Monday, August 4, 2014

The Depths of My Ignorance

Where has Notorious been? Well, I've been writing. Just everything except blog posts.[1] In my very first post to this blog, back in 2007, I wrote: "If the blog begins to keep me from doing the actual work that it was created to motivate, the blog goes." Well, it's not that drastic, but spending hours a day, almost every day, either reading or writing on the summer projects has left me... well, I think I used up all my words for a while there.

But now we're here, just a few days short of the end of my Great Writing Summer with Many Projects, and by the end of the week I should be able to report back, but the short version is that a summer of ignoring virtually everything except those projects has kinda paid off, in that I've got some stuff to shove out the door very soon. I've also learned some stuff along the way, which I'll be blogging about soon as the summer winds down.  But here's the first one: When it comes to my new project, I'm pretty darned ignorant.

Now, before anyone cautions me not to be down on myself, let me note that I deliberately chose "ignorant" rather than "stupid." It's taken me eight years of grad school plus ten-plus years as a grown-up professor to realize that I'm probably not stupid, even for a person with a Ph.D. Sometimes I'm even pretty smart, with good ideas. But ignorance? Yeah, that's something else entirely.

Back when I was trying to figure out what my second-book project would be, I basically had two choices: build on what I already knew and continue researching/writing along those lines (hedgehog) or striking off for unknown country (fox). I opted for the latter approach, mainly because I didn't have anything really inspiring me in the former direction at that time. I knew it would be hard work essentially re-training myself. But diving into the first chapter of the new book project -- really diving in -- has been an exercise in realizing how many things I simply do not know about the place and time I've been studying and writing about lo these many years.

This has led to a few moments of despair and lots of "what the hell was I thinking?!?"  But on my better days, I think of this as an adventure. I hope that it becomes a book, and one that people will want to read. But by the time that I finish, at the very least I will have satisfied my own curiosity. And perhaps that's what it's all about, after all.
[1] Well, that, and answers to e-mails, grant applications, the syllabus for a brand-new course I'll be teaching in the fall... okay, a lot of things, now that I really think about it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Your Suitcase WILL Be Filled with Books

Here's one thing I've discovered in my many trips to Blargistan: Pack or purchase a small empty duffel, because you will be coming home with books.

Over the past decade and a half, I have schlepped home over fifty pounds of books[1]: four reference volumes (hardcover), about ten three-inch thick exhaustive studies (paperback, but still big and heavy), and more gifts from other scholars than I can count, some of which have absolutely nothing to do with what I work on, but it's the done thing.

What these all have in common is that they're impossible to get in the states. "Someday I may need this," I tell myself. So I pack them up, and sometimes pay an extra weight fee once I get to the airport. I hit upon the small duffel idea several years back, as a way to take the books on the plane and thus avoid the fee. Still, they're heavy, and cumbersome, and every time I'm sitting there the night before my return to the states, wondering how many clothes I can jettison to make room, wishing fervently for a book mule, I wonder whether it's worth it.

Today, it paid off. As part of the chapter I'm working on, I need some background on a particular government official. He was a big deal in his decade-long tenure, but I searched every catalog I could find, in vain, for some article or book about him. Zippo.

Then, I turned to my own bookshelves. I pulled down several of those exhaustive studies that I have yet to crack (seriously -- one of them runs to four volumes, and over 3,000 pages). I flipped to the indices. And lo and behold: four of the books I hauled home over the years have extensive entries on this guy.

So I've got the books stacked up on my coffee table, ready to dig into tomorrow to find out whether the text lives up to the promise of the index. I'm relieved to have something -- anything -- on this guy, because it looked like I was hitting a dead end that I could not afford to hit. I'm tickled pink that they were right there all along. But I'm also just as pleased that all that book hauling has paid off.

[1] You can actually view about 80% of these in the "after" picture of the previous post: they're the two middle shelves on the center bookshelf. The remaining 20% are up at my office.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The OTHER Summer Projects

When we last left our heroine, she was embarking on a summer without travel, the purpose of which was to enable her to complete an article, a book chapter (based on the article), and drafts of grant proposals in a ten-week period.

How am I doing at slightly past the halfway point? Well, thanks to a couple of writing support groups (one online, two in person), I've managed to get a mostly-done draft of the article, and I'm two thirds of the way through the first pass at the chapter draft. No work on the grant proposal yet, but that will come. I also realized that I neglected to factor in a couple of book reviews (one embarrassingly overdue) and a syllabus for a new course, but I'm chugging forward on those, too.

But I've not mentioned the other summer project: get my house in order. Literally. There are those thousands of multi-hour projects that you can't really take on during a semester workweek, and that you're too wiped out (or buried in grading) on the weekend to even contemplate. For me, a tidy house contributes to my peace of mind and productivity, but most often, my home, while not a complete disaster, looks a bit like this:

It puts me on edge. But it's also too overwhelming to think about most times. Yet last night, faced with the impending arrival of my young nephew who will be sleeping in that front room for four days, I decided that now was the time.

"I'll just tidy up a little," I thought. HAH! Five hours later, I had pulled and sorted stacks of papers, reshelved some books, taken others to be sent to the office. I had filled two bags full of recycling. Lo, I even dusted.

And now, Behold!

I am mighty! I am unstoppable! I am... What's that you say? My office?  Well.. um... Omigod is that a mountain lion behind you?!?


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Who are you writing to?

Today, the internets coughed up something called "Kurt Vonnegut's Eight Rules for Writing Fiction." I have no idea whether or not these are apocryphal or real, but here's one that stuck out to me:

"Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia."

