Sunday, January 02, 2011

I Killed My Book: And Other Highly Personal Thoughts On Writing To Begin the New Year

What would life be like if you started over again?
Sometime last fall I made decision to kill a book that I had worked on for a long, long time, a book that people still ask me about.  This is how it went.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I began Tenured Radical back in 2006 because I was in a Bad Way and trying to Work Out $ome $hit.  At the time,  I had gone through a major institutional trauma and survived it, just barely, and at a high cost to those close to me.   Central to this institutional trauma was a rather profound and vicious trashing of The Book.  Blogging became a way of returning to the book, a project that had become so utterly soiled by its use as a vehicle for expressing contempt for me that I couldn't look at it without becoming enraged or suffering a profound sense of loss.

For a time, blogging worked to jump start what constituted a rescue operation rather than what could have been the satisfactory completion of an intellectual project that I was pleased with and whose progress gave me pleasure.  I did go back to The Book; I revised nearly all of it.  But it gave me no pleasure, and somehow I could never finish it.  Every time I tried to finish it, I would get stuck and become depressed.  In the meantime, in the parallel world of public life, I was more or less bouncing back.  I was snapping out blog posts, building the readership for Tenured Radical, developing relationships with other bloggers that led to collaborations and even print publications, getting my posts reprinted and linked to by a highly respectable web trade press, starting a monograph series with a friend, writing op-eds, blogging for the New York Times, finishing academic articles and nonfiction essays. One of my articles won a prize, of all things -- an article that had been rejected by several journals before being accepted.

Mirabile dictu -- about three years ago, on a whim I do not even recall conceiving in any deliberate way, I started a new book.

I went to Kauai.  I went to Paris.  I went to South Africa. I wrote my ass off everywhere I went.

The revival of my writing life -- not as good as before but better than before, dude! -- meant that I was also able to extract myself from other bad professional dynamics that were haunting me.  If for no other reason, I needed the time to write rather than to brood on the hypocrisy and evil-mindedness of others.  I have applied for jobs, not because I was desperate to leave the scene of the crime, but because I was finally able to imagine myself as an autonomous person who was not bound by other people's unwelcome judgments and expectations.  In turn, at Zenith, I was able to extract myself from the big swirly hole of unresolved grievances.  (Here is a lesson learned:  it is often the case that academics do you dirt without ever believing it was personal, even when it was personal.  Holding this reality, and the opposite reality of deliberate cruelty you experienced or observed, in your head at the same time, can be a little mind-blowing.  But try it, because in my experience it actually works better as a strategy for getting on with life than imagining that people who dislike you through no fault of your own will apologize, or make up for, what they contributed to making your life hellish.)

You can be an academic and also be yourself. Try it.
But back to the book I killed.  I thought it was possible to write two books at the same time, particularly when one of them was nearly done, and I was so excited by the other one that the energy from Project 2 would have to leak over in some positive way to Project 1.  But in the end, it didn't.  In the end, the project that became the object of such controversy was ruined for me.  The other problem was, not only did people keep asking me about Project 1, but the effort I was putting back into bringing it back from the dead was taking away from other things that mattered to me more. 

One day last fall, I wondered how long I could continue on with the fantasy that I was going to devote a significant chunk of what remains of my life to finishing a book that had so many bad memories and bad feelings associated with it, and that upon reflection, had been written by an entirely different person.  I then went into negotiations with myself, and the outcome was an alternative fantasy that seemed viable: breaking up what I had done into five separate articles and publishing them.  By that afternoon I had pulled a chapter, re-written it, and sent it off on its long, tedious journey towards publication.

Who knows?  Maybe some day some one will say to me, "Jeez, you oughta pull those articles together into a book!"  And then I will whip out the last, aged, essay, labeled "Introduction" and preserved from hard drive to hard drive, and do it.

20 comments:

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I just went backe and read your poste about the relationship between this booke and your promotion to professor. It sounds like none of the people that *used* your booke as a bludgeon to hammer you with were even qualified to judge it. And it also sounds like you were well aware of this fact and knew that their stated opinions of the booke had nothing to do with the booke per se, and everything to do with their desire to punish you for other perceived grievances.

