Three things

I am on sabbatical again. That means, for the third time in my career I have an extended period of time in which I am in completely in charge of my own time, which also means that for the third time in my career a vast abyss in space and time has open up in front of me, completely terrifying me.  (The first two times being my dissertation fellowship period and the first time I was on sabbatical). But that’s not the three things of my title. I will get to that. (Side note: The Third Abyss would make a great band title. Punk? Metal? Norwegian Death Metal? Anywho…)

Everyone keeps asking me how sabbatical is going (after less than a month!) and I’m all like: (Darn, that gif showed up itself in the editor. Oh well. Click on the URL — it’s worth it, I swear!)

Last time I was on sabbatical, I had a kind of concrete list of stuff to do, because I spent it tracking down every instance I could of a particular variety of Middle English verse that I was interested in. Originally I had wanted that research to tell me what exactly it was going to turn into during that first sabbatical, but mostly all of my time was taken up with the “data gathering.” And since gathering that “data” meant going to manuscript libraries all over the place, that’s mostly what my sabbatical consisted of: making lists of possible “verses of interest” (groan…I read too much detective fiction and like puns too much), making plans to go see them, traveling to see them,  then transcribing a ton of manuscript pages, and then organizing what I found.

It took a long time for that bunch of information to start to turn into something interesting, so here I am seven years later looking at forming that raw material into my second book. Eek! Do I even remember how to write a book? My last one came out ten years ago! And its genesis was *twenty* years ago — gulp! (Duuude, I am old.) A book that’s just an idea is such an amorphous thing, a big, gaping hole that I need to fill. *Shudder*

I’ve got another project I have to finish this summer, too, and it’s a little more concrete — the edition of the York Corpus Christi Play that I’ve contracted to do and really should have finished last year, but got an extension on because it’s taking me much longer than anticipated. As concrete as it is, it’s somewhat tedious work, and thus causes me to procrastinate and get distracted. So while I should be able to edit a page in an hour, sometimes all I accomplish in a day is editing two pages and ordering shit on Zappos and SocksAddict (because the perfect shoes and socks *will* make your life better, right?).

Clearly, I need some kind of system to a) give a graspable shape to the abyss and b) to focus the work of the edition to get through it more quickly and efficiently. Those are two different problems to solve, so it wasn’t clear that one system was going to solve it, but I finally chanced upon one that I think will help. At least it helped me make a plan.

The system is the “three things” system — Notorious Ph.D. actually talked about it awhile back — hence my post title. I’ve also seen it called “The Rule of 3,” which I like because of its nod to all sorts of aesthetic and mnemonic and cultural rules of threes and thirds. And hey, 3 is a Magic Number, right? Anyway, according to the productivity gurus who invented or use this system, you’re supposed to start with the day and make a to-do list of three things to accomplish that day, and *then* move to bigger units of weeks and months and years. While I understand the concept of “one day at a time” for some things, that ain’t gonna work for a book project and a sabbatical. So, instead, like Notorious, I started with the time left on my sabbatical (which technically started in mid-May, but I took some time to ease into things), which is from now until mid-August, 2018.

So here are my “three things” for sabbatical:

  1. Finish the edition of the York Corpus Christi Play.
  2. Revise a big 45-minute presentation that I gave — and also workshopped elsewhere — into an article and the first chapter of my new book project.
  3. Do further research for and draft Chapters 2-5 of the new book project. (OK, I suppose that’s 4 things, but collectively it’s “research and draft the rest of the book project.”)

Then, with that list in mind, I got out academic calendars for the rest of this year (this summer) and next year (fall, spring, and summer), and apportioned weeks to the bigger specific tasks that needed to be done for each of these things. So for Thing 1, I’ve got weeks for editing the remaining play texts themselves, writing introductions, editing contextual material, and so on. I also counted how many pages of editing I have left, and figured out how many pages a day I need to finish to reach these goals. For Thing 2, I still have some details to work out, but there’s a much-neglected action list from earlier this year that I can turn to for that. The work on it is going to be simultaneous with finishing the York edition. For Thing 3, I had 45 weeks of my calendar left, so I gave each of the chapters 9 weeks and saved the final 9 weeks for further research, revising, and writing.

And then I opened up my planner — yes, I use a paper one, in a lovely red leather zippered case, because handwriting helps me remember — and wrote down my daily “three things” for tomorrow, Thursday, and Friday on their respective days in the planner. Tomorrow’s three things are 1) Edit three pages of “The First Trial Before Pilate,” 2) Revisit “action plan” for article project and update it, and 3) Begin reading the secondary material listed on that action plan. And I will continue to make a “three things” daily list from now on, at the beginning of each week (or maybe each Sunday night — a friend and I were at one point using the “Sunday Meeting” method, which I might still use here), and update/revise it as needed as the week progresses.

And yes, there are more than three things I usually have to or want to do in a day — but the “Rule of 3” method is about prioritizing those three things. Everything else goes on the regular “to do” list and gets done after that.

