phantom sentences and diabolical peanut men

Things are getting a little Sixth Sense over here in Storrs, Connecticut. I see dead sentences.

I call them “phantoms,” or sentences that you’ve painstakingly — or, let’s be honest, rather sloppily — crafted but that you later have to edit out, excise, relocate, or otherwise make disappear. And then they haunt you. You want to bring them back, but you know that resurrecting the dead is never a good idea. Just ask any B-grade horror movie featuring a Ouija board. And really, you didn’t delete without justification. There are a million reasons for such word violence. The unyielding twenty-minute time limit of a conference presentation. The argument that turns abruptly in an unexpected direction, ensuring that a good half of your freakin’ research is no longer relevant. Or, if you’re me, persistent long-windedness.

Ramblers suffer from phantom sentences more than most.

Some phantoms are more ephemeral than others. I’m particularly susceptible to historical minutiae and biographical trivia. I mean, the Victorians are so weird, and it’s impossible to resist cluttering up my paragraphs with details destined for deletion.* How can I write about Robert Louis Stevenson in any capacity — including, apparently, on this blog — without describing the War Room in Samoa, where he staged epic lead soldier battles? And a casual mention of the War Room won’t do, because the rules of the game are too tantalizing to leave out. For example, when a player throws the dice and rolls triple fours, his army is seized with sudden cowardice and disperses, setting the regiment back an entire day’s march. “But the rule was soon given up,” writes Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s stepson, “for it was too heartbreaking to have one’s most skillful calculations upset by an unforeseen and most unnecessary panic.” And if I’m going to mention Lloyd’s account of the War Room — which was published in the 1895 volume of St. Nicholas Magazine — then I want to mention the unsettling poem about “That Little Peanut Man” that appears in the same volume of that periodical.** And I mean, the peanut really doesn’t belong anywhere — not in your bleakest nightmares, much less in my manuscript.

peanut

These are what I guess you’d call free association phantoms. Or stream of consciousness spirits! (Virginia Woolf was particularly haunted by such details.) And they’re not very troublesome. While I want to tell everyone about the peanut man — and while I might humor myself for a few days and invite the peanut man into a book chapter, grinning his horrible little grin in a footnote — it isn’t all that painful to delete those extraneous details. (Side note: I secretly harbor the ambition to edit one of those hardback annotated editions of a canonical children’s text, so I can go NUTS with my useless information in sprawling marginalia. I mean, they let Martin Gardner write about the laws that govern ferret ownership in the margins of the jury scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. What’s a peanut man or two?)

But there are certainly more harrowing phantoms out there — paragraphs and sections and sometimes entire chapters that have to be amputated only to return, bony-fingered and persistent. For example: sparing my future readers the details of Stevenson’s intricate war games is one thing. Excising ten pages on Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde is another. Every time I return to the Stevenson chapter, Hyde skulks in the margins. Enraged that he’s been cut, he is ready to take over my body and, say, beat up Sir Danvers Carew. (Poor Sir Danvers Carew.) CTRL-Xing large blocks of text like this one can be almost physically painful. Like an unanticipated (and really just silly) mutiny in Stevenson’s War Room, it can set you back an entire day’s march. Maybe a week. Sometimes more.

Robert Louis Stevenson The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde first published 1886. Mr Hyde clubbing Sir Danvers Carew to death with ape-like fury observed by a maidservant at full moon. Illustration by Edmund J Sullivan from an edition published 1928.

And it feels like a game of Jenga. How much can I remove before the entire thing comes tumbling down? What is essential, and what is interesting but ultimately unnecessary? How does removing this text transform the stakes of my argument? What needs explanation, and what is self evident? And I know I’m not a grad student anymore, but I just feel like I have to prove that I’ve read Jacqueline Rose’s The Case of Peter Pan.*** It feels like a game of high-stakes editing. Is this section heart, liver, and lungs, or is it tonsils and appendix? And if I remove these tonsils, will someone bring me ice cream while I convalesce?

My metaphors are getting away from me. If this were a more formal piece of writing, that gall bladder thing would have to go.

The thing about editing out the excess: no one really misses it but you, of course. When, Flying Spaghetti Monster willing, I finally publish my book, my readers will not miss the peanut man because they do not know about the peanut man. (If only I were so lucky.) And those phantoms can return in wonderful, unexpected ways: as second projects, as anecdotes to enliven a class of end-of-semester zombie-undergraduates, as cocktail party conversation.

