writing


Today I started a new phase of my life: I am officially an independent researcher.  It’s not a role I’d have chosen, if I’m honest, and, so far at least, it’s not one I’m particularly enjoying.  In fact, after one day on the job, I’m finding it incredibly frustrating. My institutional access ran out last week, while I was away on holiday, so I’ve got no database access, but that isn’t the main problem at the moment. All I’ve been trying to do is access Jstor via my alumni access.  After several attempts at logging in via the alumni portal on the Manchester Unviersity website, I managed to carry out a search that didn’t instantly return to the ‘you are not logged in’ screen.  I downloaded a few articles, none of which told me what I wanted to know, then I did a bit of writing on my epitaph ballad article.  Then I logged back in to Jstor, tried to carry out another search and again, as soon as I hit ‘search’, the results screen told me I’m no longer logged in.  I have repeated the process, repeatedly, but to no avail.  This evening, Jstor isn’t having any of it.  It’s tedious, time consuming and trying, and I’m not happy.

The good news is that Notes and Queries have taken my short piece identifying William Elderton’s Ladie Marques, and it should appear in the December 2015 issue.  That makes me very happy indeed.

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Yesterday I logged in to my Manchester University library account and discovered that I can no longer renew my books.  This came as a bit of a surprise.  There’s nothing urgent, you understand, it just brought home to me the fact that, slowly and surely, I’m being set adrift in the big, wide world again.  I still sit here at my desk and get on with my work, but Chicken Licken keeps telling me that the sky is falling in, and he’s right. One day soon, I’ll attempt to log in to the State Papers Online or EEBO, only to find that access is denied. It’s not a day I’m looking forward to at all.  I no longer count as a student in the eyes of the university – I haven’t, actually, since last October.

I am academically homeless.

I think the proper, or at least more normal, term is ‘independent researcher’, and maybe ‘academically homeless’ sounds a bit needy, but it reflects quite accurately how I feel.  There’s security in a big institution and not just in the shape of database access.

Research and writing at the moment comes in fits and starts, broken by rounds of job applications and fellowship applications.  I have a book proposal to write (who warned you about needing to learn that new skill when you started out?) and I am haunted from day to day by the ever-present spectre of John Roberts.  Sometime in the next few weeks I’m going to decide whether to write the article again from scratch or knock him on the head for good.  It might well be the latter, in the interests of the book.  Maybe dead horses should not be flogged, as my Fiend once said.  The trouble is that I never was very good at giving up on things.

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This week is the first week of my children’s Easter holiday, so I am juggling childcare with work. Cramming little bits of work into wherever it will fit isn’t easy and it certainly doesn’t allow for extended research or writing, for example. But there are little things that I can do. I went through a conference paper in the bath this afternoon, without the paper notes I will use on Friday. At least now I know exactly where I need to rely on my notes more heavily and where I can afford to abandon them altogether! On Sunday afternoon I recorded a few more ballads. I’m considering an introduction and conclusion to a short piece I’m writing on the historiography of ballads and the news. In the end it will be part of my chapter on ballads as a form of news media. There is a significant majority of historians who agree that ballads could provide news as well as entertainment before the development of newspapers, but little detail on what actually constituted ‘news’ in the sixteenth century. That’s a question I’ve been trying to answer myself in the last few weeks, but one interesting theory came from a rather unexpected source. Discussing the issue of what makes something ‘news’ with my two elder children during a car journey over the weekend (and they raised it, not me!), my elder son pointed out that news DID include opinion or editorial commentary, because if we were all clones, we wouldn’t need any news because we would all think the same way about everything. Only if we were all clones who thought the same way, could news be objective. Profound, I thought, especially coming from a primary school pupil.

Last week I tried to cram in as much writing as I could because I knew I would have less time for it in the next few weeks, but the pattern was broken by a trip into Manchester to record a short video interview about my PhD for the department website. When one of my colleagues had asked me a few questions about my work, I then got to ask the questions of another friend. I found that considerably more difficult. I can talk endlessly about my work, but semi-improvised questioning was really hard.

On Friday, I go to my first music conference: Music, Circulation and the Public Sphere. It’s perfect for my research and it will be interesting, if rather nerve-wracking to talk to an audience of musicians rather than historians. I’m very much looking forward to it, as I’m hoping that I’ll get some feedback to help me answer some of the questions I raised in a previous post on Musical Musings. I’m going to talk about ballads and news, how they provoked debate among their audience, before raising some questions about the development of popular and sacred music in the Renaissance period.

cranachI’ve spent a lot of time in the company of Luther in the last few days, courtesy of Professor Lyndal Roper and Manchester’s Dr Jenny Spinks.  Prof Roper’s seminar on Thursday evening described Luther’s polemical writing as an expression of his masculinity, but surprised many of the audience with his scatology and lewdness.  On Friday morning I was lucky enough to take part in a workshop with Jenny and Prof Roper about the Wagon engraving by Karlstadt and Cranach.   The format on Friday morning was rather different, with us all sharing our ideas round a table as well as listening to the experts speak.  I know a lot more about Luther now than I did 48 hours ago.