OK, that was all a bit boring, but really, this is just an accountability post. It will be interesting to me to go back to it later at various points in the sabbatical.

How do you manage your time when you have vast, unstructured amounts of it (and I count summer as vast)?

I keep moving my own cheese!

I don’t even know if I’m alluding to that book title in a way that makes sense, but it will have to do.

So, I’m working on an article that I’m *determined* to finish by the end of this summer. I’ve been toying with it for way too long now because it kept getting moved to back burners because of other work with deadlines, but this summer is free of such deadlines, so NOW is the TIME to get it DONE. (Yes, I’m now shouting. I do that when I get excited. Also, I apparently write in overly long sentences that verge on being run-ons.) *However*, it is proving harder than I expected; that’s where the cheese comes in.

See, once upon a time, this article was about X. Then another article came out on the subject that kind of blew my mind. It didn’t scoop me, but I had to take it into account. As a result, I kept fiddling with what my argument was. From X it evolved into X-and-Y, then more-Y-than-X, then back to X, but dropping Y, and adding Z. And so on. Finally, this summer, I think I decided what I wanted it to be, and sat down last week to map it out. And then this week I started rewriting. AND THEN IT ALL CHANGED AGAIN! AS I WAS WRITING! (See, excited again!) I really should nickname it “Whac-a-mole,” because it feels like playing that arcade game, but the idea that I’m moving my own cheese — changing my mind about what the argument is as I write it, and then needing to deal with that change in order to get what I want (a publishable article) — works, too.

From what I’ve heard, this happens to other people all the time, but this is not at all how I usually write. I’m the have-it-all-mentally-mapped-before-I-even-start type, not the create-as-I-go type. Talk about having to deal with a change in rhythm!  It’s kind of exciting, actually, especially since the changes may make it a better argument, but it’s also kind of frustrating, as I really do like to have the abstract whole conceptualized as I write. I worry that I’m working very inefficiently this way, or that the article could become a mess without my realizing it. (Yeah, that’s what another reader is for, I know. I’ll have to enlist a colleague or friend.)

So how do you write? Do your ideas and arguments change as you write? What do you do when they do?

My position is obvious

So, like Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, I had to write a short “position paper” recently. Mine is for a special issue of a journal dedicated to new research and research opportunities in the sub-field of medieval literature for which I am currently most know. Yeah, you know, the one that is the subject of my book and in which I have a co-edited anthology coming out in two weeks.

Like Jeffrey’s position paper, mine had to be short (although I had 500 more words that he did), and that doesn’t leave you much room to be subtle or to make nuanced, carefully constructed arguments. So I kind of feel about it the way Flavia feels about her SAA abstract, as if it’s a RANDOM STRING OF NOUNS!  Seriously, over in Dame Eleanor Hull’s writing group this week, I had this to say about it:

[It’s] kind of stupid. It’s supposed to be a short “position paper” and the position I took was, “We need more of this thing we’re already doing! Because there’s not enough of it! Even though some of you might think there’s lots of it!” And then I added, “because of this trendy new way of thinking about these things!” Yeah, dumb. Sigh.

But I suppose if my dumb piece gets people’s knickers all in a twist and makes them shake their fist and me and shout, “But we’re already doing that! And how is your trendy way of talking about it any different from what we’ve been doing in any practical way?!” then I guess it fulfills the editors’ call for something that “provokes” — although I’m not sure they meant “provoke” as a synonym for “annoy.”

Anyway, I’m writing this in part because I’m in sympathy with Flavia and Jeffrey right now, but also because, like Flavia, I need to remember that this is often how my students feel about their writing, although probably with even higher levels of anxiety about how “dumb” what they’ve done is. Between Flavia’s post and my own thinking about this “dumb” position paper, I’ve been reminded that I need to be gentler with my students and their writing, but also more open about how it *is* a struggle, especially when you’re writing about something difficult or trying on ideas that are new to you, and that the struggle is part of the process (if you’re doing it right and not coasting), one that I go through as well, even at my stage. I also should remember that it can take me all semester to write 2500 freakin’ words (at least 2500 *good* ones).

Three weeks in…

…and already I feel so very, very tired.  But happy.  I’m glad to be back in the thick of things.

Today’s supposed to be a writing day, but I had an early morning meeting, followed by an hour and a half spent at a health care facility getting poked and prodded and giving the world’s longest personal health history (long story — may blog about it later), and then I called my sister to tell her some news, and now I’m too tired to do the hard writing.  So I shall write this blog post and then do some grading and service-related work and that will do very nicely today, since I actually already met my week’s writing goal anyway. So there!  (Woah, I just turned into Dr. Crazy there — I *never* use the verb “shall.”)

