Opening the Book, Part 1
Volume 3, Cycle 4
For this two-part installment of Process, I asked eight scholars who had just finished a book—their first or their fourth—to write informally about their experience. Conferences often feature roundtables about writing and publishing, but I thought it might be a good addition to have some personal anecdotes, stories less attached to the mechanics of the industry and more to the quiddities of the book-writing process. A book might arrive as an artifact, but it begins as a dream or a compulsion or a hunch. No review or reading, however generous, does justice to the messiness of the life that seals itself into the final object of the book, as though in anticipation of the spell that may someday release it. The intent here is not so much to demystify as to re-enchant.
Revising a manuscript that you’ve been working on for years is a meandering journey through an old house—one you slowly realize is just a little haunted. You’re always encountering ghosts of the past; or rather, like the protagonist of Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner,” you’re always encountering ghosts who are actually versions of yourself. A past self walks, full-formed, straight out of a wall of text; a writing tic you think you’ve discarded intrudes like unknown footsteps. A manuscript is a spectral menagerie of the people you used to be, or might have become, or might, if you look closely, still actually be. I would never write a sentence like that! meets awkwardly with the fact that it seems, five years ago, I actually did.
My first book came out recently. As I was editing—and re-editing, and copy-editing—I seemed to be always trying to determine if the phantom of another self was friendly. By the proof-reading stage, you know that, whether or not your ghosts are friendly, you have to live with them. They are old friends or family members: you can’t get rid of them. Sometimes you worry they’ll embarrass you; at other moments, they are the people you can’t wait to introduce to the world you inhabit today.
As I write my next book, I am a potential awkward past for the self who lives in the future, who will reread and rethink the sentences I write. I refer to political circumstances today that may themselves have become undesired ghosts; I make awkward efforts to put ideas in line which may someday look like furniture that, rattling on its own, leaves gashes in the walls. My future self right now is a ghost—hard to see clearly, looking at me with blank eyes. Recently, while reading, I’ve found myself checking the month of publication for books that came out in 2017—trying to figure out whether a given text was stuck in its final form, like an insect with its feet in sap, as a whole new political future flowed over us all. To think about writing as process is to think about the ways texts take shape over time, and can’t help but sediment layers both of history and of oneself. Process, above all, is not a structure—though we like to represent processes with flow charts—but a peculiar form of time.
Much of my research is about the ways authors try to write for futures beyond themselves, futures they can’t foresee; most of the time, when I think about process, I’m thinking of historical processes that estrange writers from readers on a vast scale—English modernist novels read after the end of England’s colonial empire, novels of today read in the future on the other side of catastrophic climate change. But editing makes me realize that we are our own first unknowable future readers—much less visible than we assume as we write. The self of a few years down the line may be have clearer outlines than readers decades away, but still can startle us.
And it’s ultimately, less embarrassing than astounding. There is, after all, something extraordinary about being able to walk through the walls of history or create sounds heard by people you do not know. In writing we try to meet the blank eyes of the future—but we also try, just a little, to startle our ghostly futures in return.
1: Like most first books, mine—Word of Mouth: Gossip and American Poetry—began as a doctoral dissertation and it occupied, from dissertation prospectus to final tinkering with the index, just over a decade of my life. During that time I raised a cranky little dog named Edie, became a vegetarian, moved to Texas to take up a postdoctoral fellowship, started eating meat again, got divorced, “came out,” went on the job market for multiple years, met and broke up with a boyfriend, lived in five different apartments, watched immense amounts of television, secured a tenure-track job, and found my partner. I wrote and rewrote chapters, got distracted by one-off articles, squirreled away time for writing poems, and spent weeks in several archives getting uncomfortably intimate with my objects of study. The ultimate arrival of the physical book in the mail, finally a thing in the world, felt both overwhelming and anticlimactic: a conclusion to a circuitous and often precarious writing process but one that didn’t exactly provide that process with a strong sense of closure. In an immediate sense, of course, I’m no longer writing Word of Mouth. But I’m still processing its writing.
2: Or: the process of writing my book was structured by and structured my daily life, and what happened to me over a decade of working on the book was in some real sense brought about by the book and in turn brought the book about.