The peanut! He’s great with cocktails.

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* I’m also a sucker for alliteration, which used to drive one of my dissertation committee members crazy. Alliterative sentences are phantoms waiting to happen.

** You can access this volume of St. Nicholas here, on Google Books. Read about Stevenson and his toy soldiers on pp. 305-7. Find the peanut man — if you dare! — on p. 170.

*** In truth, I’ve read The Case of Peter Pan multiple times and in moods ranging from mild exasperation to outright fury.

on thumbnailing and word-ooze

As many of you know, my husband is an illustrator. He works in pastels, a medium that used to make me think about saccharine scenes of bonneted children and rose gardens until Danny demonstrated that pastels are also an excellent way to depict a devil sitting in a tree or some priest-crows with beady eyes or my nineteenth-century boyfriend. AND! When you purchase pastels they arrive in a wonderful box that seriously appeals to my obsessive, Container-Store-shopping, alphabetize-your-spice-drawer personality. BEHOLD!

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 10.03.51 PM

That box was, in fact, a gift from Danny to me. He included it in my Christmas stocking, and a few evenings since then he’s helped me create some pastels of my own. Sometimes this is a frustrating activity, because I like to be the Valedictorian of Everything. Danny smudges his index finger across a field of green and it magically becomes a tree frog or an umbrella or my nineteenth-century boyfriend.* I do the same and it becomes a muddy mess. But I’m working on becoming a patient person when it comes to the pastels. Low-stakes activity, I keep telling myself. These compositions will never make it into my tenure file. Working with pastels is Danny’s job, but for me it is meant to be a moment of respite — an activity in which I don’t have to excel. It’s like bowling. Or Whac-a-Mole.

Who am I kidding. I am a BEAST at Whac-a-Mole.

Of course, there is something to learn here — about being patient with myself, and tapping into my creativity, and remembering that a mistake is either inconsequential or, when you’re lucky, unexpectedly beautiful.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 10.20.55 PMThe pastels have led me to wonder what else I can learn from Danny’s methods. Usually his ways of working and my own do not really complement one another. We can talk about the challenges and victories of his illustration and my writing or teaching, and each of us can offer the other common sense advice. (Usually that advice is “take a break,” or “no, you do not need to accept that paper 4908845 days late.”) But our careers require different skills and tools and environments, and we’re really very different workers and thinkers. For example: he can tolerate a lot more messiness in his workspace — both physical clutter and a happy disorder of ideas. For me, on the other hand, clutter is a sure sign of the apocalypse. It’s the fifth horseman. It will kill us all.

This is all, however, surface stuff. Both of us are trying to solve problems creatively — and this week, as I face a particularly stubborn patch of book revisions, it might help to consider some different approaches. So I’m considering the thumbnail.

Danny creates thumbnails in the early stages of every piece he creates: a series of unpolished sketches, usually just a few inches high and a few inches wide. He considers a number of ways to represent the scene he has in mind, in diverse compositions. Say, for example, Danny wants to create a portrait of Stevenson. His thumbnails will approach Stevenson from many angles, in many attitudes. Here is my nineteenth-century boyfriend smirking in front of a bookcase. Here he is looking downward to the right, contemplating his love for me. And again, playing his flute in Samoa — perhaps composing a song he will serenade to me at dusk. Here is a close-up that captures only one of his wide-set rabbit eyes and the corner of his mustache. When Danny has considered these Many Stevensons, he can choose the approach and composition that he finds most evocative before moving forward.

Thumbnailing has its place in academia, and while some writers might use it early in their research and writing process, I find that it’s a useful retrospective device. It is, in fact, something we recommend to graduate students on the job market all the Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 11.29.54 PMtime, in a manner of speaking. Describe your dissertation in five minutes. In three. In two. In one sentence. To a Victorianist. To a book history nerd. To that Fitzgerald scholar with a jaunty hat you just encountered in the hotel elevator. (I imagine that all Fitzgerald scholars wear jaunty hats.) Prepping for a job interview requires after-the-fact thumbnailing — looking at your finished product from every direction and considering the hidden angles that make your scholarship particularly attractive. How can you capitalize upon those cheekbones and hide that weird mole?