Anywho, I’m now three weeks into my first semester back from sabbatical and I have to say: I’m actually happier than I was during sabbatical.  Tired, but happy.  Seriously, I do not do well mentally in the slough of despond that is the isolation of sabbatical (or dissertation fellowship or whatever), at least not when it’s a whole year long and I don’t have a major project to *finish*. Don’t get me wrong — I got a lot accomplished over sabbatical.  I did the major chunk of the initial research for the still-inchoate second book (or whatever — it might not turn out to be a book, exactly, but it’s big) I’ve started; I edited most of my half of a co-edited anthology of primary texts and co-wrote its introduction; I drafted 15 pages of an article (ideally one I should’ve finished this past year, but which I’ve put off until this year and next summer to finish); and I read three books in the field of historical English linguistics to help make me a better teacher of Old and Middle English linguistics courses, and maybe more prepared to teach History of the English Language if we never get a line to replace our retired historical linguist after the VAP line we currently have runs out. Oh, and I also did a lot of preparatory reading for the brand new early medieval lit class I designed because I had never previously read all of The Tain or Grettir’s Saga, etc.  I did not get as far in my plan to re-read my undergraduate classical-to-renaissance great books syllabus (in prep for *another* new class next year), but I did at least re-read The Iliad, the Homeric hymns, and all of Sappho’s poetry.

So, I got stuff done.  But.  Even so, I felt like sabbatical kind of sucked. I think I might have done all of those things more efficiently with just a semester off.  Or maybe not — it did take me almost all of the first semester to remember how to organize my own time, and planning and preparing for the six-week research trip to England took a lot of time.  But still, I’m a lot happier with a lot of different tasks on my plate.  And I’m even making more headway on a couple of other writing tasks than I was making on them over sabbatical. (Good thing, too, since they’re due in November and December — though I can get, and will probably need, an extension on the November deadline.)  Check out the meters I added over in the sidebar of my homepage.  The first one is the one I’m working on now, so expect it to grow this semester more than the other one does.  The second one is the one I made headway on over sabbatical, but then stalled out on; however, as it’s related to a talk I’m giving in the spring, it might start to grow a little, too.  I also joined ADM’s and Notorious’s awesome bloggy writing group to help spur me to keep up the progress on number 1.

I think that I’m just a lot happier with multiple tasks going on at once, and with the adrenaline that juggling gives me. As tired as it makes me, it works for me better than the quiet contemplation of a year of reading and research.  However, *perhaps* if I’d had a discrete (but large) project to *finish*, I would’ve felt better about sabbatical  My second dissertation fellowship year was a *hell* of a lot more productive and satisfying than the first, but that’s because I had the dissertation all mapped out and just need to write the damn thing down.  I had a writing group of sorts, then, too, with the screenwriter across the courtyard from me. (Have I never told you that I spent my grad years in Melrose Place?  I kind of did — different address and no pool, but movie industry “aspiring types” and plenty of drama.  Beside the screenwriter across the courtyard and the costumer downstairs, one of my neighbors was this actress.) Anyway, the screenwriter guy decided that one page of my dissertation was about ten pages of his screenplays, and so we’d each try to write at least that much every day.  Some days I’d come out with ten pages (really!) and he’d be all like, “No way! I’d have to write a whole script to keep up!”  Hells yeah!

So, in short, I like structure, and sabbatical didn’t give me any.  I tried to *make* some for myself, but it never felt right.

Sabbatical was really good for me in some ways, though: in addition to the work I did get done, and which I couldn’t do during the school year (e.g., do manuscript research in the UK), the break from teaching alone did wonders for my morale and the teaching part of my job.  And it gave me a clear break from being grad director, since I wasn’t around for students to say, “I know this isn’t your job any more, but could you just…”  And man, was I burnt out from being grad director!  Teaching, too, though I think that may have been colored a lot by being grad director.  I like my professional distance and compartmentalization, and as grad director (which also means instructor of the intro to research course for the first year grad students), I saw some students way more than I might have liked — in class, in my office, in their exams.  Too much!  And that’s true of the easy students as well as the needy ones.  As the person teaching Old and Middle English, which a buttload of grad students take (both courses) to satisfy various language-related requirements, I still see a lot of the grad students, but outside of the bounds of the course, they are not my problem any more.  And since this is the first I’m meeting them, I also don’t have any history with them.  Clean slates are *awesome*.

But if I had to do it all over again — or in ideal circumstances, anyway — I might have waited to take sabbatical when I had a clearer long project to finish, some more concrete, anyway, and I might have taken only a semester.  Oh well, something to keep in mind in another seven years, if they haven’t done away with sabbaticals altogether.

>Making myself write

>I’m trying to research and write an article. No big news there, since that’s part of what I’m paid to do, and which I should be doing pretty much continuously. And, of course, I’ve done it before. But for some reason this one has me really stuck.

