My Hellish 6,666-Word Paper: On History and Literature

My Hellish 6,666-Word Paper: On History and Literature

Last year I attended a big-time conference about eighteenth-century Scotland. It was held in Paris, at the Sorbonne University. I’ve been to Paris before with my class as a teenager, and when we were shown the Sorbonne, the teacher told us that perhaps one day we’ll lecture there. This must have been what I was aspiring to when I boldly sent to the conference organisers my paper proposal. I have no idea what the organisers were thinking, because they accepted me as one of the speakers despite one obvious inconsistency: I submitted a paper on literature to a conference on history.

My conference trip was kindly subsidised by my university, as one of my professors apparently misguidedly believes that I might be up to something in the academia – that is, when / if I finally finish my doctoral thesis. (Hello, professor Womack!) As a junior scholar of modest means coming from a dubious Eastern European college, I felt uncomfortable at the conference, to say the least. It didn’t help that all the speakers were presenting papers about mostly obscure aspects of history, which I found heavily boring. I wonder what scholars in history even do: do they speculate what happened in bygone past? It must be guesswork because they obviously can’t know what they haven’t seen.

Literature doesn’t do guesswork. What we do is confronting what the author has written – not what s/he meant to write because that’s what the authors never tell us, either because they’re dead or because they’re liars, and sometimes they’re dead liars. Literary scholars interpret what they see. My refusal to speculate – that is, my fidelity to the methods of my discipline – was regarded as very exotic by those fellow conference participants who made the mistake of trying to socialise with me. I wish my name tag had included, besides my name and affiliation, a warning that I’m painfully shy.

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The historians present comprised mostly dishevelled elderly men, so my function at the conference turned out to be primarily decorative – I may be no beauty, but I was easily the prettiest participant owing to my gender and age. So, when I finished reading my paper and the curious old men started to ask indiscrete questions – why wasn’t this or that historical person in the novel? what was the legislature concerning this or that in the period? – all I could was to smile ever so sweetly and admit that I had no idea. I wish they came up with the right kind of questions, such as asking me to account for the phallic symbols in the novel. That would be a piece of cake.

I was surprised to have been invited to submit my revised paper to be considered for publication in the post-conference print volume. I’ve known that the volume would be published for almost a year, and I received an email with details and deadline for the paper submission a month in advance. What I did was I marked the email as “to do” and ignored it until a few days before the deadline. There’s no challenge in starting your work in time, right? When I was about to get down to writing, I fell badly ill – of course I did, that’s what always happens before deadlines. So, appealing to the volume editor’s feelings, I emailed him to ask for an extended deadline and had it granted. (Thanks, Robert!)

My paper had roughly 2,000 words to start with, and the required minimum length was between 6,600 and 7,000 words. The minimum length disconcerted me for two reasons. First, what kind of number is 6,600? It’s not even a multiple of five hundred, which is the average size of my paragraph. It’s a number so ugly that it could have been easily the devilish 6,666 or, for example, 6,789. Second, short of 7,000 words is long. It’s very long; it’s wildly, extravagantly long; it’s in fact so long that it would make a substantial chapter in my dissertation. Too bad my dissertation is supposed to be on a completely different subject.

To do research for my paper, I ordered more than half a dozen of specialist books worth my two-weeks’ wages. The university library stopped satisfying my apparently fanatic demand for Scottish books years ago. I spent an alarming amount of time wrapping my new books in foil for protection and arranging them on my thematically ordered reference bookshelves. I like to watch them sitting ever so nicely in their carefully chosen places. Preparation is the key, so I made sure that I had sufficient supplies of coffee, energy drinks, chocolate and brain function supplements. I’d prefer to retire to a noiseless and husbandless place to boost my focus, sadly, if such a place exists, it doesn’t have internet connection.

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I have difficulties focusing and I hate writing. It’s a puzzle why I chose a career requiring mental agility and writing skills. It’s even more intriguing why I started a blog where I write. I can only focus at night because I need it to be dark outdoors and I can have no noises of traffic, people or birds. In the ideal scenario, all I can hear is the static humming of the laptop, the external hard drive and the home server. You could tell that I like my electronics. Even though my needs may be excessive, it stands to reason to anyone but my husband that when your spouse is working on a paper, you’re not supposed to listen to music, laugh at funny videos or comment aloud on people’s Facebook updates.

