R. and I were talking yesterday just before lunch about the strange anxieties and difficulties that I’m having with writing right now. Some of it’s been about jetlag, of course; some of it’s about a more general unfocusedness. Some of it’s about the need to find my way into a new project, something that’s always hard.
But in the midst of this conversation, as I was talking about the narrative project that I’ve got in the works, a project that’s of novel-like size, if not of novel-like form, I heard myself saying “I’ve never written anything this big before.” And having said it, I had to stop and think: is that true? After all, I wrote a 250+ page dissertation, which has turned into a 320+ page book. Of course I’ve written something this big, if not bigger…
But then I thought again, and realized that I was right the first time, if from a slightly different angle than the obvious one: I’ve certainly completed a project of this size, but I’ve never begun one.
Honestly, I never really started my dissertation. I wrote a prospectus and chapter outline, sure, but I knew even then that the document was a form of speculative fiction, a general approximation of what the future might wind up looking like, and one to which I knew I’d never be held. The prospectus was very obviously a hurdle, a test to be sure that I could plausibly project the directions that I might go. It needed to have an internal coherence, but it there was no necessary relationship between that document and the reality that would result.
Even more crucially, I never had that moment of opening the new wordprocessor document and staring at all that empty whiteness, knowing that it wouldn’t be complete for 200+ pages. I never had that vertiginous moment of beginning the book.
Instead, I wrote a conference paper. It was my first conference paper, so it was a little daunting, but heck: ten pages, one small argument, several gestures toward work yet to be done. Easy peasy.
After that, I expanded on the conference paper, hoping to turn it into an article. And then I wrote another conference paper, looking at a different author but from a similar angle, and then I expanded that one. And then I really expanded that one, having discovered that the argument went much further than I thought it did. And then I stopped, and looked at the two pieces of writing I’d done, and realized that they were nearly chapters, but not quite; I took the two, shuffled and redivided them into three, and reframed the argument around that new structure.
And that moment — of taking two pseudo-articles and reorganizing them into three chapters — was the first moment that I ever worked on my dissertation. Prior to that, I was always working on something smaller, more local, and so when I really began to think of the project in a conscious way as being my dissertation, I already had over 100 pages written. And so it never really seemed that monumental a task.
Beginning this new project is quite different. Because the project (about which I’m being somewhat deliberately cryptic as yet) needs to unfold diachronically, and because to some extent it needs to do so in real time (or at least give the illusion of having done so), I can’t strictly focus on local pieces, but have to keep one eye on the global. This is somewhat alarming to me, because despite the similarly speculative nature of this project’s outline, it needs to bear something of a relationship to the future reality of the project, if not to any externally verifiable reality.
So, local and global. I’m working on the outline, trying to imagine the directions the project will take over the coming months, trying at a minimum to project the project’s end. But at the same time, I’m looking for ways that I can focus on smaller parts, as I did with the dissertation, ways to break off relatively freestanding pieces that I can work on, rather than focusing on the whole.