First installment of my new freeform radio podcast, featuring poems now in the public domain as of January 2019, including “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost and a set of poems by Wallace Stevens: “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”, “The Snowman”, “Sunday Morning”, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. Music featured includes “Russian Snow Camo” by Drake Stafford, “Snow Drop” by Kevin MacLeod, “Snow Ticket” by P C III, “Little Man” by Sonny and Cher, “The Sighful Branches” by Axletree, “Snowmen” by Kai Engel, “String Society” by Jim Esch, “Judgment” by Sister Mary Nelson, “Snowfall” by Steinbruchel
You go places. You have experiences. You write. What do you make of any experience on the page? Here is a passage from Thoreau worth thinking about:
Let me suggest a theme for you: to state to yourself precisely and completely what that walk over the mountains amounted to for you,—returning to this essay again and again, until you are satisﬁed that all that was important in your experience, is in it. Give this good reason to yourself for having gone over the mountains, for mankind is ever going over a mountain. Don’t suppose that you can tell it precisely the ﬁrst dozen times you try, but at ’em again, especially when, after a suﬃcient pause, you suspect that you are touching the heart or summit of the matter, reiterate your blows there, and account for the mountain to yourself. Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short. It did not take very long to get over the mountain, you thought; but have you got over it indeed? If you have been to the top of Mount Washington, let me ask, what did you ﬁnd there? That is the way they prove witnesses, you know. Going up there and being blown on is nothing. We never do much climbing while we are there, but we eat our luncheon, etc., very much as at home. It is after we get home that we really go over the mountain, if ever. What did the mountain say? What did the mountain do?
One of the percs of being a professor are the summers “off.” I put the term in scare quotes because it isn’t entirely accurate. Yes, there’s no slogging in day after day to teach your classes and hold office hours and attend meetings; however, many professors use summer to pursue their research and scholarship. In my case, I write. All of these are kinds of work. Even the reading I do tends to feed my teaching. So we are never entirely away from the business of professoring. But let’s not kid ourselves, it’s a luxury, the envy of many a worker. I don’t take summers for granted. I cherish them.
Summers “off” happen in stages, I have discovered. May is when I wrap up grading, slowly decouple my mind from the semester, reflect and reassess and try to plan ahead for next year. Late May enters that “bliss it was in that dawn to be alive” stage. You’re really done, the grade grubbers have faded away, and the whole summer lies before you. It’s spring and warm and flowers bloom.
June tends for me to be a heavy reading month. I sink myself into all kinds of books, for work, for pleasure, for my academic interests. I’m trying to share a few of those books with you on this blog. I also try to ressusitate my writing life. This happens slowly by degrees, generally via rewriting and revision and journaling and blogging. Gradually new work may start get get outlined and drafted.
July is midsummer. You’re still a good ways from going back to work, but you are mindful that you better start buckling down and getting some things done while you have the time. As it tends to be a steamy time of year in Pennsylvania, I will hunker down in the cool areas of the house and turn more towards writing and music. I still keep reading, but I tend to prioritize my productivity at this point.
By August, the summer is clearly on the wane, and attention inevitably turns to the coming semester: syllabi and reading ahead and class plans. But that is then, this is now. It’s July, and I’m writing, and I’m happy about that.
This July, I really want to make progress on my book projects. I have 3 or 4 novels on the stove, none of them are in good shape yet. One is already novel length, but it’s a jumble. The others are more at the idea stage. I want to work on all of them, push them forward. I’m less driven to write short stories, though I won’t rule them out. Probably what I’ll do is salvage some previously aborted drafts, see if I can shape them up. But the intense effort will be poured into the novels. Why? Time and space. In summer, I have the time and space needed to reflect and plan and draft. Today for instance, I put in a good 1 to 2 hours on a synopsis of the novel that I’m furthest along in, trying to see ahead, where the arc is going. Inevitably as I draft and shape it, the story will take on a life of its own, but whereas I used to shy away from planning and outlining, I realize that for novels especially, this is a necessary and creatively satisfying process. You use your imagination just as much at this stage as you do when you’re drafting. Over the past few years I have been experimenting with what is called the “Snowflake method” of novel development, starting with a one sentence summary and extending to a paragraph synopsis, multi-page synopsis, detailed character sketches, and using a spreadsheet to establish and track scenes. It’s a no-nonsense method, and I find that it has helped me to see the big picture before getting too lost in aimless drafting. While it is geared more for commmercial fiction (basic three act structure, plot-driven), I think the snowflake method is easily adapted to the more literary fiction I like to write. Even literary novels have characters, plots, and they need a sense of direction. The model is indeed flexible and adaptable.
So wish me luck. I had a good first day of July, and I wish all writers out there a fruitful July!