Part of the problem is that I keep veering off in all sorts of directions. Let’s say the article is about, I dunno, an allegorical debate poem (it’s not — let’s just pretend) with a 16th century manuscript date (again, I’m fudging the truth throughout this description) but assumed late medieval origins largely based on genre, content, and a few philological bits that people have been cribbing from its first editor way back when. And so everyone talks about it as a medieval text. But then it’s in a early modern manuscript and there are all sorts of weird things about that manuscript. First of all, the other texts it has been bound with are pretty much ideologically antithetical to what everyone assumes is the orientation of this text. So let’s say it seems, on the surface, to have orthodox religious politics for the late Middle Ages, but it’s in a manuscript full of non-conformist Protestant tracts. OK, that’s weird. And then there’s a recent article that points out all sorts of codicological and paleographical evidence that the scribe was imitating print books in making this manuscript. Also weird. And so all of that makes me want to talk about my ideas about this text in terms of reception and reader response and appropriation and 16th century medievalism and the impossibility of a “right” reading and so forth. And if I do so, I really need to do more research on the related 16th century contexts — book culture and anti-Catholicism as it affected book culture and 16th century medievalism and so on and so forth.

But wait, there’s more. Even if we go along with the assumption that this text had origins in the Middle Ages and therefore think of it as a medieval text (although I’m not sure we should go along with them…but at any rate…), it’s a weird text by itself. It’s not like any other text in its genre; in fact, it’s a unique sub-genre. And it’s aesthetically bizarre, even in context of all that’s already bizarre about late medieval aesthetics. And it’s offensive to present day sensibilities (or at least, it should be), and the aspects that make it so offensive are the most written about aspects of the text. And so all of this makes me think I need to take this part of the ongoing scholarly conversation into account, even while doing what I said I want to do in the above paragraph.

And there’s more, but I’m running out of ways to talk about it in made-up terms. But you get the idea. Every idea I think I have leads to a dozen more directions of research and thought. This article is like a Hydra on steroids — cut off one head of ideas and a bajillion more pop up in its place. Argh. I’ve been toying around with this thing since the year 2-thousand-and-frakin’-3. And I’ve presented it at conferences in a few variations and gotten good responses to them all. Clearly, I need to stop the “I just need to read one more book” nonsense and start writing something. But I keep unhelpfully convincing myself that I’m not there yet, not ready to write.

So here’s my solution: I’m going to pretend that this is a seminar paper and it’s due on December 17, just like my students papers are. After all, I turned out decent drafts towards things in ten-week quarters when I was a graduate student, and here I’ve got a head start and 14 weeks. I think I might even give myself earlier deadlines for an abstract, preliminary bibliography, and annotated bibliography, just like I do with my students.

What do you think?


PS — I started this blog 4 years ago yesterday. Happy blogiversary to me!

>Verbiage and verbosity

>I’ve spent the last week and a half editing an article I need to send off tomorrow to the editors of a collection. It’s almost done — I just need to add one discursive footnote as soon as I get a necessary text from interlibrary loan tomorrow. (Now I have to turn to a review that’s technically due tomorrow. It’s going to be a little late, but since it’s short and I already have it outlined, I should be able to get it done by the weekend.)

I sent a draft of this article to the editors in March and they sent it back with copious comments and corrections in June. There were, in fact, so many comments (using the Word comments function) that it was sometimes hard to follow them and I’m not sure if I really responded to every last one. This experience has taught me two things I can use in teaching:

  1. When it comes to comments, you can be too “helpful.” Cut down on the verbiage and the message will probably be clearer. Concentrate on recurring and global issues and use a few examples; ask the student to find the rest themselves. Too many comments definitely overwhelm, and when they become too local, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.
  2. If you assign a “draft” before the final product, keep that in mind while commenting. Chances are the writer took “draft” seriously and didn’t always give the greatest care to the details. Remind the writer that they’ll need to do so in the final version, and tell them what to look out for (lack of citation, sentences that ramble on, or whatever) but you needn’t go over these issues yourself with a fine-toothed comb, or else you’ll be making much more work for yourself, doing what the writer should be doing (and taking longer to get a response back to them). Or else, instead of asking for a “draft” and a final paper (because, as I’ve seen, different people interpret “draft” differently), assign a paper and a revision, which changes the expectations for the first version.

That’s not to say that the editor’s comments weren’t helpful — though, again, a little overwhelming — but that at times I felt a little sorry for them and a little guilty. They put in a lot of work I’d intended to do myself. You should have seen the printout of the “final plus markup” version — the margins were filled with comments and changes.

Meanwhile, regarding my *own* verbiage…The draft I sent them was 20 pages. The final version they’re getting is close to 40. That’s right, I *doubled* the essay’s length in a week and a half of writing. That’s because a lot of the manuscript research for a lot of the detailed points I needed to make had yet to be done, and in the midst of doing it this summer, I found *more* stuff to talk about — pertinent stuff directly related to the subject at hand. In other words, the draft that I sent them really was a draft, a work in progress. I hope this doesn’t freak them out.

Anyway, all of this writing, every day, all day, is why I haven’t been doing things like participating in the ITM group (re)reading of Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval, or commenting on your blogs much.

>Give me a P! Give me an R! Give me an O!….

>…And a C-R-A-S-T-I-N-A-T-I-O-N!

