Wednesday, January 13, 2016

How to let go of a first book

We recently heard from our resident advice guru, Ms. Peppercorn, about the difficulties of starting a second book. This is a post about a related topic: how to let got of a first.

To echo the words of Serena Mayeri, who blogged about this topic for us a few years ago (and whose first book went on to win many accolades), the thought of "never being able to fix anything ever again" has "filled me with abject terror." I let got of my book manuscript grudgingly and nervously, on the day my page proof corrections were due and not a day sooner. I felt similar bouts of anxiety at other moments of seeming finality -- the day I sent in the manuscript to the press, the day that I sent back my copy edits. Rather than celebrating these accomplishments, I brooded and agonized. I imagine others have different relationships with their first book projects, but, for me, the nagging questions were these: How could I ever say that the book was finished when I felt that more could be done to make it better? How could I let it go when some smarter, richer version of the book seemed within my grasp?

These questions continue to keep me up at night, I'm afraid, but I wanted to pass along some of the advice that I have appreciated in recent months and that gives me comfort now that the book manuscript is largely out of my hands:
Guido Calabresi (credit)

1. Beware of "over-doing." I actually received this piece of advice well before I started the book, when I was clerking for the Honorable Guido Calabresi. An esteemed scholar and astute reader of people, Judge Calabresi warned me of my tendency to, in his words, "over-do" -- that is, to invest too much time and energy into my assignments, beyond what was necessary to do the job. If you know him only by his scholarship (he was a law and economics pioneer), you might be tempted to translate this advice into the idea of diminishing returns. If asked to elaborate, I suspect he would say something more reflective of his personal warmth and humanity. Or, more likely, he would tell you a story -- perhaps about a famous friend whose work is absolutely brilliant but not perfect, or about another friend whose quest for perfection proved paralyzing. The point is, there are junctures at all phases of a project where doing it well turns into over-doing, and the costs may be significant. I can't tell you where the line is, unfortunately, but I found it helpful to remember that a line exists and that part of being a good scholar is knowing to look for it. [NB: Laura Kalman captures Guido beautifully in this recent essay.]  

Coming soon...whether I like it or not!
2. Remember that you're aiming to spark conversation, not end it. This piece of advice (paraphrased) came from one of the commentators at a little conference I put together to workshop a draft of my book manuscript. In an exchange about what a book's conclusion should do, this commentator -- who is the author of multiple well-respected books -- noted that sometimes you end a project without having 'figured it out' and that's OK. One model for a conclusion would actually acknowledge what continues to puzzle you -- as a way of leveling with readers about the complexity of the issues and prompting further reflection. Extending the advice a bit further, I think this commentator was getting at two broader points. First, there is value in grappling with good questions, even when airtight answers elude you. That, in itself, is a form of advancing knowledge. Second, pursuing one set of research questions will naturally open up a host of others, not all of which can possibly be answered in a single volume. To the first-time author, these dangling threads might be unsightly -- or worse, evidence of failure -- but readers may well have a different view. One scholar's dangling threads may be valuable raw material for the tapestry that the broader scholarly community is weaving.

3. Relatedly -- recognize your limitations, and embrace the capacities of others. When talking to a historian friend about the final phases of her first book, she said something to the effect of: "I had done as much with the material as I could do. Someone else might be able to do more, but I had reached my limit." Her tone, notably, was not one of defeat. Looking back on that conversation, the image that springs to my mind is of a long-distance relay runner: she had run as far as possible with the baton and covered valuable ground; she was now ready for her teammates to continue the journey. This advice has been helpful to me because it is a reminder that we all have limitations -- of imagination, of time, of training. We go as far as we can with what we have, and, in a perfect scenario, we inspire others to bring their skills and energies to the enterprise.

4. Think about all those projects waiting in the wings and get excited! Multiple seasoned veterans gave me some version of this advice. It's a reminder that, if all goes well, your first book is just that -- a first book. There will be other publications, and through them, you will continue chipping away at the big questions that fuel your broader research agenda. I am just now starting to take this piece of advice and, indeed, there is something exhilarating about turning to a blank page. I'm still not sure whether I let my book go at the right moment, but the feeling of starting fresh is a nice reward. 

Readers, do you have advice to add? I would also be interested hearing the views of my fellow LHB bloggers, as well as our current guest blogger, Anne Kornhauser (who recently finished a first book that I very much admire).


Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I'm can't offer any advice (I lack proper qualifications), but do want to say: Warm and hearty congratulations on your book. I very much look forward to reading it (I've already added it to one of my bibliographies!). Best wishes, Patrick

Anne Kornhauser said...

I want to second Patrick O'Donnell's congratulations and express my eagerness to see Karen's book as well. I also want to thank Karen for her kind words about my own book.

As for advice, I certainly remember having many of the feelings and thoughts Karen describes. It is nice to be rid of the ones that keep you up at night, and they do go away. I also like what Judge Calabresi said--in fact, I think I will make it my mantra. I tend to take everything I do *very* seriously, as, for example, the blog posts I am currently writing! More to the point, I adopted this posture toward my book as well. I am sure it was "done" long before I deemed it so, but since a book cannot ever really be done--how would you know?--practicalities, or as Karen puts it, "limitations" must be a factor in letting go. I agree with Karen that among these practical considerations could and should be the other projects that must wait patiently while you fret over every last word of your book. If you imagine those other projects as animate rather than inanimate objects you will feel guiltier about neglecting them. A final thought: on the off chance you are the progeny or sibling or even a friend of academics, or of anyone who has written an impressive first book, try to allow these people, and their work, to inspire rather than intimidate you.