you don't need to be particularly smart to follow them, and many might sound silly or very, very obvious. Also, many of the tricks discussed here will not be original with me. The idea is to take care of the mechanics of organizing time and space in order to free yourself to do your writing. Often times that will mean tricking yourself out of certain cognitive habits that are holding you back.

Why "scholarly writing"?

That's the kind of writing I do. My tips are also valid for other kinds of writing--to the extent that problems of writing are the same for any kind of writing.

What other resources do you suggest?

Research as a Second Language

Study hacks


Today's SMT is to let your writing neuroses work for you instead of against you. Imagine if you were shadowed by an obnoxious person who was constantly telling you you couldn't do what you wanted when you wanted. You're about to work on something and this person says, sorry, you aren't allowed to work until a half hour after dinner, or when the sky is cloudy, or when you aren't waiting for the plumber, or haven't had an argument with a family member for 24 hours. Pretty soon you would tell this obnoxious bully to get lost. Yet chances are you are already doing this to yourself, with arbitrary and restrictive rules, some of which you probably aren't even conscious of. You feel your best work will be done under ideal conditions.

Those rules are the product of cognitive distortions. What you want to do instead is substitute a new set of neurotic rules that are actually not counter-productive. Go through your current rules and find the one or two that actually helps you. Keep those. Then invent a few more along those lines. I'll give some examples in a subsequent post.