A sabbatical is a pretty great thing. The email is turned off, and there are no meetings or training sessions. It’s like being a student all over again, with blocks of time to read and write. Instead of scurrying around, I can focus. Let’s face it, email sucks.

I received the sabbatical because of a book contract. This is the hard part of being a student again: now I have to write a really big paper (80,000 good words, as I tell people). All the things that I have told students to do, now I have to do them, like hitting word counts with clear and concise prose. I have this deadline hanging over me, and with it comes anxiety and dread. Teachers have deadlines too, and there is a near constant, low-level stress with the deadlines of midterm grades, many papers to grade, classes to prepare for, reports to file, final grades to submit. Teachers, like students, always have something to do, are always bringing work home during the semester. But I have to admit that the faculty deadlines are smaller than the student ones. Faculty with large teaching loads don’t have the demanding weight of learning and writing under deadlines, the forced creativity of the student, journalist, and preacher. Deadlines are tough – ask Damocles, or the protagonist in “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

I do miss the camaraderie of graduate school. The burden was shared when we could commiserate and share ideas. There was a fecundity with the students, papers, seminars, libraries, and faculty, the atmosphere that stimulated ideas and arguments. My process is more lonely, working on my own and hoping for the best, interrogating an article or author but it’s a bit more one-sided than a live interaction. This is not to say that graduate school was smooth sailing, because there was a horrible guilt and competition. How do you share your pleasure at an effective day of writing with your friends, who may have been stuck or ineffective that day? Jealousy is rampant in academia, with high achieving people and agendas, and it all begins with graduate school and the oddness of writing a dissertation, which is something you’ve never done before and never quite do again. (Books are very different from dissertations. Books are written to sell to scholars and libraries, and to influence research and ideas; dissertations are written to please small committees, with copious footnotes, surveys of literature, and an air of defensiveness. The dissertations are often shelved and forgotten, especially given that the transition from dissertation to book is rare and rough.)

If someone asks how my classes and semester are going, I’ve learned to tell them about the book contract first, before mentioning the sabbatical. If I lead with the sabbatical, it results in suspicion and confusion; the eyes narrow judgmentally as they imagine a 5 month vacation. If I tell them about the book first, then there is sufficient respect to permit the sabbatical as potentially useful. People are funny like that.

I have a lot of notes on this project because I’ve been working on it for 5 years or so – ideas, paragraphs, research notes, and outlines that scraps of time here and there have created. I tell people it’s like the Pentagon Papers, that scene in the movie The Post where the reporters have thousands of photocopied pages from the Pentagon Papers, but out of order and without page numbers. They have stitch to the pages together and figure out the proper order. That’s a large part of what I have to do with all my notes. But then it becomes more than just stitching together, as new connections get made, new emphases, bits get moved, so it morphs in new ways. The parts don’t connect themselves, but form new connections that form new connections. It’s less of a paranoid bulletin board and more of being a lion tamer. But there is a thrill at the performing lion. Stephen King in The Green Mile writes how “the combination of pencil and memory creates a kind of practical magic, and magic is dangerous”; for Nabokov, “the pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.”

A sabbatical creates a different relationship to time. Blocks of time fly by as I try to absorb a book or article, or churn out my 930 words for the day. A whole day seemed like a luxury, but it quickly flies by. It is surprising just how much time is required to write, how quickly a few edits and expansions turn into 3 hours. Part of me is impatient and wants to get it all done, while the rational side urges “eye on the prize,” and “slow and steady wins the race.” I struggle between wanting it to be epic, and knowing it’s just a book, just a glimpse of an area that continues to evolve. I cannot master all the material, the endless books on tragedy and tragic theory. Just yesterday I bought another book, this one on Simone Weil and tragedy, but when and where do I draw the line? “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:2). I imagine most books are a result of exhaustion, a mental shoving of the material off the table – here it is, I’m done.

Writing requires an obsession with a topic. Even when I’m not working on this manuscript, I’m thinking about it. It may be with a sense of annoyance because I’m not sure what my next point is, or guilt because I didn’t get as far as I expected to, or with frustration that I want to get back to it and I can’t due to time constraints. A thought hits me that I want to expand on, but I’m sitting in the choir loft at choir practice, or driving somewhere, or swimming laps at the pool. It would be more convenient if it could do its job at the right time. The mind is funny, it works through things even when it is doing something else or engaged in monotony. So I try to commit it to memory, but Plato was right about literacy and writing, and my memory is crap thanks to all the keyboards around me.

