Saturday, January 7, 2017

The very beginning

As the novitiate Maria wisely counseled the von Trapp children, the beginning is a very good place to start. So let me start with writing the introduction.
Unlike many monograph writers, I did not have a dissertation to “turn into a book.” (I do remember a conversation with Barbara Welke who fumed at the seamlessness that this phrase implied…)  As a pre-tenure professor, I dutifully attended many faculty development workshops devoted to this process of dissertation into book. Not once did anyone offer a workshop on the inverse: how to turn articles and a decade of archival hoarding into a book.
En route to nirvana (i.e. sabbatical), a close friend and mentor told me that if I intended to finish a book in a year, I needed to write 600 words a day. I’m not sure how she arrived at that particular calculus, but I trusted her and told my son (who trudged out to Princeton with me) that I needed to write 600 words per day. And he swore that he would keep me to it.
I went to my sabbatical office, opened up a new computer and proceeded to write 600 words a day. If I did not make my quota, my son sent me back to the office after dinner. Conversations unfolded in this way: “Mom, did you write 600 words today?”
                   “No.” (I would answer sheepishly).
                  “Well go do it, because we’re not staying.”
(Did I mention how miserable my poor child was in Princeton? Later post on parenting, academia, and sabbatical).
Early on, I had decided to do a couple things with my introduction. First, I wanted to ensure that if readers did nothing more than give the introduction a hard skim, they would understand—and maybe even appreciate what I intended to do in the book. I avidly read introductions of books that I admired from my field and from others, and I also picked random books from my shelf. From that unscientific survey method (since these were all my books), it seemed that introductions fell into two categories. The first category was a stately “walk-the-reader-through-the-chapters” with bits of historiographical breadcrumbs sprinkled in to keep the reader on the path. The second was the kind that took issue with the big historiographical claims head-on and showed how the book would dispute those claims. Not surprisingly, the former seemed to correspond with the deferential tone of the “dissertation into book” and the latter with the magisterial reflections of senior scholars. 
So, what path does one take? My book engaged with so many historiographical conversations—gender, slavery, emotions, Atlantic World, diaspora, the cultural turn, the biographical turn, Iberoamerican religiosity, early modern governance, sociolegal studies of legal consciousness, colonial Latin American history, prosopography—that I decided to plunge deeply into writing a synthetic historiographical essay that wove everything together. In other words, I didn’t do a conventional “lit review,” rather I tried to map out how all these debates contributed to my understanding of the field of slavery studies and shaped what I wanted to do with the book. It took me exactly one month at 600 words per day to write it. Since like Marvell, at my back I always heard/time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near—I did not indulge in historiographical flirtation.  I had no particular attachment to any set of arguments.
In a way, this self-imposed time crunch was cathartic. I helped me make sense of literatures and by September 30, I knew I had to move onto Chapter one the next day. And I only had one extra day in October!!
So, on October 1, I moved on. I deposited the Introduction into the Dropbox savings account where it accrued hard drive interest. After a fatigue-ridden day of writing, I would re-read it and tweak it in light of what I was writing in Chapter one, but I couldn’t touch it or go back to it with the characteristic obsession of the wordsmith.

I would love to say with all honesty that the result was successful. By November (three chapters later) I gave the draft to four trusted readers. Everyone came back with a split verdict. Some liked the focus on the narrative (which is a huge part of my method—delving into rich cases and grafting those onto the structures of slavery and imperial governance). Others thought I found my voice when I got to the Tannenbaum thesis and reconfigured it. My editor, Holly Brewer (who was the most patient reader and familiar with the whole project) told me to keep going (Phew!). Amy Dru Stanley—sabbatical sister in arms—told me to chuck the historiography and focus on the narrative. In short, four people who I trusted and respected gave me radically different feedback.
I think when we get these split decisions happen (as it does so often) as a writer, you have at least two options. One—you freak out. Or two, you listen, with as much calm as you can muster, and make a decision about what you want to do. The second option makes you think hard about what work you want the introduction to do for you as you chart your writing course, and reaffirms a belief in your method.
After I got feedback, I scrutinized what I had done. I had used the case of a domestic slave named Ana de Velasco, who sued her owner in an ecclesiastical court to urge a change of ownership petition. Ana disclosed the lascivious nature of her master’s obsession with her, and also her dogged pursuit of a legal solution to her situation. I had been obsessed with Ana for years. I’d burnt countless pots of rice, overflowed tubs while getting children ready for baths, all because I thought numerous times about what it would have meant for this woman to go to court to sue her owner and why she did it. Ana wasn’t just another microhistory—it seemed to me she was telling me something and her story channeled the work that I needed the introduction to do.
It’s clear that whatever path you choose, every word in an introduction should count. Readers, like acquisition editors, need everything in the introduction to count before committing to the book.  It could be that we write the introduction last, in the middle, or first. I wrote it first,  in that first month of sabbatical, and pinned my research question above my computer so I wouldn’t forget it. I strongly encourage those in the throes of writing to do just that.