29.9.06

Relevance

"A good deal of what might be called provisional writing goes to the first drafts of first chapters of most novels. At a point in the novel's progress, relevance becomes clearer. The provisional chapters are then recast." (Elizabeth Bowen, "Notes on Writing a Novel")

Yup.

26.9.06

Jane Plays with Dolls

One doll is hungry. "I want snack."

The other doll murmurs in a conciliatory way.

"Stand back!" cries the first. "I am a very angry princess!"

24.9.06

Elizabeth Bowen, Notes on Writing a Novel

Holy cow. Every word rings true, but I wouldn't have really understood Bowen's points, I think, until I hit this latest phase of revision.

Clinton TELLS IT to Fox News

Wild Bill takes down Wallace/Fox, reminding of a smarter, happier, more promising time.

As a speaker, Clinton is just so articulate -- he can answer a nasty question, expose the false assumptions behind the question, demonstrate their falsity, provide evidence that something else was true instead, and then (!) redirect the conversation to the point he was trying to make all along. He's got a super grasp of details, facts, history, and the ability to organize that information and present it quickly and clearly. He sees the minefields in the questions and steps right around them, all the while projecting earnestness and faith in the listener's ability to reason and reflect, regardless of their politics. A lesson, here. I wish I were still teaching -- I'd spent a class dissecting the interview, looking at how and why Clinton was so effective.

Whimsical Book Idea of the Day

A book called Vinyl, with the history of that material (from records to naugahyde sofas), with a vinyl cover.

22.9.06

Not Yet

From Salon:
"The final results are in: The ratio of male to female writers in major "thought leader" magazines is 3:1. Unimpressed? Consider that, of the 1,893 pieces surveyed, a measly 447 articles were written by women.

"Last September Ruth Davis Konigsberg, a deputy editor at Glamour, started the wittily named WomenTK.com, with the aim of tracking the male-to-female byline ratios in five general-interest magazines: Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's. It's not shocking that male bylines proved more common -- that's the no-brainer that spurred the WomenTK project in the first place -- but the extent to which men are outpacing women is staggering.

"Of the magazines WomenTK followed, Harper's and the New Yorker were the worst offenders. Over the past 12 months, Harper's published 118 articles written by men and only 17 by women; that's an embarrassing ratio of 6.9:1. The New Yorker's ratio of 4.1:1 is also pretty dismal; out of 556 articles, 109 were written by women.

"Davis Konigsberg -- who has ovaries of steel for taking on Condé Nast, which publishes the New Yorker and Vanity Fair as well as Glamour -- argues that the grim 3:1 ratio supports "Ursula K. Le Guin's hypothesis that 'there is solid evidence for the fact that when women speak more than 30 percent of the time, men perceive them as dominating the conversation.'" We shouldn't equate all men with the male editors of a few "thought leader" magazines, but it's startling to think that female participation can be confused with parity."

To-Do

1. Incorporate pen-and-ink edits from pp. 64-81, pp. 82-92, pp. 93-108, pp. 109-120, pp. 120-141pp. 142-185 (Saturday, Sunday)
2. Catch up with advisor & confirm meeting for mid-October.
3. Finish remaining unfinished scenes from chapter 2.
4. Print out chapter 2 and read it out loud. Edit as needed. (Tuesday)
5. Cut chapter 3 down to essentials (three scenes). (Wednesday)
6. Print out 1-200 and read in one sitting. How does it go? (Thursday)
7. Make pen-and-ink edits to pp. 186-300. (Friday)

But first: TAKE A WALK, SPEND TIME WITH THE KID, DO SOMETHING FUN.

Later: The Oth item (take a walk, spend time with kid) was the best one, not surprisingly. Mid-October meeting pushed back to early November. Still frighteningly behind on other tasks.

20.9.06

Just One Thing

A difficult day. Yesterday's panic - OHMYGODWHENWILLIFINISHTHISGODDAMNEDBOOK - has given way to general paralysis interspersed with grumpy efforts to complete long-neglected domestic tasks. Like putting the buttons back on the comforter cover, something I've had on my to-do list for ... years.

I tell myself, "Sit down and perfect one thing. Just one thing."

11.9.06

Buzzed by Satellite

Just saw Envisat pass overhead. Or what I think was Envisat. It was a blinking yellow pixel-shaped thing, moving very slowly high in the sky toward the west. After a few minutes, a cloud obscured it. I was glad to see it, even if satellites are sort of unspecial space junk.

I looked it up at Heavens Above, a database of stuff in the sky that you can search by location.

The Nut, The Moron, The Stylist and The Critic

The NYT has published snippets of Susan Sontag's diaries, which are fascinating. Had an AHA moment this morning while reading her observation that "the writer must be four people" -- nut, moron, stylist, critic.

The nut is the source of the material and the moron is the one who "lets it come out."

Yup.

10.9.06

Worrisome

You go looking for trouble, you find it. That's true enough, I guess. Last week, noodling around with some writing I did way back when on breastfeeding, I was startled to discover, or rediscover, some distressing reports about environmental toxins and breast milk. In Europe, where breastfeeding is widespread, and maternity leaves are more accommodating of breastfeeding mothers, testing of breastmilk for toxicity is, evidently, commonplace. Not so here, and the toxin load in American women's breast milk reflects this lack of monitoring. I've got more to say about this problem, but not now. As a result of this reading, I got interested in toxin loads and rates of cancer incidence, and this brought me to SEERwhich has statistics on incidence rates of different kinds of cancer around the US.

