Sunday, July 10, 2016

Bludgeoned into meaning

Not so long ago, a scholar I admire asked where I was in my book project. I made a face and said something about its still being early days: I had two decent chapter drafts, one messy chapter draft, and one REALLY messy chapter draft. I paused, surprised. "So I guess it's about half drafted."

Put like that, it sounds like I'm well on my way. Put like that, I could have a complete draft in eighteen months.

Of course, I wrote the first draft of my first book (a/k/a "my dissertation") in three and a half years, and it still took another six or seven to revise. Drafts are drafts, no matter how tidy or how smoothly they read. At the moment, only one of my chapters has a big take-away; the others have local arguments and interesting bits sprinkled throughout, but they don't amount to a larger whole. And getting to that point will be neither easy nor speedy.

Still. I'm a better reviser than I am a writer, and having matter to work with, however shapeless and unformed, is always a comfort. The idea that I might have all the pieces, relatively soon, is itself exciting and an incentive to keep going.

If each of us has some underlying writerly neurosis, something that drives all our decompensatory behaviors (procrastination, avoidance, despair), mine is the fear of stalling out: not moving forward, not having ideas, literally not being able to fill the page. Even at this stage in my career, I'm never convinced that I have enough to fill a ten-page conference paper, much less a 20-page essay or a 40-page chapter. But once I've made length, pages swollen with my shapeless blather, the anxiety lifts. Experience tells me I can always take a formless mass and bludgeon it into meaning. I can always gut it out. Maybe it'll take longer than I want and parts will be excruciating, but I know I can do it.

I don't want to speak too soon, because I do, after all, only have drafts of four chapters, two of which have large passages of incoherence. I don't really know what my remaining two chapters are going to be about, beyond a gimmicky gambit or two. And I have other major writing deadlines that will take my focus away from the book. But I drafted two not-totally-shitty chapters this year by working with only intermittent focus and averaging only some 1,000 words a week. Shooting for a complete draft by the end of 2017 (and settling for 2018) seems reasonable.

More importantly, I'm starting to see Book Two as something other than an amorphous project in which I'll be flailing about for a decade. It may still take a decade, but a ten-year project with discrete stages and goals is a whole 'nother thing, a thing I can get my head around.

Gut. It. Out.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

This gives me so much hope and makes me feel not as bad about my book that is taking/will take forever to get done. I've been using conferences as opportunities to make "some" progress, even if only ten pages at a time. But it's been four years since I started doing that. I have lots of conference papers, but no "chapters" per se. But still, at least I have things I'm trying to cobble together.

Keep fighting the good fight. I'm hoping that not being chair this year will give me more time to work on research, especially since I get to keep my course release in the fall and I'm teaching Shakespeare in the fall too.

Flavia said...


That's real writing! Keep it up!

I think the key here is understanding where your writing neuroses and anxieties lie, and finding strategies to work around them. I have friends who haaaaaaate revision, or have a hard time with completion (but who can generate text like nobody's business). For them maybe having a complete draft isn't such a milestone because that's not where their particular problems creep in. I'm sure that they, too, have developed good coping strategies, but I don't know what they'd be since that's not my writing/psychological profile.

What I think I'm realizing is that I'd been assuming that all second-book struggles have the same root: that everyone who has a hard time making progress or finishing is suffering from the same thing--the lack of structure/pressure (no dissertation to start with, no tenure clock or immediate peer pressure to keep the fire lit). But since there are different writing personalities, and they interact differently with external factors, including prior successes or failures, it makes sense to tailor one's coping strategies to one's specific anxieties and weaknesses.

(I know your book is a first book, so not all of the above is a direct response to you--just me continuing to think out loud about this stuff in this post!)

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

This is all helpful. I am one of those who hates revision, but of course, I know it's necessary and definitely makes for better work. It's just not as exciting as the drafting part for me, which is probably another reason putting all these papers together into a book is an intimidating slog for me. But knowing my hang up is important so I can fight against it!

I think I might have delayed jet lag or something. I have been utterly exhausted for two days, and that doesn't make for great motivation unfortunately. With summer winding down, I really want to make some progress so I better figure out my motivation!

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Bludgeon the fucke out of that motherfucker!