Today I sat down and forced myself to write something that I’ve been dreading to do, and should have done last week, but have been putting off because of said dread. And yet the draft of it only took me half a day. D’oh!

What’s my problem? Seriously, I’m usually not a procrastinator, so why did I put this smallish task off?

Well, part of why I was dreading it was because it was a response to a critique of an article I’d written, and that’s never fun. It’s moments like these that I sympathize with my students when they get my comments on drafts and have to respond to them and take them into account. No wonder some of them just go with denial and don’t change anything except maybe the typos! And for that very reason — that sympathy with students — I think the whole process of peer-review, of revising-and-resubmitting, or responding to critics, etc., is valuable to us not only as scholars/researchers, but as teachers as well. It’s valuable to keep us humble, to remind us of what it’s like to get a marked-up piece of work back, but it’s also valuable so that we can say to students, “Hey, I have to go through this, too” and to convince them that they are indeed part of a writing community.

Anyway, back to my procrastination issues…This was also just a weird piece I had to write. It wasn’t revise-and-resubmit or a response to an editor to convince him/her that a peer reviewer’s criticisms were misplaced — those I’ve done. But in this case, my article is being considered for a edited collection and the editors assigned various people in the field to write introductions to groups of articles. And in my case, the introducer took my article to task for a few things he thought were wrong with it. And so I was supposed to write a response which will be published along with his intro and my article. I guess it’s suppose to be imitating the kinds of conversations/debates that can happen over longer periods of time in a series of journal articles, which in theory is cool, but it still made for a weird kind of writing performance for me since I’ve never taken on criticisms of my work in (potential) print before. So the strangeness — not to mention dealing with criticism — made it all something I did not look forward to in the least. Hence the procrastination.

On the bright side, however, while procrastinating, I got my syllabuses for fall done! Woo-hoo!

>Public speaking, speaking public

>I’m in the process of trying to write something for a talk to a general-but-educated audience on Sunday. The audience will be non-academic, but the kind of people who go to hear academics talk. It’s the first time I’ve done such a thing and I’m having a difficult time ‘translating’ parts of my work. But it’s a good and important difficult, I think. It’s good for my writing process — getting me out of knee-jerk habits, finding new turns of phrase — and it’s good in the sense that my obscure work on sometimes obscure texts and manuscripts (not the book project, for those who know me — new stuff) is getting a hearing before a non-academic audience, because it gives me a chance to talk about why it matters.

I’m lifting part of my talk from my “Speaking for the Dead” post, but since the substance of my talk is about the meaning (and meaningfulness) of an ownership inscription in a manuscript of literary texts (and not really about the texts themselves, though it’s a little bit about them in relation to their readers) I’m starting the whole thing with a couple of childhood books with inscriptions from my mother in them and talking about what book historians and literary/cultural critics of the future might say about them. It’s a little corny, but I think it will cement the connection between the here and now, and the then and there, and the importance of speaking for the dead.

I’m worried both about the general framing move taking over the substance of the talk (it’s about 1/2 frame and 1/2 substance!) and also about the substantive part going over the audience’s head. But as Bullock just said to me, “Won’t they expect you to go over their heads a little bit?” Otherwise, he suggested, they might think I’m a “fraud” of an academic. Hmm. But I don’t want them to walk away saying “Typical academics — don’t know how to talk to ‘normal’ people.” I want them to feel that there’s something at stake in the humanities, even in the work done on long dead people, writers, and their texts. I want them to walk away saying, “That was fascinating — more people should care about this.” And then I want them to go read the texts I’m talking about (some of which are available in student friendly editions) and assign them to their book clubs, and then think about why they read what they read. And I want them to write to their representatives and senators and say, “It’s really important to fund the humanities, because this is what it means to be human — to read and to remember and to memorialize the dead and the past.” Are my goals too lofty? Yeah, probably. I’ll be happy if I don’t hear crickets chirping after my talk.

Argh. This is hard.

>On keeping a research journal

>In response to my rambling post below on how my dissertation became a book, What Now? brought up something worth responding to on the front page. She wrote in the comments:

I was particularly interested to read that you do your research upfront and then turn to the writing, since I just made the decision this weekend that I’ve been trying to write too soon and need to step back and immerse myself in research for awhile. And this is counter to some writing gurus who say “Write before you’re ready.”

It’s true that I tend to frontload the research and do the “real” writing closer to the end of the process, and I’m one of those people who likes to get the whole argument in her head before she writes, at least in outline form. I find that then I write pretty quickly. However, I do a lot of other kinds of writing throughout the process. First of all, when I’m taking notes, I write questions and responses to the scholars I’m reading. Things like “This is compelling, but what about…?” That way my process really does take the form of a conversation with the scholars. That sometimes happens with the primary texts, too. There’s a name in the attestation of ownership of the manuscript I’m currently working on, which I have circled in my printout of the microfilm. Next to it I’ve written, “Who are you?”

