Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Ms. Peppercorn and Prof. Peregrina Present a Puzzle for Legal Historians to Ponder: Moving On from First Loves (aka the Curse of the Second Book Project)

Alas! The holiday weekend has come to an end; the fall semester is upon us. But cheer up! We aim to lift your spirits and facilitate your continued productivity with a new installment of our occasional advice column, "Ms. Peppercorn Considers."* Enjoy!
This post began with a prompt from an author who has just finished a (superb) book manuscript (now out for review at an eminent press). It occurred to Ms. Peppercorn that legal historians, like other mortals, may find themselves wrestling with basic questions about the meaning of life, such as “how the hell will I ever come up with a second book project?” Such nagging questions try our souls. There are so many excuses NOT to do a second book, and so much other work that lands on the shoulders of the newly published.

Nonetheless, we persevere. And some people out there recognize how hard it is to overcome commitment anxiety, fear of a whole new subject (or of just duplicating the first book), or even the notion that one should quit while ahead. For example, the William and Mary Quarterly and the Early Modern Studies Institute together sponsor an annual workshop geared toward mid-career scholars who work in early modern history. Last year’s conference, on legal history, saw fine work from a variety of perspectives (although it was notable that none of the papers was written by a scholar based in a law school).

And yet one hopes there’s more to be said than “Put your nose to the grindstone” and “grab lifelines where you find them.” To generate other ideas, we turned the tables on the author whose predicament prompted these musings and asked, ‘How does it feel to be without the ball and chain that filled your time for the past several years? And how are you thinking about whether and when to put on the yoke again?’ Read on for our conversation with the (pseudonymous) Professor Peregrina.
Dear Ms. Peppercorn,

Thanks so much for writing. I’ve been thinking about the subject of Second Book Project all summer. The question you pose really is how it feels to be unencumbered and unmoored from one project that determined my research life, my summers and leaves, all my writing energies—and whether it feels liberating or terrifying to embark on yet Another Project? How to relinquish the hard-won familiarity with the secrets and nuances [quirks] of one archive? In short: how to love again?

I had a terrible nightmare years ago when I was pregnant with my second child. I dreamt that I had taken my son out for the day, we had a glorious time, and when we returned home, I went to check on the baby who I found dehydrated and crying forlornly in her crib. I woke up panicking. But if dreams mean something, I remember thinking: how could I possibly love another child with as much intensity as I did my firstborn? Was it traitorous to love another?

This is my experience of trying to disengage from one all-consuming project and start to love another. First: there’s the physicality of a new place, a new archive, a new set of subjects, and of course new research questions. It takes time to learn the idiosyncrasies—let along the politics, and the deep history of a new place. It takes time to develop new contacts, get new visas and permits, and cultivate new bureaucratic alliances. It’s slow going. It’s exhausting. Even more so when you finally arrive at the archive and realize you have no idea where one can get the flakiest crust pastry and the best cappuccino in a rushed half hour break! It’s easy in these moments to feel nostalgic for the First Book Project and its more familiar terrain.

Reflecting on this really got me thinking, Ms. Peppercorn: What are the other options for writers of second books? Do we have to make such a clean break with the past? Might we immerse ourselves more deeply in the questions that linger from the first book, exploring paths not taken? Or, like novelists, might we take bit characters from the first book, develop them more fully, and give them a whole manuscript in which to play?

While I’m at it -- why don’t we try our hands at fiction, or some medium that could bring the ideas from the first book to a broader audience? What about working with a museum curator to put together a public history exhibit? Or collaborating somehow with scholars writing in similar fields but in different geographical contexts, or scholars working on similar subjects but in other disciplines?

And might there be some even less expensive routes? New ventures, after all, require funding—accurately dubbed “seed funding” for ideas (or hypotheses in proposal-ese). I’ve found that immersing oneself in new professional societies can be a low-cost way of “moving on,” without fully jumping ship. I like to frequent small conferences of Romance Language scholars or art historians, or small area studies colloquia where I can learn about the art, literature, popular culture that informed the sensibilities of my subjects. And I love to grab coffee with grad students as they head off on their ventures in their heady post-prospectus phase. Ahh, the beauty of young love….

As you pointed out with your characteristic sagacity, Ms. Peppercorn, perhaps it’s best to start small. The right path for me, I suspect, might be to write an article or two that defines the field as I found it when I went into it ten years ago and how it is as I leave it; what I would like it to be, and how I see my work fitting in with that trajectory. A fond but firm farewell, as it were.

What say you, Dear Peppercorn?

Warm regards,

Our reply:
My dear Peregrina:

You raise many cogent issues. Coffee is always important to academic performance. Plus, the relationship between authorship and parenthood is indeed tangled.

Ms. Peppercorn is not as keen on the curatorial and/or edited volume angle, however, as she thinks cutting the cord rather than making a lot of spin-off products keeps an academic honest.

And fiction?! Ms. Peppercorn does not approve of gallivanting around, intellectually or otherwise.

She wonders whether Peregrina has been attending too many remote and undisciplined conferences. The ASLH is firmer ground -- it has nourished many scholars who have undertaken wonderful second book projects. She denies firmly that it is staid.

But she likes very much the idea of thinking big and starting small –- as with a new exercise routine. Now, that she can get behind!
Kind readers in the LHB blogosphere, what advice do you have for Peregrina and others in this common predicament?
* If you have a question for Ms. Peppercorn to consider, send a message to the blog email address and we'll see what we can do!