Monday, 5 March 2007

First Day of Writing

I've always wanted to keep quite a detailed journal of a writing project. The trouble is that I never start wanting to until I'm well into the project, have forgotten what I was thinking when I started, and am wishing I'd kept a journal from the start. But right now I have a well-defined writing project to do in a well-defined period of time (turn my doctoral dissertation into a book by the time I leave Melbourne in mid-June), so I'm planning to use this blog as a writing journal. That means that I'll be blogging about the ideas that I'm writing about, but also about the writing process and about my life here in general - the last bit partly to keep in touch with people at home (hi Mum!) without having to send endless circular emails, and partly to see how my writing and my life fit together, because of course writing is something done by people with bodies - and living with a woman who's been a freelance writer for 30-odd years is a great way to learn about how much maintenance a full-time writing body needs. (Memo to self: find tai chi class in Melbourne: the current regime [Diet Coke, sugar] is not sustainable.)

So I've been in Australia for nearly three weeks now. The first three days were spent staggering around getting all my girlfriend's stuff out of storage and buying second-hand furniture from the Brotherhood of Saint Laurence (one of the most popular Australian charity-shop ['op shop'] outfits, usually referred to as 'The Brotherhood', which sounds faintly Mafiaesque and exciting). Then we got the twelve-hour train to Sydney, through a blasted, drought-ridden landscape with occasional small towns with names like The Rock or Wagga Wagga, which was very iconic but not very good for the legs: and I spent the next week at two conferences, Queer Space and Queer Asian Sites, neither of which set my world on fire overall (as Nix Williams points out, they, um, weren't really terribly queer). Luckily, though, the two main exceptions were people I'm going to see more of now that I've taken up my Visiting Fellowship at Melbourne University: Aren's paper was as exciting as I'd expected (Az, remind me to talk to you about Hannah Arendt and homo faber), and another guy from the Cultural Studies dept. gave an awesome paper on gay globality which engaged with a theorist called Paul Virilio, who I'm using in my book. So I'm looking forward to seeing more of their work in the next few months.

We got back from Sydney last Monday, and spent last week mostly on setting up the house and settling in: some of you got emails tersely giving a phone number and saying that we now have internet access at home. This left untold a long (long, long) story about how Bigpond do in fact have a specialist Mac technical support team, but the only way to get through to them is to hold for 40 minutes to get put through to PC tech support. Then - after they figure out that you have a Mac, not because you told them so in the first sentence of the phone call (though you did), but because five minutes into the conversation they manage to establish that, no, you're not running Windows XP - PC tech support put you on hold for 20 minutes to talk to Mac tech support. Who then are flabbergasted to discover that the new MacBooks don't have an ethernet port (HOW 2006), and explain that Bigpond broadband doesn't support a USB connection to Macs and it will probably be impossible to get onto the internet at all. You could, they concede, try ringing Apple.

So I did. And they sorted the whole thing out in ten minutes flat. I heart Apple.

Anyway, so last week was full of things like that, plus a few visits to the Cultural Studies department at the University of Melbourne to find my way around and meet some of the staff. But we're now properly settled in J's house, which is in a splendidly bijou inner suburb of Melbourne: well-spelt, left-wing, poetical graffiti; supermarket stocking seven varieties of hoummus (all spelt differently); two different bakeries stocking things like pear-and-ginger cake, potato-and-rosemary bread and brioche loaves; ubiquitous flyers for socialist events (but, puzzlingly, I haven't seen a tai chi class advertised yet, and may have to resort to the little-known related internal Daoist martial art being advertised as 'Swimming Dragon'). The weather has, thankfully, calmed the fuck down from the savage 38-degree-heat with accompanying savage insects which greeted us (all wobbly and new from Bristol snow), and I have adjusted to the fact that everything in this country is just slightly bigger than in England. Like, bottled water is 600ml not 500ml, and cans of Diet Coke are 375ml not 330ml, and the cars all seem to have been scaled up by about the same proportions. It's like one of those stories where people break into someone's apartment and move everything an inch to the left, to mess with the apartment-dweller's heads. (Also, Philadelphia in this country is in round tubs, not rectangular ones, and lemons grow on trees rather than on Astroturf in greengrocers. But I soldier on.)

