Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Writing a book

For the past couple of summers I’ve been working on a book project. It’s on a subject I started thinking about as I was finishing my dissertation, and I even had a paragraph about it as my next-book-after-the-diss.-book in my job application letters. Of course, I then got a job that didn’t require a book for tenure, and I happily chucked my dissertation aside (having taken a few articles out of it, the last of which is now forthcoming). The dissertation had some really good cultural and literary analysis of individual texts but never hung together as a book, and it was a relief to let those individual analyses stand on their own without being cobbled together into a lame whole; we’ve all read enough of those books that should have been articles, and I didn’t want to contribute to that particular publishing phenomenon. So now I’m at work on this new book project and am trying to figure out what my own book-writing process, as opposed to the dissertation-writing process, looks like.

For the dissertation, my grad program and my director had standardized hoops for me to jump through in the form of the prospectus defense and individual chapters due to my committee at certain times. And of course my final diss. ended up looking quite different from my prospectus, which is what everyone had told me would happen and which was fine with my committee. The two hardest parts of the diss.-writing for me were (1) deciding what it all added up to, what my overall thesis was and what the big import of all my textual and cultural analysis was; and (2) how to organize my material into chapters; I ripped my chapters apart and put them back together in myriad ways for the entire process of the dissertation, and I could never tell that one way or the other made much difference, which I think is a pretty good indication that this wasn’t good book material (at least in my hands).

So now I’m on my own with this new book, no advisor or committee telling me what to do and no deadlines other than self-imposed. As I did with my diss., I’m working on a particular cultural phenomenon as depicted in literature in a certain time period. (Is that vague enough?) Because this phenomenon has had little critical attention, I’m always on the lookout for additional primary sources that deal with this phenomenon, which means that my source list is always in a state of flux. (So I’m a little jealous of books that deal with, say, the novels of an individual author, since such a project has clearer boundaries. Those are still difficult books to write, obviously, but at least the primary source list is more defined.) And I’m finding this project a fairly complicated one to imagine as a whole book, mostly because I’m dealing with so very many primary texts, some of which are big novels entirely devoted to the cultural phenomenon, some of which are short texts, some of which are nontraditional texts, some of which mention this cultural phenomenon only briefly. How do I fit all of this together into neat and seemly chapters? The way I handled it in my diss. was to discuss two texts per chapter and ruthlessly force them into some conformity, but it always felt fake, that I was placing the demands of writing a dissertation and pleasing my committee over the demands of my primary sources. And I think that was a fine decision to make in grad school, but I want to make a different decision now.

So here’s what I’m doing: I’m not planning the book. Nothing like a prospectus at all, even in my head. Oh sure, every once in a while I muse about how chapters might be arranged and what it all might add up to, but for the most part I’m not worrying about the whole. What I’ve done for the last couple of summers is to write about my individual texts, sometimes briefly and sometimes extensively, depending on what seems appropriate. I’m building a collection of short scraps of writing, two pages here, ten pages there. I don’t know yet how they’re all going to fit together, and I’m fine with that. Last summer I broke this rule a little bit because I wanted to have an in-process piece as a scholarship sample for my pre-tenure review; so I put together some scraps of writing that I thought might go together eventually, created some transitions between those scraps, and eventually wound up with a fifty-page draft chapter, but I’m deliberately not doing this yet for my other writing scraps. It’s been incredibly freeing and has helped me write very productively; I think that in the past I’ve sometimes been so worried about the whole project that I can’t work very effectively on the parts of the project, if that makes sense.

My inspiration for this approach is Anne Lamott, whose Bird by Bird was an incredibly important book for me to read when I was writing my diss. The two most important things I got from her were (a) write "shitty first drafts," and (b) on any given day, tackle only a little piece of the big picture. (She keeps a 1” x 1” picture frame on her desk as a reminder that, at any given moment, she just needs to fill in that much of the overall picture that she’s working toward.) Even my language of “scraps” for what I’ve been writing is a way for me to relax and let my anxieties about the final product go; I essentially say to myself, “I can write really badly today, because I’m not working on a chapter; I’m just writing scraps to go into the computerized version of a shoe box.” This might sound like I’m devaluing the work I’m doing, but actually I’m lowering the bar so that I can actually do work, thus circumventing the paralysis problem I dealt with when working on my diss.

I’m also taking a lesson from my own composition classes and am realizing that I learn what I think by seeing what I write, so I’m putting aside the “big thesis” question for now and am waiting to see what burbles up when I start looking at all of these scraps together. I’ve got some ideas about what all of this might add up to in the argument department, but I’m spending very little time thinking about the question.

So then here’s the plan of action: I do this scrap-writing about primary sources for a couple of more summers. This summer I also seem to be scrap-writing for an introductory historical chapter. During the 2006-07 school year, I apply for a sabbatical the following year, which I think I will very likely get. We have the option of one semester at full-pay or one year at half-pay; given that financial picture, and knowing my own preference for working with some external structures in place (in grad school I turned down a second year of a dissertation scholarship to TA one course a term instead, and I got so much more done and was so much happier), I think I’ll choose the one semester option. During that semester, I’ll spread out all of my writing scraps and start putting the puzzle together, scrap by scrap. My goal for the end of my sabbatical term is to have an outline for the book and rough drafts for the chapters (my former isolated scraps, now happily residing with other scraps). I then start the revising project the next summer and in a couple of months have work that is polished enough to start sending out inquiry letters to publishers. So that’s the plan.

Potential problems with this plan:
  • People seem to think it’s weird, and maybe they know what they’re talking about. In my pre-tenure review “interview” with my department, I explained this process to my senior colleagues, all of whom found it very strange. They are very supportive of the book itself and think it’s going to be very publishable and a real contribution to scholarship, but they think I’m going about writing it in a very odd way. And they are senior to me, and most of them have written a book, so they probably know more than I do about how to write a book, so maybe they’re right and I’m wrong about this. On the other hand, I know my own writing process; in school, when we had to turn in outlines with our papers, I always wrote the paper, revised it, and then fulfilled the assignment by writing an outline based on my already-written paper. Writing an outline beforehand has just never worked for me for shorter assignments, so it’s not strange that it doesn’t seem to work very well for me with larger projects either.

  • It makes it difficult to “pitch” the book until it’s completely written. This means that it will be pretty hard for me to apply for grants that could extend my one-semester sabbatical to a full year, since I won’t really know what the book is going to look like until I’ve actually done the work of the sabbatical.

  • I won’t be producing articles from the book until the book is mostly done. In my field, it’s standard to publish one or two articles from the book before the book publication, and in fact successful publication of those articles is one way to pitch the book to publishers by proving that there’s real interest in the material. This is the one concrete suggestion that my senior colleagues made to me about my process, and I think that they’re right that I need to think about how to pursue article publication as I continue with my scrap-writing. This is an area of my overall plan that needs more thinking.

  • Finally, I do think it’s worth my bearing in mind that this approach toward writing the book may really be an elaborate mental disguise for a lack of confidence and/or an unwillingness to buckle down and do the hard work of planning chapters and developing a thesis. My current approach is to be aware of this potential but to continue with my scrap-writing as long as it seems productive, but I’ll need to reexamine the process at least annually to make sure that I’m still working effectively toward the larger goal of the book.
Whew! Sorry for such a long post. I thought that this blog entry could be the place for this year’s examination of the process that I mentioned in that last bullet point. And I’m also really curious to hear about other people’s writing processes, so please feel free to comment and share.