I’ve had this vision of myself for the last 5 months sitting at home over the course of the summer and working diligently on completing my Crater study. I can flesh it out for you even more. I’ve got assorted papers scattered over my desk, the cats are sitting quietly on the windowsill; next to the computer sits a fresh cup of coffee, and cigarette. Wait just a minute, I don’t smoke. Anyway, some of you out there know what I am getting at. Well, two weeks into my summer and I am stalled at the gates. This is the classic example of the sharp difference between our perceptions of the life of a writer and the harsh reality.
I’ve been working on this study for close to 4 years. It evolved from an essay on the postwar political career of William Mahone and expanded into a study and M.A. thesis for the University of Richmond on how the battle of the Crater has been commemorated and remembered by white southerners. While the thesis is fairly well organized each chapter was conceived as a separate essay with plans to publish sections of it in various magazines and academic journals. Luckily that has come to pass.
My problem, however, is in re-thinking how I want the individual essays to fit together into a book-length narrative. I’ve spent so much time thinking about this project as a collection of individual essays that I am finding it very difficult taking one step back in hopes of gaining a broader perspective. I have three boxes of hanging folders that are packed with research material from various archives, but I don’t know if I should take a few weeks and go through everything once again in hopes of picking up something that I may have missed and attaining that new insight on how it all comes together. Perhaps I should quit trying to revise my chapters and start from scratch. My frustrations are compounded by the fact that I have a university press that is very interested in in publishing this project. I simply don’t want to screw this up.
A big part of the problem is that I’ve trained my brain into thinking along the lines of a journal-length essay. I pretty much have the formula down: start off with a catchy opening that grabs the reader’s attention and anticipates the body of the essay, lay out your thesis, comment on the relevant historiography, present your evidence and analysis, and top it off with a conclusion that leaves the reader with something to think about. Maybe some of you out there have a little advice that would be helpful. I assume there is no formula out there, but some of you no doubt have been in my situation. I am clearly not in a state of desperation, but I do need to utilize my time wisely this summer. High School teachers don’t have the luxury of being able to do serious writing over the course of the year.