So there’s that kind of short-form writing. And I also keep a “work-in-progress” or research journal, and in that I write longer-form but informal essays on ideas I have during the research. Sometimes they start with questions such as “Could I say…?” or “What if I argued…?” Sometimes they’re about texts I’m teaching or reading in other contexts which might have something to say about the current project, and so I do a kind of reading response to save for future reference. I don’t always turn back to what I’ve written, but the process of writing, I think, helps me test ideas and keeps them more actively in my thought than just thinking about them would. It’s because of such a journal that my dissertation project changed from issue X in texts A & B to issue Y in them. And I did go back to that journal for my reading of one particular segment of those texts. So it has real, concrete value, as well as process and practice value.

I realize as I write this that these kinds of writing — marginal notations, notes, journals, reading response — are exactly the kind of things that Writing Across the Curriculum experts urge us to put into practice in our WAC (and non-WAC) courses. I never had WAC courses as an undergrad nor taught them as a graduate student, but somehow I’ve been using WAC methods in my own writing all along. Huh. Who knew? I must remember to bring this up in my WAC courses, to show students that this isn’t just cant, that regular writing practice of all forms does actually help you think through writing.

So, yes, I save the “formal” writing for later in the process, but really, I’m writing all along.

>From dissertation to book: a saga (but not in the medieval sense)

>Last week, Dr. Crazy wrote a narrative of the process that got her from her dissertation to her new book deal (congratulations, Dr. C!) and asked others to chime in with their narratives and advice. (She’s been answered as well by jbj at The Salt-Box.) There are elements of my story that are similar to Crazy’s, but with enough difference that I’ll give you my narrative. Much of the advice that Crazy and jbj both give is advice I would repeat (and some I wish I’d had).

Like Dr. C, I think I should start back with the dissertation process because that’s where the book started, and also like Dr. C., I always thought of it as a book (though I did cull parts for a couple of articles first). This is not the case with everyone. Bullock has a friend in rhet/comp who wrote a pretty quick, get-it-done style dissertation and then wrote something completely different for her first book. And maybe there are literature folks like that, too, but both Bullock and I turned our dissertations into our first books (he’s in a humanities-like part of the social sciences). In fact, we both had dissertation directors who referred to our dissertations as “the book.” If Bullock had a blog, he could tell you his story; I’ll stick to mine. My director, who is a generous and kind man, but also very private, non-confrontational, and a little shy, was a very hands-off kind of director. I think he really, sincerely believed in letting his students “find their bliss” so that they wouldn’t become reproductions of him. In the long run that seems to have worked for him and his students because his former students are an astonishingly accomplished, impressive, academically famous lot, but also very different from each other in their approaches to literature and scholarship. A little more direction – deadlines, for example – might have gotten me out a year earlier, but otherwise I respond pretty well to that sort of freedom. When it came time to submit things to him, that’s when he gave his full and careful attention to everything I wrote. Everything. In that way, he was an exacting task-master, but like Crazy’s director, he hit that sweet spot between fully-fledged “real” book and dissertation on its way to the book. He often wrote comments in the margins that asked questions or suggested I consider such-and-such, but then added, “You don’t need to do this now, but you’ll need to take it into consideration for the book.”

But that’s all after I started writing chapters. Let me go back a bit to the process that got me there, because I think that’s worth considering in this narrative, too. I’m kind of weirdly practical when it comes to deciding on things like areas of specialization and dissertation topics. I became a medievalist because I thought I’d have more to contribute to the scholarly conversation than in my other areas of interest where I loved the literature but didn’t have much new to say about it. When I love something too much, I have a hard time writing about it. For instance, I may never write anything about either Gawain and the Green Knight or Chaucer. So when I was fishing for texts and topics for the diss, I went to the texts that puzzled and interested me, that I had questions about rather than emotional attachments to. I think Bardiac has mentioned somewhere on her blog that when she teaches first year undergraduates how to do research, she emphasizes that the best research starts with a good question, one you don’t know the answer to. That’s something I’m going to emphasize with my juniors and seniors when we discuss how to do research, and it’s definitely something I somehow kind of knew when I started into my own research, although I didn’t express it to myself so directly. Instead, I started with the texts I was curious about, that I had questions about, and did MLA Bibliography searches on them to see what other scholars were talking about and if they’d answered these questions. In doing that, I realized one of the texts – or rather, set of texts — had had much less written on it than the others, despite being pretty canonical, and no one seemed to be writing on the questions I had about it. So that’s how I figured out a plan of action for beginning my research. I had texts I was interested in and had questions about, and I found that no one was really talking about the topic my questions addressed, even though I thought it was pretty obvious and important.

So now you’re probably thinking, “Really? That’s all you did to come up with your dissertation/book topic and argument?” No, of course not. See, originally, my questions were about issue X in texts A & B, but as I started doing my research I realized that issue X was not really what these texts were all about. Plus, the way I was thinking about issue X, I soon realized, was really ahistorical. But luckily, the research I was doing gave me new inspiration and I realized that the questions that I really should be asking were about issue Y – although X still had something to do with Y, so all that research on X wasn’t useless.

