This Week In My Sabbatical: Writing and Brooding

OxfordIt has been kind of a stuttering week for me. My “Meeting With Your Writing” session on Monday helped me work up some positive energy about the next part of the George Eliot project I want to work on — this was good, as I had been getting kind of fed up with the other piece I’ve been working on since January. That piece is at about 18,000 words right now and it’s definitely still a messy early draft, which is one reason I’d become frustrated with it. But I realized that trying to “finish” it, or even polish it, when I’m not quite sure about my overall direction would be unproductive, so starting the next section made both practical and psychological sense.

Soon after, though, I found myself in the writing doldrums, mostly because the new bit seemed so disconnected from the first part and that started a whole mental chain reaction of questions about what exactly I was trying to do. This kind of metacriticism of my own work-in-progress is something I’ve been deliberately avoiding this term: my plan was just to write as much as I could while I have the time to dedicate to it, and then contemplate the results in July, when my sabbatical is officially over. Who knows, by that point, I might have accidentally provided myself with answers about what exactly I was trying to do! And I wouldn’t any longer be trying to answer questions about it in the abstract — what kind of thing might this be? what would it look like? what would it say? — but would know, and could revise and reconsider and repackage from there.

Because I am prone to both brooding and self-doubt (they go together so awfully well, don’t they?), this plan was basically a good one. It has proved harder to follow than I’d hoped, though. I am steeped in self-consciousness by both nature and training, after all; falling off the wagon as I did this week was probably an inevitability. I got myself back together by Thursday, partly by doing an extra session of MWYW during which (in service of the writing, I promise!) I got to spend a lot of time surfing around in Middlemarch choosing examples to discuss. That was truly restorative! Jo always advises us to start, if we can, with an aspect of the writing project that we really want to do — something that we think will be fun. I’ve made a note to remind myself that when I feel stuck, I should go back — if only for a little while — to one of the novels and just read for a bit. After all, they are the reason I’m doing any of this in the first place!

I’m back on track now, ready for a better, steadier time next week. I don’t think the time I spent in the doldrums was necessarily wasted, though. Though Jo rightly pointed out to me on Twitter that I don’t need to decide this question now, what I found myself mostly brooding about was whether I was wrong to be thinking about this project as a book (recall the trigger, that the two sections didn’t seem connected, except by method) — or, to approach it from the other direction, why I wasn’t satisfied thinking about it as related but distinct essay projects. I’ve honestly never been sure I had a sufficiently motivating and unifying book-sized idea, so in fact the book plan (as far as it has gotten at this point) has always been for a carefully framed and integrated series of essay-like chapters that remain primarily exercises in expansive close reading — I know, I know, not a marketable idea, at least for a literary nobody — don’t knock me off the wagon again! But any book is a struggle to get published, and Tom isn’t the only person who has pointed me to venues like the Hudson Review that already do publish literary pieces of the sort I have been writing (and of which my current material is really just a larger and messier version).

Obviously, I can’t simply assume my work would be accepted at places like that, but what if essay-writing actually suited me and my work best — what would be wrong with making that kind of publishing my ambition? After all, even the critical books I’ve liked best in recent years have in fact been made up of … you guessed it, essays (I’m thinking of Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, for instance, or James Wood’s The Broken Estate). Why, then, have I become fixated on somehow producing a book?

During my brooding period, I finally admitted to myself that, in part at least, it’s for the wrong reasons, that is, it’s not because I have something to say that can’t be said properly in any other format but because I imagine it would bring me (in addition to what I hope would be some genuine personal and intellectual satisfactions) some professional validation. “Look!” I could say (to the kind of person, for example, who waved a dismissive hand at my list of essays and reviews and said they didn’t “add up to anything in particular”). “It’s not quite your kind of book, but it is at least a book, the kind of thing you can display at your book fairs!” That’s not the only reason, but recognizing that it was definitely one reason was at first depressing, and then strangely liberating. I routinely give presentations in which I bring up the MLA’s proposal that we “decenter” the monograph: I strongly believe that books (as I also discuss here) aren’t always the best form, though they have become the professionally essential form. Loving books as I do, it’s not surprising that I love the idea of producing (another) one, and I’m not 100% sure that what I’m working on now won’t eventually prove to be a book. But the next time I get fretful, I’m going to remind myself that (by principles I myself have argued for repeatedly), it’s okay if it doesn’t.

So that’s where I end up another week of my sabbatical! In the moment, it didn’t feel like a very productive week, but in retrospect I think both the writing and the brooding I’ve done actually were productive in their own ways.

6 Comments to This Week In My Sabbatical: Writing and Brooding

  1. lawless's Gravatar lawless
    March 27, 2015 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Good for you to be back on track. I well understand the impulse to brooding self-examination.

    In other news, it looks like I won’t finish Middlemarch. I’m finding Dorothea as annoying as Sue Bridehead and the effort required is not worth the reward. Next up: Trollope or Woolf. Or maybe Sarah Waters.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      March 27, 2015 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

      Hey, them’s fight’n words! I mean, read Middlemarch or don’t, your call, but Sue Bridehead? That flighty, inconsistent, intellectually preening tease? Dorothea is nothing like her at all! (Also, Dorothea has a lot of growing up to do, at the start, sure, but she’s got great potential at least. Sue, on the other hand, only gets worse.)

      • lawless's Gravatar lawless
        March 29, 2015 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

        Sue is flighty and inconsistent, but the principles she espouses have some basis in reality and experience, whereas Dorothea us completely self-deluded. (I’m a few chapters from the end of Book One.) Plus the book has to back to the library soon, and I don’t know (new location, New library) if I can renew it, which makes continuing a bad use of my time. I’m having trouble parsing Dorothea’s thoughts, which I didn’t with Sue.

        Bottom line: I get more enjoyment out of reading about Middlemarch than reading it. I’ll try George Eliot again sometime; in the meantime, I’m debating among Trollope, Woolfe, North and South, or Gissing.

  2. March 28, 2015 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    I’m trying Middlemarch again soon. I’ve promised my dear friend that I’ll at least attempt a few chapters. I read half of it about ten years ago — I bought it for a pound at the book tables on the South Bank and read it in the sunshine, so conditions were ideal — and didn’t feel like finishing it. But I think the time is right to try again.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      March 28, 2015 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      I hope you enjoy it. It might seem like quite a different book to you now. I know when I first read it, it was all about youthful passion but now it’s mostly about middle-aged disillusionment … The website I made for book clubs might possibly be of some use or interest when you try it again.

  3. March 30, 2015 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    I think wilderness time is really useful – if you can manage to put up with it, as I agree it’s no fun! I’ve come to think that there is in the back of my head some sort of Queen Problem Solver, but she won’t get out of bed for less than a crisis. So you have to wander in the wilderness, moaning and rending garments for a bit before she gets going. I also think it’s really wise just to write for now and see what you end up with. You may need a third piece to make sense of the other two – or you may not. And in any case, the way the publishing world is going, long essays are coming back into fashion. It’s quite normal to think of a book first – we all tend towards a book first as the most understandable written object. It sounds to me like you’re being really creative, and that usually occurs in the midst of bewilderment and confusion! 🙂

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