Sunday, March 22, 2009

Myself and Strangers?

Gertrude Stein says somewhere that she writes "for myself and strangers."

I need something more than that, I think.

Writing simply for myself--an essay, for example, written solely to advance my career--feels a bit unsatisfying, although now that I know the promotion demands it, I'll write a few this way. They won't be entirely "for myself" now, after all, but for my family, just as the pieces I wrote before tenure were. (Each essay, each book, had a job to do, then. Once I had tenure, that motivation vanished, and I flailed about for a very long time before finding something more that I cared enough to write.)

Writing for strangers? I've never done it. In theory I find it an intriguing idea: to write about something that I think is worth knowing, without any particular audience in mind. In practice, though, I don't think I'd be motivated to get the job done.

What I like, in the end, is writing for--and editing for, and organizing for--someone or something or some group of people that I actually care about.

The love poetry book wasn't just to get me tenure: it was everything I knew about love at the time, a portrait, however distanced, of the first years of my marriage. The Jewish American poetry book grew out of a couple of friendships; so did the Ron Johnson book, although that was also for Ron himself, a sweet man and a lovely poet, and for my father, who wanted me to finish it, so I did, eventually.

The Parnassus pieces? As the years have gone by, they've often been written for Herb, the editor there, who had faith in me across years of writer's block. The one about poets in novels was written to advance the romance project, in gratitude to the RWA for their support; my latest, about Taha Muhammad Ali and Mahmoud Darwish (and Samih al-Qasim) grew out of my meeting Taha years ago in Chicago, and has turned into a chance to spread the word to colleagues (at DePaul and in the Jewish community) about some books that matter, deeply, to me.

As I look ahead, the projects that draw me most keenly are the ones that I connect to groups of friends and colleagues, and nowadays that mostly means friends and colleagues in Romancelandia, where they abound. What I need to find, alongside these, are some poetry projects that I connect with specific readers (you know who you are) or poets for whom I feel the same personal affection I did for Ron. As I type this, I realize: this is one reason I've never tried to gather my stray essays into a collection, or hammer them into a monograph. The question that pops into my mind ("Who'd read it?") isn't a rhetorical one or a critique of the academic publishing industry. It's a practical one: whom among my friends, my colleagues, my family, would that book be for?

As I say, it may be that the pressure of the promotion will change these dynamics. Maybe I'll start churning out copy like a text machine (get on up!), simply to put those notches in my CV. Knowing this about myself, though, I suspect that I'm better off using this insight to sort out priorities. The pieces that aren't "for myself and strangers" are the ones I'll be most motivated to write, to finish, to publish, and with limited time, I might as well start there.


Laura Vivanco said...

This is interesting. I think I must approach my work very differently.

Writing simply for myself--an essay, for example, written solely to advance my career--feels a bit unsatisfying

I haven't ever written anything "to advance my career," which may be one reason why I don't have a career in the usual sense. I write because the texts intrigue me, because I want to work through the ideas, images and allusions they present me with, and I like the challenge of writing up my ideas in a coherent manner. I think I need the mental exercise the way some people need a breath of fresh air every day.

E. M. Selinger said...

Your list of pleasures rings true to me as well, Laura, especially as a description of what goes on as I'm at work on a piece. Hmmm... I wonder if, over the years, I've gotten in the habit of experiencing them first and foremost in the classroom, though, rather than while writing. That is, I teach because the texts intrigue me, because I want to work through the ideas, etc., and I've come to crave the immediate feedback (and help) that I get from my students.

Well, this week I don't have any of that--we're on Spring Break, nominally. But no time for writing: I have 73 NEH applications to evaluate, first!

Laura Vivanco said...

So why don't you write up as essays some of the ideas that you've been exploring in your teaching? Seems a bit of shame to not share the learning with the rest of us who can't come to your classroom, and if you've had lots of feedback from the students, that should mean the essays will be really, really good.

Also, you mentioned that the online lesson plans didn't gain you many points with the committee, but perhaps if you converted them into essays in peer-reviewed journals, they would.

E. M. Selinger said...

Well, that's the plan, Laura, definitely.

I'm a bit concerned about the time frame, since if I want to go up again in the fall of 2010 I'll need to have pieces in circulation relatively quickly. And I'd so looked forward to relaxing a bit, once the current push was over!


Sounds like my next job is to write up a schedule--as you suggested, break things down into smaller chunks. But first, I need to get back on the freeway. (I'm down at the office now for the first time since the news broke. Quite stressful, but at least I'm the only one here.)

Paul Sweeney said...

Dude. I've read your blog for ages, and enjoyed it. I don't work in a college, or in Lit, but I think this one might come down to simple strategy: (1) pick a major theme, (2) break it into five essays that are mutually exclusive but collectively exhaustive on that subject (3) Target the tier one journal for the integrated piece, and tier 2 journals for the constituent essays. Attach overall effort to the best college in the USA for that theme (I am sure there is one, there always is). Then, rest, sigh.

Danielle Mari said...

I've never met Laura, but I love her!

Your NEH Seminar... can't it become a book? Or each section of that fantastic binder you put together for us- can't those become articles?

I think you're positively leaking with food for the hungry masses, Eric!

E. M. Selinger said...

Paul, I can't tell you how happy I am to know that you're out there, reading. A reader! Who knew? My immediate plans are pretty similar to what you describe. I'm going to make sure that everything I've written recently and everything coming up soon does double duty, getting into some kind of peer reviewed venue. One long piece, due out in a few weeks, I'm going to split into thirds (it's about 3 books) and turn each third into a separate, longer, individually-published essay, which will then be the draft chapter of a five-chapter book. Mr. Efficiency, c'est moi, for the next two years.

Dani, I've never met Laura either, except on line. It's a curious thing, this cyber-friendship, but I must say that I'm very glad to have it. Leaking with food, though? Hmmm... Flashbacks to my daughter, who hated to breastfeed. Maybe we'll go with another image there!

Danielle Mari said...

Oh come on. Let the world suck from your poetic teat! It's very Grapes of Wrath!

E. M. Selinger said...

Rosa Sharon, that's me!