That whole process – of researching and refining my topic and the argument that eventually would come out of it – took about a year, at the end of which I produced a 40-page prospectus of the dissertation/book it would become, complete with chapter breakdowns and sample readings of selected parts of texts A & B for each of those mini-chapters. At my graduate institution, we defend the prospectus rather than the finished dissertation, which seems like a totally humane thing to do, since there’s a lot more room to change things at the prospectus stage. But I suppose that if I’d had a dissertation defense, I might have had a better sense of what needed to be done to make it into a book. Still, the ways in which even the dissertation changed from prospectus to finished dissertation at least prepared me for being able to chuck out whole ideas and segments when I revised the dissertation into the book. Because, see, that prospectus originally outlined 5 chapters, but in the end I wrote only 4, folding the idea of the fifth chapter into the work as a whole. Call the subject of that proposed chapter issue Z, because I realized, during the research and writing process, that it really was a separate issue, with separate theories and history, although I think it played a part in shaping issue Y. So, from an original idea about issue X on texts A & B, then a proposal about issue Y and Z in texts A & B, the dissertation became a work on issue Y on texts A & B, with some intertwined forays into the cultural matrix that is X, Y, and Z. Oh, and at one point there was going to be some discussion of text-group C – a different genre that I thought was perhaps shaping issue Y in texts A & B – but it became pretty obvious that that had the same problems as issue Z: different theories and histories plus a separate genre of texts. I had to focus.

Ultimately, after that prospectus defense, it took me another two years to research and write the dissertation. Most of the first year was about research, the next year about writing, both of them on dissertations fellowships. Yeah, it really shouldn’t have taken me so long. Actually, the first chapter was the longest to write. When I went on the market the first time, in the fall of my last year of graduate school (the second time I was finished and had a lectureship), I had two chapters written by MLA. And then from January to filing in August, I wrote the final two chapters and revised and polished the whole thing. So basically, it took me about 12+ months to get the first two chapters done and half the time to get the next two written and the whole thing revised. Again, it was that first chapter that was the real bitch, and I want to tell you about that, because it’s also key to how I turned the diss into the book.

As I started writing the first chapter, I encountered the problem that many a first time scholar encounters: I wanted to include everything I knew. And after all that research on issue X, I didn’t want to let it go, even though I was now doing issue Y. Anyway, as I was writing that first chapter – which was the new historicist, cultural contexts, reading-the-documents kind of chapter – it kept growing and growing and growing into the Chapter That Would Not End. When it reached 120 pages (!!) I told my director about its length and he suggested that I turn parts of it into an appendix if I couldn’t bear to let it go. He added that someday that would be a good repository of knowledge if I needed to turn to it in revising the book. So that’s what I did.

Some of the following chapters were pretty long, too, but not nearly as gargantuan as that first beast was. But also, they came much, much, faster in the writing, especially by chapters 3 and 4. Although I’m not nearly as speedy a writer as Crazy is, my writing process is similar. I spend a lot of time doing the research and conceptualizing the thing as a whole before writing, so that when it comes down to the writing, I know where I’m going. Also, I don’t angst over individual turns of phrase or sentences in the initial writing – I save that for later, for revisions. So my screenwriting neighbor and I would have these daily writing contests in which we announced our page tallies at the end of the day. We decided that a page of my text was worth ten of his, given the margins and the spacing and imaginative process of a screenplay versus the density of argument of a dissertation. One day I came out at 5pm (our deadline) and announced that I had written ten pages. “Damn!” he said, “That’s worth a whole screenplay!”

Anyway, in the end, I had a ridiculously long dissertation with an appendix of “stuff I just couldn’t cut” that came to nearly 500 pages. Clearly it was not ready to be published as is! I let it sit for my first year on the TT job and turned to it the next summer. I got a research award from my university to revise it into a book, and I took the six-week salary award seriously, making editing and revising my full-time job for those weeks. Here’s what I did with that appendix: anytime a footnote in a chapter said “See Appendix,” I decided if my close reading of the historical documents was necessary for the argument I was making and, if it was, I folded that bit into the main text. If the stuff in the Appendix was just a paraphrase or quotation of someone else’s work, all I kept was the footnote to them. The rest I chucked. And I set aside that first chapter and re-read the following chapters, trying to decide how much of that first chapter was needed to make sense of the following one. And I tried to pair down chapters 2 and 3, which were also pretty overwhelmingly large. And through all of this, I tried to use other recent books on texts A & B to guide me from dissertation to book. I didn’t know about Germano’s From Dissertation to Book, unfortunately, but I’ve always done a pretty good job using others’ work as models to imitate. I think imitation is a powerful tool for learning, in fact; it’s certainly how many a writer honed his or her craft. Sure, it can veer into the repetitious and the parodic and the tiresome. But the conventions of any genre, including the academic book, come from the texts themselves in conversation with and reflection of others like them, not from some set of “rules” out “there” in the sphere of the Forms of Genre.