But I’m considering mid-stream thumbnailing. I’m knee-deep in a chapter on collaboration and child art with the working title “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING” — an exaggeration, but it was a rough week — and I need to see this stuff from a new point of view. I need to generate fifty ways to frame this idea. I don’t want to change what I’m writing about, but I do want to shift my perspective. What happens when I foreground Froebel? What does it look like when I begin in 1920 and run backward until I slam full-tilt into Rousseau? (I mean, who hasn’t wanted to full-on tackle that smug jerkface?) If I focus on the details of Edmund Gosse’s sad-sack childhood first, does that make Edward Lear and Basil Blackwood seem EVEN MORE AWESOME? Some of this thumbnailing is designed to reorder ideas; other options are purely matters of emphasis and tone, broad strokes and detail.

I have no time to examine all of these options in full, of course. But it helps to think about them as a few sentences, as unpolished sketches — some quick lines to make this chapter, which has become so stagnant that it has grown a slimy film of word-ooze, feel dynamic and pliable again. And the process reminds me that writing is composing, arranging argument and evidence not only in a logical manner but also in beautiful and perhaps unexpected ways.

Now excuse me. I have to go sketch Stevenson from many angles.

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* This is, of course, an exaggeration. It takes many skilled smudges for Danny to create a tree frog.

tightrope writing

I have deserted the blog over the past months, gentle reader. Radio silence! Tumbleweeds! You may have held a hand mirror gently to the blog’s nose, just to be sure it’s still breathing.

I’m here, just swamped by snow and revisions and student emails. It’s Spring Break here in Manchester, Connecticut, although you wouldn’t know it from looking outside, where it’s still hovering in the 30s. The slushy snow piles that line every street are now brown-gray, melted just enough to reveal the sad detritus of this punishing winter: a few plastic cups, an unmatched mitten, a black banana peel. Inside, it looks like Spring Break tends to look for a professor. Lots of writing, some self-loathing about said writing, one or two heady moments of unadulterated BRILLIANCE before a gradual slide into ennui.

But happily I’m in the final stages of an essay about Jim McCann and Janet Lee’s Return of the Dapper Men, and this time I’m writing without a net. Writing, that is, without a meticulously detailed outline.

deskSigh. I love outlines. I get a little dewy-eyed just thinking about them. And a color-coded outline? SWOON. When I was writing my dissertation, my chapter outlines were so detailed that, essentially, I could remove a few bullet points and Roman numerals and I’d have a final draft. I suppose that means I wasn’t outlining so much as writing, but the orderliness of an outline tricked me into thinking that I was just approaching writing. Just sidling up to it, all casual-like. No need to panic.

I’m writing without a net these days because time is short before my deadline. While I’m a little miffed at Carrots of the Past for cutting things so close, ditching my bullet points and plunging into this essay like some sort of CRAZY PERSON who DOESN’T OUTLINE has been a useful experience. I have learned the following three things, which might be useful for other meticulous outliners to consider, as well.

Writing without a net forces me to return to my sources. And then return again. And one more time for the cheap seats. One of my World Famous Outlines typically includes all necessary quotations from primary and critical texts, accompanied by MLA citations. I choose that evidence carefully, but I do excise all those juicy passages from their source texts early in my writing process and only infrequently return to their context. But writing without my outline, I rearrange paragraphs all the time. I change my mind, and discover that I need to recalibrate my argument. If I write from an outline, I get to know the material intimately before I write, and then move forward. Without the outline, I get to know the text relatively little before I write and discover more about it in process. It’s risky, kind of like that new reality show where contestants agree to marry someone sight-unseen. But an un-outlined paper, like an ill-conceived and very public wedding, sure teaches you something about yourself and your habits.

Writing without a net forces me to accept how emotional writing is. I mean sweet flying spaghetti monster, when you’re writing outline-naked an idea can shift from moderately promising to SO DAMN INSIGHTFUL WHY HAVEN’T I WON A PULITZER to how did I ever muster the brain cells to tie my shoes? in five minutes flat. There is no promise in neat, numbered rows that your current line of thinking will end well. You could be heading for genius or a brick wall — or even, cruelly, toward a screen door, which you will fall through with total but unmerited confidence as people laugh at you. I’ve experienced a lot of victory dances followed by harrowing writing abysses and vice versa in the past few days. But the upside is that I’ve become better at trusting my gut that false starts are a necessary part of the writing process. That while I am currently knee-seep in the Swamp of Sadness, this too shall pass. And if it doesn’t, I can binge-watch The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt until tomorrow.

