How’s It Going?

Jonathan Bellman

My sabbatical semester is drawing to a close, and every day I’m more conscious of the passage of time, the shrinking window of freedom in which I’m trying to complete my book draft. The fantasy is that I’ll send it in to the publisher before classes startbut I’m not really sure if this is realistic or not. I had two and a half chapters written before August; they have been thoroughly rewritten and the rest of the draft (seven chapters in all) completed. I am now in rewriting mode: for me this consists of repeated passes through chapters, filling in lacunæ, cursing my propensity to repeat the same five words every sentence, moving chunks of stuff where they belong instead of where, for whatever reason, I wrote them, and in general remarking to myself—more or less constantly—how hard this is. Fr. Dr. Finale-Genius is doing the musical examples, and she’s moving quickly through them. I’m writing constantly; I feel like laughing with manic glee when she says something like, “Well, YOU start the holiday letter and I’ll add my two cents after.” Cool. I was hoping to do a little writing, for a change. Got any shopping lists I can do, also?

People ask, “How’s the book going?” Either I don’t know, or I’m too close to it to have any real sense of the big picture. I suppose it’s going well, though it’s a frustrating, stop-and-start business, and (being human) I do not at every moment exemplify the excellent organizational habits and focused discipline I so earnestly advocate in A Short Guide to Writing About Music. I suspect that I may have started writing when I should have spent more time outlining, specifically outlining in more detail. But, see, I had several fairly decent ideas in the course of the writing process; I found stuff, things fell into place. Maybe the wrong place, but I know enough to know that when you’ve got the fever, the wild hair up your tail and wrath of hell behind you, that is the time to WRITE, goddammit, not the time to question your organization, sit placidly staring at an outline, rearrange the notes and the stacks of books and scores on your work table. The old saying “Strike while the iron is hot!” was coined for writers. Writing a first draft—pulling an entire book’s worth/nearly twenty years of research and reflection out of the air and onto the (virtual) page—requires a special kind of doggedness. It’s not solid writing, no. You’re checking stuff in your books, on the internet, in the score library; you’re getting stuff from the library, from your office. You’re trying to stay focused, and sometimes you fail, and daydream. Then when it’s going well, you doubt what happened before and curse your weak flesh.  Turn again! That way madness lies. One bloody, frostbitten foot after the other, like at Valley Forge.

There are those good moments, though. Amidst all the cursing and self-doubt, I will find myself thinking, “Oh, that’s a rather nice point. I’d forgotten that occurred to me” or “Oh, right, I forgot I came up with all this.” I find it almost impossible to keep an entire book—even one of my own—in my mind as some kind of magical holographic unity; there are parts that are closer and more distant from the foreground of my consciousness. So there are pleasant surprises when I discover a thought or line of reasoning that I like.

A nice moment happened today, over coffee with a friend. He asked how it was going, and I said that I finally won the battle with Chapter 3, but Chapter 4 wasn’t going down easy either… (more mumbled complaints). He said, “But you’ve completed an entire book draft, right?” I said, oh yeah, I’m nearing halfway through the rewrite, I’d still like to send it in early January; of course, you never know what revisions will be necessary once the publisher and readers get a hold of it. Pause. “Well, I think you’ve just raised the bar on us,” he said.

It’s going pretty well, I guess.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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2 Responses to How’s It Going?

  1. Lisa Hirsch says:

    I would say “pretty well” based on that report and my experience of writing technical manuals. So, yay, you! I am looking forward to reading this book.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for the support, Lisa. I confess I’m looking forward to seeing the thing between boards, too. I may be afraid to read it then, of course.

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