Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The selfishness of writing

I'm writing a book.

There, I've said it. Now I'm going to have to follow through, if everyone knows. Right? I managed to get tenure without writing a book, even though I had every intention of revising my dissertation into one. One awful day I found a new book that seemed to replicate 80% of what I'd written, threw both it and my dissertation across the office, cried and cried, and gave up. I wrote a bunch of article and book chapters, and learned to be comfortable in that mode of writing and publication.

In fact, I'm finishing off a 6000 word piece right now, and it's been pretty painless. But now I've decided the next thing will be a book.

I'm scared.

I'm scared of the usual things, like getting rejected (bad) or getting scooped (worse). I'm scared of doing it poorly, and I'm scared of missing something important that exposes my stupidity. I'm scared of the sheer volume of writing, the organizational nightmares of printouts and research notes, and interlibrary loans, and lost citations, and detail work.

What I'm most scared of, though, is this: the selfishness of writing.

Writing my dissertation was like an intense, overwhelming romantic entanglement. My dissertation and I spent nearly every waking minute together, and in our moments of separation, it was what I thought about. My whole conversation was dissertation. My whole schedule, hell, my whole apartment was dissertation from top to bottom. I have, from that period, a lot of pictures of my cat, ensnarled in piles of printouts, batting coloured paper clips around in kittenish fashion. My life was like this: get up when feeling rested, eat oatmeal and make latte, walk 10 feet over to computer, work until tired, take long walk to refresh brain, eat lunch, work until tired, have nap, wake up around 4 and work until 7, do stuff that makes the writing go away until tired, go to bed, repeat. Even the non-writing tasks are just designed to facilitate the writing. When the writing is able to come, everything else shifts over.

It's hugely selfish. And that's not a kind of life my life supports right now; it's not the kind of life I want to be living.

For me, service work can be picked up or put down in five minute increments. Teaching prep and grading and such, too, while interesting and important, is not engrossing in the way that writing is. Even writing articles is exponentially less intense than book-format writing and thinking. It's the difference between juggling beanbags and juggling bean fields: the sheer scale of the thing requires herculean increases in both strength and focus.

When I'm really writing, I don't want to talk to anyone. I don't want to cook supper because someone else is hungry. I don't want to do laundry until I run out of underwear. I don't want to shop for groceries. I don't want to get out of bed while I'm still groggy. Or shower so that we can then run the dishwasher. I don't want to put my printouts somewhere out of sight.

I turn into a jackass, really. And I don't want to do that. But I do want to write the book I feel is kind of asking me to write it.

I have no experience of long format academic writing that doesn't burn up everything in my life except the writing. I don't know how to be reasonable and write like that. How to have balance while juggling those bean fields.

Do you know how? Do you have any advice? Because I'm not sure how to do my best writing and thinking, and still live my life with the kind of balance and joy of family I've come to enjoy.

7 comments:

  1. I agree completely and I think that is one of the things that scares me about the prospect of writing a book or doing a dissertation. When I was doing my previous degrees, I could whip off term papers from outline to finish, in an intense 12 hour sit-down if I had the right mindset, self-discipline and no interruptions. Unfortunately, life these days has too many interruptions.

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  2. The only way I got through my dissertation was to not think of it as one massive 250+ page opus, but discreet smaller bits, up to the size of a typical academic essay. I am, in fact, also in the process of writing a book, and I've broken up the chapters in such a way that I can see them as their own entity, so I'm basically writing a bunch of essays. Clearly that's not exactly the case, but it's made the process much easier for me (for instance, I have two chapters done! They're essays right now, but the bulk of the writing has been done).

    I suggest that if writing essays is easy, then write essays. Which will make a book. Good luck!

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  3. You are allowed to experiment. Try different things for a while and see how they work. I like Sherbygirl's suggestion.

    You might also play with having some writing retreats where you can be like this. Schedule a long weekend away somewhere by yourself. Use it to move the project along in this kind of binge writing style. You could even plan something like that in advance, say 3 a year or something.

    Then write differently, in scheduled shorter amounts of time in between.

    I bet there are other options. Experiment.

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  4. I recommend the book by Paul J. Silva, _How to Write a Lot: a Practical Guide to Academic Writing_. You can't write books the way you wrote your dissertation because you will never have that much time again. But if you make a writing schedule, you can write a book over time.

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  5. Right on, Aimée.
    The conclusion of the acknowledgements in my dissertation: "It seems that grad school turns everyone into a self-absorbed jerk. I want to thank my family ... for pretending not to notice."

    My advice: get a book contract with a firm Aug 31 deadline. Then later, when the one year extension is about to run out, you'll compress all the angst that went into the thesis completion into two months, because having kids means that you can't wallow like you could back then---much to the benefit of your mental health, I'm sure. (And, slightly more seriously, a shorter term wallow will be all that you need because, as suggested by Sherbygirl, you'll have lots of useable chunks produced in the meanwhile, plus you're surely a better writer now than you were then, probably by a long shot, so it will be a smaller sum of total angst anyway.)

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  6. Experimenting with different schedules and strategies as others have suggested is part of the solution. But also, I'd encourage you to continue developing your awareness both about what scares you and about "the balance and joy of family." What kind of story are you telling yourself about the writing of a book? What experience of family life keeps you happy and grounded?

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  7. Well, now that I've gotten the reader's report back from the publisher, I see that the MS requires much more intricate inclusion of a nicely woven argument. It's difficult to do that across 200+ pages because the draw to edit and re-edit the same 20pp always stumps me...not including those days where I get sucked into sentence-level revision. So, let the self-absorbed behavior begin?

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