Tuesday, July 28, 2020

After the First Book: Community, Routine, Project Lifecycle

This will be my last post in my time guest-blogging here this month. In my prior posts I’ve talked about how it felt to write my dissertation and my book and about the practical organization of the work. Now I want to talk a little about life after the book. Obviously this is a new stage (I have a book now! Cool! … now what?!) but I didn’t see this stage coming. I’ve tended to see major milestones as stopping points, I think because it’s been so much work and felt so consequential to hit those marks, that I’ve tended to forget that after the milestone there’s more to do. I’ve started to think about this new stage, its challenges, and my efforts at navigating those challenges, in terms of project lifecycle, daily routine, and intellectual community.

By project lifecycle I mean mostly that I like my writing life best when I’m in the middle of a writing project. The early hard part where I feel lost is over, and the late stage - where I have to do what is to me the somewhat dull final stuff like line edits, and face the fear of it facing the judgment of official readers - is far away. I have some momentum and some excitement, and I can just be there, energized by the ideas. I particularly like having a relatively big project to be in the middle of.

When the summer started I had a few contenders for a new main writing project. They were all in a very early stage, and many of my ideas felt more like possible and notional projects than anything real. I have ideas for a second book project based on some questions I have about labor and employment law. I’m interested in when the law has treated working class people as actors in their own right and supported that capacity to act, as objects of state indifference that employers are allowed to treat however they life, and as objects of state concern to be protected from economic predation. I suspect this protection is also split between sometimes treating working class people as intrinsically and civically valuable, and sometimes treating them as resources to be conserved. I also have some outtakes from my dissertation and book and some lingering questions that I would like to return to at some point. I want to think more about industrial physicians, for one thing. I suspect they did a kind of ideological work for upper management to help company presidents’ have undeservingly clean consciences. I wonder about workers’ comp laws in the US south, related to questions I have about workers’ comp and racialization, and I am curious to know more about the actual social life of the common law of employee injury pre- workers’ comp, and post workers’ comp for people in jobs not covered under those laws. Tied to these questions and my interests in Marxism and law, I have some conference and workshop papers I’ve committed to writing, which may contain seeds of new things. All of these potential new projects involve substantial new thinking and research in both primary and secondary sources. That poses a challenge to my preference for the middles of writing projects.

It feels strange to be back at the beginning of all new projects and new learning curves after finishing my book. Frankly, it’s an uncomfortable feeling. To be totally honest I’ve struggled not to procrastinate because I feel like there are so many blank pages, and things that feel like blank pages, like relevant literature I’ve not found about, let alone read yet. I’ve been trying to navigate this by focusing largely on writing routine. I don’t have any opinions about what other people should do, but for myself, I’m happier when I write a little bit each day, about 20 minutes or so, as I’ve talked about previously. I think of this daily writing practice in part through an image I read in a column by the scholar and writer Rebecca Schuman. (That's one column in a series on academic writing that you should definitely check out. Her memoir Schadenfreude, A Love Story is really great, and I recommend it highly as well.)

Dr. Schuman talks about a dental spacer to explain some of the value of daily writing. The point of a dental spacer is to fill the gap left by a missing tooth, in order to prevent other teeth from moving around. That way, when a new tooth replaces the missing tooth, whether by growing in or by the use of an artificial tooth, there’s still room for the new tooth. Similarly, regularly sitting down to write holds the space for writing in a daily and weekly routine, even when I may not have a writing project or may feel like I don’t have any ideas at the moment. Spacer writing means that when I am ready to write on a project I already have in my daily routine the time for and habit of writing. I’ll add that for me the line between ‘spacer’ writing and, I don’t know, ‘tooth’ writing isn’t always clear: I don’t always know if I’m writing to preserve routine or if I’m doing ‘real writing.’ I try not to think about it, and instead to think about it like my musician friends and colleagues think of their instruments: they practice and play every day, it’s not a question. Thinking this way removes “I’m not ready to write yet” from my arsenal of excuses for procrastination.

The point where I am in the life cycle of my current writing projects has required some adjustments in my writing routine. I figured that out after a while because I increasingly felt like something just wasn’t quite working. For a while over the past year I tried to make my planned second book project the source of my daily short writing session. That was helpful for getting a little clearer on what I want to do for that book, but after a while I found that I really just had little more to say - not due to procrastination, but because I didn’t have any thoughts for the project that I hadn’t already had. For that project I really need to focus on reading and researching further, probably for a long time, rather than trying to generate prose. That means I can’t rely on the second book as the source of my daily writing for the time being.
With that in mind I decided earlier this summer that I would focus on trying to develop a portfolio of writing projects that are at different stages. For a very long time I was single-mindedly focused on my book, due to what felt like necessity and because I like the single-mindedness of that way of working. Sometimes my book would be away to readers, though, and I wouldn’t have anything to write on. Getting back to work on my book after those gaps was harder if let my writing routine fall apart. I didn’t like that so very late in the book I tried to develop other smaller projects I could plug into when my book wasn’t available to write on, as spacer writing to maintain my routine.