Can we take, as writ, that some kinds of cancer -- cancers of filtration organs, like the kidney and liver, and fatty tissue, like the brain and breast -- are directly related to toxin exposure? We know toxins accumulate in fatty tissue, like the breast and the brain, and in the filter organs, like the liver, the lungs, and the kidneys. We also know that childhood cancers are becoming more common, and that children -- due to their size -- are uniquely vulnerable to toxin exposures. They are, perhaps, sentinels. And so I notice, upon looking into SEER's database, that the incidence of bladder cancer in Rhode Island (29-30 cases per 100,000) is significantly higher than the national average (21 cases per 100,000).

Rates of bladder cancer are important because the bladder, as a kind of holding tank for ingested fluid, is continually exposed to the environment. If it's out there, it's in here, too. The chlorine in drinking water -- that's a carcinogen. By itself, it poses enough of a problem. But it can also interact with other organic contaminants already present in the water, producing organochlorines including known carcinogens like trihalomethanes (e.g., chloroform).

So the watershed feeding the Scituate Reservoir, which supplies most of Providence's tap water, better be pretty pure. But I don't think it is. First of all, roads run all through it. Those roads are reasonably well-traveled and they are liberally de-iced in the winter. The sodium and chloride run into the water. I don't know how this material reacts when undergoes routine chlorination, but it would be good to know.

Moreover, the reservoir's drainage basin includes parts of Cranston and Johnston, towns where there's a lot of industry, and a lot of toxic chemicals. Some of them have been reported. It's not hard to find these places on a map; some are close to bodies of water that (though I'm no expert on the state's hydrography) seem to be part of the reservoir's drainage basin. I don't know how many of these chemicals leach into the water system, and I don't know which, if any of them, turn into organochlorines when the water is chlorinated. I know the water from the reservoir is aerated, which would in theory reduce the amount of toxins in the water by allowing them to vaporize -- but only if the aeration happens after chlorination, not before. (Plus, aeration sends these compounds back into the atmosphere where we can inhale them instead of drinking them.)

I know I'm looking for trouble. And I know that I used to live not too far from the Gowanus Canal, which might as well have glowed, it was so polluted. That didn't bother me, but the reservoir does. The cancer rates do. Hmph.

6.9.06

Notes to Self Re: Next Novel

1. In a late draft, do NOT move chapters around without getting a second, and possibly even a third, opinion. Rewrite if necessary. Add more information earlier, or take out information that should come later. But do not cut and paste, thinking only minor sutures will be necessary, because you are wrong.

2. Do not revise "out of character." For instance, if the protagonist doesn't talk about his or her feelings, describing this character's inner life only glorifies the writer's emotional intelligence. Like any other writerly narcissism, this glorification happens at the expense of both the story and the reader. I find that when I do this, I can't bear to read my own writing because I'm insulting my own intelligence, and that's when I feel really stuck and unable to move forward.

It's much better to let the character's inner life come through gesture and speech (and through observation and reflection if those things are true to character as well).

It's partly a matter of "show, don't tell," but also partly a matter of humility, of listening more than talking. There's a difference between truly and usefully giving voice to something, and the annoying, patronizing practice of "speaking for" another person or group.

Jane Goes to School

School's for real this year -- she's got a lunchbox, a backpack, and a cubby all her own.

sniffle

I'm already looking forward to picking her up.

2.9.06

Today Laura Bush Made Me Laugh

Via TPM, I learned that while on vacation in Crawford, GWB went looking around for a book to read, and the First Lady recommended Camus' The Stranger. In which a callow French man murders an Algerian and is tried, not for his crime, but for his character. The trial, naturally, is a farce, and in the end, Merseault consoles himself that at least others will be happy about his execution.

Hint, hint?

1.9.06

Bias

One weirdly frustrating aspect -- for me, and for my students -- of teaching writing has been how to answer the question, "What is biased writing?" Exposure to biased writing often makes me too angry to coolly dissect the bias and explain it.

Thanks to today's piece in the NYT about how companies fail to provide working women with sufficient support for continuing to breastfeed their children at work, I now have a great example. Take a look at this assertion, and the evidence on which it's based:

Pumping breast milk has one benefit that cannot be quantified: it makes working mothers feel less guilt-ridden about leaving their children. 'There is a lot of satisfaction in knowing I am doing right by him,' Ms. Wurster said of her son, James.

We may infer from this that Mrs. Wurster is having a good time pumping her milk at work. She believes breast is best, and she is happy to be able to choose her infant's diet in accordance with her values. But can we really conclude, from what she has said, that she "feels less guilt-ridden about leaving" her son in order to go back to work? No, we can't. Her statement implies only that she is pleased with her infant feeding arrangement. She expresses no dissatisfaction at all about going back to work.

By framing the quote in this way, the author of the article implies that when a mother goes to work, she is abandoning her child. This position is patently sexist -- after all, fathers who work are good providers, and no one accuses them of abandonment.

Later: Had a couple more thoughts on 'bias'. Students tend to see it only when they read something based on beliefs with which they disagree. They don't take the next step, which is to generalize this insight to eliminate their own bias. Maybe here's a good rule of thumb: A biased article is based on or contains beliefs that -- whether one agrees with them or not -- are not supported by sound reasoning and evidence.