My writing life


I suppose if anyone cares or has been keeping track, the absence of a parenthetical number at the end of my previous post gave it away. I fell completely off the blogwagon in early December. I am so behind that its no point trying to catch up anymore. So perhaps I’ll restart again. But not at this time. Too weary and teary and etc. etc. I didn’t even make it half way ūüė¶¬† Not proud of myself but not overburdened with guilt either. Overburdened yes but not with guilt.

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Back in September last year I wrote about stepping stone projects and mentioned one that was in progress. Soon thereafter, sometime in October we (its a joint effort with a co-author) actually finished it and submitted it to the Journal of the History of Biology. Last night–or more accurately in the wee hours of this morning–I just received notice from the the editors that it has been accepted. True there are “minor” revisions suggested which are actually quite extensive but nothing that requires major rethinking or going back to the drawing board.

The paper is about the impact of electron microscopes the problem of defining viruses. While a stepping stone for me, it is quite the opposite for my co-author, who had written and presented a paper on the topic many years ago. Actually he was my co-author in my last stepping stone paper as well, but there our collaboration was a last minute thing. I was writing a paper and toward the very end found out that he had written one on a similar topic some 20 years prior. He kindly shared said manuscript with me and I found that our ideas were so much in synch that I asked him if he cared to join me in a renewed effort. He agreed and within 10 days we had the the paper ready for submission; a month later (Jan 2016) we learnt it was accepted–again with minor revisions except those were genuinely minor and after yet another month or so it was published online.

The current paper has had a slightly longer journey. Ton first sent me a copy of his paper very soon after the publication of our previous effort suggesting a new label/wine-skin for yet another vintage gathering dust in his unpublished archives. I set it aside then because of various other obligations, but wrote to officially revive it on August 30 because I was just beginning to embark on the chapter 6 of my book, which is where this topic was relevant. We broke apart his first paper and rebuilt it (except for one part which might have to become a second paper–albeit a spin-off in the future). This time around it took us closer to 2 months rather than 2 weeks. And the turnaround was 5 months rather than the less than 5 weeks window of the previous. Given that it’s JHB I’m sure everything from here on in will take even longer. But it’s a publication and in one of the premier journals in our profession.

One thing that took me much less time was adapting it for the book chapter… I managed that in 2-3 days I think, basically distilling the “good parts” (ringing any bells oh ye Princess Bride fans?) into a tenth of the size of the first submission.

This has been the first silver dot in a very dark could that’s been handing over me for a while now. Not yet a lining mind.. just a dot. But it brings to mind a song that I learned while in school in Fortaleza way back when. Something about a spark to get a fire going…

Arrgh… just when I thought I was on track to made good on my once a week blogging resolution to myself, I’ve fallen off the wagon again. In my defense I have been writing a lot–just not here. I was trying to get a paper done–or rather the revisions–done and submitted–which goal I sort of reached today. At least a version of the rewrite is now sitting in the online submission site of the journal. I just hope the results are closer to getting published .. will report on that in a few. days? week? weeks?…¬† not more than that, I can only hope.

Meanwhile I created a new category–to which I’ll quickly assign various past posts, because I realized how much I write and reflect on writing. Not always meaningfully–here for instance I’ve been mostly whining, but sometimes–but I recall even in my pre-blogging Dear diary-type days too I would look over something I’d written earlier and write about it. Not today though–today was just to acknowledge the fact that I’m behind.. and having done that, move on.¬† (#29)

A job application that I am down to the wire on in making the deadline wants me to write, in addition to the usual suspects–cover letter, research and teaching statements–a “statement of contributions to diversity.” And because I am having trouble getting started I thought it might help to free-think some ideas here (and get my weekly quota of blog writing up as well).

The main reason for my troubles with the statement is that I am not sure how to write something that won’t come off as whiny or strident, self-glorifying, trite or any number of other pejorative adjectives that I can think of in the context of the issue of writing about diversity. First there is a Duh! factor: which is that I contribute to diversity on any number of fronts just by being–I am a woman, a “mature” candidate (would I count as “post-mature” in the jargon of my social scientist colleagues I wonder) and ethnically an Indian. Even as I’m listing these features it occurs to me to create a new acronym, OBG–for “Old Brown Gal”–which just happens to bring to mind the “woman’s” doctor in medical science, the ObGyn (As I’ve said, equally sincerely in other blog posts, this pun or whatever wasn’t planned…it just happened, I swear). I also happen to be diabetic and while it does not affect my workplace activities or needs, it is still one of the featured conditions in the disabilities section of any Equal Opportunity/Demographic questionnaire.