Writing without a net leads me to irresponsible, sweeping generalizations. And I mean that in the best way. I’m a detail-oriented writer. I often get mired in a never-ending series of examples, as my writing group knows all too well. I am, after all, a Victorianist. The nineteenth century is so full of ridiculous minutiae! I must talk about the bathing machines AND Lewis Carroll’s stamp-case AND spirit-rapping. I often have to push myself from small potatoes to the Big Point, and I find that process pretty painful. But without an outline I find myself suddenly bold. I want to make Big Statements. Most of them are inaccurate, and I have to rein it in a little. Because surely not all nonsense poetry is really about irrational numbers. Or evolution. Or the cosmic battle between free will and destiny. (All of which I have considered over the past 24 hours.) But while non-outlining, I am compelled to proclaim these irresponsible generalizations with a BARBARIC YAWP. And then I delete them. No harm done.

I’ll be sending off this essay by Sunday, gentle readers, and then I will likely return to my peaceful, security-blanket outlines. But this walk on the wild side — and really, this is only a walk on the wild side for the nerdiest of individuals — has done me well.

What’s your writing quirk, dear readers?

MLA prep and the art of non-answers

It’s MLA season, friends! I won’t be heading to Vancouver, but I know some of you will be — many of you for some excellent interviews. (Congratulations!)

That means that you are probably practicing for that special moment when you’ll knock on a stranger’s hotel room door in a unsolicitedbrand-new suit and sit down to talk about yourself for 25 minutes. (Our profession is so weird.) And getting ready for an MLA interview is hard, dude. I spent many hours proclaiming my dissertation’s interventions in the shower. Speculating on my second project in line at the grocery store, eggs in hand. Articulating my teaching philosophy in the car, and whispering my plans for teaching a Victorian children’s literature seminar while pumping gas. There are, of course, particular questions that recur across interviews, and I wanted to be as prepared as possible.

But interview anxieties, in my experience, have little to do with the questions you expect and everything to do with the sleepers. I don’t mean completely off-the-wall questions from disgruntled committee members. (What does MILTON have to do with this?) Because really — those embarrass the committee more than you. I mean those questions that are completely reasonable, that are relevant to your work and to the position, but that do not appear on any of the “expect these questions!” lists. How can you prepare for something that you can’t anticipate?

I’ve posted before about MLA: some general advice about negotiating the conference and some specific advice about answering teaching questions. But here, I thought I’d outline my strategy for answering those questions you can’t completely anticipate. As I always caution: I am not an expert at the MLA interview. But maybe my ideas will help some others as they prepare to shut themselves in a small room — with a bed! — with three nerdy academics. So here’s what I do.

Brainstorm four or five general topics that relate to your research and pedagogy. These should be relatively broad and should apply both to your work as a scholar and to your teaching interests. Be sure that they intersect in some way with the requirements of the position(s) you’re interviewing for. Keep brainstorming until you find a collection of topics that feel rich and multifaceted to you. My topics, for example, included illustration, child agency, education, and fairy tales.

Identify five or six ways to talk about each topic, and record that material in casual notes. What interests you most about this topic? What do others know about the topic, and what do you know that is different or exciting? How would you explain the crux of the topic to someone who is not in your field? Can you think of any particular anecdotes related to your teaching or research that would illuminate how you approach this subject matter? This exercise is designed to help you generate material — talking points that are not connected to any particular question. These are non-answers. Try to limit each example to about a paragraph, or approximately one to two minutes of spoken material.

Take, for example, my topic of illustration. I would probably shoot for six ways to talk about this topic: three touching on research, three on teaching. I would write a few sentences about how I use illustrations of storytelling scenes in my chapter on “listening” children, and a few more about how excited I was to discover that the illustrations for Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, which I discuss in my final chapter, were later published as painting books (a bridge to my second project). I might reflect on how I teach undergraduates to look at illustrations alongside text when I teach Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. I’d also think about a class I’d love to teach that incorporates illustration in significant ways — maybe a graphic novel course, or a seminar of Dickens and his illustrators.

Practice talking informally through the material you’ve generated. Don’t memorize anything — or only memorize a few key phrases. (Otherwise you’ll sound too rehearsed.) Talk through your examples aloud. Communicate through your demeanor and your tone that this is exciting stuff. Pitch your non-answers to your roommate, your partner, your mother-in-law, and your cat. Pretend you’re explaining something to a friendly and intellectually curious colleague over a cup of coffee. Get used to thinking about your work in small, digestible, but representative (and compelling!) tidbits.

