Update: Jumble

Just some random things I’ve been reading and thinking about.

Productivity Porn

That’s what someone called Sunita’s posts on her productivity methods, which I always enjoy. The latest mentions the “12-week year” idea, and got me thinking about how my own year breaks into three terms. I’m just beginning my non-teaching term, about half of which is time I owe to the college for professional development and other projects.

I look forward to my term off, but I often find it difficult. Teaching has set deadlines and clear priorities, both of which help me manage my time. In my summer work, on the other hand, I have lots of important projects but few clear deadlines, and I find it hard to get organized and stay productive. I’ve been tracking my to-do lists better–using a modified version of the bullet journal (any excuse for a notebook!)–and now I’m trying to adapt that system to plan my projects and apportion my time more effectively rather than putting out daily fires.

Sunita’s post made me realize that part of the problem is that everything feels like a “Big Rock,” and not just important but urgent. Here’s what I’m trying to do:

  • Completely revamp my academic writing course (with help from people I team-teach with). We’re tired of the readings/topic and not satisfied with the way the assignments ladder. We couldn’t get to this during the teaching term, but book orders for Fall were officially due last week.
  • Wrap up the implementation of curriculum software (which I somehow became deeply involved in, something that would have seemed laughable to me a couple of years ago) and hand off my responsibilities for administering it. I don’t have release time for this any more and can’t keep doing it. However, everyone is scrambling to develop and revise courses right now, or to make last fixes in the new system, so other people’s urgent tasks keep crowding out my important ones.
  • Polish the draft of a new Grade Appeal Policy I finally finished and revise a couple of others that I’ve had my sights on for a while. This is something I also had release time for, but which largely got crowded out by the curriculum project. I’m going to be department chair next year, and I don’t want any big side projects nagging me.

And then, of course, there’s still everyday life, and as we near the end of the school year, my kids have more events too. For next week, I’ve blocked out time to devote to each project, and I’ll see if that helps. I still need to set goals for those time blocks so I don’t just stare at my computer screen wondering where to start.

Burnout

This isn’t about me, although I’m feeling rather burnt at the moment. Romance writer Molly O’Keefe wrote an amazingly honest post about the stress and burnout that has come with her career success. I have so many thoughts:

  • I really admire the willingness of many in the romance-writing community to be frank about things like their writing process, their struggles, and their professional decisions. (Another recent example is Meljean Brook’s explanation of her reasons for publishing a serial.) So often people hide their professional difficulties or get defensive about their choices, and honesty can be incredibly helpful to others, both professionally and emotionally. Like conferences, social media can remind authors that they are not alone.
  • But there are also downsides to social media Romanceland. O’Keefe notes that it contributed to her burnout, constantly reminding her of who was doing more/”better” and making her feel she always had to be engaged and building a fanbase. It’s not just readers who can be overwhelmed by the noise. It made me think of the worst bits of grad school, the constant comparing of yourself to others. I’d never have made it if academic social media had existed back then.
  • And then there’s the downside of romance publishing. I don’t know how anyone can keep up that pace for long without burning out. I want the authors I love to be able to have long, happy careers and write great books at the pace that works for them. I’d like that to be a pace that results in really good, polished books, not good-enough semi-edited books (I’m talking generally here, not about O’Keefe!). But of course, I’d like authors to be able to make a living from writing, too, and in the romance-writing world, those goals seem incompatible. Reading the post made me really sad about that. I don’t want people to write 20 or 30 books in 10 years and then quit.

Reading (skip to the end if you want to know what genre fiction is up next)

I just finished Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman. I lovedit. It’s very much “literary” fiction. Aaliya, the protagonist, has made translating Western novels into Arabic her vocation; she has never tried to publish them, but does one project a year and then files it away. The book is suffused with allusions to her reading, as well as to music and art. The narrative is stream of consciousness and often the novel seems to be wandering aimlessly through Aaliyah’s memories and daily life. But there is both a destination and an optimistic ending.

In an NPR interview, Alameddine talks about loving his characters, and that love really shows here. Aaliya is a fully-realized female character written by a man (yes, they do exist). I loved her too.

What interested me most were the reflections on whether art adds meaning to life or has purpose. (This felt more natural and less preachy than in Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch). Aaliya asserts–at least sometimes–that both she and art are useless. She’s suspicious of our desire to find causality and explanations in fiction, motivations that make sense–as the world, she says, does not:

I made myself feel better by reciting jejune statements like “Books are the air I breathe,” or, worse, “Life is meaningless without literature,” all in a weak attempt to avoid the fact that I found the world inexplicable and impenetrable. Compared to the complexity of understanding grief, reading Foucault or Blanchot is like perusing a children’s picture book.