I will say, this way of working had a downside, because of a mistake on my part. This being my first book, I underestimated how much work I would still have to do after I emailed the completed manuscript to the press. I found that the remaining tasks related to things like indexing, copy editing again, the marketing questionnaire, and reading the proofs took up as much time over the semester as I’d had available for writing the previous semester. Not knowing about these tasks (I think I had been warned but the warning hadn’t sunk in) I ended up committing myself to more ambitious timelines on what had previously been side projects. That made for a tiring fall and spring. That said, I would do it the same way over again, as working this way meant that I went from the book directly into other work. That was really nice because I kept a sense of motion - I stayed in the middle - and I was in contact with editors and co-authors. By early March all those smaller projects I had going had reached endpoints. (I’ve got a chapter forthcoming in the Elgar Research Handbook on Law and Marxism and a co-authored essay in Law and Social Inquiry, also on law and marxism. I also co-wrote this essay with my friend Rob Hunter, debating how Marxists should understand the famous - and, in Hunter and my view, wrongheaded - base/superstructure metaphor. I’m excited about these pieces, so I wanted to tell you about them.)

Having completed these projects, I was back at square one, right around when my employer switched my courses to online due to the pandemic. Somewhere around there is when the Legal History Blog editors asked me about blogging this summer, so for a while I used these posts as my source of short daily writing, which was well timed as I could have easily abandoned writing altogether. I’ll add - I’ve not always written truly daily monday-through-friday in a while, because I'm distracted and off my game. I’ve kept that as an aspiration and tried to not sweat when I don’t quite hit that mark. Sweating the small stuff is one of my super powers, but it’s a waste of energy. As I said, I eventually picked a project to focus on, an essay that may end up being about left-liberal legal ideas, to have something to work on for my daily writing. I read around enough to start writing, then went back to small daily work sessions.

From doing this work over the summer, I think I’m going to run into some difficulties that I want to lay out. They’re all related to working sustainably. This was a challenge sometimes during my book. After a while when writing my book I started to feel like I was on a roll and that felt good, as so much of the writing felt hard. Having the work feel good led to to a new - admittedly, high quality - challenge: working too much, in an unsustainable fashion. At first I’d write way, way too long on any given day. For instance, sometimes I’d push hard and finish a chapter draft and feel a satisfied kind of tiredness when I finished. I’d wake up the next day with my writing brain feeling worn out and then I would have to start the next chapter in that tired condition. That was demoralizing and anxiety inducing and I would sometimes procrastinate and see my routine fall apart. Satisfying finishes to my writing day led to starting future writing days in a deficit. I stopped working that way after a while.

The next challenge of working too much was that I would sometimes work too much each writing day, and then fall behind on other responsibilities. Once those responsibilities stacked up enough, I would have to suspend daily writing to catch up. Then my routine would fall apart and I would lose my sense of momentum and have to rebuild my writing routine. I have largely quit working this way too, though I do still find this an occasional temptation. My sense is that both of these challenges are tied to impatience on my part. (Robert Boice’s Professors As Writers, which I’ve mentioned before, has a great assessment of the emotional life of writing, I recommend it highly. I scored high for impatience, which I knew, and perfectionism, which surprised me. There’s a useful assessment as well in Helen Sword’s book Air & Light & Space & Time, looking at habits of individual writing practice, emotional or self-talk habits, and social habits. It’s good for identifying areas of improvement in writing life. That assessment suggested my self-talk as a writer could use a tune-up. I’m working on it. It’s hard. Knowing better what I’m like helps me steer my writing practice better.)

Based on what it’s been like working this summer to get this paper to the point where I can sit down and write on it each day, I think I’m going to have a related but different difficulty when it comes to working sustainably in the future. Specifically, I think I’m going to need to make sure the balance of time I spend across projects helps sustain my portfolio of projects. What I mean is that it would be easy to write on this paper so long each day that I don’t have time or energy for quality work that develops other projects, or so that I finish the project and don’t have a source of spacer writing anymore. I’ve been trying to emphasize keeping my daily time on the paper short and to remind myself that for now this paper is really about providing me with spacer writing. I’ve also been trying to put a little time each work day into developing a second project (another paper I’m workshopping in the spring) that I can use as a source of spacer writing in the future for after I finish that first paper. I want the second paper to be a shelved but, so to speak, shelf-stable and ready-to-reheat writing project: an immediately available source of spacer writing so I can minimize future breaks in my writing routine.

