I mentioned back in early June that one of the reasons I would be taking some time away from the newsletter for the summer - other than to rest - was to work on a book I was trying to finish. Two days ago, I finished it. Or at least, I sent the manuscript - as complete as I could make it - to the publisher. There will be more to do, such as respond to style questions with the editor, review galley proofs, review a design for the book cover, etc. But in at least once sense, I have finished it.
Most writers enjoy two periods of happiness - when a glorious idea comes to mind, and secondly, when a last page has been written and you haven’t had time to know how much better it ought to be.
- J.B. Priestly
Well, I don’t know how “glorious” the idea was to begin with. It describes a vision for a future of legal education that is more open, hybrid, and student-focused. But I certainly understand Priestly’s sentiment, and for me the period after writing the last page and knowing how much better it ought to be is rather small. Where I am right now about the book is well captured in the well-worn phrase, attributed originally to the French poet Paul Valéry:
No piece of writing was ever finished. It is merely abandoned.
It could always be improved. But at some point - usually after you have blown through a half-dozen deadlines and a dozen drafts - it is time to let it go and hope for the best. Asked why he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times, Ernest Hemingway said:
I wanted to get the words right.
Last week’s issue of The New Yorker has a lovely portrait written by Darryl Pinckney about a writing mentor he had, whom he quotes saying this:
Anyone who can’t bring himself or herself to face the pain of revision can’t be a real writer.
- Elizabeth Hardwick
Ah, the pain of revision. We have written something, and we know what we meant to say, but to go through it as a (critical) reader can indeed be painful. But it is absolutely necessary. I tried to push myself to not skimp on the time spent in revision and avoid the temptation to just run to the point of getting to the “abandonment” stage as soon as possible. One thing that helped so much this time around was two colleagues who gave me a precious gift: they read the entire thing and wrote extensive comments for me. This gave me the boost I needed to get through the last several rounds of revisions. I had a student help me with some footnotes, and a librarian to find a few resources. Writing is such a solitary task, so this kind of help can be so valuable. Most critically, it makes you feel less alone.
Three months seems to me to be quite reasonable to finish a book, if you can get right down to it.
- Agatha Christie
Grr…. Someone asked me a couple of weeks ago how long it took to write this book. Unfortunately, I have several long and tedious answers to that simple question. A week. 18 months. 8 years. It took a week on my annual working retreat to conceptually pull an early draft and various notes and outlines together into one complete draft. I left that time thinking I was almost there, but my wife brought me back to earth when she memorably said (after I described what I was able to get done on that trip): “Oh, you have a complete ball of dough now.” Ah, yes. That is all I have actually, you are correct.
To get to the stage before the “ball of dough” took about a year of writing pieces of it, rereading my research pile, revising the outline, etc. I could not have written the complete book proposal to my publisher articulating the full scope of the book unless I had done that grinding work. I started that stage 18 months ago.
But in a sense, this book really has been with me for 8 years. I have been forming the thinking that is now fully expressed in this book for at least that long. The first talk in which I presented some of these ideas was in 2014. And I have written shorter articles addressing these themes over that 8 years. Some of what is now in the book has been first worked out here in this newsletter (see, for example, Not All Content Fits in All Containers).
Many people have a book in them, but it takes a special kind of freak to leave the Land of Laziness, cross the Plains of Procrastination and go around Insecurity Mountain, find the blade of No One Made You Do This, and use it to cut your chest open and yank that book out.
— Gabino Iglesias
This quote captures most closely what the experience of writing both of my books has felt like. (At this point I am sure I start sounding like a lunatic, so by all means stop reading here). But it really has - both times - felt like there was something in my chest crawling around interrupting a perfectly good night’s sleep living in a damp cloud over my head while I was walking in a trance thinking about how to express a complex thought and did I need a footnote for that and if so what exactly would be the right source? Constantly. On and on. And on. In the last few months, it has felt like a 50 lb. weight has been sitting on my chest. I am glad to say, I feel lighter already!
Making a living is nothing. The great difficulty is making a point, making a difference. - Elizabeth Hardwick
Ah, yes. And honestly, who knows if it will? I have quoted Saul Bellow before - ask a writer why he/she is a writer and they will always say they have to be - and I felt that way. I had to write this thing. I can’t express why exactly. For a long time, the only way I could avoid “Insecurity Mountain” was to tell myself that I didn’t care if anyone read it, I just had to do it. Of course now that I am (mostly) finished, I hope someone does read it, and that it makes a difference. But none of that is up to me now. It has been abandoned.
Letters of Recommendation
This week, instead of a book or piece of music, I am going to recommend a piece of software. It is called Scrivener, and runs on both Mac and PC, iPads too. It was created by a programmer in the UK, Keith Blount. I have written both of my books in this software, and many others have written many more books with it. Why is it special? Because, unlike Word, it handles large, complex writing projects well, and holds your research and progress and outlines and drafts all in one cohesive whole. It makes it look like you have a book already, when you, ah… might only have a ball of dough. Until you are ready to export what you have in Scrivener to Word, and then work on it more, revise a lot more, and finally, abandon it.
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from the brilliant novelist and short story writer, George Saunders, from his excellent newsletter about the vulnerability that good writing requires:
Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more.