Monday, September 17, 2007

Tunnels and Lights

So today I got good work done. I did the grading that I absolutely had to complete; I prepped for my classes; I made good progress on the book manuscript (although I do have the final two chapters left to slog through, but I was too fucking mentally exhausted to make the final push tonight). And I made chili, and I got dishes done, and I read some more of Eat Pray Love, which I'm enjoying (though I'll have more to say in an upcoming post when I've finished). I've been intermittently reading it, and my soundtrack throughout the day has been Sinead's Theology. Oh, and I went into the office and dealt with some correspondence and updated my CV. So yes, it was a productive day.

But I want to talk about how I'm feeling about the book. I really do see it as nearly finished now. And the thing is, I should be happy about that. And in a lot of ways I am. But I'm also kind of scared. I don't really know what I'll do when the book is no longer this thing hanging around in my life. Remember: this book emerges from my dissertation. This means I've been sitting with these ideas, with these texts, for approximately 7 years. As much as I don't want to sit with these books and these authors anymore, and as much as I see the project as a whole now, and as I see what little I have left to do as things that will lead to completion - and satisfactory completion - I also feel... anxious? And I feel a sense of impending loss. And I also feel... I don't know. I feel on the one hand like it's great that this thing I've done will be published. I really do think that it contributes to the field in a way that is useful. I really do think that I've accomplished the only thing that makes scholarship in my field meaningful to me, which is to use scholarship to make it possible to see literature in a different way. But I also wonder: what if nobody else thinks that my book accomplishes that? What if people don't think it's interesting? What if they don't think it's smart? What if it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever?

I don't think I had these anxieties when I was finishing the dissertation. I never expected my dissertation to do much other than to help *me* to think about things more deeply. I really never thought anybody would or should bother reading the thing. And while the dissertation was a very solid starting point for the book, and I retain the same structure and the heart of what I have to say remains the same, I've done a lot to flesh the thing out. And so when I was dissertating, I was able to save any ambitions I had about making a contribution for the transformation of it into the book. I always new I wanted it to be a book, but somehow I was able to table what that meant (to me, and just generally) during the process of dissertating. Now, I can't table all of the anxieties that go along with making the thing public. And that's scary.

There's also the fact that I don't know, even with all of the time and energy I've put into this project, this project that has pretty much no meaning in terms of my ability to successfully get tenure at my current institution, if there was any point to turning this into a book. Will this book make any difference in my marketability? Will it make any positive difference in my reputation? And if it doesn't, then why did it matter so much to me to do it? I mean, it's being put out by a decent press, but it's not like it's some uber-awesome-university-press. And what if that means that ultimately all of my work will land me in exactly the same place that I would have been in had I not made this huge effort? What's the point of it all, in a practical sense?

I suppose part of all of what I'm feeling right now might just have to do with my tendency to try to stave off disappointment. I don't want to think that just because I've got this book thing happening that it means that anything in my life is necessarily going to change as a result. I don't want to assume that this will make some sort of radical difference in terms of job prospects or in terms of my stature within this profession. There are a lot of people in this world with books. And some of those books suck. And mine might be one of those. I don't think it is, but I suspect those people whose books I think suck don't think that their books suck either. Maybe that's the thing: I think everybody thinks that their dissertation sucks on some level. I'm not sure that anybody who writes a book that gets a publisher thinks that it sucks. And so I don't want to have some sort of crazy delusions of grandeur as a result of the fact that I'm doing this thing and that it's almost done.

And I know it's stupid, but I'm wondering who I'll be once the thing is finally and completely finished in December. Seven years is a long time to sit with any set of ideas. And finishing means that I'm not going to have those sitting around and defining me anymore. And so what will I have left when those ideas are sent off into the world?

Blah. I'm being whiny. But those are my thoughts tonight. I suppose the short version of what I'm feeling is deep, deep insecurity. And probably the reason that this bothers me so much is that it's not something I feel all that often. So I just need to suck it up and get on with it. There's no way to know the future: how the book will be received, how the book will affect my chances on the market, how I'll replace the book in my life when the time comes for that. So I need to stop trying to anticipate and project and just enjoy the final months of this process as much as is possible.


Southern Grad Girl said...

First, you should be very proud. It sounds a bit like you're experiencing (well, almost experiencing...soon) "empty nest syndrome." Like all those parents whose life has just been defined by their children for the past twenty years, a huge portion of your academic life has been defined by this project and set of ideas. And, like all those parents, you're not sure if your baby is going to save the world, but you still think it turned out pretty good. I think you've got the right idea. Enjoy the last bit of this process, allow yourself to enjoy the feeling of completion. And then you'll find something else to move on to. Like parents eventually get a hobby or a job, you'll find another thing to get you excited. Congratulations!

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm going to read it. And I wouldn't normally read books in your field. So that's an accomplishment. :)

heu mihi said...

Although I haven't exactly published a book yet, what you're describing sounds like a perfectly natural reaction to me. Like sgg said, it could be a kind of empty nest syndrome; also, finishing your book is a huge change (in terms of what you've been doing, how you can think about yourself professionally, the amount of public exposure you're going to be getting) and it seems reasonable to be alarmed by that change. But here's a cool thing: People are going to read your work. People who are not on your dissertation committee. Some will like it and (maybe) some won't, but either way it will be read, and your ideas are entering a much more public conversation. And that's pretty awesome. That's a big part of what this profession is about, even. Regardless of whether the book makes a difference in terms of your current (or future) jobs, you're entering into a whole new stage of professional engagement. Congratulations!

Sisyphus said...

Great post ---- the anxiety and wondering who you'll be and who will read it make perfect sense to me. It also helps explain why I know grad students who slow to a stop and remain "eternal grad students" with only one more chapter to go of the diss. It's cause it's scary, and going to a new level takes you out of your comfort zone.

But beyond the scaryness it will be an adventure, and that will be cool.

helenesch said...

Yeah, great post! And the empty nest syndrome described above seems like a good analogy to what you're feeling. I published my first book nearly two years ago, and it's interesting that I didn't ever feel quite like you do. But I'm at a research institution, and the motivation to publish the book was mostly my worries about tenure. It was a solid dissertation, but I had never really thought of it as a book until I realized it was my best shot at guaranteeing my getting tenure.

So I think I had little hope or expectation that it would ever be a really "good book." And thus less need to try and tell myself it would be okay if no one read it, or if no one liked it. In the end, it does matter (and getting positive reviews was very encouraging), but all I was aiming for was "publish it with a decent press." I guess I didn't see how much of myself was invested in it until it was out there.

I'm beginning to think about the work I'm doing now as the preliminary stages of a second book. And it's kind of exciting!

Flavia said...

Girl, we're proud of you out here!

I relate to your response, absolutely, but I'm going to say, categorically, that your book does NOT suck and it DOES matter and you'll soon find something equally meaningful to take its place.

In the meanwhile, congrats again.

Kjerstin said...

Had you not done the book project, you would have regretted it and wondered if you could have done it. Even if, on a bad day, you can't see any point to it besides that, it's enough. Or that's what I usually tell myself.