I’m fortunate to have received a sabbatical from my institution, and I’m most grateful. But I will be glad to have this manuscript submitted in all its 7 Microsoft-Word-document-chapters glory.

Email still sucks, though.

AuthorKevin Taylor

When faced with another’s suffering, some like to comment “Well, at least …” Kate Bowler calls them minimizers: people who want a sufferer to somehow deserve their compassion, once one’s level of suffering has been accurately compared. She found herself worn out by their “tyranny of prescriptive joy.” It’s clear that people are uncomfortable with suffering, so better to give it a value.

Words attempt to measure and weigh, somewhere between “precise weighing and valid imagining … that pause to weigh incompatibles” in John Beer’s wondrous essay (20). Beer proceeds to evaluate writers and their sense of weighing and imagining, such as Dickens’ Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, with its manager who assays the words themselves, weighing them for profit and genuineness. He finds Wordsworth to be especially concerned with weight, imagination, and loss, and his images can have an earthiness, a measurability. There is an evocative turn, as when unbalanced incompatibles are held in a sublime and irrational unity: Wordsworth’s “that uncertain heaven, received/ Into the bosom of the steady lake” (so like the shift from “the heavens declare the glory of God“ to “the law of the Lord is perfect” in Psalm 19). Adrian Poole notes that tragedy tries to find the register for the words, but sometimes it’s only a stammering, the “oh” and “ah” so common in dramas (Tragedy: A Very Short Introduction, 92-96). How can these be represented onstage, are they stage directions or dialogue? The words may devolve into more primal sounds, the howl and the scream, more an animalistic non-speech.

Tragedy often slips into economic words, terms for valuing, cost, comparison, these goods versus those. What is true greatness? How do the obscure challenge the mighty, the worthless versus the worldly worthy? Can any great thing come out of Nazareth? In Simone Weil’s translation of the Iliad book 21, “Patroclus was worth much more than you.”

AuthorKevin Taylor

There are plenty of triumphant moments in the Bible: the exodus, David’s many victories, the building of the Temple, the return from exile, the coming of the Messiah with authority, power, and healing, and the apostles healing and converting huge groups of people.

But all of these Biblical triumphs are matched and followed by declines and disappointment. The people build a golden calf and God gives up on them (it’s Moses who convinces God not to). David’s dynasty is a big mess of intrigue, rebellion, and division, Jerusalem is conquered and its leaders exiled, and then the exilic hope fades when Zerubbabel dies and the Greeks conquer them. Jesus’ healing power becomes thwarted as his ministry progresses: the disciples continue to not understand even at the second miraculous feeding, the blind man in Mark 8:22-26 requires a second touch, and the disciples fail to exorcise a spirit in 9:14-19: you unbelieving generation! is all Jesus can say (9:19). The disciples will want honor and glory in Jesus’ coming kingdom, and they will scatter at his arrest and crucifixion. The book of Acts will end limply, with Paul preaching while imprisoned, and the movement seemingly stifled.

It’s easy to think of Christianity as triumphalistic in its proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection and new kingdom, but more than anything it is soberly realistic. Even the best of actions result in mixed results and reactions, and there is a resistance and a growing unbelief. There is trust that God will resolve things in the end, but the manner of that resolution remains unknown.

AuthorKevin Taylor

I’ve been disappointed in my 3 year old laptop’s battery life. It should be getting roughly 8 hours of battery life, but I was getting only about 3 hours of battery. A friend asked me about Dropbox, so I turned it off. Sure enough, the battery life went back up to 7 hours.

Dropbox is basically a second operating system. You can share any file on your computer with other people through Dropbox – it’s not just limited to files in the Dropbox folder. This is really powerful and convenient, but it also means it has to scan your whole system constantly. OneDrive and iCloud don’t work this way; you can only share things from those actual folders. They don’t have to monitor the whole file system for changes and shared status.

At this point, given the power of iCloud, I could almost abandon Dropbox. I still use Dropbox for syncing Scrivener, and sharing files with certain people. So I’m left launching and quitting the Dropbox app to sync things up and then stop the process.