Have faith in the material. It might feel awkward, at first, to write answers to questions that do not exist. However, you have just thought through, like, 24 non-answers. These are all-purpose responses that you can cobble together to create THE PERFECT RESPONSE to an unexpected question. I promise. This material will be useful in ways you cannot anticipate.

For instance: let’s say someone on the committee asks me about how I think about genre in relationship to children’s literature. I have six ready-made non-answers about fairy tales, six more about illustration (and therefore likely a few on picture books). Some of those non-answers will certainly be appropriate. The next committee member asks me about how I incorporate history into my discussion of childhood. I have a lot to say about education and about child agency. Something will fit. And if it doesn’t fit exactly right, I can tailor it on-the-fly without the pressure of designing a response whole cloth.

I think there are a few things to recommend this strategy. It might make you feel prepared for the unanticipated, and it might help you recognize important themes in what you offer as a candidate. However, more than anything, it will give you a lot of practice talking informally about yourself and your work — and you’ll be talking about ideas, assignments, research breakthroughs, and classes that you’re really enthusiastic about. And that enthusiasm is infectious.

So happy travels, interviewers! You’re going to rock that committee’s socks.

in which I compare the book to Krampus

Break out the eggnog, readers! Spin your dreidels! The semester is over. I’ve submitted grades for my young adult literature course and my children’s literature graduate seminar. I’ve written and sent off this season’s recommendation letters. I’ve read my student evaluations for the semester, saved a copy of them for my files, and then quickly stowed them away somewhere until I have recovered a little from the semester and can read them without the mood swings of a possibly rabid, definitely very emotional ferret. I’ve updated my “books I’m teaching this semester” shelf for Spring 2015 — a process that involved consulting my book order a lot, because apparently I already have forgotten what books I am teaching in Spring 2015.

Apparently I’m teaching The Spectacular Now! And Coraline!

But now there’s no avoiding it. Winter break has arrived, along with its completely unrealistic expectations. The break stopped being a real break sometime back in graduate school, and while many people in my life — from family members to high school acquaintances to my postman — seem to believe that I will spend the next month laughing cruelly at those who work jobs that do not involve a semester break, luxuriating on the couch, surrounded by empty Godiva Chocolate boxes, that is only a beautiful fantasy. My brain, high on the smell of Christmas trees and punch-drunk with tenure anxieties, has become completely delusional. Look at all this time! my brain says, spinning excitedly in my skull, possibly wearing a superhero cape. We can write, like, FIVE BOOKS while the students are away! WE CAN WRITE ALL THE BOOKS! Now where are those notes on phrenology and children’s headwear in Victorian England? Certainly we can make something of THAT.

krampusAlready anticipating the intense feelings of self-loathing I will experience when the end of January rolls around and I have, yet again, disappointed my ambitious, superhero brain, I turn resignedly to the month ahead. What’s on the docket? I have a few small tasks to address — two conference abstracts, some work on a side project — but the enormous Krampus ready to squelch all of the joy out of my Christmas? The Book and its revisions.

I mean, I love (and hate) the book, and I am excited to get back to it (sort of). I (usually) think it’s a smart and important project. But you see, I haven’t exactly been attentive to it for a few weeks. (Stupid end of the semester.) And I suspect that it has either been harboring unspoken resentments, waiting to pounce, or — OR — that it has been growing a thick, impenetrable outer membrane, resistant to all my good natured efforts to revise and rewrite. Imagine a delicious orange, kept too long in the refrigerator. It is growing fuzz. Everyone in the house willfully ignores it as it grows increasingly noxious and offensive. That is my book, rotting away on my desk.

Okay, fine. That’s an exaggeration. My book is still delicious!

Ideally, I would not be facing this problem. I should have been working continuously on book revisions even during the busiest time of the semester, if only in very short sessions. Twenty minutes here and there and I wouldn’t feel so stymied. But it’s useless to dwell on opportunities past and wasted, dear readers. Best to put that behind me, along with other unsettling memories and bitter regrets. Like the day I broke my arm chasing after an ice cream truck, or the summer internship that required me to interview Carrot Top.

But tomorrow is the big day. No more excuses. Time to get back to it. But how, friends? HOW? I am mired in the Bog of Eternal Procrastination, which is like the Bog of Eternal Stench but nerdier, with more stickie notes. My current ideas include:

Returning to my last working notes. I do leave myself a mini-roadmap after each work session. But those notes are kind of uninspiring. “Outline paragraph about Catriona.” UGH. Do I have to? Can’t I eat bonbons instead?

