Monday, May 30, 2011

Procrastination can be Fun (and debilitating)

Speaking of time . . .

In a little under 2 weeks I will head to our nation's capitol, where I will spend 6 weeks doing some work at my favorite library in the whole world and participating in a summer seminar with a reading list as long as my bibliography.

I promised an editor that I would send him my book manuscript at the beginning of the summer as it was nearly completed when we met in January. Then I got sick (pneumonia--don't try this at home). Then I got better, and wrote to him, and we agreed that I needed more time. Then I got the brilliant idea of scrapping about 50 pages from one of my chapters and rewriting it based on a brief paper I recently gave at MLA. Then I got the second brilliant idea of turning my introduction into a separate chapter, and writing a new, short introduction to the book.

The work has been going well, though not exactly as quickly as I would like. I am not entirely sure I will be done in time to send the manuscript off by the end of June, though I sincerely hope I will. I'm about 90% finished with the sweet new chapter and I'm really happy with it. Then on to the intro-spin off chapter, which needs about 15 pages on Jonson's Poetaster, which will be smooth sailing and loads of fun to write. Then back to the new, shorter intro to give it an update on recent theory and scholarship. Then I shall double-check my intros and conclusions to all the other chapters, and set it free, only about 3 months late.

Since I clearly have this all planned out, and have been writing on average about 6 pages a day, every day, no days off, this should be no problem whatsoever, correct?

WRONG! For some reason unless I am at my desk during the school-year stealing a few hard-earned non-student-filled hours, or in the middle of an archival reading room surrounded by other scholars more diligent than me, heads bent dutifully over books and laptops, I am unable to stay focused for long stretches of time.

After two hours at the computer I feel great because I'm clearly, honest-to-god WRITING. So still feeling pleased with myself, I wander outside and pet the porch kitty (more on him later), water the plants, sweep the porch, swiffer the floors, make tea, go for a walk. Then I go back to work and carefully write another four to six paragraphs. Then I fiddle around adding footnotes and images and pulling quotes in. Then it is too late to do any more work at all because it is time to go to the gym, where I lift weights and do cardio intervals on the elliptical thingy without falling off, so I actually feel like I'm getting stuff done, and then I get to sit in the sauna or steam room and feel good about myself because I am being HEALTHY and getting THINNER, so yay! Then it is time for dinner and because it is now summer we get to cook and prepare yummy fresh things from the farmer's market, like salade nicoise or chilled pea soup or gazpacho and then have minted honeydew popsicles for dessert (adorable beau is a popsicle addict so we make them every week). Then it's time to maybe watch a movie and/or to read the New Yorker in bed with my adorable beau and our cat, so yay!

Then I fall asleep and dream dreadful anxiety dreams about putting a 20page manuscript in the mail, or about the apartment flooding and the landlord trippling the rent, or about losing everything I've ever written, or losing the ability to write or see or think or about going up for tenure suddenly tomorrow (by the way, I can totally control when I go up for tenure at this new job, meaning I can go up as soon as I get a book contract, or wait a few years, which is awesome, but also might be slowing me down a little bit). When I wake up, I rush to the computer to make things right. In other words, I only manage to get things done if I do them half-assedly and then put them off enough to cause me to fret and worry about it unconsciously to the point of waking up in a cold sweat, shaking with apprehension. My cycle looks a lot like this and this.

I recently started blogging again in the hopes that it would help me stay focused on finishing my manuscript. I'm not sure if it's working, but it certainly beats making tea or going for a walk. And hey, at least I'm writing stuff.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Keeping Time

Because I write about poetry and antiquity, I am always keenly aware of the way that time seems to keep us guessing. The lyric mode can suspend, extend, and rewind time. Just look at Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," which moves from the longest length of time imaginable (apocalyptic), "vaster than empires and yet more slow," to the grave, where worms consort with his mistress's corpse, to the pounding heart beats of the last few lines. Or look at Shakespeare's sonnet 59, which imagines that time itself is revolutionary; all of this has happened before, all of it will happen again. The poet imagines encountering an illuminated miniature of his beloved in a medieval book, centuries before the young man was born. Or else he's imagining projecting an early modern book containing a portrait of his lover into the future, perhaps our future:
Show me your image in some antique book
Since mind at first in character was done
That I might see what the old world would say
To this composed wonder of your frame
Whether we are mended, or whether better they
Or whether revolution be the same

And then there's the way that music itself transports us into a different time-scape, one in which time seems to stop, or move at a different pace from normal life. It doesn't always happen, but when it does it can be sublime for the audience and for the performer. I remember distinctly that it happened one spring when I performed the Chopin Barcarole at Oxford, during graduate school. I went into a trance and it really felt as if the music was doing something to the fabric of time, stretching it, unwinding it, repairing it, folding and pleating it.

There's an excellent article by Burckhard Bilger in The New Yorker that came out last month, in which Bilger anatomizes David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and author who is fascinated by the way that the brain registers time differently depending on the situation. The brain can appear to stretch time, for instance, during a near-death experience. Eagleman has begun studying musicians. I'm more interested in what happens to our perception when we feel like we have somehow walked outside of time. You feel it in the early stages of a romance, when you stay up all night and the night seems to go on forever and ever and then suddenly it's daylight and whoops, it didn't go on forever and your romance grinds to a bumpy halt (cue Romeo and Juliet 3.5).

There's also the weird sensation we get when we remember and try to relive those moments. For me, they are all connected to music. When I play a certain piece, like Schubert's G flat major impromptu, or listen to one, like Beethoven's A Minor quartet Op. 132, I am again transported by memory to that place where (when?) time stood still. Only instead you can't get it to stand still again, and the experience is somehow cheapened. That's why we sometimes cry, because we know we can't rewind. And of course the experience of loss is heightened when it's Schubert or Beethoven, because somehow in their music, they both seem to yearn for the same thing and yet remain profoundly aware of its futility. When adolescence hit me like a giant blow to the head, I would listen to my favorite childhood record, Mary Martin in Peter Pan, over and over again, tears streaming down my face as I mourned my lost innocence. Ovid was right: change is the only constant. But sometimes I think I feel it a little too powerfully.

I recently learned that an old boyfriend, now a friend, has gotten married. I am happy for this old boyfriend, and very happy in my current relationship. I also have very powerful and intense memories of my time with the o.b. (old boyfriend), and most of these memories are strengthened by their association with music. Listening to him play the last movement of the Beethoven Op. 109 and trying not to look at his facial contortions, crashing through the fugue of the Schubert F minor fantasy together, lying side by side on his tiny bed staring at the ceiling and trying not to move, listening to recordings of the Beethoven trio Op. 70, No. 2, and to Op. 132.

We went our separate ways. We parted amicably (in fact it was the most amicable and satisfying break-up I have ever experienced). We dated other people, we stayed in touch as friends. We saw one another once in a while, and when we did, we went to musical performances, and it was not without awkwardness, confusion and nostalgia. I know people always select which memories to retain and then we edit and modify them, usually unconscious of what we are doing. Maybe the o.b. remembers things differently, or different things.

A small part of me wants to believe in revolutionary time. Not that everything repeats itself exactly, but that the past is still animated, that these old memories are somehow alive and ongoing. A part of me really wants those two young people listening to that quartet on the floor of that tiny Oxford room six years ago to go on listening to it and to go on thinking that time is standing still.