Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"A book is a part of that author's restless curiosity about the world"

I'm writing a book.

Well, I'm writing two chapters to accompany a book proposal and, if external reviewers and the editorial board at the press find these satisfactory, I'll be under contract to write a book. There are still some "ifs" involved, but, at the very least, I'm in the process of composing two book-chapter-like pieces of writing. For the first time in my life, I would add.

The book is about early water pollution abatement efforts along the Willamette River, 1920s to 1962. It is a thorough re-casting of the research I conducted for my M.A. thesis, "Working for the 'Working River.'"

To prepare for the book project, I've completed more research on various threads of the topic, and presented some chunks of my findings at various academic conferences. However, having a completed MA thesis under my belt and hundreds (thousands?) of digital and hard-copy pages of research stacked on my real and virtual desks does not a book make.

I need to learn how to write a book with the potential to garner a readership of more than myself. Below are some recent reflections about how to do this . . .

At the ASEH 2010 (which I've begun to blog about here), I attended a great session, "The Art of Writing History—and Getting Published." The four panelists--Stephen Pyne, William Cronon, Marianne Keddington-Lang, and Christine Szuter--and the audience collectively provided a wealth of constructive advice. I've also recently read some things about the processes of writing non-fiction and turning dissertations and theses into books.[1]

How to Begin?

I've been spending much of my time recently thinking to myself, "How the hell do I begin this project?"

William Germano writes about thoroughly revising a dissertation (or thesis) into an effective book: "You begin revising a dissertation by thinking about Big Questions. . . . Revision becomes rethinking, which becomes rewriting"(8). He then makes an important point in comparing the dissertation/thesis project with the book project:

the dissertation is the historical record of others' ideas, supplemented by your own important insights; the book is the narrative of thinking on the subject, but primarily it's your thinking, even though it is supplemented by the historical record of others' ideas.(65)

Rachel Toor stresses that the author must have a clear argument in order to turn a thesis or dissertation into a book. “Most dissertation manuscripts contain only a small number of hesitant, quiet insights, and are bloated with reviews of the literature, block quotations, and pages of footnotes,” she observes.

On the process of turning my thesis materials into a book, Germano has this to say:

To revise a dissertation effectively you will need to think yourself out of one genre and into another. The task requires a rethinking so thorough that it might better be described not as revision at all but adaptation" (22).

Germano continues: "Writing isn't a record of your thinking, it is your thinking," and when he writes that "you write to find out what you think. The more clearly you write, the more clearly you are thinking" (23, 101).

Fetishizing the Research Process

As my thesis adviser Bill Lang said, I have a tendency to make my writing longer and more convoluted than necessary by packing into each sentence, paragraph, and chapter unnecessary nuances, qualifications, and examples. I understand why I do this: I don't want to commit to writing something that is not justified. I don't want to come across half-cocked.

What I succeed in achieving, at times, is detail-saturated prose that likely only satisfies detail-fetishists such as myself. I get so focused on the fascinating details of my research that I forget that the historian's most important task is to digest the research and make a coherent narrative that incorporates and rises above these details. Describe the forest rather than each and every tree.

Stephen Pyne provides some insight on this dynamic when he describes how various professions characterize their specialized techniques so as to "reduce the complexity . . . to a few items that, for them, become an algorithm of understanding" (96).

Pyne has me in mind when he writes:

It is all too easy for writers to get deflected into side issues, puttering about the historical countryside, chasing thematic rabbits, burrowing into curious archive middens. It's particularly easy--notoriously so for beginners--to sink into a mire of introductions, continually packing and repacking, always getting ready and never getting on the trail (53).

Germano also writes about this potentially-debilitating character traits, and that is to continually want to do more research on a given piece of my work before I feel empowered to write anything about it. He suggests that scholars "are adept at a lot of things, including making excuses for avoiding things they know they need to do," such as telling themselves they have more reading to do before they can finish their book project. These other books and additional research trips are "good friends" but can also be "enablers," in that they keep writers from completing what needs to be done (66).

"These are complex mind games, and ones best avoided if at all possible," Germano cautions. "Besides, a dissertation, like any book, is as complete as the state of knowledge at the time of its publication" (44-45).

Pyne discusses this dynamic as well: "The nature of documentation, and of evidence generally, pleads for a literary pragmatism because there is always the possibility that you have overlooked a vital item or that fresh data will arise" (Pyne, 22). Therefore, as much as I sometimes think otherwise, there’s no possible way to do all possible research on a given topic.