3: Or: a formative moment for my research on gossip: skimming the acknowledgements of a noted queer theorist’s first study, where I find, penciled in the margin next to a sentence thanking his wife, one reader’s bewildered annotation: his wife?! Throughout the writing of Word of Mouth I thought a surprising number of times about this incredulous marginalia and its querying of the complicated relationship between the objects we create and the lives that nourish their creation.
4: I am thinking of a t-shirt made by a friend in Austin who teaches print photography classes (“Homo Photo Club”). On the front, a charming series of line drawings of vintage cameras; on the back, “Why film? Because we’re lesbians: we love to process.” Writing an academic book has sometimes felt, for me, a bit like photographic processing: an almost chemical transformation of a latent image into a visible one, permanent and insensitive to light. And: a way of working that may be outmoded, yet somehow all the more beautiful for it. Writing an academic book has also felt a bit like the stereotype of “lesbian processing”: doubling down on a relationship that cultivates seemingly ceaseless, self-reflexive conversation about itself, analysis teetering always on the edge of overanalysis and its heady mix of stimulation, exhaustion, bathos. (I tell my graduate students that writing this first book has taught me the importance of finding ways to stay in love with your project; it’s probably truer to describe its writing as a long, inevitable break-up, one where you’re both committed to remaining friends.)
5: In a glancing moment in A Dialogue on Love, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick recalls
all the unsuccessful job interviews, in the years before I got professionalized, when I’d be asked to describe my dissertation and
gazing off into
outer space, would murmur, “Oh,
it’s . . . complicated.”
Professionalization, here, appears as a quietly indoctrinating force, something one acquires (or succumbs to?) and that closes off the glimmering horizon of spacing out, murmur, complication—markers of a certain obscurity that, on the one hand, present a stumbling block for the professional communication of ideas but, on the other, open onto an elliptical space that slips the knot of such professionalization and its often-reductive demands. Process: keeping alive that elliptical space?
6: I don’t think I quite understood what Word of Mouth was “about” (is this embarrassing to admit?) until I saw Kathy Butterly’s quirky little ceramic sculpture, Loud Silence, and wanted it to appear on the book’s cover. I imagined the sculpture’s queer form of confusion—of the familiar and the strange, of listening and speaking, of person and thing—as the dishy avatar of the book and its motivating interest in forms of suspended agency.
But more than obliquely suggesting, to me at least, the book’s arguments and preoccupations, Butterly’s work evinces something about process that felt important to the writing of this first book. Of her own process, Butterly says, “I never know what a piece will be/look like until it is completely finished . . . I start with a form, react to it, add to it, fire it, react, fire react . . . so on. At a certain point I understand where the piece wants to go and after it is complete I understand the meaning of the piece.” John Yau describes this method (“the pieces need to be fired many times, with each firing inviting ruin”) as “an open-ended process in which disaster lurks behind every decision.”
The scholarly books I love most similarly present not simply the end result of their process but a striking account of it; they might be read as records of barely averted disasters (first books, often the professional products required for tenure and produced by the skin of one’s teeth, especially so). Butterly’s work felt (feels) instructive for negotiating the stumbling pleasures of process and rigid necessities of product, for the effort to create indelible objects that somehow resist their own objecthood—forms that constantly threaten, or promise, to dissolve into a series of awkward mistakes that may also be new gestures toward a vitalizing, but as of yet inchoate, potentiality.
The process of writing a first book, which for most of us is inseparable from the process of finishing a dissertation, often follows a fairly straightforward publication formula: write a chapter, revise a chapter, attempt to send that chapter (or part of it, anyway) out to a journal. Incorporate reader feedback back into relevant chunk of dissertation, and proceed apace until the thing transforms from caterpillar to butterfly. This summary misses all sorts of more textured frustrations, of course, as well as the final sprint of more serious structural overhaul. Its general accuracy, though, comes out in the sorts of things I remember worrying about approaching the end of graduate school. How much of the dissertation can one publish before it loses its appeal to prospective academic press editors? Is it OK to introduce more than one article with what roughly amounts to the same ideas, since they are, after all, being drawn from a shared giant Word file on my MacBook? On and on it went, as I learned to speak in knowing tones about “the book” and “my project” until, through a digital haze, one appeared.
