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?