Thursday, December 31, 2015

Writing without a net

As I mentioned yesterday, my Milton chapter is getting out of control:

Based on what I have left to cover, I'd estimate this chapter will ultimately hit 30,000 words. For comparison, my entire first book was 92,000 words.

This is, frankly, never a problem I've had before. Though I know people who can sit down and produce 70 pages practically at a sitting, I usually have the opposite problem: I run short. When I'm writing to deadline, my first fear is always that I won't make length, that I won't have enough to say--and though that's never a problem in the end, I accrete text only slowly, cutting as I expand. (And I can cut like nobody's business, transforming a 50-page chapter into a 10-page conference paper in a matter of hours.)

So I'm not really sure what this means: that I'm traveling down too many scenic by-roads (which I'll eventually cut or spin off as separate articles)? That I'm going to have two really meaty and awesome chapters? Or that the project is becoming something other than what I thought it was--which is to say, an entire book on Milton?

Any of these things seems possible, but I really don't want to be writing a book on Milton right now. I've always assumed that I might write a Milton book someday, but this book's organizing principle collapses if I'm only looking at one writer. It's supposed to be Larger Historical Phenomenon, Broken Down into Some Subphenomena, in a Bunch of Writers. If it's a Milton-only book, it becomes, basically, One Subphenomenon in One Writer.

Sure, the topic could be reoriented to fit a Milton-only approach. . . but right now I think the only way to do that would involve abandoning the bigger questions that most animate me, the ones that made me want to write this book in the first place.

So I'm not sure what's happening here, or what I'm doing, or whether it won't all collapse into flames in the end.

This is the "fun" part, yes?


undine said...

The Milton part may be telling you that it needs to be a book . . .

Anonymous said...

I think that happens fairly often when writing on Milton. My dissertation chapter on Milton ended up becoming two chapters (and half the dissertation); even after heavy cuts to both, my book has two Milton chapters (though it's now two out of eight). It doesn't surprise me, given the breadth and scope of Milton's output and the range of literary and sociopolitical concerns the work engages; two really meaty and awesome chapters sounds like a plausible outcome.

But I'm never sure whether the correct metaphor for writing on Milton is mitosis or metastasis.


Flavia said...


But that part needs to shut up!


Yes, I think that's exactly it--there's such a centripetal force to Milton's works that it's starting to seem as if they're ALLLLL somehow connected to the thing I'm interested in. Also, the fact that I teach a Milton class regularly means I probably know the body of his works better than I know that of any other author. . . and apparently had lots of half-formed thoughts about very minor poems that were just dying to get out.

Well--they can be conference papers, if nothing else!