In retrospect, a lot of these anxieties stood in for a more general, desperate desire for universal rules in a world of extreme contingency. Nonetheless, the above summary captures something essential about the difference between working on a first book and working on a second: the first is a sum of its jam-packed parts, and the second, more like a footprint left by years of thinking in its vicinity. This time around, for me, at least, the relationship between individual publications and the final book product is far less methodical, and even indirect. So, for example, a few long magazine review essays of books that aren’t even mentioned in mine jump-started thinking about a chapter that deals with an altogether different time and place. On numerous occasions, I have taken a key primary text from my second book and re-embedded it in a different context – an invited lecture, say – which in turn yielded a publication on an adjacent topic. And in yet another instance of publication as dialogue with, rather than down payment on my book, I published what I’d thought was a major essay-cum-chapter on Zimbabwean writing, only to discover later that it was, in fact, just some very extensive throat-clearing for the chapter I actually wrote.
I would not want to draw many points of advice from this shift, because most of it is eminently practical. As a grad student I was learning the ropes, and had limited funding, and did not feel able to afford—literally—real time spent on writing that could not be re-integrated into the master document, so to speak. Whereas I did think then of a discrete project, I now think in terms of a career, and so adjacent and re-combined bits of thinking are relevant to a broader intellectual trajectory. Both kinds of work have their place, and I’m glad to have had the chance to move from a more self-contained project to one with tentacles. Ideally, at least one of those offshoots will lay the groundwork for book three.
As I was finishing my third book, after a decade of working on it, about modernist and late modernist literary couples, intimacy, and relational life writing, I started to think not about proofs and reviews but about the story of the book itself. The book has an origin narrative—perhaps part of what Roland Barthes calls an ergography, the life story of the work. We don’t tell those stories, and we don’t include them in the finished product. They make up the traces.
What about the book I could have written, but didn’t? The shadow book, another story with another ending, inhabiting a parallel universe where I am smarter, or just different? A finished book might have embedded within it the kernels of the next book, yet to be realized; it also bears the traces of other, unrealized books. When you work on a book for ten years, it could be so many different things, until it really only can be just one thing. I stretched past and over the points where I felt I had reached the limits of my intelligence. I knew more when I was done than I did when I started. But within the book I sent off are vestigial traces of the books it started out as. I can still imagine the versions of the book I thought it might be, its possible worlds archived in a folder within which are nested other folders filled with conference papers, grant proposals, outlines, notes, first tries, wrong turns. The flotsam and jetsam of a “research agenda,” along with notes to myself, the self that came up with the idea in the first place and is probably not entirely the self that finished the thing.
Does finishing mean revising out those vestigial traces? Of what I thought and who I was? It did, yes. A whole chapter gone and then redone. Analyses whittled down into footnotes. A wholly new introduction, with wild claims of “originality” tempered in favor of tracing out the lines of an ongoing conversation I hope to join. Readings for which I felt a great tenderness and which simply did not need to be there. But some traces remain, pointing to the book’s origins.
Origin story: This book came into being at a used bookstore on an absurdly perfect fall day ten years ago. I picked up a copy of The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling and decided to buy it. I decided to buy it because it drew forth the thought: I wonder if there’s a book about couples and life writing.
Within the making and finishing of one book lies the origin story of the next. Diana Trilling didn’t make it into the book I just finished, but she likely will make it into the next one: interwar women’s critical and autobiographical writing and the rhetorics of anger. Or, what I’m affectionately (pointedly) calling “women and bullshit.”
Finishing a book feels like agony: because of the deadline, because you didn’t do your works cited list all along like you should have and left it till the end like you decidedly shouldn’t have, because it’s like watching someone you’ve hated and loved leave. But the putting away of it creates all this new room, and what strikes me as a new and profoundly generative openness and sense of potential. Because of course the best thing about finishing a book is getting to think about the next one.