Breaking in a new notebook. I love new notebooks. I want to fill their pages with things! Maybe a new notebook would inspire me to get writing — er, revising — again.

Relocating. I’ve been working mostly at home and at my office for the past few weeks. Maybe it’s time for a field trip to a coffeehouse. (But that just makes me miss working at Cafe Artiste with Lilian when I was writing my dissertation at Rice. The food was terrible, but the tables were huge. And oh, the power outlets!)

Freewriting. I really just need to get things moving again, and while I usually would save this strategy for a newer project — a piece I’m still drafting, rather than something I’m revising — it might work. I’m working on my Stevenson chapter, and maybe I can wax poetic awhile about Louie, my nineteenth-century boyfriend, and his wide-spaced rabbit eyes.

Do you have trouble breaking back into an “idle project,” readers? What are your strategies?

something on the side

I need a little something on the side.

Something that isn’t The Book — that isn’t a book at all — but that is a research project I find engaging. And that journal editors find engaging, too.

I’ve been discussing this something-on-the-side with pre-tenure colleagues and listening to Important People talk about it at professionalization workshops. Some call it a “parallel research plan,” or something similar. I prefer to call it my “side gig,” because that phrase makes me sound cooler than I am. Sure, I have Where the Wild Things Are action figures in my office, and I enjoy reading nineteenth-century art education manuals. But I have a side gig, so I must be cool. I’m with the band. Or I am the band. Or something.

randsThere are many reasons to cultivate a side gig. Some are practical. For example: it’s unwise to publish too much material from a book project, but the timeline from drafting a book to publication is long (especially in the current academic publishing climate). A side gig can provide a few “in the meantime” article-length publications and fill what might otherwise be a gaping hole in your CV. A side gig also can help you demonstrate (and maintain) scholarly breadth. If you’re penning a tome on representations of bioluminescent fungi in twenty-first century memoirs for children… well, that’s a pretty narrow pigeonhole. A side gig allows you to think outside of the sometimes claustrophobic confines of the current chapter you’re slogging through. Go nuts! Forget the mushrooms for a day! Wheee!

But for me, the real benefit of a side gig is primarily psychological. Writing a book is good for my professional health, but it’s not so good for my mental health. (Okay. Maybe some of you thrive at every stage of the process. Keep it to yourself, jerkfaces.) There are days when I cannot stomach the book — when it kind of makes me feel like I’m coming apart at the seams. I open a file. I move a comma around for thirty minutes. I erase a pesky, unnecessary “that.” I decide no! I like it. I like this THAT. I’m not a journalism major anymore! I can THAT all over the place! So insert it again. I start to stare at the word “child.” Is that spelled right? Why does it look so weird? Child. Child. Child. That can’t be right.

Days like that are not productive, and when I feel a comma-moving day coming on, it’s nice to have a side gig.

But what should my side gig be? How does one land on an appropriate side gig? I think I’m going to work according to the following criteria.*

  • The side gig should be an interest that can generate a minimum of two to three small research projects — preferably articles or essays for edited volumes, but also conference papers and potentially teaching material.
  • These small research projects should be related but should not coalesce into a book. Because the whole point of a side gig is that it is not a book. It is ROGUE. It is RENEGADE. You cannot contain it in a book. It is too cool for a book.
  • The side gig should investigate a topic that is different enough from my current book projects to provide relief when I’m having a comma-moving day.
  • But not too different, because the side project should not make me feel like a research poser, and I should be able to draw from my current expertise.

Following the above criteria, I’m considering a few possibilities. I’m already working on an essay about Jim McCann and Janet Lee’s Return of the Dapper Men, which suggests a side gig on Neo-Victorian children’s literature. That would unite my research training in Victorian studies and my teaching in contemporary children’s lit, and I could be the humble student of my friend Ryan Fong, Neo-Victorianist Extraordinaire. OR. I could start a series of articles on W. B. Rands, who was called the “Laureate of the Nursery” in the nineteenth century. I’ve written (very briefly) on his topsy-turvy collection Lilliput Levee, but he also published some great essays about children’s literature. He hasn’t received too much critical attention, but the man knew how to work his angles in an author portrait. (See illustration.) And then there are the nonsensical, exclamation-point-infested notes I leave myself in a file labeled “orphaned ideas.” Some make sense. “Photographic portraits of royal children, writing in children’s periodicals about Queen Victoria.” Others… well… “SOMETHING ABOUT THAT BOOK WITH THE THING AND THE DOLLS!”

