Thanks for the encouraging comments on the last post. I don't disagree with the fun of setting off into uncharted territory; my problem is with having to then draw a map of that territory that other people will judge.
But that's not the point of this post. The point of this post is that last night, I think I figured out why I'm struggling with this conference paper when papers used to kind of flow out of me while working on the dissertation. I have, in the process of revising the dissertation into a book, become argument-driven.
This is one of the key distinctions between the dissertation and the book, and one that everyone has to discover for themselves as they go along. For me, the moment came when I was writing fellowship proposals in the summer between my second and third year on the tenure track. I was forced to confront the question: So what? In other words, what's the point of all this blah-blah? The grant-writing process, for me, was mostly the process of inventing, nearly from scratch, an analytical framework that the dissertation generally lacked. The pre-submission revision process was me turning the dissertation inside-out, in order to make the argument, not the documents, the main point.
But here's the problem: once you've crossed that line, whether that's in graduate school or (as in my case) much later, you can't go back. You can no longer feel comfortable presenting a paper or writing an article that's just a bunch of neat stories, with a loose "argument" tacked on as an afterthought. The argument has to be the point. And this paper is my first try at constructing an all-new argument. Gah.