Sitting in my apartment, in parks, and on my roof, I have tried to keep track of the ebb and flow of the seasons in the relentless monotony of a socially distanced New York. Keeping track has been made all the more difficult by the seasonal monotony that my research asks of me—working on a dissertation about literary representations of the tropics has me fixated on heat even when I do not feel it.
Virginia Woolf’s memoirs resonate richly with seating, beginning with the rocking chair from which she heard her father drop books to the floor at Hyde Park Gate. Leslie Stephen had “written all his books lying sunk in that deep rocking chair,” Woolf would recall in the essay “A Sketch of the Past,” his feet clear of the ground, a writing board across his lap. Yet Woolf did not herself begin as an armchair storyteller.
Always mornings. Early. And there should be coffee. Breakfast will come later, but the best hours are now—when the world is still blanketed, the mind “puddled in dream melt.” There are particular parameters for the page. The margins must be wide. The font Goudy Old Style or Garamond in a squeeze. Carriage returns between paragraphs. No indentation. I once justified my text; now I like the ragged edges. To write The Names (1982), Don DeLillo had to change his method. He began typing single, numbered paragraphs, each on its own leaf: a microclimate that allowed him to “see a given set of sentences more clearly.” This is a logic that makes sense to me. I learned to write from my mother. She taught me to revise a sentence aloud before putting it into print. To move from breath to inscription can be a mystical practice. The look of letters has long astonished, inviting cryptic explanations. The 22 paths connecting Kabbalah’s Sefirot—emanations of the divine Ein Sof—correspond to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The Latin “A” is an abstracted, phonetic descendant from an Ox hieroglyph. Flip it over and you can still see the creature’s horns: ∀. These ideas are important for the writers I study. They reveal a profound longing—the desire to rekindle a relationship between text and the body, at once archaic and arcane, and to locate the origins of writing in the sensual world.
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.
We modernist scholars are all digital modernists now, and for a variety of reasons. Listening to recent debates in both modernist studies and the digital humanities, one would not think this was the case. Digital scholarship is often presented as the preserve of a special inter- or infra-disciplinary conversation distinct from the professional fields that contribute to it, thus presenting digital scholarship as a set of methods distinct and particular to digital humanists.
My process of writing this blog post about the writing process was slow, circuitous, and emotionally fraught. I started out with a clear idea of my overall structure—or so I thought—but ended up abandoning it after several hours of drafting, redrafting, and repeated applications of my Delete key. Frustrated, I tried free-writing for twenty minutes: an unstructu