Accordingly, I don't understand why you internalized their stated opinions of your booke, or in any way allowed their stated opinions of your booke to influence your own attitudes towards the booke.

haphazardmusings said...

This post gives me so much hope. I'm kind of in a dark place re: my academic career, and it's nice to see someone who has flourished despite serious setbacks. Thank you for sharing this!

David Shorter said...

Thank you for such an inspiring post. I am struck by your caption under the picture, "You can be an academic and also be yourself. Try it." I am here now in my life. I recently gave up the second book that I was going to write and am excited to write the book I wanted to write but was told not to by a senior colleague. It dawned on me: I'm tenured. So what's at stake here? More money? Would I accept some guy off the street saying here's some cash, now be unhappy. No. So why am I making such professional decisions. Of course, you and I can talk like this because we are tenured. But that being said, I believe there is a lot to be learned from your post, particularly about the role of "judgment" in the academy.

Janice said...

*hearty cheers*

Getting what you can out of the project in terms of articles sounds like a very smart way to get rid of it and get some benefit from the book you don't want to finish. That'd be such a waste when you can go on to something that really engages you.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I've never dumped a whole book, but twice in my writing career (once in the dissertation and once VERY late in the book revisions process) I just plain threw out large chunks of writing that I had spent a great deal of time on. I think it was about 6,000 words each time. It was terrifying, but in both cases, 48 hours later, I felt lighter, and free.

Your post here is a great lesson in the benefits of walking away. I have a feeling that I'm going to be revisiting it again and again.

Antagonym said...

I had a really painful experience with my former committee chair, and actually ended up having to remove said venerable, important person in my field from my committee. It was a profoundly painful decision, but -- lo and behold -- I've actually been writing since he left, instead of staring blankly at my computer screen.

Even though I knew that the painful experience was in the past for him, and that it didn't inform his perception of me anymore, it unfortunately wasn't in the past for me. I can completely understand that sometimes you just have to get rid of something that has those kinds of negative associations for you. Sometimes you can't rationalize yourself out of a negative association, as horrifying as that is to say.

I think from a third-party perspective, I would find it easy to agree with Comrade PhysioProf that this is entirely illogical; from the perspective I gained from the experience with my chair, I definitely understand killing the book, and I'm inspired by your willingness to do so.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Wow. I'd never read the beginnings of this blog, and am so very glad you posted this. Part of -- in fact most of -- my non-blogging of late and of my past 18 months has been taken up with something similar, down to the not thinking things are personal, but in many ways more insidious, because nothing is open or official. In my case, if the issues were to go to faculty outside my very small department, there's a good chance I'd find a lot of support, but at the risk of real damage to many campus and non-campus relationships.

Thank you for posting this. It's good to know that we can recover, and even prosper, after facing such personalized and unjustified opposition. And it's especially cool to know that your work is EVEN BETTER!

calugg said...

Ah....Colleagues and I killed a book project because it simply wasn't working. We had pulled together a dandy research article, and thought, "Gee....this would make a really cool book in our field."

Except we could never finish it. I looked at my own section with greater and greater trepidation (and then guilt). Finally, we decided after being a year late, that there was no saving this project. So, it was abandoned.

And I've been feeling great and all sorts of creative ever since. Sometimes, if things just aren't working--particularly after years of flailing, it might actually be time to put it down.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. A friend directed me to this post (but I am a frequent reader) because it parallels so much of what I'm experiencing now (not the book part, but the "hypocrisy and the evil-mindedness of others" part). As it stands today, I'm leveled, and I don't know just how I'll go forward or even if I'll go forward in an academic career. My confidence is badly shaken, and I'm not sure-- based on these evil-minded" people-- if I even belong in this profession.

But I appreciate your willingness to talk about how you came back, rebounded. Maybe that's possible for me, too.

Susan said...

What a great story. It's a reminder that things don't always come out in the way you thought. I never ditched a manuscript that was as far along as yours, but I did ditch a couple of projects that had led to some interesting articles. And then I thought -- I don't have anything more interesting to say on this.

