Writing conference papers is an agricultural process.
You see the Call for Papers, and prepare the ground by studying the conference theme, allowing your imagination to raise a number of virtual crops which you study carefully in your mind; and if you feel one is viable and inspiring and useful in the overall development of your farm and the work of others, you write it up and send it in. Will it be accepted? You can’t hold up the rest of your work waiting to find out, but at the same time you have to set aside notional time and mentally re-balance future tasks and projects in case it is. So: it is.
You plough and plant, and realise the ground wasn’t quite as you’d imagined it, but the seed goes in. The weather is unpredictable, and the rest of the farm refuses to stand still and steady; but at first it doesn’t matter, because the conference date is so far away. But then it begins to matter, because the date is suddenly looming. Your plans for fertilising and weeding have gone out the window, along with time to recover from any torrential downpours at terrible times in the growing cycle, or equally relentless bouts of dry weather and scoriating winds. By force of will, late nights, and endless anxieties you find yourself with a field of golden heavy-headed corn that surpasses your wildest imagining: Indeed, so vast has the crop become that by itself it could fill the entire conference several times over, and overspill the 20 minutes allotted without registering.
You break out the combine harvester. The weather changes, and suddenly a farm inspection team arrives, all 250 ewes begin to lamb, and a neighbour arrives with some bad news about the herd. You really need 20 minutes of standing crop to deliver. You cut your first swathe around the field; the grain is excellent, and that’s wonderful from one point of view, but agonising from another as you’ve already cut it down, and also because you still have a massive field in front of you. Excellent point after excellent point is ruthlessly cut down, threshed out and left in the field – no time for tractors and trailers and taking grain back and forth to the barn. Agony after surgical agony. But finally the joy of a 20 minute stand: Finally a paper and presentation you can deliver. Never mind that the answers to many of the questions people ask you in the discussion period afterward lie rotting in the field and blowing about in the wind; that 10 minutes is wonderful: Some of those threshed and winnowed ideas that blew past the combine’s cab come briefly back to life again – disjointed and out of context, but vital and excited at being used.
And then it’s back to the farm.
(Written in honour of an excellent #ARA2016, 2/9/2016.)