Writing about Major Barbara

A couple of days ago a friend emailed a complaint about my blog. “It’s called Write with Jean,” she said, “but we don’t ever get to see you writing.”

Fair enough.

Her timing was perfect because I’ve just started to work on a presentation for a Shaw conference a year from now. Or – more accurately – I’ve restarted. One morning during last fall’s dance cruise I wrote the first page of my presentation. I was delighted to get a head start on the project – and then I lost the page. Sigh.

Clearly I wouldn’t recommend my slapdash working methods to anyone, but they work for me. Advice books about writing always say you should start  by freewriting or talking into a voice recorder. You need physical movement – tapping a keyboard or working your vocal chords – to get the ideas flowing. They’re absolutely right.

I, however, am doing much of my planning driving back and forth to dance lessons. It’s an inefficient system at best: Ideas come and go as I navigate traffic, run errands, and stop to pump gas. But I don’t have time this month to sit down and do any formal planning.

An advantage is that I’m finding this system more relaxing than sitting in front of a computer – and the ideas really have started coming. Yesterday I finally came up with my thesis. (I know, I know – that’s supposed to be your starting point. My brain doesn’t work that way, alas.) I almost pulled off the road to call my husband with the news, but I know what he would say: “Forget about Shaw and concentrate on your driving.” Party pooper!

Of course every academic project relies on preliminary research. I’m already familiar with Major Barbara – the Shaw play I’ll be writing about – so there’s been plenty to think about between stop signs, left turns, and trips to the ATM.

My writing methods rely on something that’s harder to put into words: A strong feeling about some of the lines in the play. I know that they’re going to be important to my presentation, even though I have no idea why I chose them or what I’ll be saying about them. I suspect that many writers have similar instincts. Maybe it’s an innate part of who we are – like musicians born with perfect pitch or chefs who always know which flavors will meld into an irresistible dish.

The presentation for next July is going to be fun to work on. Unlike some recent projects I’ve done, I’ve chosen the topic myself and can do anything I want with it.

Yes, it’s flattering to be asked to review a book or write a chapter for a collection that a friend is editing. And it’s nice to be offered a paying job (I just finished a technical writing project for an educational company). But the real fun lies in discovering an idea, digging into it, putting it together, and then turning it loose to see how others react.

A friend suggested that I download a free trial of Scrivener, a software package that organizes outlines, research, and ideas so that everything is stored in one place. I think it will prove to be a godsend. I’m still learning how it works – more about that in a future post.

There’s a special feature of this presentation that I’m excited about: I’ll be doing a PowerPoint rather than a strictly academic paper. I don’t know if that sounds like fun to you, but I am positively kicking up my heels at the prospect. I’ll be able to joke with the audience, use graphics, and bypass some of the clumsy infrastructure required for academic publishing.

Funny thing, though. Last year I started working on a PowerPoint about Pygmalion for a Shaw conference in New York. I was reveling in my freedom – and then the project took a strange detour. I left the unfinished PowerPoint on my computer desktop and spent several months writing the whole thing up as an academic paper. (I’m proud to say that it’s going to be published in a few months.) After I was satisfied that every jot and tittle was in its proper place, I went back and finished my PowerPoint.

Maybe there’s so much academia wired into me after all these years that I can’t work any other way.

Meanwhile, Major Barbara awaits. Stay tuned for more progress reports!major-barbara-jxhpvwun.bub

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