After all this time, it’s still a bit of a mystery to me how a paper gets written. The deadline or the topic is given months, or up to a year before you actually stand up behind the lectern. Vague ideas about the topic circulate in the background of the mind at odd moments over that time, but it’s usually not till much closer to the time that you sit down to write.
Often it seems smarter not to write in too finished a way too close to the day. This is not just intellectual brinkmanship (how close can you leave it?); it sometimes does just make a better paper if it isn’t all signed and sealed months before it’s delivered. A good conference paper, as opposed to a good essay or chapter, should be rather interrogative than conclusive. A paper that has all the answers to the questions it raises can often seem rather flat. It’s easy to forget this as you write, though; and I’ve heard a lot of papers that seem designed to forestall questions, rather than invite them.
There’s another school of thought that says it’s best not even to write and read a paper; rather, to speak from notes. I have sometimes been able to do this; and I know Paul does it every time, no matter how formal or grand the occasion. It’s usually lovely when that happens, when someone does it well. The nature of literary criticism makes it a little harder, though: our discipline does require a degree of precision in our textual work.
For me, the longer the paper is to be, the more likely I am to write a formal talk (though a good fifty minute lecture to my first-years is often no more written out than a few notes on the power point slides). My gig at this conference in London was a full 40-45 minute talk and I also wanted to take the opportunity to make some clearer formulations of the issues I wanted to talk about. I also had in mind that the talk might be published in some form or another. In addition, I had a chunk of about 15 minutes’ worth already written as part of the project with Tom, and so it seemed a good opportunity to generate more of that work so I could turn the paper into more of the book draft. (One of the things about collaborative projects is that you nearly always feel you are slipping behind the other person. Or perhaps it’s just me who feels like this!)
Monday was an odd day. At lunchtime, I was a genius, and the paper was brilliant. By about 4 o’clock, I was a sloppy scholar who couldn’t write a footnote to save my life. By 7.00 I was just another of the hundreds of scholars and students starting to stream out of the library. I knew that some of them would have had great days; some would have had terrible days; and some would have had a mixed day like mine. A bad writing or research day is a horror like no other, though.
The day before the conference I had a date at the College of Arms with David and the producer of the BBC programme he is making about Malory. We spent a few hours with Bluemantle Pursuivant, one of the heralds, looking at manuscripts and talking about chivalry and heraldry. I then gave myself the rest of the day off, and went shopping. What is that thing about being in a different city and needing to spend my money there? In any case, I bought a pair of shoes, and so my conference preparation was done.
It was a perfect-size conference. Two days of papers on a pretty restricted topic — Chaucer and Time — with barely any parallel sessions; and a wonderful Indian banquet on the first evening. I heard some really excellent papers, caught up with some old friends, and made some new ones.
My talk was on last; and so I had to cool my heels till Friday afternoon. The usual nerves, butterflies, last minute adjustments to the opening and closing paragraphs. But it went well enough; and the question session was really helpful to me. Perhaps it’s something about having been so sick, or perhaps something about feeling my Garter project and the medievalism project with Tom are both taking shape that I felt confident — I would even use the word ‘fearless’ — at some moments in writing and speaking this talk, which was a kind of continuation of the panel on Medieval Studies from the New York Chaucer congress. But of course it makes sense that a brush with mortality and physical vulnerability of the kind that cancer offers might make us less fearful in putting ideas and questions together.
A few of us went for a beer and then dinner, and I got back to the hotel in good time. But at 3.00 in the morning I was woken by various revellers out in the square and wrote/am writing this in the middle of the night. I’ve been here two weeks but it feels like jetlag. Or it’s adrenaline, after having given the paper. What is the time when one writes a blog entry in a hotel room, but has to wait till morning to go down to the lobby to post? A good question for a conference on time.