Another challenge will be to remember to prioritize making headway on a second book. The other smaller projects are meant to serve the new book project by giving some shape to my over all routine, rather than being top priority themselves. I’m guesstimating the new book will take me ten or eleven years. (Reader, I swallowed hard and sighed when I typed that.) I’m very, very early in the literature review phases, where a lot of what I need to do is collect lists of material that I will look over a little more closely later to decide whether or not I’m going to actually read it. I find this phase dull so it takes some work to make myself put in the time. I find that doing a little writing on one project, a little pre-writing on another, and some lit review time for my next book helps me to stay more focused and disciplined than just doing one of these things. This way of working, where I have multiple things I’m treating as an ensemble, is new to me. I feel impatient, both with the stages of the new projects and with a new way of working that doesn’t feel automatic or habitual yet.

In this new phase and in response to these new challenges I’ve also come to realize once again how important intellectual community is to me as a writer. For one thing, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and its various terrible effects, including so many terrible responses by people in positions of official power, it’s hard to do much else than stare in horror. I feel like I’m regularly in a state of high alert, like the times when I’ve heard gunshots outside. In this state, tasks seem to take two or three times as long - I suspect they do take more time because of the cognitive load that comes with the ambient social environment right now, and I also suspect the time feels like it passes slower because my perception of time is out of whack - and the volume knob on any negative emotional response I have is turned up much louder. Then there’s all the increased obligations and demands on my time right now. (Obviously the disruption to my writing life is a very minor thing given the reality of the pandemic, I’m just saying that as a writer this is part of the new situation I’m writing in. I’ll add as well that if anyone is suspending writing right now, more power to you if that makes you happy. I think writing should be less compulsory for academics than it is. Among other things, I think compulsory writing breeds writing aversion and is corrosive on intellectual community.)

I’ve found my mental fog is reduced dramatically when I’m doing work directly connected to relationships I have. When reading work-in-progress for colleagues, for example, I don’t think I’m either slower or worse at it. Writing these posts has cut through the fog as well, I think because the writing is related to relationships I have with colleagues and because the content of these posts has meant that while writing them I’ve thought about people I have relationships with. (And several friends and colleagues read drafts of them, which helped too. I want to thank them now: Emily Bruce, Brooke Depenbusch, Evan Taparata, Barbara Welke, and Alex Wisnoski — thanks again you all!) My current pet theory here is that the pandemic and official responses to it are terrifying and isolating, and the isolation amplifies the terror, like an echo chamber or a microphone feeding back. A sense of togetherness with others cuts through all of that and provides other, better things to focus on.

I had already developed a habit of reading work-in-progress for people tied in part to the writing group I co-facilitate where I work. Late in my book I started to make more of an effort to proactively have a roster of work to read for people, because I could tell it was good for me. I’ve found it all the more so since mid-March. I’ve also had a few conversations with others about their writing life or projects they are very early in that they haven’t written anything about. In addition to being intrinsically rewarding, reading and talking about others’ work and talking with other writers about their writing lives helps my own writing. I come back from these activities with more energy and more resilience in the face of the hard parts of my own work. I plan to keep making these activities part of my portfolio of writing activities as well. Here too I think the challenge for the near future will be getting the balance right - having enough of these other activities to help support me on my next big project, while keeping these other activities at a sustainable level so that I preserve time and energy for the new project.

As I said, I’ve come to think of my writing life as having three important factors:  community, routine, and writing project lifecycle. In my mind these are distinct from each other but I think the reality is that they’re actually really closely related. (Something something dialectical, I mutter, waving my hands in the air.) For instance, the rhythm of my writing routine and the lifecycle of a project shape the contact I have with other scholars. If I’m writing regularly and am somewhere in the middle of a project, I have work to talk with others about. Disruption in my writing can easily lead to less contact with intellectual community for a while, which in turn makes the work feel lonelier and more challenging. At different times, these different factors are things I need to devote energy to and are things I get energy from. I’ve been trying to pay more attention to these different parts of my writing life and see where each is at - which can I coast on or draw from right now, and which one should I devote time to working on. 

Well reader, There you have it. That’s what why my writing life is like these days - what the work is, how I’m trying to do it, and some of how it feels. I’ll add that I’m struggling to stick to my rule of doing writing first - partly due to me procrastinating out of nervousness and boredom, partly because I’m a little lonely not seeing people outside of my immediate family, and partly because the world feels like it’s on fire and it’s hard to tear my eyes away from that. This post is basically me talking about how I’m trying steer a course amid it all as best I can. Like I said above, I’m in a new time in my writing life and, as ever, I’m unsure how this is supposed to go. I wanted to write a little in this post about that newness, to give you a sense of the things that I don’t yet have figured out and am trying to get clearer on, and how I’m currently trying to navigate those challenges. I hope it’s clear this isn’t because I think I’m any kind of big deal; rather, I wanted to talk about this stuff because I’ve often been hungry to read other writers talking about their writing life, to give me grist for thinking about my own writing life.

Thank you again to the editors of the Legal History Blog for having me as a guest, and also to you for reading. I’ve enjoyed writing these posts and have learned some things by writing them. I hope you found something worthwhile for you in here too. As I’ve said in prior posts, I’d be keen to hear others’ experiences as well.

- Nate Holdren