Well, I just finished another book. “Finished” is a bit of a euphemism, since I really only finished a draft that is now ready be read by my peers — hopefully without embarrassing me too seriously. But that is really the key milestone in producing a book — having a full draft for others to read. Revisions are usually easy relative to the basic conceptual and writing process.
Book writing for many professors is at the core of their work in the academy — right up there (or — if truth be told — frequently above) teaching. It marks their contribution to knowledge in their fields — discovering new things, challenging or reinterpreting established ideas. Sometimes books involve testing a hypothesis; sometimes, answering a big question or illuminating a problem; sometimes, presenting and applying a new methodology.
In my experience, book writing — I mean books by me alone; not edited or co-authored volumes — is both exquisitely pleasurable and deeply painful. The pleasurable times are at the very beginning when I am conceptualizing what I want to do in my research and writing. The most pleasurable time is at the very end when I am tidying up a manuscript that I am happy with. The main part of this pleasure is relief with maybe a bit of pride. The pleasure is exquisite because the product is all mine – I did all the work, and I get the credit (or blame).
It is the long process of actually doing the research and, above all, writing the book that is painful — again because it is all you. No team to boost your lagging enthusiasm at low moments and to take some of the responsibility off your shoulders. A major scholarly book can take years to produce (especially if you are teaching and doing other things) — just you and your computer, on and on and on. (It can be expensive too — I seem to destroy a computer with each book I write.)
It is also painful because you need a certain intellectual momentum to get a book done — blocks of time to spend inside your ideas and research that are needed to generate the insights and new ideas that will make your contribution unique. Ten minutes or two hours here and there do not do it for me. So for weeks and months, you can’t go to all those fascinating seminars and fun parties that you would like to. I imagine the intense phase of book writing is like being in a monastery for an extended period. When you finally finish and emerge from your book writing retreat, people are surprised to see you.
Another source of pain is anxiety. Book writing is a journey, at least for me. I think I know where I am going when I start out (I have a detailed outline, after all). But I never end up where I thought I would. Part of that is the learning experience that comes with writing. You don’t know if you have a good idea until you try to explain it in writing. But it is anxiety-producing because I often find my original ideas were wrong or vacuous. And the time it takes to write a book means that the experience is an extended assault on my self-confidence. “Will I ever get to the end of this thing? Will I be able to produce something acceptable?” Oi.
Then there is the amusing problem when the first part of a book does not belong to the last part of the book. A writer like me starts out in one place and ends up in another. So when I’m writing the end of the book, I often have go back and rewrite the first part of the book to fit the second part. (Once I decided to write the second half of a book first and spent months completing it, only to have to throw it out because I could not fit it to the first part of the book.)
Finally, there is the problem of language. I strongly believe that in most of social science and humanities, a writer who cannot clearly explain his or her ideas to an informed but non-expert reader is probably not in command of the material or is not thinking logically. But there is more — interesting writing goes beyond simply clear writing. And that takes work and imagination, even creativity. And it takes going over the manuscript time after time to tweak language.
There are those lucky few for whom books write themselves — ideas, maybe fueled by passion and probably stored up for years can just come tumbling out on the page and make clear, logical sense while also engaging the reader. This may be more the experience of creative writers, but I suspect it happens once in a while to scholars too. This kind of writing must be pure pleasure; I wish it happened to me.
The work of book writing does not end with a completed manuscript. It needs to be reviewed by one’s peers, revised, approved by editorial boards, scrutinized by copy editors, reread in typescript and galley proofs by the author and then set to type. y experience with university presses is that this takes a year or longer. (I am certain they still set the type by hand. In the 21st Century, one could surely turn out a book in days with the right software.) And somewhere in this process, editors try to seize control of the title of the book (usually with disastrous results – don’t let them do it) and the design of the outside cover (I have consistently failed to prevent this one).
Then the book is finally out. Authors can enjoy a few days — maybe weeks — of pleasure until the reviews come in. My experience is that reviewers often do not really read your book and so do not get your message unless it is in sound bite form (which scholarly messages seldom are). So they critique the book they thought you should have written rather than the one you did.
With all this travail, why do we write books? It can’t be the money unless you do trade books (by the major commercial presses rather than university presses) and hit it lucky. It probably isn’t even the incentive that tenure and promotion create because scholars continue to write books even after they get tenure. It can’t be the relatively brief pleasure of completing a book, since it is so short-lived compared to the pain of producing it.
I think it is actually an addiction. It is one of the hardest things to do well and therefore a constant set of mountains to climb. And it fulfills the basic urges of most scholars — discovery and explanation.
So now let me get back to my next book project.
Carol Lancaster is an associate professor of politics and the director of the Mortara Center for International Studies. Behind the Podium appears every other Friday.