My husband discovered very quickly that I was writing. He insists that when I do, I’m particularly grumpy, though being a really sweet person, I have no clue where his mislead idea comes from. Actually, it’s him who is grumpy when I write. Even when I convince him that it’s basic politeness to put on his headphones when listening to his favourite awful Balkan brass music, he keeps on whistling aloud in what’s clearly out of tune. When he pursues political news, he keeps on insisting that I have a look – it’s not like he married me yesterday and didn’t know yet that I hate politics and that I’m only willing to have a look at something when there are cats.

It took me 3,000 words to say what I had to say about the literary aspect of my paper in plentiful detail. I miraculously managed to write about 2,600 more words about the historical period relevant to the novel. Then I spent two or three days expanding whatever I could expand and though I kept on writing, I was mysteriously still left with 1,000 more words to do. So I started including random facts – like, it’s cold in Scotland; the highest mountain in Scotland is Ben Nevis; the largest city in Scotland is Glasgow – and still, there were several hundred words to go. I ended up inserting random block quotations. The result is a curious collage in the postmodern spirit. Or else a pathetic pastiche of academic paper. I may or may be not exaggerating. The point is that I’ve finished now and I’m no more writing! Or am I?

22 thoughts on “My Hellish 6,666-Word Paper: On History and Literature

  1. “I wish they came up with the right kind of questions, such as asking me to account for the phallic symbols in the novel.”
    Did a double take; re-read the sentence; carried on laughing. hahahahah

    I guess in literature you analyse what people have written, but in history you analyse what people have done. I think the primary aim of history should be to learn from people’s motivations or the past events so as to avoid making the same mistakes in the future – which I think that mankind doesn’t seem to have the patience for. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad that my serious struggle gave you a giggle 🙂 I very much like your philosophical interpretation of what historians should do — but I also agree if their job to draw lessons, all historians so far have been pathetic failures. I may get my hands on the volume of this conference papers when it’s published, and I’d gladly pursue it — I didn’t like listening to the papers because I’m very much a text person and listening does nothing for me, so it might be that I missed some interesting papers after all.

      Sorry about my obsession with phallic symbols; I guess I’m really obsessed because I saw these everywhere, in everything that is taller than wider, including myself. 😀

      Thanks for reading!

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  2. Word limits create mental blocks because you end up focusing on numbers instead of words. I was sometimes under my limits but usually over because I’m terribly wordy. Hacking back is as challenging as building up. I also drank approximately ten thousand cups of tea per day when writing my thesis. Liquid procrastination. Congratulations on completing your thesis!

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    1. True that word limits are awfully limiting. But I should be used to them, there are always some word limits set. The limit of 6,600 to 7,000 was a very narrow span to fit in though. It’s just 400 words tolerance!

      I tend to write long winding sentences but short texts overall. I don’t remember having to shorten anything, but I can imagine that it must be possibly even worse than expanding.

      So you drink tea to energise yourself? Does that work for you? I’ve heard people drink tea instead of coffee, but I wonder if it encourages as much as coffee does.

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      1. Well I’m not a coffee drinker anyway and I am a bit of a tea addict. I think it was less about getting refreshed and more about giving myself an excuse for another break away from the coal face of academia. Some wistful days I contemplate setting out on getting my PhD but your blog entry has reminded me about the annoying aspects of academic study.

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        1. Oh, I see, so tea procrastination really 🙂 I actually drink coffee while working, so no procrastination happens 😦 My humble opinion is that in any part of the world, getting a PhD is probably not worth the stress unless you wish to pursue academic career. But I know enthusiasts who work on their PhD degrees just for the “fun” of it or whatever they call it. So it depends!

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  3. Well done – sounds like a test of endurance and nerve having to deal with those old fogies at the conference! Love your description of procrastination via foil wrapping your books – haha. I have so been there!! So tell me, what is your top book or character in Scottish literature? Feeling inspired to try and read a bit more on my doorstep and genuinely need a tip! 😉

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    1. The conference was surely an endurance test, on the other hand, it was funny that as the only young woman present (there were other women, but much older than me) I drew attention I’m unaccustomed to.