Do you have side gigs, gentle readers? What should me?

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*As an assistant professor who has been faced with the dilemma of the side gig only within the last year or so, I feel pretty unqualified to assemble this criteria. But what is academia if not pretending to know things you don’t? ONWARD!

in which Stevenson and I stand on the same Big Rock

Last week, my graduate students and I read some material on ecocriticism and children’s literature, including Marguerite Holloway’s beautiful but economical essay “In Amongst the Green Blades.”* Holloway outlines three ways to think about scale — ways of reconceiving size and scope that help us flex our environmental imaginations. By projecting ourselves into the day-to-day life of an ant, for example, winding our way around the trunk of a tree, or by considering how that ant’s world nests within a living economy on the forest floor — a forest that is part of an ecosystem, a climate, a region, a planet, a universe — we can foster the knowledge and empathy required for environmental stewardship.

One of these paradigms of scale is that of simultaneity. Holloway herself admits that this is a difficult concept to describe and offers by way of explanation her changing relationship with a large rock that runs along the Hudson River in Riverside Park. When she was a child, Holloway notes, “it was a mountain.” It “stretched out in the sunlight, flat, seemingly infinite, offering exploration and even danger.” As an older child and later as an adult, Holloway would return to the rock and — like many sites of childhood memory — it had shrunk considerably. “My experience with Big Rock is mentally mapped at different scales,” she writes, “and sometimes those maps are transparent and overlapping. I can be in two places, two bodies at once there — it allows time travel and size shifting” (140-1).

I was unexpectedly reminded of Holloway’s overlapping maps this afternoon as I read Isobel Field’s This Life I’ve Loved.** isobelIsobel, often known by Belle, was Robert Louis Stevenson’s stepdaughter. I realized some time ago that I likely won’t use much material from this book in my own work, but despite the overwhelming list of things I should be reading, I’m working my way through Belle’s memoir.

(Because it’s delicious. I’m smitten with Belle. I mean, look at her! She’s fabulous. I want to visit her in Vailima and sit on some wide patio with boozy cocktails, gossiping about the pretentious dresses of the other American women visiting the court of King Kalakaua.)

Anyway. I was thinking of Belle and overlapping maps because her memoirs are, in a sense, a travelogue. She was an artist and had a talent for choosing details of landscape, architecture, and culture that accumulate into a thereness that works on my imagination. For example, arriving in Grez, France — a village she would return to for a few summers to paint and socialize with other artists — she notes the branch fastened above the doorways of houses that sell wine, the starched peasant cap and felt slippers of the young woman working at the house where she stayed, and the dozens of paintings (most of them different versions of of the same old bridge) lined to dry against the house’s wall. She documents her trip to Monterey, California through similar details: the adobe houses with tiled roofs, the Spanish cannons turned upright and cemented into the ground to serve as hitching posts, the sidewalks comprised of both wooden planks and the vertebrae of whales.

Vicki and RLS Monument 1A little intoxicated with Belle’s travels, I was happy to see that she documented her trip to Silverado, where her mother and Stevenson, recently wed, spent their honeymoon in 1880. This was no Sandals resort. There were no reggae bands, no whimsical bath towels folded into the shape of a bunny rabbit wearing sunglasses left on their marital bed each night. No — Silverado was an abandoned mine town at the top of a mountain in Napa Valley. Stevenson and his new bride Fanny squatted in a cabin there and hoped that the dry, warm air would work a miracle on Stevenson’s diseased lungs. Oh, and to add to the romance: Lloyd, Fanny’s preteen son, came along.

Sexy, right?

I was excited to read about this love nest because I’ve been there! This summer, during my trip to the Stevenson museum, I took an afternoon off to hike to the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial. It’s not much — a small statue of a book on a pillar, perhaps a few feet tall, nestled just downhill from the opening of the mine where Stevenson and Fanny spent the first days of their marriage. But I was a little unprepared for the trip. While I had spent the week acclimating to the winding mountain roads of Napa, the drive up the mountain to the trailhead was… harrowing. My knuckles are still a little white. Once at the trailhead, I trekked about two miles up a switchback trail that, while not too strenuous, was more challenging than I had anticipated. I may have fallen. Twice. But I took a few snapshots of the mine itself and a triumphant, red-faced selfie at the memorial. Stevenson would have been proud.