So today was the first day of writing - I was planning to spend the week reading and contemplating, but last night I realized that I now have three months to turn this dissertation into a book and I don't really know how to do it. I mean, I know in general - I need to restructure it slightly, and I need to make the whole thing a bit less anxious and well-defended, and I want to make the prose simpler and the ideas wilder (which also means more rigorous, because they won't be clinging quite so anxiously to previous thinkers' phrasing and arguments, so I'll have to think them through more carefully). But I don't know in practice how that translates into, well, what I actually do in the day for the next three months. So it felt like spending a week reading and thinking would just make me even more anxious and lost-feeling, and I should just start writing, to locate myself in the project, rather than trying to map it out in advance: and it's sort of worked, I think.

I decided to start writing the Introduction from scratch, without looking at any previous versions (because, again, then I get anxious about having to live up to what I've said before, or do it justice, or something). So I turned off my internet connection and just started trying to explain what I think the book is about, and why I want to write it and why people should read it: and it was awesome. All of a sudden I felt very calm-and-excited, at the same time, and I could feel the whole project stretching out around me, more than I could write at once, but it settled down quite obediently into actual words in an actual order, which isn't always the case. And I did a nice mixture of detailed work - sitting with phrases or words or ideas and figuring out what they meant and why they mattered - and larger-scale stuff, blocking out the structure and direction of the introduction, and explaining how all the different ideas of the book relate to each other, and exactly how the Roman stuff relates to the context in which I wrote it. Which is the thing I've had the hardest time explaining to people. The attack on the World Trade Centre came when I was about one year into my PhD (which took four years overall), and I remember that it made me rethink what I was doing and why - but in the end I decided that thinking about the Roman civil war was still important, that something about my work was in dialogue, in some real way, with the WTC attack and the 'war on terrorism'. And I've never been able to explain exactly how that works, without sounding either 'naively presentist' (it's the context in which I'm working so it determines everything I'm doing anyway), or like I'm trying to legitimate my work through a loose and self-serving definition of politics (rereading Sartre through Deleuze is the most politically urgent task ahead of us, as I heard someone honestly say at a conference in 2003). But I feel like I've been able to start putting that into words today.

Oh, and I wrote 806 words. So go me! But then I kind of started floating upwards a bit, so I went and bothered J, who told me kindly and firmly that I should eat lunch, which I did; and then I read the first couple of chapters of Stuart Elden's Mapping the Present: Heidegger, Foucault and the Project of a Spatial History which I was sort of dreading reading in case it made my whole project either redundant or disproven. But actually it was rather heartening, because it kept saying that writing spatial history (which is sort of what I'm doing) was terribly important (so, again, go me), but apart from that it didn't really overlap with my project very much. It made me feel like the book will be quite saleable, though, which is also heartening.

Also, I got childish pleasure out of the fact that while I was reading:

The river is simultaneously vanishing and full of intimation in a double sense. What is proper to the river is thus the essential fullness of a journey. We name the consummate essence of the journey [Wanderung] a journeying [Wanderschaft], corresponding to the placing [Ortschaft] of the place [Ort]. The river is the journeying.

Shania Twain was singing to me on iTunes:

I've known a few guys who thought they were pretty smart
But you've got being right down to an art
You think you're a genius - you drive me up the wall
You're a regular original know-it-all
Oh, you think you're special
Oh, you think you're something else
Okay, so you're a rocket scientist
That don't impress me much.

Which reminded me of my younger brother (hello!) revising for Philosophy finals by sitting in the kitchen in our old family home, banging his head gently against the table and saying hollowly 'Being is always the Being of a being.' Oh, that Heidegger.

And on that note, I'm going to finish this post. I have a bunch of photos I took of my workspace, too, which I wanted to show you, but they're really huge and they haven't finished uploading yet, so I'll have to make another post later, anyway, and J's friend H is coming over in about half an hour, so I should make an effort to get my head into a more sociable place, otherwise I will pin him with an Ancient-Mariner-like glare and start telling him that 'the Greeks experienced the spatial on the basis not of extension but of place', which, exciting as it is (no, not kidding), is not the way to win friends and influence people.

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