Monday, September 28, 2015

My Banned Book

No, not my banned book. My book is fine. You can buy a copy. In fact, you should buy a copy.
Graphic courtesy of the ALA

Nope: this is Banned Books Week, and so I'm reading a banned book that I've never read before. And now I'm going to admit that it's... To Kill a Mockingbird.

I know, I know: How have I not read it? Let me just say that there are a lot of books out there that I haven't read, and many of them are reported to be truly excellent. This is one of them.

So: this week, I see what all the fuss is about.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Week in Making and Unmaking

This week, I decided not to keep pounding my head against that wall that I smacked into late last week. Rather, I would look at it and strategize my way around it. I kept writing bits and pieces -- I'm a serious convert to the "write every day; even a couple sentences" school of writing -- but the word counter barely budged. I was clocking maybe a page a day, which is flippin' fantastic if you're teaching, doing service work, parenting, etc. But when you're on a fellowship without family or kids and have nothing but time to work, isn't going to cut it in the long run.

But I managed, finally, on Friday, to figure out a way over, under, or around that wall. I put together what I think is the fourth outline for this chapter so far (entitled "new-new outline"). I determined that some of the big, detailed bits I had cranked out this week were going to go in a chapter that I thought was already done, but that on second thought, will probably have to be lightly reconceptualized. Today, I wrote provisional headings for each of the subsections, and sometimes each paragraph, making notes as to what parts of the old MS went where.

And then the unmaking began.

At the end of last week, I had almost 14,500 words in this chapter.

At the end of this week, I had added a little over 1,000 words to that.

And now, after having re-configured and pulled and plugged... I ultimately pulled the plug on almost exactly a third of my words. Sitting here at this very moment, I have just under 10,500 words.

I'd be more freaked out, except for three things:
  1. The words are not really gone-gone. Many of them, as I said, are going into another chapter -- I already have a home for them. And others (though surely not all) may find homes eventually.  
  2. I've done this before, much more definitively: I ruthlessly deleted -- I mean, made really, really gone -- somewhere around 35 hard-won pages of my first dissertation chapter, and when writing the book, I made the decision to cut an entire chapter that just wasn't working. In both cases, it was scary, and in both cases, after the shock wore off, what I had left was ever so much better.
  3. I like counting words, just like I like fitness monitors and to-do lists I can check off and little chore charts with gold stars. I like visible stats on my progress. BUT -- and heed me well here -- I've learned that it matters so much less how many words you have than whether they're the right words.
And that's the really good news: I think this chapter knows where it's going, finally.  At least, until I run into the next wall.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Perils of the Public Intellectual

In honor of Constitution day, let's discuss a constitutional controversy. No, not whether the 14th amendment endorses birthright citizenship (duh), nor whether the 10th amendment lets you have your legal weed. Nope: it's the question of whether our country's founding document is an explicit endorsement of racism and/or slavery.

There has been a great deal of consternation on this subject lately, prompted by yesterday's op-ed by Sean Wilentz, in which he argues that the constitutional wording in three important clauses -- the three-fifths compromise, the fugitive slave clause, and the delay of abolition of the slave trade until 1808 -- were actually victories for the anti-slavery delegates.

Yeah, I know: Weird, right? Friends of mine have referred to it as everything from "puzzling" to "pretty nutty." There's a long-form rebuttal here (EDIT: and, more recently, a counter-argument in the Atlantic).

But here's the thing: it's a rebuttal to only part of the argument. I was actually able to see the whole thing in a nearly hour-long talk in which he presented all of his evidence for the claims in the op-ed, and in which the very claims he makes are properly nuanced. Let me tell you: it made a huge difference. What may have seemed "puzzling" or even "pretty nutty" in the op-ed now looked like a Really Cool Thing when presented in its fullness. Sure, there were a few bits in the argument that I thought were a bit of a reach to make an otherwise cogent point.1 But the argument as a whole made sense.

And this is the essential dilemma of the public intellectual: you can't make the same argument in 603 words (I counted) as you can in 45-60 minutes with your evidence on slides. This is obvious. You can't honor the complexity that is the hallmark of scholarly historical study. And yet, you're not going to get most of the general public to sit down and read a monograph or scholarly article or even attend an hour-long talk, should they be so lucky to have one in the vicinity. So this is why we have public intellectuals. They boil stuff down.

Of course, anyone who has cooked anything knows that boiling something too long removes all the flavor and texture and nutrition. Likewise, perhaps this topic was too complex to be boiled down. Or maybe Wilentz had an nice, tight 800 words, before some editor insisted that, no really, Professor Wilentz: 600 is all you get. I can just tell you two things:

1. the op-ed in no way reflects the complexity of the argument behind its points; and

2. [point 1] is an example of why being a public intellectual is hard, and the folks who take on this work won't always hit the mark -- even the very smart ones. But that doesn't make it any less worthwhile.

1 Academic historians like to present things in threes: four supporting arguments may be too much for a listening audience to follow, while two seems a bit thin to really support a Big Argument. But sometimes you have two really strong points, and end up stretching a bit to get the third. And -- pro tip -- if you're ever digesting an academic argument, if there's a weak point, it's usually in the middle.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Smacking into a wall

Well, that didn't take long.