I started writing my final chapter on Wednesday.  It is quite heavily planned, which is unusual for me and not really the way I normally work.  Of course, there are a couple of sections that I’ve already written that I will incorporate in due course but I’m enjoying writing again.  It has reaassured me that the problems I had with my commonwealth chapter were exactly that:  problems with a chapter rather than problems with writing in general.    I have opened the chapter with an extract from a letter I found on one of my archive visits last summer and its very nice to be able to use a different sort of manuscript evidence from the ballads themselves.  There is some wonderful evidence from the state papers to include later.  I’m fascinated by the way the final chapter on news draws together so much of what has gone before – the music, words and context.

…wondering if it is exactly the right one to use in that particular place and if there is any way possible in which it could be misunderstood.

I love words.  I love the way there is always a perfect word no matter what you want to say, if you can only find it.  But one morning a couple of weeks ago, I realised I’d been staring at the screen for half an hour, looking at a single word.  I didn’t have this problem in the past: I just wrote.  Words came pouring out, or they didn’t, but I didn’t ponder individual ones for hours on end!  So how did I turn into that woman?

Partly, it’s down to the depression, I think, which brings on a paranoia that the people reading my work will misunderstand if I don’t use exactly the right phrase in exactly the right place.  But it’s more down to the way that I’ve been taught to consider the rhythm of the text and the precise meanings of what I say.  I found some work a few months ago that my tutor marked when I was an undergraduate and I’m ashamed to say that he was still commenting on the same sort of problems almost twenty years later.  At that point, I decided that something needed to be done, so I started to pay close attention to unpacking every detail: not assuming that the reader would instantly understand what I was talking about; changing the order of the words until I found a rhythm that I was happy with; trying to pad it out with continuity words and phrases so that the reader has time to think.  I’m not there yet.   Signposting I still have trouble with.  But I’m getting there.  I might never manage to emulate the sparkling clarity of my supervisors, of whose way with words I remain deeply envious, but I am pleased to report that at my panel meeting this week, they all commented on the improvement in the fluency of my writing.  So although I remain unconvinced that staring at a single word for half an hour is the best way to spend my limited time, certainly the attention to detail has paid off.

DSCF3139  This week has been half term, so I’ve spent quite a bit of time playing with my children.  We’ve been on a couple of walks, one round Tarn Hows in the Lake District and one from Wrea Green on the Fylde, close to where I grew up.  But this has also been the week of my winter panel meeting and a seminar at the John Rylands Library in Manchester.

The panel meeting went well.  My supervisors commented on how much my writing has improved; it is now clear and precise, which is good to hear.  We discussed the commonwealth chapter I submitted, talked about the choice of technical language for describing my musical examples and then conversation turned to the submission process.  We discussed possible examiners and I told them that I plan to submit in September.   The meeting was over in 40 minutes.

That afternoon I took part in the Print and Materiality Seminar Series at the John Rylands Library, talking about ‘William Elerton and the Ghost of the Lady Marques’.  The topic was chosen to fit in with the seminar series’ focus on the supernatural, but it was a particularly nice subject because it allowed me to sing one of my ballads.  The other paper of the afternoon was given by my Manchester PhD candidate colleague, Sarah Fox.  Her fascinating paper was entitled ‘”Let the superstitious wife, Neer the child’s heart lay a knife”: Superstition and the domestic object in eighteenth-century England’, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her.

I’m looking forward to getting properly stuck in to my final chapter on ballads and the news over the next few weeks.  I’ve started doing the secondary reading for it already and I’ve even made some little notes on halved index cards for paragraph topics.  I decided that on this occasion I really needed to plan the chapter before I wrote it, which is not how I usually work.  The chapter will look at the role of sixteenth century ballads in spreading news, a role that has been contested recently.  I need to look into the differences between ‘news’, ‘newspapers’ and ‘journalism’.  I’m going to investigate the role of newspapers in later periods to see how the ballad compares, as well as looking at the evidence provided by State Papers.  I’m very much looking forward to it, after the trouble I had with the commonwealth chapter.  It’s not going to be easy, but I think it should be much more fun!

I have finally sent off my commonwealth chapter to my panel, ahead of my meeting with them next week.  I’m in a slightly different position to normal in that I was able to send it with a message telling them where I wanted help and where I hoped to expand it when I come to re-write it in the summer.  I identified two sections where the writing was flabby and repetitive, where some serious editing will be needed, but on the whole, I think it has something to say, at last.  That something is about radical ballads and the activities of ballad collectors, which isn’t how I expected the chapter to turn out when I started work on it last September.  It has been the hardest chapter I’ve had to write by far.  I’m glad that it turned out to be about the manuscript collections of ballads, because compared to the broadside ballads they’ve had much less attention.  I think that they are interesting in their own right, because someone chose to collect them and made the effort to write them down.

The rest of the week has been split between secondary reading for my final chapter on ballads and the news; cataloguing and analysing more ballads; and preparing my paper for the Print and Materiality Seminar Series at the John Rylands Library next week.  The paper should be fun because for once, I actually get to sing!  On Sunday last week I recorded a couple of the ballads I’ve been working on recently, one of which took three and a half minutes and the other was more than twelve!   I’m going to keep recording them as I work on them from now on, with the aim of having them all recorded by July.

Next week is half term, so I expect to have some days out if the weather permits, instead of working all week.

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