How not to write a book
I am using part of today to do something that, in my current position as a middle-management dean, is as close to writing a book as it typically gets.
By “writing a book,” I mostly mean pasting stuff from one document into another document. In 15 years, one can generate a lot of documents. This book isn’t even half-finished, and it’s already twice over too long.
I used to get tired of people saying “maybe it’s two books,” because frankly, nobody is looking for even one book on my topic. There are also a fair number of long books, like this one, which is 600 pages, but apparently nobody told Lawrence Manley to make this book into two books! You might be thinking well, Vim, you are no Lawrence Manley, and that is certainly true in multiple respects. People in academia are actually quite hostile to the idea of long books, despite also being pretty much the only audience that has any patience for slow and evidence-rich discussions. So that’s a bit of a bind. I had a writing group once of people in my field and I am glad I no longer have it, to be honest, because I always felt like the people in it were often impatient with me for having long chapters; that impatience registered in comments that made me feel badly, whatever the intent; it turns out for my writing process, I need to write a lot and then cut, and because I haven’t found many people who are actually good at helping with that, I’ve ended up making peace with another path. That path? Writing my entire book alone until I feel good about it. I think it’s necessary in part because I am learning a lot as I go, and don’t always know where to put what I’ve learned.
And, because I work full-time in a 12-month position where I do not work on this book regularly, and for which I have to spend time outside of M-F doing my teaching prep and grading, I quite frequently forget what I’ve learned.
That problem is a significant one, and it accounts at least in part for the fact that I have hundreds of documents associated with this project, often naming them things that seem obvious in the moment but then later confuse or elude me when I only half-remember a thing that I might need to use.
Still, I am convinced that only when I’ve finished this whole book from beginning to end will I know where some of the material is best placed, which means getting it all in one place, and then going back and moving stuff or referring back to a list of orphaned material whose home may suddenly be clear once I’ve gotten other things housed. Only when I can do that will I have the conviction to defend its length — and only then might I be able to admit that it’s too long. Until that point, I won’t ever be sure of which parts have value and are necessary.
It is not entirely true that I’m doing it all alone — I’ve carved bits from it for a conference here and there and I get feedback on these parts occasionally. But that feedback tends to be situated in the conference context and isn’t always fully useful for the larger project, especially because the feedback tends to involve “you should read X and Y!” Reading things other people have published, and the suggestion to do so, is certainly legitimate, of course, but much like my reading group, learning about things I should have read but don’t have time to read also makes me feel badly.
Feeling badly is normal in writing anything as far as I know; but it’s just not tenable for somebody writing a book in bits and pieces over a long period of time, and so I’ve decided that external feedback and assistance are not necessary for me at this time. Or rather, even if they are necessary, I don’t want them and won’t be helped by them.
I’ve spent at least a decade seeking approval for what I’m doing, and my book proposal (which I did receive good external help with and am grateful for those who read drafts of these documents!) typically gets me into the next stage of sending more material. In previous years, I had a good proposal but the chapters were not ready then. Now, I actually might have the introduction and chapters now that would get me even closer to a contract than I’ve gotten before…but I have made the decision that feeling that “might have” is better than finding out whether that’s true or not. So, the only approval I want now is my own, and the only person who will really figure this out will be me, after I’ve finished the whole thing. I am surprisingly happy with that realization.
When it comes down to it, an introduction and three chapters drafted isn’t enough for me to feel like it’s going to work. It might be enough to get me a contract anyway, but I’m no longer at a point in my life where that’s the most important thing, and thankfully, my school’s teaching load ensured that my tenure wasn’t all about publishing a book. At this point, my articles have reached a wordcount that’s greater than two books, even two books at the extreme length that my current manuscript is shaping up to be. I don’t have any major feelings of inadequacy about not having published a book; I’m not sure i had those feelings very long anyway, but I’ve really moved into an entirely different sense of what a book means. It’s not about legitimizing my place in a field or at my workplace. It’s about what I’ve learned about stuff that interests me.
And since that’s what it’s about, I’m just going to work on it by myself until I’m done. That’s probably not how to write a book. It’s how I’m doing it though, and though I’m anxious about finding time to work on it more, that’s between me and myself alone to work out.