Four weeks into my stay here at Hogwarts for Historians. Two weeks into serious writing. One week after cranking out a jaw-dropping (for me) 4500 words in less than a week and learning a whole lot of new things about hard-tack and why you want a weasel on board your ship and all that... and I've gone and hit a wall.

This past week's progress has been fueled by the knowledge that I was going to work on a specific section this week, and I wasn't going to worry about perfection. I was just going to get the stuff down on paper. Today, though, I did my usual weekend thing of trying to plan what would be on tap for next week. And I realized that, while I had some broad general topics I needed to look into, I didn't have any good questions yet. And as any writer of anything from a five-paragraph essay to a 500-page book will tell you: no questions = no direction. And no direction, gentle reader, is the death of writing.

I will admit: I panicked.

And then I got out my pen:

There always comes a point in my projects when I get really, really stuck. Usually it means that I've written for too long with too little reflection. This can happen when I get all obsessed with word count and pages and goals and the like. But the truth is, I need to pause for reflection as well. And for me, reflection happens with a pen in hand, as I scribble summaries of what I know so far, accompanied by half-baked "what might it all mean" notes, and try to let the ideas come, rather than alternately shoving and dragging them. Shoving-and-dragging is good for word counts sometimes, but for me, I need to scribble my way in to this part of the process.

So that's my task: rather than spending the weekend stockpiling reading for the week's writing to come, I'm going to give myself permission for next week to be an extremely low word-count week so I can spend this weekend focusing on the ideas and where this chapter seems to want to be heading. Here are the questions I plan to ask myself (in no particular order, and not looking at my provisional outline):
  • What are the big themes of the book, and how does the chapter I imagined potentially contribute to them?
  • What type of chapter is this shaping up to be all on its own? What questions am I on the way to answering? What does it want to be about, versus what I thought it was going to be about when I wrote an outline?
  • How can I take advantage of that to help me answer a small piece of the larger question? Does this mean the larger question has to shift again?
If I'm being honest, the question I will probably come back to most this weekend is: "What made me think I could write a book? Is it too late to do something else for a living?" But believe it or not, I think that actually writing this book is the path of least resistance.

And besides: I'm at History Hogwarts. Anything could happen.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Answers to questions I didn't know I had

One of the reasons that I settled on my current book project was that it allowed me to dig in and answer lots of questions that I have for myself. In other words, I am, in a sense, writing this book to satisfy my own curiosity, and I hope that other people will be interested as well.

Someone built this. And sailed in it.
But you know, I'm coming across lots of little tidbits that I didn't know I even would be getting into. This week, for example, I'm researching how you went about building and crewing a ship -- like a really, really big ship -- in medieval Blargistan. Over the past week, I've learned where in the city the ships got built (by the shoreline -- duh -- but where specifically), where they got their wood (pretty close by), what sorts of specialists were involved in the various steps of shipbuilding (lots), how you make a ship watertight (oakum + pine tar + secret sauce), who is on a crew (again, lots), where you hire that crew (again, near the ocean, but in another spot), what they're paid (varies).

Someone cooked this.
And, one presumes, ate it.
(Or, at least tried to.)
Today, it's been "What sorts of food do they eat?" Hard-tack with stew, washed down with rough wine, I'd have said before. Turns out there's quite a bit more to it. More meat and way more fresh bread than you'd imagine. More live animals on ship. More vegetables, even.

What is all this going to add up to? Hard to say. But "Apply Butt to Chair and Trust the Process" is my new two-part mantra.

And in the meantime: this is all pretty neat stuff to know.

EDIT: I've decided that I needed to start looking up photo credits. The first one came from a Danish group that makes and sails replica Hanseatic cogs. As far as I can tell, the one for hardtack came from a survivalist website, which also provides a recipe, so you can try it if you want it. However, the website's statement that "When it has the consistency of a brick, it’s fully cured" makes strange bedfellows with their insistence that it's "delicious."

Friday, September 4, 2015

Friday Word Count

I have about fifteen weeks to write this semester before the holidays. I have set some goals for that time period, one of which is no doubt wildly unrealistic. But from low end to high end, I need to write somewhere between 2500-3000 words a week.

This week I got 1950. I'm considering that a victory for a first week, considering that I'm still ramping up.

That is all. Boringest post. I apologize, and offer you this gift of a picture of my morning coffee in my morning chair as partial recompense.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

More about FPU soon, but first: a hopeful note

I've been flailing for so long I've almost forgotten what it feels like to do otherwise:

  • This summer, I flailed in the archives, as I worked with an entirely new genre of documents in new archives with no idea what I was looking for.
  • I've been flailing a bit about the "so what" of this book as a whole. When someone asks what the argument of my half-drafted book is, I contemplate faking my own death -- even though I know this is really the most important question to ask
  • More proximately, I've been flailing about what the chapter I'm working on meant.

"Breathe, Notorious," I tell myself. "It's okay to write your way into this one. The idea will come. It always does. For now, just write." And so that's what I've been doing. And lo and behold, earlier this week, I got one of the "big picture" hooks I'm going to need for the book. Still nothing on the chapter... until this morning. I kinda-sorta figured it out. For now, anyway. I'm willing to let this change and evolve. But I no longer lie away at night thinking that this chapter -- and maybe even the book -- will amount to "Look at all this neat stuff I found!" And that is a huge relief.