Friday, January 16, 2015

Report from The Word Hoard*: Getting To Work on THE BOOK

I've begun working in earnest on my book project, and as I mentioned on Facebook the other day, I've found myself fighting the paralysis that comes with lots of unstructured time, much like Mitchell in Modern Family who, once he quits his job, remarks -- while nearly hyperventilating -- that he "feels the weight of endless possibilities just sitting on [his] chest." Finding the time and resources to do this kind of work has been an immense challenge since I graduated and Rochester back in 2012, and I find myself inordinately grateful to finally have the institutional support and the time to finally make some headway. All the same, the task is a daunting one, especially since -- much like the dissertation writing itself -- it's a large and complex endeavor for which I have little context. Given the precariousness of my future in academia though -- especially given the dismal market and the fact that I have, at most, two and a half years left in my current postdoctoral position -- 2015 really does need to be The Year of the Book.

To generate some momentum, I decided to start revising the first chapter of the dissertation. It is, in certain ways, the most cohesive of the four— the most "book-like" — and my sensing was that by getting this one into shape first, I'll be able to do the hard work (i.e splitting my behemoth fourth chapter in two!) with more confidence and enthusiasm.

Happily, that strategy seems to have worked out so far. I just finished overhauling the chapter a couple days ago and, as I quipped on Twitter, tended -- at least on most occasions -- to find the process more energizing than agonizing:

Maintaining a sense of humor is key, I think. And I've also found that the time I've spent away from the dissertation has made it a lot easier to be ruthless in the editing and revision process. Definitely a "physician, heal thyself" experience, considering how much I stress the value of such distance to my students on a near daily basis! At the same time, I'm trying mix in some kindness with all the ruthlessness. Again, I know all too well the importance of honest, but humane, feedback from all of my teaching, and so -- in opposition to my subliminal, but incessant worry that being too kind to myself will result in my turning into some sort of hopeless slacker (my head is SUCH a fun place to be sometimes, I know) -- I'm trying to see how things go when I write comments to myself that are as humane as the ones I always try to write to my students. And you know? It really made the past couple of weeks a lot more energizing and -- dare I say it? -- fun. 

As with the dissertation itself, I've avoided the temptation to start with the introduction. Surprisingly, and despite my penchant for discursive and non-linear thinking (not to mention procrastinating, but that's another post entirely . . . ), I've always tended to write in a very linear way. The process of finishing the dissertation, however, really showed me the value of waiting to introduce your material until, well, you've actually gotten to know what you're introducing. And so, while I did read over my original introduction before rolling up my sleeves and getting to work on Chapter 1, I'm letting it be for now.

I am, however, keeping an eye out -- both as I do the hard editing work and as read secondary scholarship with which the book needs to engage -- for things I might want to include. And the other day, perhaps because of the lingering Christmas season, I found myself remembering Carl Sandburg's "Star-Silver." In particular, what I kept coming back to is that repeated question in the poem: "Why does this story never wear out?" I remembered, in the end, that if my book is trying to do anything, it's trying to answer that very question. Why are these fantasies of crusades-that-can-never-be so popular in the late Middle Ages? What lies behind their pervasiveness? And what does it say about us that similar narratives continue to enjoy popularity even today?  Certainly something to tuck away for (potential) future use and to keep in mind as I try to ensure that each chapter "speaks" to the others in direct enough ways. 

For now though, I'm finishing up the revisions on my Mongol article and, starting next week, will likely begin the process of tackling my much-more-difficult Richard Coer de Lion chapter. Onwards! 

*The affectionate name I've given to my office/lair/hobbit-hole.