[Postcard from the guestroom, which is doubling this semester as my study: laptop set up, chaotic piles of books and papers, etc.]
Never is the old English Teachers’ adage “clear writing implies clear thought” more relevant than when one is writing an academic book. No matter how clear your outline, how deeply you believe what you wish to say or how certain you are that a major part of it is absolutely new, much of your time is spent beneath the surface, not writing but outlining and re-outlining and re-outlining: fixing this, changing your mind where to put that, then there was the whole argument about the other. Maybe I can just slip that in at the beginning of chapter X, where it will set up the main argument.
Good! That seemed to work. Got a lot done today! I’ll look it over tomorrow before I start the new chapter. Rollin’ along!
[Interlude: The Sleep of the Just.]
[Then, with a paltry cup of coffee for my sole company:] Please tell me I didn’t write this. Not only is it the wrong place for that argument, it was written long ago and thrown in a file for future use—and the way it reads is sub-high school: imprecise, overheated and accusatory (Bellman, was X ever rude to you? Step ahead of you in line? Why are you being this way about his work, fool? Is disagreement without confrontation not in your life experience? [Well, not until I left home, really, that’s still no excuse…]) Start a new chapter? Not today, Jack. We’re not talking first aid, but major reconstructive surgery.
Several re-writes and re-reads later: well, better now, and I can go on. Except for wondering where I should put Z argument/subject…maybe if I start the chapter with it…
* * * * * * * * * * * *
It is hard, for me at least (it’s not just the cobwebs of age; this was true in my mid-30s when I was writing my first book), to keep everything straight, mentally, and all the building blocks in order. My work tends to bring in a lot of different stuff from all directions—different musical traditions, past history (both music history and our recension of it), cultural and historical stuff, obscure quotes and facts and references…and so whatever I’m trying to say depends on the coherent presentation of bushels of stuff, making a pretty complex picture. [Funny; I never noted until just this minute what this book has in common with my first one, though the musical subject is completely different.]
I’m sure that all academic authors think, perhaps regularly, “Am I really smart enough for this?” OK, maybe all except Richard Taruskin. But you have the contract already, and the ideas won’t go away, so… On to chapter four, of seven. If you’re not smart enough, act like you are. If you diligently practice those octaves, repeated notes, or (thinking about my favorite trumpet player and his Haydn concerto) those high notes, they come eventually, and then they’re yours. Just fix today’s chapter, or small part of one. Just (to quote a favorite Sprichwort) do the little things well; then will come the great things begging to be done.
A sabbatical to write a book is a gift, the most wonderful opportunity imaginable. Like practicing the piano, though, the process constitutes an agonizing and ongoing stare-down in the mirror of one’s bad habits, procrastinations, methodological insufficiencies, and various sorts of laziness. Too late to turn back, though—“Sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,” said Gimli the Dwarf—so the only way is forward.