How To Write Only What Needs To Be Written

On determining what to include in the book and how to include it, Germano argues that a writer should "measure and sift" her or his materials while keeping in mind four critical elements: audience, voice, structure, and length. An author must understand clearly for whom he or she is writing; this writing should be done using a voice that is capable of both appealing to that audience and that does justice to the subject; the author needs to structure the writing in a way that has a clear logic; and, finally, the author needs to know when to shout, whisper, or shut up, which will guide the length of the work (52).

Rather than get lost in the abyss of incessant research, Pyne recommends that a writer's vision "should always be before you or around the margins of the text, like an insistent collie keeping a flock of sheep on track" (54). "The details will always surprise," Pyne continues: "It's your grand sense of purpose and design that prevents those surprises from toppling your heavily laden packhorses. Without it you wander and flounder" (60).

Regarding voice, Germano writes that an author needs to write in a way that would be appealing if read aloud, while also adhering to the goal of being as objective as possible. "Objectivity demands clarity, not obfuscation, and clarity is hard to achieve if the voice is muffled" (63-64). "Clear writing displays the organization of your thinking. Clear writing is the organization of your thinking," Germano continues(79). He suggests that in revising one should "create the outward impression of order and movement and you're going to see what you need to do internally . . . to make good on those promises" (81).

One of the things I struggle with is how to determine what pieces of evidence belong in a narrative, and what amount of detail I need to include with this evidence so that it makes sense to the reader. I’m not alone, according to Pyne:

many academics (particularly graduate student apprentices) pack each phrase and sentence with a connective padding of conjunctions and subordinate clauses that assures a logical sequencing but that demands exhaustive unpacking by the reader. This is the literary equivalent of micro-managing; and while there may be spots here and there that require authorial intervention, sometimes intense, they should be rare. As the adage goes, trust your story. Trust your reader. (98)

Deciding what details to include "depends on how the item's presence or absence affects our understanding of what is said." He then asks the following questions to guide one's decisions:

Would removing it change how we assess a character? Would it affect our conclusions about why an event went one way and not another? Is it surplus information, offering more of the same, and hence disposable? Is it an outlier fact which is so bizarre and disconnected that it bears no discernible link to the topic, and whose inclusion can only encumber understanding? Or is it decorative, a bit of textual embroidery that enriches appreciation but does not change the fundamentals?(Pyne, 21)

"After all," Pyne continues, "everything anticipates everything that follows. The trick is to find just those critical events and signs that augur the future and most inform and propel the narrative or argument" (92-93). To put this another way, Bill Cronon said in that ASEH conference session that any narrative can be told in any length: War and Peace can be explained in one sentence, one paragraph, or 1,000 words (etc.).

Structure of the Book

Germano talks about the "throughline" of a book as the core thread of structure that ties everything together. "If you write with a sense that what comes next has to come next or the reader won't understand what comes before, you are writing with attention to throughline" (82). Authors achieve this by clarifying themes of the work, and this is done, in part, by mapping the writing through chapter and sub-head titles (84-95).

Other useful insights from Bill Cronon's comments at the 2010 ASEH:

** Determine who would want to read the work, and why; have one’s audience clearly in mind

** Ask yourself "Will the reader turn the page?" Is there something at the end worth the effort, i.e., pleasure, information?

** The culture seems to be shifting away from desiring to read long narratives, so one should strive to be clear and concise

** The 5-sentence blurb is now critical to the way we all read these days. This blurb represents the length of a blog post, an Amazon.com review, something a person would forward to a friend in an email, etc.

** Frame your narrative with undergraduates in mind: If your story can interest students, you're on to something

Notes On A Few Possible Approaches

Pyne has an interesting perspective on irony as a narrative approach, which he sees as the "customary medium of the modernist perspective" (48). He writes that "Irony requires distancing," and continues:

Historical irony involves an incongruity, or distance, between what is said (or thought, believed, or expected) and what actually happens. But such gaps depend on the scale of the frame used. Move closer and the ironic distance may become infinitesimal. Move back . . . and even vast ironies may be swallowed up in a broader narrative (48).

Pyne uses the example of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s to show how various narrative structures could be used to interpret the facts of this event in various ways. The Dust Bowl story could be written as an example of lost innocence, as a tragic collision of forces, as a satire of foolishness, or as a list of lessons to be learned. Or, the story could be written as an ironic episode in which people expected one thing and got another (49).

