Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Chapter from Hell

Recently I served on a search committee for an open rank position in African American history at my school. It was wonderful to read the scholarship in this field that is tangentially related to my work and learn about its exciting trends and new directions. As part of the search process, we asked candidates to situate their work within the field and comment on both its fit and contribution. In other words, we asked candidates to summarize their work in five minutes and tell us why it is important. I chose to ask candidates questions about writing challenges—methodological or otherwise. This proved an even harder question for candidates, but I used it as an opportunity to gauge their candor and thoughtfulness on the process of their scholarship.

We all know that some chapters are just hell to write. You don’t like them, or you don’t like the historical subjects whom the chapter revolves around, or you aren’t jazzed about the topic. Since we chart our own writing course, why do we make ourselves write about something or people whom we do not like? I’m not talking about the obligatory chapters like the lit review—that can actually be quite fun to write. I mean that chapter that you may have written hastily or kept on the back burner. It’s the one that’s the least workshopped and as a result has never benefitted from the curating of our more polished and favorite chapters. That chapter is something of an orphan.  

My chapter from hell was literally the last chapter that I wrote. This was not a Freudian moment; it just unfolded in trajectory pf the book's argument that it was the last chapter. I wrote about “defective” slave sales—redhibitory actions in which aggrieved buyers claim they were duped by unscrupulous sellers who hid slave “defects” in the transaction. For US readers, causes of redhibition appear principally in the Louisiana records. However they are common in all slave markets. In effect, redhibition as a cause of action based on implied warranties was worked out almost exclusively around slave purchases and rescission—similarly to the way that rules of possession were developed around foxes and whales.

Along the decade of archival hoarding, I had amassed a wealth of data on these redhibitory actions that gave granular data on the internal resale slave market that contradicted the studies on slave prices. The cases spoke to the burgeoning literature on slavery and racial capitalism. Because so many of the cases alleged illness, I had amazing data on African, indigenous, and Galenic medical sensibilities that should have been an independent article. In sum, I had too much. The problem was not that I couldn’t write 600 words a day-- I had a rich undisciplined chapter that made me feel a bit like Eric Carle’s gluttonous caterpillar. And it was May! Sabbatical was drawing to a close and my patient editor Holly Brewer encouraged me to send in the manuscript so that we would have it in time to reviewers for the summer. This chapter could accrue very little hard drive interest, and it could not be perfect.

So what did I learn? First, I learned to use a sledgehammer to hone and prune (not sure if you do that with sledgehammers but you get the drift. It was not the careful clipping of topiary gardening of the boxwoods-- it was full on chopping and felling. It is the only chapter that went through so many re-writes that it has .6 versions on Dropbox.) Second I learned that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be done. You can make edits until the production stage. (Who knew?) And you can read it after a copyeditor has gone through it and take it up again. You may even like it after your reviews come back and the copyeditor has a go at it. Or you may never truly be satisfied with it. That’s why it’s called the chapter from hell. Or as my son called it,“That Damned Chapter.”