Of course I can’t simply make that statement- “I contribute to diversity just by being” because not only is it trite, it is also simply not enough. Just being a minority does not do much, if anything, for the betterment of the community, and to be frank, I have never been much for identifying with a community based on one aspect of who/what I am. Furthermore the categories represented in the label don’t even begin to cover the gamut of issues on which we need diversity–which label is usually used for talking about women, Ethnic/racial minorities, people with disabilities, the LGBT cluster and increasingly religion. Age, which I included in the OBG category, is asked about for demographic purposes, but seems to…

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Well I petered off at that point two days ago, but did manage to get the formal statement, and hence, the application completed. In the end I began by “outing” myself as an OBG, though I did not use that term. And the diversity I focused on for the bulk of the paper was linguistic diversity. Addressing the issues of ESL/EFL student support for one, and that of linguistic impoverishment (again, though I didn’t use that word) within academia and ways to address it. I also managed to sneak in some pop culture–outdated as it might be to most–with a reference to that old Adam West Batman movies. Holy Tower of Babble Batman! you might say √† la Robin.¬† I thought it apropos, and hope the readers get a kick out of it. (#33)

The thought occurred, while answering an email about my current book project, that in  that I should write about the various strategies I have adopted in the years since I conceived of this book, in order to tackle a large project  more manageable. That my title is alliterative is just a happy co-incidence.

Stepping stones: Every project has its stepping stones and they come in many forms. I am reminded as I am typing this that a formal proposal is a natural stepping stone, but the one that I was thinking of particularly when I started to write this is what I call a stepping-stone publication. Undertaking such a project eases one into the larger task so by the time one actually officially “begins” the latter, there are already bits and pieces ready and available to be patched-in, expanded or otherwise modified. Two papers that I published, in 2014 and last year, are two stepping stones of slightly different types. The first was a “preview” of sorts–call it a testing ground–where I first floated the central idea that eventually became the basis for the book. The inception of this paper goes back a few years earlier actually–but at time the “book” was yet a dim possibility. It still serves as the outline for my larger project–10 pages to the roughly 200 that my book is supposed to be. The second paper, is a far more specific, and details a specific argument based on a specific archival find. It was an actual stepping stone, the first official paper that I wrote before picking up the courage to tackle the larger, more intimidating book itself. Funny thing is that I didn’t actually get to the content of the paper until recently, almost two thirds of the way into the book. But having it there helped. A third project currently underway, is a segue from the book–a way to suss out some ideas and get into material that is less familiar to me.

Spin-offs: Such articles are exactly what the label implies. Home in on a particular aspect–one idea or something–that has already been written into the book and spin a slightly different angle or go into greater depth about it. I recently submitted my first spin-off effort. I actually began it as a stepping stone, but didn’t really get into until recently by which time the chapter had been written. But as I wrote the paper I found myself revisiting the chapter and changing details. Of course I do that at almost every reread in any case, but this time the changes were more substantive as opposed to merely cosmetic. I have more spin-offs from my dissertation (but no stepping-stones, although paradoxically, the first paper has that phrase in the title). And while it may seem repetitive, I think spin-offs are hugely useful exercises because they keep you in the game.

So that’s my two bits worth on my writing life (#38)

The title of my post is a spin on the title of a book by Pat Conroy (of the Prince of Tides fame) which I happen to be reading write now and enjoying very much…Plagiarism? one might ask, to which I’ll offer a paraphrase of T.S. Eliot’s famous line about immature poets imitating vs. mature poets stealing. Actually he goes on to talk about bad poets defacing what they imitate and the good ones taking something and making it better “or at least different” but that part is not germane to this post. So I’ll defer a discussion of the American Schoolteacher to another day and post (perhaps) and get to the the subject at hand, which as the titles proclaim, is about my writing life.

What triggered this post is a description by Conroy of his writing habits. To him, “the writing life requires the tireless discipline of the ironclad routine. The writing of books does not permit much familiarity with chaos.” Funny I should encounter that statement today of all days, when earlier in the morning (many hours before Pat Conroy was in my psyche) I was thinking about what makes me tick as a writer. And the conclusion I came to, in an impassioned monologue in my head that I delivered to no-one (and would never have done so but for the inspiration) was quite the opposite of Conroy’s description: that routine for me is anathema.

