Six weeks

Having sung the praises of Fridays and gloomed about Sundays, am I set on turning Mondays into self-reflexive meditations on method? Evidently so, at least until the spring semester ends and time opens up a little. Tonight I (gently) chastised my wife for skipping her picture-a-day project on Facebook,* but as usual when it comes to judging others, in truth I am just projecting my own anxiety — in this case, an almost superstitious dread of disrupting a chain of daily posts now six weeks long and counting. Keeping it up has meant sacrificing a number of things I once held dear: cherished notins of myself as a brilliant writer, lingeringly slow-cooked prose, a certain dignity and distance in my choice of topics. Laudable goals all, but maybe too a little hollow and egocentric, and often unconducive to productivity. Instead, I’m discovering the hard comfort of routine, the discipline of a writing practice, along with a new kind of notch to cut into the wall.

That said, I’m also feeling the need to start working these daily posts into something longer and more substantive — an actual, paper publication — so that will be the next horizon. It won’t happen without a deadline and some goalposts, so over the next several days I will begin mapping out an experiment in scholarship, an essay to be drafted, as it were, in public. I approach this with some trepidation but also excitement: as with the act of teaching, through which my body has evolved a new organ for converting anxiety to energy, writing this blog is helping to wear down the last vestiges of resistance to taking risks.

* She intends to post two pictures tomorrow.

 

The zen of model kits

I speak often and with great satisfaction of my Man Cave, our house’s finished basement where my nerdish technophilia is allowed free reign. My PC tower and its domino-line backdrop of external hard drives; my big, flat TV atop its nest of audio components and cables; a small museum of video-game consoles; and the nonelectronic pleasures of my John D. MacDonald paperbacks (inherited from my father, who freshly arrived from Czechoslovakia in the 1950s used detective and spy fiction to hone his English-language skills), white cardboard longboxes of unexamined comics which with every passing year come more to resemble stacked sarcophagi, a dusty Millennium Falcon playset packed with Star Wars action figures in various stages of dismemberment (the latter a gift from my brother in law).

As this inventory suggests, the contents of the Man Cave embody not just arrested development but a certain ongoing regression: a march in reverse through the stages and artifacts of the enthusiasms that made me what I am today. For that reason, it’s fitting that I have opened a new wing whose title might be “Boy Cave”: a model-kit-building station in a side workroom where the heating-oil tank and cat-litter box vie with paint thinner and acrylic glue for the prize of most fascinatingly noxious scent.

Currently on the workbench is Polar Lights’s Robby the Robot, a kit I’ve been dabbling with for more than a year, but which a few nights ago I decided to buckle down and finish. (Pictured above, the 1/12-scale figure is still missing an ornamental arrangement of gyroscopes on top of its head, and over that a clear dome that seals its brain circuitry in place.) Model kits based on science fiction and fantasy have become a central preoccupation in my scholarship, and I guess in some ways I have returned to kit-building in order to (re)gain firsthand experience of this strange subculture of artifactual play and constructivist leisure — its material investments as well as its surrounding discursive community (see, for example, the reviews and build-guides here, here, and here).

But I’m also realizing a simple and zenlike truth, which is that to build a kit you must build it; it won’t finish itself. And the difference between dreaming and doing, which has so often constituted an agonizing contrapunto to my publishing life, is like the difference between the unassembled plastic parts still on their sprue and the built, painted, finalized thing: a matter of making. If I can fit the pieces of Robby together in stray minutes (and it turns out that the rhythms of model-kit assembly fit nicely into the scattered but semipredictable intervals of parenting), what else might I accomplish, simply by opting to complete — rather than just contemplate — the process?

30 days

Today marks one month of blogging every day. It’s a little hard to believe; since starting this blog in August 2007, I racked up something like 100 posts, and if I was in the mood to do the math, it would probably work out to a depressingly low frequency — a far cry from the promise I made myself when I started (two posts a week, I believe, was the goal). Yet in the last 30 days, I’ve added almost a third of that total again.

It’s a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. My method for achieving it, if this earlier post didn’t make it clear, is to consciously lower the threshold for my own writing, making myself OK with contributing less-than-stellar content every time. It’s been a way of knocking the chip off my own shoulder, an exercise in getting over myself, and in that sense quite healthy — if humbling. (Are the humbling experiences of life always the healthiest? Tricky question, given that my phases of self-aggrandizing overconfidence are premised on, and interleaved with, deep insecurity.)

That it has resulted in the regular production of words and ideas in a more modest vein aligns this exercise with a long history of writing and engaging in different forms of writing practice: I’ve kept a diary since 1984, when I was eighteen, and between 1990 and 1991 I made a point of writing every day for a solid year. On nights when I was too wiped out to open one of the black-and-white composition books in which I preferred to write, I would scribe sentences in the air with my finger. Was that writing? Sure, if what counts is only the commitment to the act, a playing-out of internal monologue. But definitely not, if the measure of writing is to record something outside oneself, externalizing a record that thenceforth coexists with you and even splits away to find a new audience.

What I’m talking about is publication, a concept that’s been much on my mind since becoming an academic, and even before. As a kid, I wrote scripts for short science-fiction movies I planned to shoot in Super 8, synched to the vinyl records I listened to in my bedroom: Stravinsky’s Firebird, Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, Jerry Goldsmith’s music for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and just about every film score composed by John Williams between 1977 and 1981. (My all-time favorite, though, was James Horner’s score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.) These screenplays morphed over time into scripts for plays I envisioned staging at my high school or in college, where for the first years of my undergraduate career I pursued a major in theater. Halfway through the eight years it took me to earn my B.A., I became an English major, and from there my writing ambitions recentered around short stories and novels. I would chase that dream throughout the 1990s, until I abruptly came to the end of the dream in 1997. The next year, I started graduate studies at the University of North Carolina.

Long story short, I’ve always been a writer, always wanted to be one, written a lot of words in pursuit of that dream. For the last six years, as an assistant professor at Swarthmore College, writing has become laden with the pressures and expectations of the tenure track, a challenge to which I’ve risen only sporadically, and often resentfully — as though, deep down, I’m still happier to sketch ideas in the air than commit them to paper.

The blog is yet another space, I understand: not quite a diary, not quite scholarship, but something in between. I struggle to locate myself within it, even as I try to find a magical bridge between the words that come so easily (well, fairly easily) to the screen and those I need to convince an academic press to accept. It’s an ongoing adventure as well as something of a slog. I don’t know if success is out there (or readers, for that matter). But for now I will keep posting — every day.

A shift in method

Some years ago, at lunch with an esteemed senior colleague from the English Department, I complained that blogging had split me into two kinds of writer, like the good and evil Captain Kirk (above) created by transporter malfunction in TOS Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within.” The bad writer summoned into existence by the blog was awesomely verbose and driven by the craven need to flaunt his cleverness; the good writer was more modest in his claims and diligent in his methods of researching and composing projects. But he was also, like good Kirk, something of a weakling, his lack of confidence inversely proportional to the excessive force of personality his diabolical twin radiated. During the first several years of this blog I found it easy to sit down and compose brief, grand essays and pronouncements; but I couldn’t get a major research project or a publishing venture off the ground.

I’ve learned a few things about writing, and about myself, since then. I return to this blog with the need for a thought-space somewhere between the ephemeral public bursts of tweets and status updates and the glacial excavation and terraforming of printed academic publishing: the fast and slow time of the mediascapes at whose intersection I find my home. I return to this blog with a renewed sense of its potential for experimentation and evolution, and a new concept of myself as not needing to prove my intellect at every turn. I want, in short, to blog like a normal person — to speak honestly and without needless ostentation about this world and this life.