Wednesday, August 06, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 107 ("Big Picture" edition)

Just flat ran out of steam yesterday (see last night’s post), but there’s a couple of good reasons: Dharmonia’s home (“Dharmonia’s home!”), and I did a ridiculous amount of work yesterday. When she’s away, I tend to get into a very focused—probably too focused—a groove: virtually every day she was away, I’d get up, get breakfast at home (some kinda protein—beans or tofu, plus some kind of grain, usually tortillas, plus my “powders”, my one placebo), and try to be at the coffeeshop “Office” by around 9am. Work like hell until just after the Rec Center’s lunch rush, then hit the cross-trainer around 2pm, back home for a late lunch, practice until I couldn’t stay awake. Day after day after day. Which is pretty damned great for getting work done, but something I notice after a week to 10 days of this is that my fuse (for bad drivers, inconsiderate West Texans, Internet wankers, etc) gets pretty short. What I’ve realized is that even if that regular, high-efficiency schedule makes me feel good about getting stuff done, it gradually erodes my social skills—I don’t talk to people, I avoid the phone, I live in my head a lot, and I wind up getting irascible. And I sleep badly. I am reminded—again—that working too much is actually counter-productive.

On the other hand, I’m in the midst of a process of writing which I actually recognize: massive overpreparation for a solicited chapter in an edited collection on the Irish in the South; my particular essay is about Afro-Celtic musical interactions. It’s an outgrowth/product of the larger minstrelsy topic; of course I proposed essay when requested because I knew I wanted to kill two birds with one stone. But, it called for a lot of work and implicated some uncertainty, because I don’t really know squat about the Southern situation. For the past 2 years, I’ve been working on the Northern/urban context: dozens of books, literally hundreds of articles (I loves me some JSTOR), hundreds of hours of conversations and a hundred thousand words written—but mostly regarding the Northern/urban settings which conventional scholarship has presented as the birthplace of minstrelsy. So when I proposed and took on this southern topic, I knew that, while it might provide a useful counterbalance to the work I’d been doing, and to the eventual book project, I also knew that I had a lot of catch-up to do. And, even, an open question about whether my thesis (that the black/white working-class musical exchange that went on in places like lower New York’s Five Points had a parallel in the South and on the frontiers) would even prove out to be accurate.

As always, the project got bigger and bigger, extending to a reasonably comprehensive literature review not only on black-white culture in New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, and like cities, but also: canal culture, construction, history, and demographics; the Haitian revolution and diaspora; Afro-Celtic musical exchange on the Caribbean islands; black sailors in the Atlantic trade going all the way back to the 16th century, and on and on and on. This is a process I remember from writing my dissertation: some scholars learn how to formulate a thesis, and skim a lot of reading, reading in detail only that material which they can almost intuit is going to be directly relevant. Though I know how to do this now—particularly for smaller-scaled or one-off projects—it took a while to learn: when I wrote the dissertation, all I knew how to do was to engulf virtually everything, and then render it down. And here, in a sub-topic I don’t know much about, it’s almost mandatory that I read a huge volume of stuff, looking for the patterns which emerge and might be relevant to the thesis. Takes a long time.

And then, writing up that material—just trying to pull it all together into a coherent background narrative which lays out the factors that might have shaped the prototypical minstrelsy synthesis—takes yet more time. I work from the notes I’ve taken, juggling both the historical chronology, the sequence of the points I want to make (not at all necessarily the same sequence), and the overall rhetoric of the argument. With this wide a range and this large a volume of information, that linear narrative can become very complex (50 pages and counting). It’s obviously much larger and much more broad than what this edited collection requires, and will have to be cut down yet again to fit.

But, despite the mushrooming scope of the thing, there are several advantages: (a) it means I can be reasonably confident that I have a reasonably complete and comprehensive grasp of the material, even if all that information doesn’t make the final cut; (b) it means I have the resources to link the Southern context, addressed in the essay, back to the larger narrative of the book MS; (c) maybe most importantly, if I uncover patterns in the Southern material that link with those I’ve found in the North—if the patterns of exchange, creativity, social and cultural function are consistent in both environments—then I’ve tested and reinforced the book’s overall thesis.

And, as happened initially with the chapters included in the proposal, which I was sketching and sketching—for months—in a wiki, one day I looked up (in this case, that would be yesterday) and realized that I had written another chapter of the book, at the same time that I was generating and over-generating material for the solicited essay.

Exhausting day—hence the four hours conked out in the Papa-Bear chair—but a good one.
Now playing: Dave Swarbrick - Byker Hill
via FoxyTunes

No comments: