‘Tis the Season

Happy holidays to all!

I am sooooo enjoying this winter break, it feels decadent.

We aren’t doing much: chilling out, watching movies, reading, playing with electronics, cuddling, having friends over. Some of us are writing and editing stories. All of us repeat how glad we are that we don’t have to go to school or work tomorrow. The kids are old enough that it’s pure fun and relaxation and very little hassle for everyone to be cooped up together for days.

On Saturday, I drove all day. I took Eldest to a neighboring state to meet a prospective teacher at the music school. Eldest applied to two universities—both big state schools: the one where I teach (no, sadly, no tuition relief whatsoever for employees) and a comparable one in a neighboring state—and was accepted to both. He wants to major in molecular biology and was admitted to the appropriate colleges in the two schools, but as his second major (or perhaps a minor) he wants music, and the auditions for music schools aren’t till January. It’s also recommended that the students have an hour-long lesson with the person who would be their likely teacher (for many instruments, there’s only one), to see how they would gel if they were to work together. Thus far, Eldest has been dead-set on staying here, but he seemed to have really clicked with the music teacher out of state whereas the local guy seemed grumpy, so we’ll see. Auditions are in a month. I will have another road trip with Eldest for that right before the new semester starts.

Christmas Eve was uneventful. I have no idea what we did. I know I wrapped the presents with the speed and stealth becoming of a true consumerist superhero.

On Monday (yesterday, the Christmas Day), DH and I celebrated 18 years of marriage! Happy anniversary, DH! We were married on Christmas Day in 1999, and while no one ever forgets the date, we always have a hell of a time going out to celebrate because everything is closed. This time around, we had a proper dinner-and-a-movie date (Eldest babysat). We saw The Shape of Water, which is beautiful and satisfying on so many levels.

Today, I took all of my offspring to see Jumanji, which I also enjoyed. It’s really funny and just great stupid fun. It was well done—sharp comedic writing, without sluggish excess, and with strong performances by everyone involved. Jack Black and Kevin Hart predictably killed it, but The Rock definitely held his own (smolder LOL). Two of Middle Boy’s friends also went with one of the moms, and these kids later joined us for a playdate. Finally, Smurf also had a playdate, so I had six boys total at my house today, which was fun. I love impromptu little parties. At one point, all five who were not Eldest were lying spread out on the floor and on the steps in a doggy pile, if the dogs were actually made out of very relaxed slime that’s on winter break.

I can’t remember the last time I so thoroughly enjoyed a vacation.

Topical Drift

The way science is funded in the US — in short, highly uncertain federal grants — prevents the scientists from doing their best work, stifles creativity, contributes to burnout in more ways than one, and drags the whole enterprise down.

What struck me recently is how bored I am with much of my work. If someone gave me the money to fund maybe 3-4 students over the next five years (with a student, loaded, costing about $60k/year, that would be $1.2M for 4 students — so not anyone’s pocket change) and do whatever I wanted to do, I would have plenty of stuff to work on. There are things I want to learn and I would go into one of the fields that are quite far from my bread-and-butter one.

But to do the same on my own, raise the above $1.2M to do something completely new in a new field, is impossible. To be even competitive for this much money in a new field, one that is so far away from what I do that my current students or my PhD advisor likely wouldn’t be able to read my papers, would require such a drastic shift that it would likely mean a period with little or no funding, and I might never recover. I have certainly seen that — someone runs out of money, owing to bad luck or moving into a new field, and they are dead in the water. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone recover in terms of funding after a shift as great as what I envision and would love to make.

A senior colleague, years ago and at his tenure time, said he was done with his most productive line of work and ready for something else. But the sabbatical came and went, the change never happened, and the colleague is now (I fear irreversibly) switching to administration. His enthusiasm for his work must have waned, and the money certainly dried up. But if he’d been able to really switch gears, not with pittance institutional funds that cover 1 RA for 1 year but some actual resources, we would still have him in the game, somewhere, contributing with his brilliant mind.

So what do you do? Drift into new topics at a glacial pace. Essentially hold on to the topics you are done with, and would really like never to see again, and slooooowly introduce more and more topics that are more and more aligned with what you want to do… By the time you’ve finally transitioned into what you wanted to work on to begin with, you are bored with that and it’s time for the drift dance to take place yet again.

Improving the World, One ‘Not’ at a Time

As it turns out—at least for a pain in the a$$ such as myself—not doing things brings about more benefits to everyone involved than actually doing things.

  • Not firing off most composed tweets because people on the web don’t need to be subject to my every thought; most of my thoughts, for that matter.
  • Not firing off 50% of composed emails because people in meat space don’t need to be subject to my every thought; most of my thoughts, for that matter.
  • Not sending an email to a collaborator in which I tell him to clean up after his student. 

    We are working on a manuscript. The collaborator and his student drafted it, then sent it around for comments. They said the paper was ready to go and gave everyone a week to respond. The paper is meant for a prestigious journal that takes letter (short) papers. Unfortunately, this ready-to-go paper looks like a headless chicken—freaky and hilarious, as it runs around aimlessly, hitting points at random. The writing is surprisingly bad (the colleague and the students are both American). Someone’s gonna break a neck after tripping on one of the many dangling participles. Overall, the paper is far, far from submittable.

    I sent in my extensive comments and the student is incorporating them. But that’s not enough. This is the student’s first paper and I don’t think he can do this by himself. He needs to be taught how to write a short manuscript for a prestigious journal. I wish my collaborator were more hands-on here. And maybe he will be, eventually. I wrote an email asking the collaborator to get more involved in the writing because so much is missing; that the student is too junior to do this on his own… And then deleted the email. I wouldn’t appreciate receiving such an email, in which someone’s telling me how to run my group, so I decided not to be an obnoxious prick for once, and keep my mouth shut.

  • Not accepting to sit on an NSF panel (I was in a bit of an existential crisis refusing this one, but last year it was so much work and the then-current program manager was behaving shittily, so I said never again).
  • Not accepting anything to review over the past month.
  • Not accepting to sit on student defenses unless I am already familiar with the work.
  • Not accepting to write any more lukewarm form letters of recommendation for random undergraduates.

Things I wish I could just not do, but have to do. Not doing them would make me happy, but the other people involved might feel differently.

  • Review two PhD dissertations (for my own graduate students).
  • Write three letters of recommendation (for my own group members).
  • Respond to a major revision request for a paper that bores the hell out of me. They took twice as long to send us the referee reports, right before the holidays, and of course they now want major revisions immediately. Well, no. FU. I asked for an extension until the end of January.
  • Edit and submit a paper from my group with a former student who left in the spring. (I am bored with that material, too.)
  • Submit yet another proposal on an accelerated timeline because the staff member who is  supposed to click ‘submit’ is leaving for the holidays early.

Basically, I want to not do anything that’s not reading books or watching TV, and maybe working on some fiction.  I really hope that, for once, I won’t have to work between Xmas and New Year.

I need a vacation. A long one…but a paid one. And no one is allowed to come with me, except for some books, a laptop, and maybe a few Costco-sized bottles of Bailey’s.

Fifth-Grade Basketball as a Metaphor for Science, Life, and Anything Else You Can Think of

I love watching my kids take part in various athletic competitions. For Eldest, it’s been swimming; for Middle Boy, it’s been flag football, soccer one season and a couple of years of lackluster swimming, but his main sport is basketball. He’s really good at it and passionate about the game. I’m that parent who yells supportive and possibly embarrassing stuff from the sidelines (I don’t care; all grace and self-consciousness evaporated once I started having children). It’s interesting to see how much these kids want to win, how they compete with all they’ve got, and how much they hustle. None of them have hit puberty yet, so I can only imagine how the games are going to look once all the testosterone kicks in…

Middle Boy is now in fifth grade and the YMCA basketball season is in full swing. He loves this year’s team, which is mostly composed of his friends from school. (If you felt the need to say “comprised by” here, I hate you with the burning passion of a thousand suns and I will never be your friend, for the banishment of the misuse of ‘comprise’ is  among the grammar hills I am willing to die on.) There are a couple of kids not from MB’s school, one of whom is excellent and has had the possession of the ball 75% of the time in the first two games; the team lost both of those games. Honestly, I thought the team was not very good, as there were no plays, just that one kid trying to do his own thing and sometimes succeeding, sometimes not.

That excellent external kid missed the last two games, and the team blossomed. It was amazing to watch. Suddenly, they moved the ball, made passes, organized offense, every single one of the players got to touch the ball, and nearly everyone scored at least once. The kids played beautifully and won these last two games, all with their nominally best player absent. We finally saw that the team had five more great people, who could both hold their own and mesh well together.

MB tells me they are joking that they should ‘fire’ that kid who’s their best player. The kid is selfish with the ball, not a team player (focused on scoring himself and blowing far too many good chances that could have resulted in scoring if a play had been executed), and overall just not an asset to the team, or not as great of an asset as everyone had thought at the outset. We’ll see what the coach does when the kid comes back.

But this is also a metaphor for doing science and life in general.

I am not sure that there is any level of excellence in science or in any other endeavor that justifies extreme selfishness. Or rudeness, or being otherwise toxic to other people. We in science, just like people in ‘the real world,’ tend to forgive a lot to people whom we perceive as brilliant, as someone who’d be hard to replace.

We shouldn’t. Nobody is irreplaceable.

Removal of assholes is always a benefit.

Tolerance of assholes brings everyone down.

One’s value is not measured when that person is in vacuum, not interacting with anyone else. One’s value to any enterprise and the society at large comes in part from that individual’s capabilities, but at least as much, if not more, from how they gel with the capabilities of others.

Any team sport will show the same dynamics: if the team has good chemistry, they become much more than the sum of individuals’ abilities. Otherwise, they are not a team, and they will be overrun by the opponents who are one.

Thursday Tidbits

  • Yes, I am guilty: I love alliteration, in moderation. (Also, rhymes, especially when they’re accidental.) That’s because deep inside the body of this middle-aged woman hides a 10-year-old boy who loves stupid puns, profanity, potty humor, and alliteration—I love them all.
  • We hear all sorts of arguments for diversity. To me, one of the best comes from running a diverse (in terms of gender and country of origin) research group. It’s amazing to see how students become friends, with whom they gel and who gets them. Few things underscore our shared humanity better than finding a kindred spirit who grew up half the way across the world, yet has the same sense of humor, temperament, and outlook on what matters in life as you.
  • Things I need to do and will do, but really don’t want to do because I would much rather waste time online: proofread dissertations of two graduating students; write letters of recommendation for two graduating students; grade a bazillion HW assignments that I neglected because I hadn’t felt like doing them for a long time; prepare a test to give tomorrow; decide what to do on 3-5 meh stories that I’ve been sitting on for a while as editor…

Tuesday Tirade

To the faculty on the tenure track at research institutions (and likely elsewhere, but the weight of research and letters vs other aspects may be different): Here are  some things you absolutely must do, and maybe you think they are wrong and stupid but you must do them, and I am writing about this because a case of someone who hasn’t done them is very, very fresh.

What letter writers say is very important. What letter writers look for is whether you have established yourself in a niche where you are a key player, if not the key player. If you came from a group of a famous advisor, they will not take kindly to the fact that you never seemed to be able to fully emerge from the advisor’s shadow. Nobody wants a pale copy of your advisor. Nobody wants to employ you to work as a de facto extended postdoc for your advisor. People want to see a clearly (from paper authorship, from new collaborations, from the disappearance of advisor from your list of coauthors after a couple of years on the tenure track) that you are your own person.

Too many people think that because someone met them when they were a student or postdoc of famous advisor, that person knows and appreciates their work. No. In most cases, they do not remember you well, and anything you did during your PhD or postdoc is in their mind likely associated with your advisor, NOT with you. You need to put yourself in their way, in front of their face, with your awesome new independent work. You need to make them override all they thought (or more likely didn’t think at all) about you as a famous advisor’s graduate student and make them start to think of you as a colleague, as a rising star, as someone whose science should be watched for originality and impact.

Doing good work is not enough to get tenure. Maybe over the course of the career good work floats to the top yadda yadda, but more likely not. Genius work, sure, merely solid work–not. There’s far too much solid work, and much gets overlooked. You need to draw the attention of people to your work; you need to make them not dismiss you. The tenure track is not infinite in duration.