I should say that throughout this, I had no explicit advice from my former director or committee member, other than those mightily helpful notes my director left me about what needed to be considered when it became a book. I’m not upset about this in the least. Like I said, he lets his students follow their bliss, and he also seems to believe that when they leave the nest they need to find their own way. He’s a bit like my own mother that way, and so it’s a style I respond to and understand. I think it’s part of the reason why I can throw myself into some project and just decide I have to do something, as in “OK, now I have to turn this into a book,” etc. I’m surprised I didn’t look for a book like Germano’s, though, since whenever my mom wanted to know how to do something she went to the library and found a book about it. Heck, when I decided to start running and training for marathons, I got a book, too! (Seriously: The Runner’s Handbook. Love it.)

After that initial process of revising, that’s when I said, “OK, now to get this thing published.” I knew it wasn’t totally finished, but I’d done as much as I could, and now I needed an editor or a reader to tell me what else it might require. So I started talking to the book editors at conference book exhibits. I brought along a newly-written one-page abstract of the book and an offprint of an article that came from material in one of the chapters, as well as a copy of my CV. Some of them took that material; some of them gave me their proposal forms; some of them asked me to send a formal query letter; none of the editors gave me all that much concrete advice. But one of them really interviewed me – as if for a TT job – which I totally wasn’t prepared for. He asked and said things such as “How is your book different from So-and-So’s book?” (which, btw, is a cultural history book on issue Y – why does everyone think I’m a historian???) and “Why do you think the field needs your book?” and “Convince me it’s not just a slightly more polished version of your dissertation.” He scared me. But he also taught me a little of what to expect when publishers looked at my proposals. In the end, I got two rejections from the presses who’d taken my materials at the conference as informal proposals/queries, and they were nice rejections, but they didn’t give much feedback. So other than Scary Editor’s interview, I was back at square one, still hoping at least to get the book to the reader stage and not knowing exactly why I was getting rejected and if it had to do with my topic and ideas or just with economics, luck, and timing.

And then a friend told me about the presses that give “advance contracts,” where the press gives you a contract based on a very detailed proposal, and then sends your completed manuscript to a reader. There’s a clause in the contract that gives them the right to reject the book based on the reader’s report, so it’s still a peer-reviewed book. And one of my friends pointed me to one press in particular with the reputation for working quickly. At the time I was in my second year on the tenure track, so I thought that sounded like a great idea. If worse comes to worst, I thought, and I get rejected after all that, I’ll have a reader report showing me how to improve the book and I’ll also know how to ‘sell’ it through the proposal process.

Y’all know this story ends happily, so I’ll just hit the highlights here. The acquisitions editor and the series editor (the academic with her name on the series in which my book appears) both gave me tons of feedback on the initial proposal I sent them, the form for which I got from their website. (The web is an excellent source of information in this process as most presses have a page all about their submissions process.) They were clearly interested and wanted the proposal to be the best it could be for the pitch to the board. Writing and revising that proposal also helped me further shape the final book, since there would be more editing down the road. I got the contract ultimately, which included a due date six or nine months away (I forget which) at which point I was supposed to provide them with the final manuscript, post peer-review. So that meant I had to get the manuscript ready for peer review pronto. This made me glad I’d already done some revision prior to submitting proposals, but there was still more to be done, since the press had a strict 90,000 word limit (including notes) and my book was currently about 110,000 words, I think. So more text came out, in addition to the stuff I’d taken out earlier. (When I started getting down to those final 1000 words or so, I started changing phrases like “the R of Q” to “Q’s R,” I was that desperate.) And then I shipped it off to the press to send it to the reader.

And then the reader’s report came back, with only about a month and half before the deadline. And it was mixed. And there was much gnashing of teeth and rending of clothing. But I defended the book to the series editor where I thought the reader was actually mistaken, and I promised the changes that s/he was probably right about. And the series editor was convinced. And I was on leave from teaching and I write quickly, so it was do-able. And all was good.

And so I sent off the final manuscript. And I waited. A year later I got the copy-edited version. Now, there was correspondence in between, so it’s not like my publisher disappeared on me. For whatever reason, my book was pushed back a year – probably for budgetary reasons, I imagine. Well, so much for the fast-moving press, but still, had they rejected me after the reader’s report, that was only my third year on the tenure track and I would’ve had time to find another publisher, since I’d only exhausted three possibilities. And if the press had stayed on the original plan, I would’ve been trying to see my way through the production process while my mom was in and out of the hospital, slowly dying, and that would’ve been disastrous. So the delay ended up a good thing, too.

And now I’ve got an Amazon page of my own. And two scholars I admire – one a rising star, another an established figure of renown – have blurbed the book, and soon I’ll have the proofs to review. And in June there will be a real book to hold in my hands, not quite 5 years after I filed the dissertation.

And that’s how my dissertation became a book.