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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

From Idea to Book

Here's the text of my brown-bag presentation:

I’d like to talk a little about my book, Apocryphal Lorca. I don’t want to talk about the intellectual content of the book itself, except insofar as it is relevant to the topic of my main topic: developing and completing a long-term research project. You might have read the blog post from the University of Chicago blog, which I sent to you earlier this week. There will be a quiz at the end of my presentation today.

In academia we are all smart people, so my theory is that the key is not outsmarting ourselves too much. What I mean by this is that the keys to “research productivity”—to use the NRC buzz-word—are not overly complicated. Good planning, time and task management, and attention to the basics of prose style are more significant than aspects of scholarship that seemingly require more intellectual firepower. This is the concept behind my blog on scholarly writing, “Stupid Motivational Tricks.” Smart people are really exceptionally good at rationalizing their procrastination, their inability to get writing done.

Developing the Project:

At the begining of 2006 I wrote out some ideas for some articles I could write during the coming year. I had twelve ideas. I knew I wouldn’t really write 12 articles, but I thought if I got a good start in January, writing one article a month, I might produce something of substance by the end of the year. My friend and co-blogger Thomas Basbøll, a poet and PhD working in the field of Organizational Studies, and an academic writing consultant from Denmark, says you should submit 6 times a year, including resubmits of articles. That’s what you might have to do to get 2-3 acceptances.

January went well: I wrote an article on Samuel Beckett and José Ángel Valente that was swiftly rejected by Hispanic Review and eventually published in Comparative Literature. In February I wrote an article that was rejected by Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos, and which I’ve never published. For March, I had the phrase “Apocryphal Lorca” written down. As I began to write this third article I realized that it wasn’t an article at all, but a book. In May I wrote a proposal for an NEH Fellowship, and I completed work on the book during the 2007-08 academic year.

Completing the Project:

I knew an editor at the University of Chicago Press because I had been a reviewer for several translations of Spanish poetry and had done good (or at least quick) work for him. I contacted him because I thought this might be a kind of break-out book that would not be interesting only to Hispanists. Having an advanced contract helped to motivate me.

To write the book, I used a very simple method called the “Seinfeld Chain,” invented by the comedian Jerry Seinfeld. What you do is to buy a calendar and a red sharpie. On every day you work on your project, write a number on that day of the calendar, 1,2,3,4... Try to keep the chain going as many days as possible. If you skip a day, you start again with 1,2,3... For example, I wrote every day between August 1, 2007 and Christmas Eve. That was one chain of over a hundred days. Then I only worked about 12 days in a row after that. That was my second chain. You have to imagine Seinfeld’s voice in your head saying “Don’t break the chain!.” The advantages of this method is that you can easily get into a consistent rhythm of writing. Even chains of seven or eight days might be more than what you would be writing normally—maybe two or three times a week? I never wrote for more than three hours a day. I found that if I wrote for one or two hours, I would still be quite fresh the next day.

Thomas’s method of writing is the “16 week challenge.” It takes advantage of the structure academic calendar (2 16-week semesters) and locates the writing process 5 days a week within one’s normal work schedule. That’s an excellent method too, but I find I need to do some writing over the weekends, holidays, and summers as well to balance out the dominance of teaching and service during the course of any given semester.

The Aftermath:

What made the Lorca project such an excellent one for me personally? Anytime you can develop an almost wholly original perspective on a canonical author, the results are likely to be golden. Many people claim to be interested in non-canonical authors, but try marketing a project on Antonio Gamoneda to a major US University Press. (Gamoneda is a canonical writer too, but not too many people know it yet.) Writing another book interpreting Lorca’s work did not seem worthwhile to me. For the purposes of this project, I didn’t really care about what Lorca’s work meant to me, or what it meant in and of itself in some New Critical Vacuum, but I cared a great deal about what it meant to other people. In addition, the topic allowed me to use a lot of what I knew but had not yet been able to put into my scholarship, and to take advantage of some of my expertise in translation theory and US poetry. Since the story of Lorca’s influence on US poetry is one of misunderstandings, the topic also allowed me to let loose my sense of humor. I wasn’t trying to make jokes, but some of the material just is funny.

I was actually able to connect two areas of the canon: Lorca and the poets associated with the Beat Generation and the New York School. I’ve written other books, but the University of Chicago Press would not be interested in them.
Not every topic is going to be as glamorous or marketable as this one, but I think there’s a lesson to be learned in choosing a good topic: literary criticism does not have to be dull. Not always. I’m interested in a lot of dull things too, like metrics, but I think you have to make some concessions to what other people are interested in.

I’ve sometimes felt like the experience of writing this book was like getting struck by lightning. I was incredibly lucky that a very good idea for a book happened to find me and that I was able to take advantage of it. I’m not denying the element of pure good luck, but let’s go back to 2006. My absurd plan of thinking of twelve ideas for articles at the begining of the year did not result in 12 articles, but in one article and one book. I was rejected a few times but I stuck with my plan. I had more than one idea that I wanted to develop, and the best of these ideas won out over the others In other words, I had done the preliminary work to put myself in a position to be able to get struck by lightning. I also had the work habits to get it done. The book seemed to write itself almost effortlessly because I had a mechanism in place, the stupidly simple “Seinfeld Chain.” Writing is hard work, but the hardest part is the easiest and stupidest: sitting down to do it regularly. I think very few people really like to write. Otherwise we would all have triple the number of publications. I do like to write, but even I have a hard time sitting down to do it without tricking myself into it.

The advantages I had—mostly being seriously interested in a lot of interesting things and being a half-way-decent writer of prose—were the product of years of work, showing that fortune favors the prepared mind and that it sometimes takes twenty years to become an overnight success.

1 comment:

Thomas said...

"Good planning, time and task management, and attention to the basics of prose style". That's a really good list of essentials. Good planning, for example, shows in prose style that has a certain calm, orderliness and dignity. The reverse is also true: a poor style is difficult to plan for. Well-written academic prose has specifiable "working parts" that can be assembled and fit together one-by-one.