Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"The Office" (workstation series) 81 (T-minus-4 edition)

Winding down the semester now. Set Dharmonia up for her 7:30am final exam; met with Super TA's for Fall semester post mortem: great ideas coming out of that which we hope to implement in Spring 08 semester; met with other assistants to winnow and select proposals for national conference; finish writing Literature.

Book proposal drops in 4 days. I'm in the place I more-or-less expected to be at this point; e.g., not as far along as I could be, but with a 4-day cushion for the target date and materials I set: I'm done now with the stuff I want to send Saturday.

One of the most valuable composition lessons I ever learned, from my revered teacher David Baker, was that, if you're involved in a creative process and have to take a pause, you should not "finish at a logical spot." In other words, don't keep working until you've run out of stuff to think of or do--but rather, work in a given session until you can see clearly the next two or three steps, and then don't complete them. Put the project down knowing that you can return in the next session already seeing the next two or three steps you had intended: this makes it relatively straightforward to get back into the creative process that was flowing so well last time.

So the Introduction, Literature Review, and Chapter Six ("Instruments' Commanding Power: Recovering the African-American Roots of Minstrelsy") are done, along with a detailed (down to the level of the sub-headings) Table of Contents--but I'm not going to send them all. There are multiple stages to the writing process of any extended work, and some of those stages of writing will never appear in the final product. You write them so you know what you would say if the opportunity or need arose. Hemingway used to preach the wisdom of writing--but not printing--the back-story of various secondary or tertiary characters, because he believed that the author simply knowing the backstory would enrich her/his ability to sketch the character in a few lines of dialogue.

So with scholarly writing. There is so much reading, and thinking, and note-taking, and skimming, and talking, and writing, and re-writing, and re-re-writing, that at the end of a given day you cannot know whether what you've written will wind up in the finished product. And, that material winding up in the finished product is not the point--the point is to work through the intellectual process of articulating the ideas. Thus, with this Literature Review (included as part of a 90-page "Introduction"), I'm not at all sure it will all end up in the final product. The Literature Review is one of the sections most rigorously demanded by a dissertation committee and it's usually the first chunk of the manuscript that an academic publisher yanks out again in considering whether the dissertation is publishable as a book.

The point is that you write the Literature Review, and the thousands of pages of notes, and the detailed exegesis of the gaps and absences and lacunae in everybody else's prior scholarship, primarily in order to complete the intellectual focusing-task of figuring out what the hell you yourself are contributing. And that writing, even if it gets yanked out of the dissertation in transition to the book, or is never even read by a dissertation committee, or by anyone but the author, can still be an essential part of the process.

A while back, in these notes, I described this composition method, of writing everything I could think of and then thinking of the "through-line" to the narrative, as being like planting an entire field of succulents and only subsequently mowing down everything that wasn't a tomato. It's a cumbersome method, but it's how I learned to write from a position of authority--of feeling sufficiently confident that I knew what was and wasn't there that, like Hemingway, I could sketch an argument with a few sentences or a single metaphor, knowing that the backstory (read, written, but excised from the final text) is sufficiently under control that my Hemingwayesque brevity is accurate and defensible.

So, the Lit Review is done, but won't go in--and also, not least, because it's always possible that the Outside Readers selected to pass judgment on the manuscript might be some of the same scholars whose work I've critiqued in it.

But at least I know what's there and what isn't.

Celtic Christmas drops same day as the book proposal. Sixth iteration, and it starts now to feel like tradition. One of the great benefits of growing old--and preferably, concurrently, growing at least a little bit of self-awareness and -reflection, is that you realize the link between "Now" and "The Future" lies in the present moment's choices. I didn't know, six years ago when we started the Celtic Christmas, that it would grow to be a family and community tradition, here where the only model for "Celtic" culture was giant Scottish Games aimed at selling shit.

But what I did know was that, if there was ever to be a chance that people in this, or any, North American materialistic oligarchic consumer-shit-oriented community were ever going to experience the basic sanity of traditional values ("work hard, pay attention to the seasons, keep your temper, cooperate with your neighbors, get up early, enjoy happiness because it's fleeting and leave sorrow for its own inevitable timetable"), we were going to have to start building somewhere. I didn't know if we'd ever be able to build the tradition which now, after six years and even if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, is starting to take root.

What I did know was that, if we didn't get started, in the wake of 9/11's insanity, we were just putting off the payoff and worsening the odds.

So we built something. Payoff comes all along the way.
Now playing: Dick Gaughan - Stand Up For Judas

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