I thrive, or at least my writing self does, on chaos. I mean, I can’t even sit at the same spot 3 days in a row without getting restless and losing productivity. I need to mix something up–go to a cafe (if I’ve been working at home); a different cafe if I’ve visited the same one more than once; or change the hours I work or what I’m working on. Consider my inability to keep to my once-a-week resolution on this blog. I tried I really did, but it hasn’t really worked has it. I often go several days without writing and then suddenly have a succession of entries. As a PhD student I indulged myself in what I called “productive procrastination” with at least one other major project–what became The Human Genome Sourcebook, a reference book about the human genome, which I wrote over a period of 4 years all told, with a co-author. And this wasn’t even the first book to come out of my years as a grad student–the first, another reference book on microbes, was a solo effort that I had embarked on even before I had begun my Ph.D. Of course the first year of grad school brought the progress on that book (which bears the long and boring title of Microbes and People: An A to Z of the Important Micro-organisms in Our Lives. My father wanted me to call it The World of Small Things–another Eliot follower even if unknowingly so–but the title was not up to me) to a screeching halt. But then came my first summer, which I spent with Dad as my roomie at the oddly organized, I. M. Pei designed, East West Center at the University of Hawaii, where over a period of two-and-a-half months I wrote most of the book. Again–or I should say setting the pattern for the future–following a gloriously chaotic non-schedule that entailed some midnight visits to my Dad’s office and some dawn time walks from the Math Dept. to the EWC!

My current book–about 5 sevenths (or 5 eighths) of the way in since I began writing for real and in earnest last (2016) February or March–has been yet another exercise in discipline through chaos, written in bits and pieces in cafes and friends and cousins homes¬† all over the world–Melbourne in Australia, London, Philadelphia, Toronto, New York, Savannah (Georgia), the Bay Area, Bangalore… so far. (The proposal was written up entirely in Seoul I think). Fair enough since its geographic reach is similarly worldwide, though not quite as peripatetic. Most of the individual scientists that I am writing about–the eccentric Felix d’Herelle being the notable exception that proves the rule–were remarkably stable in their careers spending decades if not their entire careers in one place.¬† But there is method to my madness as the saying goes, or a consistency to my chaos. And once again I’ve found a way (actually multiple ways) to procrastinate productively with other projects, as yet too undefined, some even embryonic this.¬† (#43)

Uh oh… doesn’t say much for my ability to keep a resolution if I’ve lapsed before my third week… I think this omission may call for an¬†extra this week. True I’ve had other things on my plate–last week at the archive and some stuff that needs to be written to meet application deadlines, but that is no reason or even an excuse. Part of the point of this resolution was to take time out for random writing no matter what…

But what to write about? I took a look at some of the writing from the senses prompts that I saved as titles of unwritten drafts, and while each is lovely, not one feels right to write about at this time. But perhaps I can draw inspiration from the topics of one of my work-related themes: autobiography.

Autobiography is a theme I’ve dwelt on as a historian of science for a time now. I’ve taken courses on it, taught courses on it and used autobiographies as primary sources in my research. As for writing them, well I’d say the blog is most certainly an autobiographical form–offering the writer’s public facade to its audiences like a memoir, but with the immediacy or time-stamp of a letter (with one difference you can actually go back and edit things in or out later which you can’t really do with a letter). And in fact, one of my students even used a blog as part of her cache of primary autobiographical documents on which she built her final paper for the class.

Other than blogs though, what qualifies as autobiography or “ego-documents” as we sometimes say in the profession? The aforementioned memoirs and letters certainly, as well as private diaries (I remember writing my paper on the published but little read diary of Robert Hooke–a very strange document that). One friend would have it that virtually anything a scholar publishes is in a sense autobiography, a story of the self or rather work by oneself, that he/she wants to share with the outside world. But while I agree at some level, I also think that such a definition is diluting the category overmuch, taking it to a point where it ceases to be useful (maybe?). I think that a piece must contain a definite element of sharing information about the author in order for it be considered some sort of ego-document. For instance, I do not think either of the reference books I’ve written count as autobiographies in any meaningful sense of the word–they are about microbes and about genes in the genome. Even my upcoming historical monograph is not about me, although it will certainly contain certain parts in the foreword (or afterword) that are distinctly autobiographical. But the book itself.. no.

Another rhetorical question here–what to do with all these thoughts? Well for now, not much more than publish it right here and almost right now. But I hope that the exercise has unlocked enough to give me more fodder for one of my other projects that are due for submission in very short order. (#50).

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