Milestones

I’ve been thinking lots this month about the importance of getting words onto the page when it comes to my thesis, and all the many problems that poses.

November, as anyone with writer friends will know, is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) when people across the world aim to write a 50,000 word novel (or first draft of a novel) in just 30 days. Successfully completely NaNoWriMo is fairly heroic, and I’m not the first person to have thought about parallels with thesis writing and novel writing. Some livejournal-ers have already discussed starting a NaReWriMo (National Research Writing Month).

I’ve also recently come across 750 words – another online community which encourages people to sign up and write 750 words a day – without thinking too much about editing those words. This is another great idea and I can certainly see the benefit of producing 22,500 words by the end of a month.

However, the issue with academic writing is that for the most part it is about quality and not quantity. If I wrote 22500 words in a month it would take an age to follow up the ideas, pick out the ideas worth pursuing and then work more on them. It is more important to produce words that really get down to the issue you are meant to be responding to – making the words count rather than obsessing over the actual word count. The only problem – 5000 quality words do not make a thesis.

And, as we hurtle towards the end of term here in Oxford I’ve been setting myself a target to write up 1000 words a day of the chapter I’m working on. Given how mind-meltingly difficult some of the concepts I’m trying to explain are, this is no mean feat and I find myself having to take regular breaks and often work until 10pm at night.

I’m finding the problem with milestones like this is that the reality of academic writing involves cutting ideas that you thought were working but soon glaringly aren’t. Keeping them in for the sake of word count vanity is clearly not wise, but cutting them out feels like a step back.

Isolated research also means that when you do meet the target, there is no one there to celebrate with you. Which is why at the end of your day, I recommend visiting Freelance Thanks – for all the empty praise you need (even if it isn’t really aimed at researchers..).

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Conference Retrospective: Contemporary Women’s Gothic

Remember, remember the 5th of November – for it was the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association’s ‘Contemporary Women’s Gothic’ conference at the University of Brighton.

Many of the questions I’ve come away from this conference with are to do with poetry – mainly because there was so little of it. Of course, that isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy papers on the gothic in contemporary women’s fiction – there was much to enjoy – but my paper was the only one which wasn’t about fiction, although there were a handful dealing with drama.

The keynotes were by Prof Andy Smith on Elizabeth Kostovo and Dr Paulina Palmer on Ali Smith. I’m more familiar with Ali Smith’s work, and found Palmer’s exploration of a lesbian/queer uncanny through apparational aspects in Smith’s work fascinating. She also circulated a recent Jeanette Winterson article from the Guardian which makes (a bit brashly) some interesting comments on the value of high literature.

Nobody blames maths for being difficult – and it isn’t difficult – but it is different, and demands some time and effort. It is another kind of language. Literature is also another kind of language. I don’t mean literature is obscure or rarefied or precious – that’s no test of a book – rather it is operating on a different level to our everyday exchanges of information and conversation.

That’s obvious in poetry and we welcome it. In fiction we seem to want a kind of printed television. Why?

Another highlight for me was Dr. Marie Mulvey Roberts paper on Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl – a hypertext fiction. I wasn’t familiar with this work at all, but I’m very keen to experiment with it now. Her descriptions of it reminded me in many ways of the poetic hypertext experiments at online poetry magazine Snakeskin’s website.

Overall, I’ve come away thinking about why Gothic seems to be a shorthand for fiction when there is so much dark and haunting poetry.  It could in fact be something to do with what Winterson says about the ‘difficulty’ of poetry; we simply aren’t accustomed to identifying themes beyond the most broad, or we aren’t looking for parallels in fiction. This is something I need to process more than these throwaway comments. Perhaps this could make a stimulating panel discussion for future Gothic conferences….

Form and the Gothic

This weekend I’m attending the CWWA’s ‘Contemporary Women’s Gothic’ conference at the University of Brighton. My abstract is…

‘Not “A Gothic”: Leontia Flynn’s Unstable Genre’

Hailed for her wry wit and original contemporary lyricism, the 29 poem sequence ‘A Gothic’ from Northern Irish poet Leontia Flynn’s most recent collection Profit and Loss (2011) seems to be a new direction. This paper will consider the conventional Gothic tropes being deployed in this sequence (including madness, doubling, screaming women and haunting) in order to interrogate what they reveal about Flynn’s attitude towards genre, poetics and selfhood.

The most unsettling aspect of Flynn’s Gothic is its deliberate fragility. ‘A Gothic’ is barely ‘A Gothic’ at all. While Fred Botting defined Gothic as ‘writing of excess’ (1996), Flynn’s approach subverts this. Her work is restrained; most poems barely exceed two stanzas and make scant reference to the Gothic tropes which supposedly bind them together. The sequence portends to demonstrate Flynn’s approach to legacy, yet family and literary inheritance seem half-achieved. This paper will suggest that a failure of genre (or failing genre) is the only way for a contemporary poet to explore poetic form and individual selfhood.

Further, while it seems that this new angle is tangential to her previous poems about screensavers, city redevelopment and computer programming, perhaps the ‘A Gothic’ sequence also highlights a darker side to her earlier collections which has been overlooked. Has ‘the legendary man in the back with the hatchet’ she notices in These Days (2004) been omnipresent, and if so, where? Re-reading Flynn’s psychoanalytic biographies from Drives (2008) and her student memoirs from These Days, I find evidence of an unstable, low-Gothic style, which Flynn has been suggesting is adequate to our times all along.’

I’m looking forward to papers on Kate Mosse, ‘Mickey Mouse Gothic’, Jackie Kay’s Trumpet and the keynote by Dr. Catherine Spooner.

This paper seems to be a million miles away from my usual work on tradition and influence, but writing it I found that some of my conclusions would fit quite happily in my thesis. Towards the end, too, I found I was making more general comments on contemporary poetics and the gothic themes which I’d love to expand into something more involved than a single author study at some stage. In fact, I’m really interested in taking something most readings (mostly fiction) find mainly thematic and seeing how it can relate to form in poetry.

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