The choice of ending contributes significantly to the frame and voice of a narrative, and this frame and voice, in return, determines the kinds of evidence the historian will use and the way this evidence is interpreted. "Like a massive star bending light," Pyne states, the choice of ending "warp[s] the narrative geometry of space-time" (50).

On his chapter about the use of dramatization, Pyne provides some guidelines that fit the narrative arc of my book project. He describes one approach that presents a moral story in which the "action pivots around the kind of conflict that demands hard choices." This kind of story holds our attention because it "strikes to the core of our curiosity about human nature, and does so not by bald declarations but through a plot in which characters must choose and act." Showing this dynamic requires a dynamic of competition--for example, "within someone, between people, between people and the natural world" (105-107).

In my book project, this competition will be between people and the natural world and between groups of people. The Willamette River watershed confounded attempts to regulate pollution, providing the nature-human dynamic of conflict. At the same time, there were groups of people reacting in conflicting ways to the limits of the natural system--specifically the abatement advocates, on one side, and the pulp & paper industry and Portland city officials, on the other. I must narrate this story using a selection of evidence that informs and keeps the story moving.

On the importance of character to an engaging narrative, Pyne writes that "settings, events, institutions and ideas can all be animated and granted some role through the same kinds of techniques that bring characters to life. . . . even natural phenomena can become a catalyst: they can force action; they can cause people to choose, and by so doing, they can propel the moral drama of the text and can themselves become, in a curious yet undeniable way, part of that drama" (155). This are considerations I will heed. I have to describe the Willamette itself as a dynamic, complex character in the book by identifying hydrological and geographic features that make it so. I also must clearly identify the various human agents in my telling so that I can relate the story in the way that I understand it--which is as a conflict between groups of people with identifiable interests interacting with a complex river system that placed limits on the range of possible technical and regulatory solutions.

On the balance between showing and telling in a narrative, Pyne compares the dynamic between the color and play-by-play commentary roles that sportscasters play: "Essentially, the same roles are required in extended nonfiction," he writes (207). Balancing these roles in nonfiction writing enables the writer to find a balance between the showing and the telling parts of the narrative.

One way to identify clearly a character in the narrative while also finding a balance between showing and telling is to have a character explain technical concepts (Pyne, 256-258). This will enable me to bring a given characters' voice into the story, provide a way to incorporate relevant details of this character's background, and convey the contemporary understanding of a given technology, scientific approach, or other critical detail.

Getting It Done

Two thought-provoking quotes:

** "A book is a part of that author's restless curiosity about the world" (Germano, 128).

** "Nature unaided doesn't tell us who we are or how we should behave, nor does history" (Pyne, 113).

How to find the time to write ~70,000 words? Germano advises that "Living with deadlines is one of the things that makes professionals professional" (67).

Panelists at the ASEH conference offered the following recommendations:

** An annotated table of contents can be a good way to keep track of your own work as you start to outline the book

** Set yourself word goals, not time goals, because we could convince ourselves that we're getting writing done if we poke around for two hours and only complete a well-polished paragraph (Bill Cronon mentioned the book A Writer's Time)

Pyne provides a list of useful mantras (277-287):

** Follow your heart but use your head

** Time is money ("Writing is about choices, and among the first of these choices is to assure yourself time to work.)

** Writing is the art of the possible

** Only writing writes ("simply by writing, you can solve many of the problems of writing and will come to understand better what you are doing")

  -- On starting: "Remember, the purpose of an introduction is only to introduce. Get into the text. Get to what it is that motivated you in the first place."

  -- On pacing: "have the upcoming task always simmering on the back of your mental stove so that you need only turn up the heat to set it aboil"; "Leave a task overnight that can be done readily the next day."

  -- On persisting: "good writers will enforce habits of writing, for it is the writing itself that often makes things happen."

  -- On ending: "Allow a lot more time than you expect, and anticipate a lot more frustration, tedium, and labor than you have time for."

Other useful guides:

** University of Texas Press, Checklist For Revising Dissertations For Book Publication.

** University of Iowa Press, Revising Humanities Dissertations for Publication.
  -- Include only pertinent sources in bibliography
  -- Cut 30%-50% of the notes: “If the information can’t be seamlessly incorporated into the text, dump it!”

[1] Stephen Pyne, Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2009; William Germano, From Dissertation to Book, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005; Rachel Toor, “Advice for academics about writing and getting published,” Chronicle of Higher Education March 24, 2008.


1 comment:

  1. Here's a thought-provoking post from Bitch Ph.D. on the pitfalls of the "single story" (more on theme of how to write about complex topics in a way that recognizes the complexity).