Monday, January 15, 2007

How Is Your Book?

Fine. Thank you for asking.

I am raising this now because my writing vacation will be over in five days, and my sabbatical in seven days, and I have accomplished nowhere near as much as I intended to either a) when sabbatical began, or b) when I expressed the resolve on this blog to dig into the book again, although the year’s work has produced several articles poised for publication in the spring like little commuter planes on a runway. And there is an introduction to the book, heavily edited in pencil, sitting on the kitchen counter to my right while I write a blog entry instead. When I get back to work, there will be lots of people, whose feelings towards me run the gamut of deep affection to – well, for a couple, and only a couple, distaste – and most of these people will say at some point in our initial conversation:

“So – how is your book?”

…. And I need to have something to say. So I will say: “Fine! Thank you for asking.” Then I will gently and skillfully turn the topic to something else, like, “So…I see that Bad Italian Restaurant has finally closed.” The only people who will not ask after my book will be those poor, dear, gentle colleagues who are themselves suffering from terminal writer’s block. They would not dream of asking about my book because then I might thoughtlessly respond by asking about…oh dear…their books. Which I wouldn’t, both because I am a nicer person than that, and because Zenith is a small enough place that it is pretty easy to keep in your mind who has published lately and who hasn’t, even if you have been on some form of sabbatical or leave for almost two years.

Now if my book isn’t finished (and as you who are reading this know it really couldn’t be because I was unable to look at it for eleven months) the progress I can report is that I have been doing a pencil edit, I have located what I consider to be some serious flaws, and I know how to fix them. This last was a particularly big step, and in fact I had that eureka moment in which I was able to re-state what the book is about in one sentence.

I have also accepted the fact that that making this book really work will take a lot of labor, which I am starting to wrap my head around, because I have a new project going that is really pretty exciting and I would rather expend my creative energy there. But this progress is not insignificant: one of the things I have learned over the twenty years since I finished my dissertation is that hard work isn’t such a big deal, but figuring out how to direct it even semi-efficiently can be. And the thing I have learned only in the past few months is, having survived the Unfortunate Events, I am free to write exactly what I please. This new freedom seems to be allowing me, in fits and starts, to imagine a slim-trim, fighting fit book coming out of a manuscript that was trying to do too many things for too many people. And slowly but surely, I am getting it what that book looks like. I am now permitting myself to do something Ann Lamott describes in “Bird by Bird,” a great writing book if there ever was one, which is discard things I have written – sometimes labored over – because they don’t belong in this book. They belong in someone else’s book. Or maybe another book of mine. I don’t know: but they don’t belong in this book.

This, in turn, has allowed me to imagine why the people who have read the previous incarnation of the mss. either love it or hate it – which is exactly the range of response, by the way. There are no in-betweenies. And let me hasten to say that about 80% of my readers did love it. And the 20% who hated it – oh baby. I remember reading one review and thinking to myself, “It’s a good thing I have published a lot already otherwise I might just quit and make fence rails for a living.” Anyway, I think the 80% saw the book I am now seeing and spoke to that: I think the twenty-per centers saw some piece of it that was written to speak to them but then, in horror, saw me abandon that voice or theme, never to return to it. For them, what I now see as the core of the book was just landscape. The eighty-per centers saw the parts written for the twenty-per centers and thought, “Oh well, she’s a smart woman. This, of course, will be edited out of the final manuscript,” and then returned to the book they really wanted to read. Re-reading what reviews I have in my possession, they make much better sense than they did a year ago.

But let’s get back to the “fine” part, since it is the beginning of term, and all of us will be asked How We Are, which often means, or is hard not to hear as, “What have you done lately?” Resist the urge to make a list of your accomplishments, which will simultaneously send your brain into a mad dash about whether it is enough, or how much you regret that you didn’t finish. Look them square in the eye and say “Fine, thank you.” Because if you are still writing, if can still care about whatever major project you are working on, if you still sit down a few days a week and knock out some prose, then I have to tell you – you are fine.

This is what I learned on my sabbatical. Ta-da.

6 comments:

Lesboprof said...

I was just posting on epiphanies, or eureka moments, and I wanted to say that I can completely relate to yours. And your issue about what to tell people.

I am now part of a writing group, which I love. And yet... I had them look over an outline for a new piece last fall, told them the deadline (which was late fall), and have been fielding questions about the piece since then. Right now, it is still in very small bits and nowhere near submission. Each time they ask, I have been embarrassed.

I realized, after a good talk with my partner in which I confessed my sin and showed her how little was done, that I have been worrying about my own tenure bid, which has been distracting me from everything else. Somehow, after that revelation, I find the task more approachable. I hope to set to task soon.

Good luck with the book and your new sense of calm. You have earned it!

anthony grafton said...

As one currently enjoying a leave--and already beginning to dread those conversations about progress next fall--thank you! You've suggested some really helpful ways to think about what it means to get somewhere with a project.

Onwards and upwards!

Horace said...

As someone much earlier in the career, it is heartening to be reminded that second books don't spring from the academic mind like print-Anthenae: fully-formed and wisdom embodied.

My tenure situation doesn't require the book, but rather several articles which I have busily set about turning out in my first three semesters.

I haven't really looked at the book project, nee dissertation, for about three years now, except to cannibalize it for conference papers.

While I haven't had a eureka moment, the project is finally coming into focus (three years on the job market actually helped that process), and it's good to know that there is a way forward from full draft manuscript to well, better full draft manuscript.

Good luck on the rest of the road. I'm sure this book will be even better than the last. (And here's hoping my fist book is just good enough--like the dissertation advisor who first saw it that first full draft.

The Combat Philosopher said...

TR,
You said,

"...one of the things I have learned over the twenty years since I finished my dissertation is that hard work isn’t such a big deal, but figuring out how to direct it even semi-efficiently can be."

All I can say is 'Amen' to this.

I have just submitted a big paper writing project that I have been working on for years. I am now trying to figure which of my many projects should come next. This is proving harder than I thought it would be. I have about three papers that just need writing. However, the question of a book project is getting more and more brain time. Where should I direct the energy? This is a tough question.

That being said, I just did my year end report. Two papers published last year, one still with the referees and one rejected (the shortest). I guess I should feel happy about this. I want to move on though. I have too many co-workers who have stalled and never publish any more. Ahh well.

Anyhow, as usual, thanks for the insights.

The CP

susie said...

Thank you for the lovely post! It's always good to hear that writing is hard work for other people. (although a bit depressing that, as Horace says, the writng won't become miraculously easy and Athena-like if one can only get past the dissertation.)

Writing in humanities disciplines is especially difficult because it has to be slow ---- so many of the ideas need to be pondered for a long time, like you had to ponder over the reviewer comments. A book is a slow roast, not microwave popcorn.

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