Which quote brings up a question that I think we might all think about as we write: Who are we writing to? It's an important question: though we may want to reach a broad audience (Who among us says, "I'm aiming to write something that only six people will appreciate"? No one, that's who), in reality, we have a primary target audience, and who that audience is will determine how we write.

If you're a dissertator, the answer is fairly straightforward: you're writing for your dissertation committee, and especially for your primary adviser. So you're going to write to demonstrate all the skills you learned in the program: research, writing, argument.

If you're writing your first book, you're likely writing to specialists in the corner of the field you've staked out: You're likely going to be writing primarily to prove your bona fides as a grown-up scholar. With any luck, your book is going to be a clearly argued piece of scholarship, but with a narrow-ish appeal. Every so often, a first book is a smash hit that gets picked up and read by a broad swath of scholars, but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

But what about the second book, and any books beyond? You've proven yourself to first a dissertation committee (who have a vested interest in seeing you do a good job) and to a small field of specialists (who reserve judgment until they read the final product). But now, here you are, unshackled not only from the research that you probably began as a dissertator but by the particular expectations of why you needed to write in the first place. Now what?

Anyone who's embarked on a second book project knows that it can be a very daunting process. You're not only cut loose from the ties of what you're writing about; you now have to decide who you're writing for. Will this be another specialist book? A book that attempts to talk to a broader group of scholars by addressing a Big Question (with the implicit understanding that you may be sacrificing the comforting precision of your first book)? Are you going to try to write something that might be good for use by advanced undergraduates? Or -- hey! -- what about a popular history? Something that the general public might read and find intriguing?

That's a lot of questions for one little book that isn't even written yet. In my case, I think this time my imaginary audience right now is the upper-division undergraduate. At least, that's who I'd like this book to speak to. And yet I keep finding myself writing highly technical passages (like today's 700+ words on the evolution of a particular code of maritime law... seriously) that can't be in a book like that. So I guess we'll see.

But what about you? Who are you writing to?

Friday, June 27, 2014

I'm really trying to be philosophical about this.

In a fit of reorganization several weeks ago, inspired by the new organization for the book as a whole, I'd gone through my old files and put them all in a new order, deleting redundancies. Are the document summaries with the transcriptions? Yep, one for each one. Great. So this set of files is redundant and taking up space. Delete. Synchronize all backups.

Except it wasn't redundant. What that deleted set of files was, in fact, represented about six weeks of going through the files, collecting them together in rough groups and started to freewrite a bit about them, noting down things I'd have to track down, possible leads, random musings and the like. It was, in fact, the seeds of a book project, the absence of which I discovered today as I went to look for it to work on a chapter section.

And now it's gone. Completely, irrevocably gone.

As the post title says, I'm trying to be philosophical about this. This was all stuff I'd written up years ago, back when I had no idea where this was all going. And it's possible that these old, unformed thoughts might have dragged me back off the track I'm headed on right now. And I've still got the transcriptions and document summaries.

There's going to be a lot of work I'll need to redo, but I hold out the faint hope that something better will rise from the ashes, unencumbered by my earlier flailing. Really, right now, that hope is all that I've got to go on.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

44, or, La plus ├ža change... how old I am today. Some facts about my life at this, the halfway point (if I'm very lucky and the damage hasn't already been done):
  • Education/Employment: Gainfully employed in my field, tenured, and about to go up for promotion to full professor
  • Housing: a very nice (albeit small) one-bedroom cottage apartment in a good neighborhood within walking distance of half a dozen coffee shops
  • Transportation: Trek Lexa entry-level road bike
  • Relationship status: happily unattached
  • Most recent international trip: Last summer, to Italy, for a yoga retreat and intensive language courses
  • Best recent accomplishment: Book award
  • Thing that needs to go away: I can't believe I started smoking again. Crap.
  • Overall state of mind: utterly content

At 33:
  • Education/Employment: Just got a job offer and will be headed out to Grit City next week to look for an apartment
  • Housing: Tiny attic studio in the student ghetto that I actually fixed up to be pretty nice... but damn it's hot. And I can be counted on to bash my head against the slanted ceilings at least once every six weeks. And I caught a mouse under the sink -- which is an improvement over the poisonous spiders in the previous place I lived, but still. A mouse.
  • Transportation: Trek 530 hybrid bike, about 10 years old
  • Relationship status: complicated
  • Most recent international trip: Mop-up research trip to Blargistan, during the winter 18 months ago
  • Best recent accomplishment: Defended my dissertation!
  • Thing that needs to go away: See above, re: "relationship status"
  • Overall state: relieved and a bit at sea

At 22:
  • Education/Employment: Just completed first year at a fancy four-year college after two years at community college; working two food service jobs (a fancy restaurant and a coffee shop near school) at about 20 hours a week apiece.
  • Housing: Downtown puddletown apartment in a great 1930s building, shared with a roommate. In this arrangement, I am in the role of obnoxious slob.
  • Transportation: incredibly heavy 5-speed bike (circa 1978) + city bus.
  • Relationship status: [redacted]
  • Most recent international trip: 7-week solo trip to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland two years ago
  • Best recent accomplishment: Accepted to junior year abroad trip to Munich
  • Thing that needs to go away: As with most college students recently turned 21, I am drinking far too much alcohol (spoiler alert: A year in Munich is not going to help in this regard...)
  • Overall state: Pretty screwed up, though blissfully unaware of how much so.

Looked at that way, it looks like I've done better for myself than I've any right to. Happy Birthday to me.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

It was a dark and stormy night...

Did I really just read that?

Did this book at an A-list press really just begin with the phrase "Throughout history..."?

Yes. Yes indeed it did.

(The book as a whole is better than that. But still.)