      All my books are wrapped in foils, I’m a fanatic foil wrapper! They look like library books…

      That’s a huge task to recommend you a book: you know my favourites, it’s Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and even more 1982 Janine; I love Trainspotting, which you’ve read; and you’ve surely read Kelman too. You’ll probably know Ian Banks’s Crow Road, James Robertson’s Testament of Gideon Mack or Janice Galloway’s novels? These 1980s to 1990s writers are my loves 🙂 I wonder if you’ve read Archie Hind’s Dear Green Place too, but I guess it was compulsory reading for Glaswegians 😉

      Now you challenged me to try to put together a reading list of recommendations!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s amazing how similar this experience is to mine, but sometimes I’ll use the same process for papers that are only 2,000 words but on such a narrow topic that it’s impossible to meet that without “fluffing.” I don’t understand why someone would set a word/page limit. I understand guidelines, but specifics lead to lower quality. Wouldn’t they rather read a top-notch, concise, informative paper than one watered down by ridiculous irrelevant details?

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    1. You have a point of course. There are many processes at work in publishing which make it necessary to impose a lot of requirements of writers — for instance, the book has to have a certain number of pages to qualify as sufficiently “academic”, to qualify for funding, etc. But you’re right that the less limits, the better quality! I’m glad that you can relate to my experience, even though it’s an awful one, and I wish you limitless writing! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. And when the old men went back home,they probably told their friends and relatives how cold the Czech woman was,hence reinforcing the myth that people in such countries tend to be very…aloof. :p
    – In my country,everybody thinks that the Finnish people,the Czechs,the Russians and the Danish people among others are very cold-hearted individuals devoid of emotional warmth! (Of course this assumption of theirs is totally erroneous.)

    You’ve also been to Sorbonne! That’s an achievement.I would like to visit Paris one day.Scotland,France,any other country that you’ve visited?

    I’m pretty surprised that there’s a word limit even on that level.I mean if an adult academic writes a 5000-word dissertation,it will be as relevant as one written in 7000 words.Some people might need more words to get their point through as maybe they employ different syntaxes – it’s in their nature and they can’t help it!

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    1. Haha, you’re very right, I’m indeed perceived as a cold person. No matter how I feel about that, it’s my nature and it’s the way we Czechs are, so there’s much truth in the national stereotype you mention!

      Being able to say that I’ve “lectured” at the Sorbonne was actually the main advantage of this conference 🙂 Other than that, I haven’t been much around: two conferences in France, three in Poland, two in Slovakia, and that’s about it.

      Yes, there are word limits at all levels. I’m sure there are pragmatical reasons for it, but this particular limit, 6,600 to 7,000 was slightly ridiculous. It’s something of a comfort that for my PhD thesis, I must write at least 120 standard pages but I’m allowed to exceed this limit up to over 200 pages, I think. It’s a sufficient span to fit into.

      I’m sure you have your struggles with word limits too!

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  6. I need you to do something scandalous and sexy for me. It’s perverted and smutty and I can’t believe I’m asking you to do something so raunchy…

    Can you take a photo of your bookshelf and post it?

    Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m holding on for so long now that I wonder if I can hold it any longer… 😉 It’s just a documentary photo, nothing too fancy, but as you asked for it, I needed to satisfy you 😀

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          1. You can breathe again… If you haven’t already died. It turns out that I signed up to Instagram god knows when and I can’t get into my account … I may or may not have disabled it, so I can’t get pussyhasfurballs dammit 😦

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          2. *breathes in mightily* Yeah, that sucks 😦 Reminds me of when I couldn’t get in my Yahoo account. I didn’t get in and had to pick a different name and make a new account. I hate Yahoo. Anyway. I’ll know you by your pussy if you manage to return to Instagram 😉

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  7. Oh my god, you made my (very long) (work)day! I can tell you why you chose a career and a blog where you need to write, because you are really good at it and if you want immensly funny! Can’t stop reading your articles!

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    1. And you made my day by this lovely comment! It’s incredibly reassuring to see that my post amused a reader or two, that’s what I went for 🙂 It’s nice of you to explain to me why I’m writing though I hate it, I wish it were the case! I wish you an enjoyable summer and very short workdays! 😉

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