Thursday, September 22, 2016

Collaborating with myself

So it seems I'm going back to the beginning. I've been asked to write an essay whose topic overlaps with the subject of my first book--and though I suppose I could hit 8,000 words by writing "see my book" 2,666 times, I've decided not to go that route. Instead, I've been re-reading notes I made in the earliest stages of my dissertation research, reconsidering texts I decided not to write about, and reopening debates I thought I'd slammed shut.

Sure, there's new stuff to consider: scholarship that's been done in the intervening years, primary texts that were never on my radar screen. But the easiest point of entry is through work I've already done (even if I don't remember it). I have a file folder of notes from the summer I spent reading through the rare books library almost at random, and a stack of books that I bought in the course of my research, filled with sticky flags and marginalia, but at this point never expected to open again.

Even the books I didn't buy are somehow finding me, as I noted on Twitter:

I know that we're never "done" with the subjects we write about and that the nature of scholarly publishing means we're only recognized as authorities on topics once we've moved on to new ones. But though I tend to think of my publications as external hard drives--off-site storage for everything I once knew or thought about a particular topic--that's not quite true. A fuller record emerges in the careful longhand notes I took on pages torn from legal pads, in the fights I pick in the margins of books, and in the queries that appear in ancient brainstorming documents that still live in my computer.

Encountering some of this is embarrassing. The margins of the dissertation that I last read in 2001 show me trying, desperately, to believe that the author hadn't said everything there was to say about a particular text. So "duh," "no it doesn't!" and "this can't be true" make regular appearances. I also take it upon myself to correct the author's typos.

But the majority of these encounters are pleasurable. I'm delighted to find I took detailed notes on things I no longer remember reading, and some underlined and starred passages that I'd forgotten strike me as so provocative or true that they're like a little hit of the old drug, jolting me with some of the same excitement I felt working on this material the first time around. (But minus the agony, tedium, and self-doubt; whether this means that the drug I was taking in grad school was purer and hence more dangerous, or cut with innumerable dubious substances, I leave you to decide.)

Chiefly, though, re-reading my notes helps me to see the questions I haven't settled and the issues I still want to explore. There's one fight I chose not to have that maybe I do want to have. There's a text I excluded that now feels compelling. Sometimes I think of my first book as a decade-long struggle to chisel out, ever more finely, ideas that were already there from the beginning. But going back to these notes reminds me that I haven't actually been thinking the same thoughts for fifteen years. Even if it's true that I chose the best ones, some of the scraps that I left on the floor aren't half bad.

This essay isn't going to be revolutionary, and neither will it come as a surprise to anyone who knows my book. But I'm more interested in extending that work than I thought I was. I'm also enjoying this opportunity to collaborate with my earlier self, the one who didn't yet know all the answers.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

This is awesome. I sometimes find myself requesting the same articles I've read in the past, and then realize once I've gotten them that I've already read this. So I look in files and there it is -- heavily annotated. I love rereading my own notes and then seeing something new in the text, too. It's funny how a little time and perspective can change your mind about these things, too. :)

liz said...

I love this post. It is at once a pleasure and an embarrassment to encounter one's old self. I am having this experience a lot this semester, as I'm teaching some novels I last read in grad school or college. Beneath the heading for the second chapter of Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance, 20 year-old me wrote, "an experiment in discomfort."

A few years ago, I was visiting the city where I did my Ph.D., and I went to a used book store I frequented all those years ago. Just browsing, I saw a title I remembered reading in grad school and pulled it off the shelf. The marginalia was immediately familiar; it was my old book! I didn't buy it back.

Anonymous said...

Wait. You wrote in a library book? That's sociopathic.

Flavia said...


For texts I teach frequently, and my first encounters with which were--shall we say--intense, I've sometimes had to buy new copies of the exact same editions just because I can't bear to encounter those old notes! (Or because the texts are so marked up there's no space for teaching-appropriate ones.)


I'm surprised, too. I had no memory of that, nor do I think it was typical of me even at age 26. (Maybe it's the fact that it was a fairly obscure dissertation, held by a library with no connection to the author?) I'll probably erase most of it before I return it.

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