It was with this journey in mind that I read Belle’s account of the same route: “It was a hot trip; the journey by stagecoach upSilverado Mine 1 the mountain frightfully dusty, but when we reached the top the air was exhilarating . . . We had our meals out-of-doors and, as there never was a better cook than Fanny Stevenson, they were good ones. She used the mouth of the old Silverado mine for an ice chest and storeroom; here hung sides of venison, pigeons, wild ducks and other game purchased from friendly neighbors and brought up the mountain each morning” (129). [The image at right is the view from the RLS memorial, looking uphill toward the opening to the old Silverado mine.]

Stagecoach? Seriously? Daily trips up the mountain hauling venison? I died a little inside when I read that. But Belle didn’t seem to fear for her life so much as her hemline. All that dust!

Reading this passage, I map Belle’s description of Silverado onto my own. We experienced the same place in dramatically different ways, our journey up to the mine transformed by time, by technology, and by purpose. Belle was traveling to see her mother, brother, and new stepfather, the steep climb a minor inconvenience that she happily endured, especially when she found Stevenson there, healthy and busy and “like a different man” from the emaciated invalid who had arrived in California to marry her mother. I, on the other hand, hiked back and forth along the mountain’s switchbacks with a head full of ghosts — preoccupied with the manuscripts, artifacts, and family records I’d spent the past few days sifting through back in St. Helena. As I worked my way toward the memorial, I imagined Fanny schlepping up to the mine, to her “ice chest,” twice a day to concoct Stevenson a medicinal “rum punch, frothy with cream and delicately topped with a sprinkle of cinnamon” (129). I thought about Stevenson wedged into his bunk, scratching away at Silverado Squatters and breathing deeper than he ever could in damp, sooty Edinburgh. And then I tripped and scraped my knee, of course.

While I didn’t begin my trip to Silverado with the landscape in mind, once there I found that the mountain, the trees, and the RLS Monument 5sharp dips of the valleys gave me the sense of simultaneity that Holloway tries to describe. Certainly the place has changed since the 1880s, but Stevenson and I stood on the same Big Rock. The ground has recorded the passing of decades, the shift in our relationship to the mountains, the ways we have carved up the vistas to make way for (very narrow and very twisty) roads. The park there even registers the memorialization of Stevenson — his transformation from struggling author to Author. Because surely Stevenson and his wife did not encounter a historic marker at the trailhead leading them to their honeymoon suite. Er, cabin.

I haven’t visited many of the places Belle describes, but her account of life as a painter in California, France, and Hawaii is colorful and coy, often forcing the reader to re-see people and places that would seem familiar. She describes, for example, her first glimpse of Stevenson himself, leaning on a half-door and peering into the dining room of the house at Grez. She notes “the lights from the hanging lamps showing up his figure like a portrait painted against a black background.” He was “a young man, slender, dark, with a high color and yellow hair worn rather long . . . Amid sudden cries of ‘There he is!’ ‘It’s Stevenson!’ ‘Louis!’ [he] vaulted lightly into the room” (104). I love this young, healthy Stevenson, jumping into dinner, greeted as a friend — kind of like a frat boy, really — rather than as an author. He hadn’t really succeeded at that yet, anyway. This is Louis before he became Stevenson.

Of course, some things are delightfully exactly as one would expect them to be. For a time, Belle lived in San Francisco, and while she was there Oscar Wilde visited California and, serendipitously, ended up in her apartment for tea. After some general fretting about what Englishmen eat at tea — “Frankie murmured something about ‘scones,’ but as none of us knew what they were, we didn’t discuss them” (145) — Wilde burst into the room. “The door flew open dramatically,” Belle notes, “and Oscar Wilde, looking very impressive, stood before us.” Walking about the studio and admiring the paintings, Wilde bumped into a life-size female mannequin that Belle’s husband and his friends had dressed in a gown, veil, and gloves. “Bowing, he apologized to the quiet lady sitting there so demurely, and made some casual remark,” Belle writes. “It may have been our watchful attitude that gave him an inkling of the situation, for without changing his voice, he began a conversation with Miss Piffle that was a marvel of impromptu humor” (148).

Okay. So the Wilde anecdote has nothing to do with simultaneity. But who could resist? Murmuring about scones!

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* You should read this essay, too! Lion and the Unicorn 35.2 (April 2011): 132-45.

** My edition is Longmans, published in 1948, but the first edition was published in 1937.