Travel. Give seminars. Go to conferences where big shots will show up and introduce yourself. Invite them to give seminars at your place.

Do not put yourself in the position where people write lukewarm letters or don’t want to write because they have no idea who you are or what you did since you were a student.

***

In my fiction as in research, I fall in between the cracks of common divisions (genres in fiction; areas in research). In research, people don’t believe me I can do all the things I say I can do (but I can, honestly!) and I likely have a harder time getting money than if I’d stayed in just one area. But I like what I like, and what I like is a challenge.

I have a piece of writing that I don’t even know if I should classify as fiction or creative nonfiction. It’s got speculative elements, observational humor, and societal commentary. Choosing where to send it is challenging.

There’s a prompt and all the pieces submitted are literary fiction; I absolutely itch to and thus end up writing high fantasy.

There’s a competition with a broad science prompt; everyone submits science fiction, while I decide I’d write lab lit.

When I write it out like this, I seem like a total pain in the a$$. What else is new?

How’s your week going, bloggy friends? 

Short (Impo)story Syndrome

CW asks: I would be interested to get your perspective on whether you suffer imposter syndrome for fiction writing. I am also a senior academic in STEM, but have serious outside hobbies in art and music. Oddly, I have magnified imposter syndrome for music (believe that I am not a ‘real’ musician) but almost none for art (believe I actually produce works at a ‘professional’ level). Have you found that being more actively engaged in writing has had an effect either way?

This is such a great question, and it tapped into what I’ve been itching to write about! I apologize to the readers who are here solely for the academic fare. Also to readers who are professionals in the language fields, as I might be sullying them (the fields, not the readers!) with my amateur attempts at fiction. (obligatory self-flagellation completed)

* Alert: Circular, stream-of-consciousness writing ahead.*

Do I have impostor syndrome? I might, although I don’t know that it’s the same how I feel about my work (like I am a fraud about to be discovered), but I do feel quite insecure about what the hell I am even doing trying to write.

I definitely don’t think I am awesome, but I also don’t think I totally suck. What really helps is having become an editor at a magazine that requires that personalized feedback be given to all authors, especially for rejections. I can’t emphasize enough how helpful this has been. If I don’t like a story, I have to figure out what doesn’t work and articulate it clearly to the author, as well as suggest how it could be fixed. This is a learning opportunity that really utilizes my science brain, which also means that it makes me feel comfortable.

Navel dive: Fiction tends to go digging in places where you (or at least I) don’t usually go digging (I cite the need to keep going and working and no time to wallow). This type of digging into your psyche can be a very uncomfortable experience. I am much more comfortable dissecting things analytically than feeling all the feels. Writing fiction, especially longer pieces, has been eye opening in terms of how much time in my real life I spend basically keeping a tight lid on anything associated with vulnerability;  how I abhor being feeling dumb, naive, overly trusting. I allow myself anger (as evidenced by 80% of the posts here) but not that often feelings of hurt; how very macho of me! One way to offend me would be to tell me that I am being sentimental, which is about as bad as telling me that I am stupid. My favorite feedback from writing so far is an acceptance that told me that the story was very feel-good-making without ever becoming sentimental. It’s weird to realize these things about myself. 

I like my prose spare. As in, notably more spare than most writing with a literary bend, be it fantasy or literary fiction. In my writing I love to use literary devices such as metaphors, similes, and other aspects of symmetry (e.g., various parallels, ending with how I started, analogies in different settings within the same story, etc.), but I feel, in my own writing and in the writing of others, that a literary device has to be employed really well, otherwise it’s just plain obnoxious. I really don’t have patience for a lot of doom, gloom, moodiness, or thickly layered adjectives of any kind. I wish so much literary fiction weren’t brooding and loss and grief and pain. I feel that we as humans have more complex (and more interesting) emotions, that we can be sad yet strangely amused, that we can hate and be lustful, that we can grieve and also feel free and joyous. I like to look at those, and I am really annoyed by wallowing in the seas of schmaltz, and there is oh my fucking God so much schmaltz. At the same time, I know that people pour their hearts and souls into writing, so I feel bad that I roll my eyes…

Basically, I like and I think I have a fairly restrained writing voice, punctuated by bursts of intense emotion through the use of strong or evocative language, a small number of metaphors, and an overall highly symmetric structure. I love action verbs and verbs that make you see or smell or feel. The fewer, the better.