AuthorKevin Taylor

I continue to find Scrivener and Ulysses so interesting, as they solve the same problem of long-form writing in different ways: how to work on a large and complex project, but in smaller chunks? These two applications address this in different ways. Scrivener uses rich text, Dropbox syncing, and powerful (but fiddly) options, while Ulysses uses plain text, iCloud syncing, and far fewer options. Scrivener is very mature (in fact, the recent version pruned some things), while Ulysses is still young.

Dropbox sync is renowned for its power and reliability, while iCloud sync has had a bad reputation in the past. For various reasons, Scrivener uses Dropbox to sync projects across devices (if you have one device, you can totally ignore this). But the Scrivener sync via Dropbox is a bit painful. You must always quit Scrivener so as to not have multiple instances open at once, and you have to wait for the sync at the beginning and end of launch. This is especially noticeable on iOS, where there’s a good 15 second launch and sync wait, which feels interminable in today’s computing world. Part of this is Scrivener’s ability to store many file types. Ulysses only uses and syncs plain text, and it’s instantaneous. Total win for Ulysses.

Ulysses’ plain text is also much simpler, in that all your text looks exactly the same. There are no mis-matched fonts, for example (I wish Scrivener had the option to force this, so that only one font was permitted, ever). But this font unanimity in Ulysses does lose a bit of functionality, especially for academic writing. You just don’t want to see a book title with asterisks around it, it’s a bit annoying. For blogs and things it’s fine, but it does hide a bit too much of the final product. So this is a draw; I like Ulysses’ simplicity and clarity, but I do like Scrivener’s rich text power. (What I would really like is something in-between, a rich text that forced one font and font size on the project).

Scrivener is more robust in footnotes, compiling, and options. Although it can get fiddly, it is so powerful. It is rare to want an option in Scrivener and not be able to find it, and the app does try to hide the options in many ways. But it’s still tempting to mess with options instead of write. For example, you can work with the project in terms of a cork board and notecards, an outline, or as a list of documents, which is powerful but also distracting. I think Scrivener wins here, but with a bit of a caveat.

Ulysses has a wonderful search and jump to feature – command-O lets you search and go. This is incredibly useful. If you think of something, or want to check something, You can very quickly jump to it with a small sub-menu search result (it’s a bit like Google, Sherlock or Launchbar in terms of returning results). Scrivener has a more traditional approach like a Finder search, with part of the window pane turning into a list of results. This is powerful in many ways, but also a bit more slow and daunting. Yet Scrivener does have a back-arrow feature, where you can go back to a recent file, manipulate it, and then go forward to where you were. (The main benefit to these kinds of apps is being able to work on a long document in pieces, and move quickly among these pieces). Ulysses lacks this, and I miss it.

Scrivener also tracks your progress in some powerful ways. I like being able to see my word count for today, for example, and Ulysses oddly omits this. Ulysses does have a cheesy goal setting for a document’s word length, displayed as a weird kind of circle (sort of like the Activity app on the iPhone), but that’s it.

There’s a certain indie developer feel with Scrivener; it has the fingerprint of a thoughtful, dedicated programmer. The program is delightful in many ways, as is the manual. Keith Blount, the mind behind Scrivener, wants to get it totally right, and I really admire that. Ulysses feels a bit more of a committee project. It’s great, beautiful, powerful, it works and has unity, but doesn’t have the compassionate intensity that Scrivener does.

As I’ve noted before, the mistake with both apps is to create lots of sheets or documents. It’s very tempting to have also sorts of placeholders for things you think you will include, and then the project becomes way too unwieldy. I’ve spent far too much time condensing and pruning.

Having used both apps for 6 months or so (I actually put 3 chapters in Scrivener, and 3 different chapters in Ulysses), I do think Scrivener is more mature, and is better for academic writing. But Ulysses is great too, and can work for academic writing, and in some ways excels. But Ulysses is a better platform for blog posts, class notes, and presentation notes that don’t have footnotes don’t need more complex exporting. So I have moved everything back to Scrivener for my book project, but I’m writing this blog post in Ulysses. Whatever you choose, happy writing.

AuthorKevin Taylor