She complains about the fact that “Most of the books published these days consist of a series of whines followed by an epiphany,” a line that raises the question of whether this is one of those books. Aaliya sometimes whines (“To age is to whine,” and she’s 72), and though she is derisive about epiphanies, she has one (“Here’s your damn epiphany,” she snarls).

Or does she? The very end of the book undoes her recognition that she’s alone and useless, her translation work meaningless, because she’s drawn back into community and anticipating her next project. Her moment of epiphany might have been temporary despair, not truth. There’s a lot of ambiguity in An Unnecessary Woman–the book doesn’t take sides on the questions it raises, I think–and a lot of irony, dramatic and otherwise. But Alameddine always treats Aaliya lovingly, not ironically. The “epiphany” here both echoes the famous one in Joyce’s “Araby” (the ur-epiphany, really) and refuses its bleakness. In the final sentence of Joyce’s story, the narrator says: “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” But Aaliya moves past that moment of her story to another, more hopeful epiphany in which she recognizes that she can break out of the lonely routines of her life. Moreover, though she scorns herself, we never see her as someone to scorn (the way we are invited to see Joyce’s narrator). The sympathy with which Alameddine depicts Aaliya reminded me of George Eliot. 

If this book sounds like the kind of thing you might like, I highly recommend it. I’ll be looking for more of Alameddine’s work.

Listening

I’m on an American history kick (my knowledge is shockingly vague and dates to high school). I listened to Douglas A. Blackmon’s excellent, painful, and meticulously researched account of the forced labor of African-Americans in the decades following the Civil War, Slavery by Another Name. Now I’m on to Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty, covering the early years of the new republic (1789-1815). I’m finding it harder to pay attention to, not because it’s densely written but because it doesn’t have a strong narrative line–it’s more thematically organized. It’s often interesting but I’m not sure I’m retaining much.

Reading Next

I don’t want to promise anything, since my plan to read politically-themed romances in April came to naught, but paradoxically my last post made me want to read a romance. I’m in the first chapter of several different books, being uncertain about what I want to read next.

Part II of Meljean Brook’s Kraken King serial. I like the world, the adventure, the heroine, and I think the romance will work for me too. I’m enjoying reading serially, which lets me intersperse this book with other things.

Laura London, Love’s A StageI’m planning to read London’s legendary The Windflower now that it’s been re-released, but Robin sold me on this one first (the hero calls the heroine “Prudence Sweetsteeple”). So far the voice is charming me.

I couldn’t resist trying Harlequin editor Patience Bloom’s Romance Is My Day Job: A Memoir of Finding Love at Last when I spotted it in the online library collection. I feel like there are a lot of ways this could go wrong though. Will report back.

Naomi Hirahara, Summer of the Big BachiAllison tweeted about enjoying Hirahara’s new book, featuring a female LA bike cop. My library didn’t have that (I bought it), but they do have the author’s previous series, featuring Japanese-American gardener and Hiroshima bombing survivor Mas Arai. So far, I’m liking him.

And for snippets at bedtime, Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal (here’s a gorgeous review from Marilynne Robinson)

If I manage to pick one of these and finish it, it will be a miracle!

 

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6 Responses to Update: Jumble

  1. willaful says:

    I’m also having the “everything feels like a Big Rock” problem. And even so, I’m ignoring the Enormous Boulders. Possibly because they could never fit in my bucket to begin with.

    Not to add to your stress — but you need to read The Windflower for the upcoming book club! ;-)

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I was chatting with some other parents at school the other day, and we agreed that we are just in the Really Busy life stage. For at least another 10 years. Maybe then we’ll have fewer big rocks?

      I know, the book club. But . . . I’m not sure I can commit to anything. I’m really looking forward to reading that, though, and to seeing how/if the book still works for Sunita, Robin and others. I’ve been enjoying the reviews of older books at DA; hope people keep submitting them.

  2. The Windflower was a lot of fun!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Robin said when reading London/the Curtises “keep in mind their tongues were firmly in their cheeks,” and I like that kind of book.

  3. Barb in Maryland says:

    I’ve read the Patience Bloom and enjoyed it. Be aware that I (and a number of other readers) found the first part to be a bit of a slog and rather depressing. The second half of the book is great fun and redeems the first part. YMMV, of course.

    Ah, ‘The Windflower”–(happy book noises).

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