And as I read this, I thought, "Well, she could turn it into articles" -- and lo and behold, so you are! Good job.

anthony grafton said...

Thanks for this revealing and constructive post. Like others commenting, I've abandoned big projects when they were well along to something like completion. Like you, I've tried seriously, and failed, to do two important things at once. The main thing is: pick up, go on, and do the project that really calls to you. And in your case, outlive the bastards and outachieve that before them.

Happy new year, TR!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Just to be clear, I'm not at all quibbling with the general point that sometimes big projects with a lot of sunk effort need to be abandoned. In fact, in science like in all creative high-risk endeavors, learning when to stop going down what seemed at the outset to be a fruitful path is one of the most important aspects of professional development.

Diane Campbell said...

I understand CP's question but it has been my experience that having little or no respect for the person has not ever prevented me from being bothered by the person's opinion. I've argued more than once with myself that this is profoundly stupid on my part. If I wouldn't believe it if he/she told me the sun was shining, why would I listen to his/her evaluation, even if only to shoot it down point by point? I can only think that it relates to that bias that makes us concentrate on the one quibble in a pile of praise.

As for the project, I know that I have mental associations that seem set in concrete so I am very impressed that you were able to shut up the noise enough to get the articles out of the manuscript. Congratulations!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Um ... gotta say, I don't know if this helps at all, but my Superdean has been saying to me for over a year now pretty much what CPP says in hir first comment: why do you care, especially when that person has done everything to lose your respect, and when you have the potential to be a far better scholar than zie will ever be?

I don't know if it's a gendered thing, or what, but I know that, even when I have the approval of many, it's the ones that deny it for no good reason are the ones I cling to. Gods that sounds dysfunctional, doesn't it?

LouMac said...

Another Damned Medievalist - I also wonder if it's partly gendered (only partly - some of my male colleagues have been through this kind of self-doubt). I went into an absurd tailspin after reading one incredibly hateful student evaluation (the other 49 were good-to-excellent). Everyone, myself included, wondered why I was giving this one voice so much power over me, and giving the positive voices so little power. I absolutely understand how one can somatise the negative opinions of those one doesn't even respect. I think it's partly because the hateful voices, even if stupid, are more likely to intersect with dominant-oppressive ideologies (sexist, homophobic, etc.) - plus, it's depressing to hear that kind of discourse from people supposed to be capable of nuanced thought.

Tenured Radical said...

LouMac points to an important feature of this: the Unfortunate Events, as I called them, were inflected with sexism, more so than homophobia; but also took on a kind of irrationality that allowed me (the person) and my many accomplishments to become invisible. I think part of the point of the post is that this kind of trauma can be quite resistant to curative, rational thought. Although I understand the spirit in while several of you say that it is, the problem with that model is that it can lead to banging one's head against the wall and not getting anywhere. That's where I was, at any rate, and then I noticed that I have been fantastically productive working on other things. So it seemed like a no-brainer.

And no, I don't think it's just women. Some of the people who were on both sides of my debacle have been just as damaged by the undercurrent of contempt in my department, and they aren't all women. And all the perps weren't men....

Historiann said...

Great post and a great discussion. Per TR's, ADM's, and CPP's comments about how and why some might internalize negative opinions of ourselves or our work: I think it has to do with the fact that most of us in academia have internalized meritocratic values and we believe in the rough justice and fairness of the system we're in. We've succeeded in it so far--we think--so it must reward the righteous, the just, and the best. And then we run into a bad department or bad work situation that gives us a 180-degree different assessment of ourselves and our work. . . and it's really hard to talk yourself out of that kind of "peer review," esp. when your "peers" have power over you (tenure and promotion decisions primarily, but there are other, more subtle power relations.)

I know, because it happened to me too. I was younger than TR when this happened to me and not yet up for tenure, so I was able to find another job where (amazingly enough) I was treated like a professional and an expert in my field, instead of like the troublemaker-bitch-snob I was told I was in my first job. But, it still took me a long time to get over the anger. I still think I need to grow a thicker skin and take more risks.

Redbookish said...

Wonderful post -- I'll maybe go back & read the original circs, but it's absolutely fascinating & illuminating about writing.

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