I think that my natural tendencies are a problem. I fear that I am or will be limited in who is willing to read and publish what I produce. But I can honestly say that I don’t enjoy ornamental prose (I hate that it is called purple prose, because purple is my favorite color); I don’t like reading it and I don’t like writing it.

I also find myself being completely unmoved by many pieces that are hailed as awesome. But then I get really moved by very compact, incisive pieces that haven’t received particular praise. I have found several kindred writerly spirits, in the sense that I really like what they write, but they are not superstars. On the other hand, I find the style of many who are highly acclaimed to not be enjoyable at all. (Yes, I roll my eyes a lot.)

There are definitely superstars. I could name probably a dozen fantasy and a dozen literary writers who focus on short form and who have made it. For a small number, I can tell that they have something that I don’t think I do — not now, and maybe not ever. But for many superstars I read their stuff and I know that I  should be blown away but I’m just not.

I think I have a fairly good feeling for what the hierarchy among the magazines is. The literary magazines generally don’t pay. The speculative fiction magazines have tiers; the ones that pay a professional rate (at least 6 cents per word) generally are the highest, especially if they have been around for a while. I do not yet have a story in a magazine that specializes in speculative fiction, although I got one that has strong speculative elements into a very selective literary journal that likes that brand of surreal/quirky. I wonder if I should have stuck with the speculative markets for that piece; perhaps not.

The quality of my writing has improved between August, when I started writing and submitting, and now. I know, the time is short, but I’ve been quite taken by it all. I have managed to get into a couple of fairly good journals (selective, with a great reputation, with superstars publishing in them).  I am battling the desire to get into some of the top places with the fact that I maybe don’t actually enjoy the writing in most (not all) of them and am thus highly unlikely to produce something they like.

I like what I like and perhaps what I like and what I write is fundamentally incompatible with top-flight markets.

But there are plenty of places that like what I write. I have published or had accepted for publication 15 stories thus far (8 micros and 7 long ones); I’m not counting two others that were entered in a competition that posts every story (waiting to hear about the outcome of one of them still). In addition, I have two short ones in review, a long one, and another humorous long one I am thinking where to send next.

Of the accepted/published ones, I think all the long ones are quite good, the newer ones definitely better than the older ones. Some of the micros are also kickass. The first long one I wrote had a dozen rejections before an enthusiastic acceptance, and it was changed considerably between the initial version, which I thought was the bee’s knees, and the version that was perfectly smooth and accepted in a nice market.

Navel dive: I have noticed that I like to leave in one or two really rough tiny bits, almost as if to poke you in the eye. It’s very hard for me to part with them, yet it seems that part I must. But it’s weird to realize that I purposefully leave in these irritants, as if I’m allergic to smoothness. Maybe as a schmaltz-prevention measure? People don’t expect or appreciate irritants; I cling to them, I feel that’s what makes these pieces real. I understand this will be an issue going forward. 

I have also inexplicably started having problems coming up with titles. I have never had that issue with naming blog posts, but with stories the stakes are much higher. I might suffer from title block.

Let me circle back to the original question.

Do I feel like an impostor? It’s different than in the professional sphere. With writing, I think I am a newbie, and I don’t hide it. I have much to learn, although I sometimes think that maybe I don’t (burst of megalomania, I am sure), and that I know what I like and what I want, but that I just don’t give myself the permission to like what I like and to boldly seek the places where I really truly enjoy the writing, to heck with how cool or not those magazines are. Navel dive: It’s a weird battle between my mature self knowing what I want and the little girl inside feeling like she needs to still drink up the wisdom of her elders before she’s allowed to voice an opinion. 

I have encountered a really nice community of flash fiction writers on Twitter (under my fiction name), and that has been a great addition to the whole experience. It’s been a good way to get some props for the stories accepted, to support others, read new interesting pieces, and to hear about magazines that are newer but that have a strong web presence so they are widely read. I really like the chance to prop up other people. I feel real joy when I hear other people in the community have stories accepted! I sorely miss that in academia.

As I said, there are superstars and I’m definitely not one (yet, or in principle). I think that’s OK. There are people who come in, their first story is immediately published in a professional/paying magazine, and they just go up from there. It’s amazing. And they are also miraculously young, pretty, and really photogenic.  I don’t really feel the sting of envy; perhaps I’m too old or too removed. After all, I have a career in which I see superstars of which I am not one, and I think I made my peace with that to the extent possible. Writing fiction is new to me, or maybe I recognize the intrinsic limitations of my abilities. It also feels weird and greedy to even think about success in a sphere in which I am an amateur. Like I would be stealing from someone? Like that without the formal credentials (MFA) I am not allowed to have ambitions? Maybe that’s the impostor syndrome? That as an amateur I’m OK to play in the kiddie pool, perhaps even bat in the Little League, but that I am not allowed to even dream of the big ones. (<– cliche pile-on; sorry!)

I like the pieces I write. I have been able to publish them, which means they are not awful but, to be honest, it also means that there are many markets available. Between reasonable quality and a pretty good understanding of the market land, I think that getting published somewhere is not the issue…

The questions are:

a) Do I want to go for the status of a serious writer? I need to be hitting, and successfully, some higher-profile markets. But which ones and do I even like them? Or at least some of them? I need to explore where I would fit if I could have all that I wanted. There are a few magazines I really like, not sure that they are the tippity top, but most of the tippity top ones aren’t my cuppity cup of tea. Maybe I am an impostor. Maybe I am just an outsider. Not sure if this is a permanent issue or a transient affliction. But I feel like a foot in an ill-fitting shoe when I read pieces in top-flight markets. A foot that can roll its eyes.

b) Do I want to work on my craft? I do. I really do. But there is also resistance, because I want to write what I want to write, and maybe I am just really boring and don’t have exciting stories to tell. But it feels that there is a performance I’m supposed to put on and I really don’t want to.
I  need to figure out how to get better (other than writing non-stop). Or maybe I need to figure out how to write differently. Yet I’m not sure I want the latter.

I have been writing shorter pieces for small competitions with prompts, and those have been really fun. But I feel the pressure to put them somewhere so they don’t go to waste, whereas I would rather they did go to waste, not because there’s anything wrong with them, on the contrary, they are really cool, but because it’s overwhelming to put every nugget out there.

Navel dive: Not belonging is almost comfortable. That’s my modus operandi; that’s how my lot in real life is, so it would be weird if it didn’t translate into fiction writing. I do see slivers of ambition and want to squash them, mostly because I don’t need more chances for disappointment, partly because I feel like I really owe all of my ambition to my work, and partly because I feel I am not qualified to have ambition in fiction writing. 

It’s the common combo of thinking the writing is good and that it sucks. The question can I get good enough—what does that even mean and do I even want to write like that?—to be published in the markets that everyone considers the cream of the crop. And where are my objective limits, because I really fear that I am intrinsically severely limited by being all sorts of nonwriterly things: not a native speaker; not a lover of layered metaphors, moody references to cloudy skies or troubled waters; opponent of adjective abuse; generally a pain in the butt. I want to get better, and I’d like it to be on my terms. I guess I need to write and perhaps find a writers’ group. Maybe bother the little Twitter community. Maybe I will inflict some of the unpublished stuff upon my poor unsuspecting readers here? Mwahahaha! (Don’t worry, I wouldn’t do that to you.)

Oh yeah, it’s awards season. Small presses are nominating their best for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Serious fantasy and SF writers are getting nominated for Hugos and Nebulas. Lots of well-deserved bragging on the web!

I guess I need to keep at it, keep reading, keep writing, and keep recalibrating accordingly. Maybe I decide that I suck. Maybe I decide the Little League is where I am meant to remain. Maybe I magically get awesome (unlikely; there’s no magic).

So I dunno, does this sound like the impostor syndrome? Or just garden-variety insecurity?

Blogosphere, do you have advice for CW? Do you have a serious hobby where you think you can give the pros a run for the money?