An Ambivalent Milestone; or, How’s the Book Coming?

The fear that hangs over all of my writing is that I will never finish the big projects. Actually, it’s even worse than that: I fear not knowing how to finish. Shorter things, I can do. I can whip out a blog post in a couple of hours, even quicker if I’m writing about something that pissed me off. (My most-read post on this site, with nearly 400K views, was one I rage-wrote at the Asheville, NC, airport in under two hours.) But longer projects paralyze me, and I get to a point where I literally wake up in the middle of the night, with an anxiety knot in my stomach, and wonder if I will ever be able to finish them.

I’ve finished big projects before, though I don’t think those experiences are necessary ones to emulate. I wrote a dissertation, after all, and it was 440 pages of manuscript. But that was before I was teaching full time, and I don’t think I could, or would even want to, replicate the habits that characterized that process. I almost finished a book manuscript about a decade ago. I had a contract to write a text on a US history topic, and I wrote 11 chapters, for a total of about 500 manuscript pages. But the publisher decided at that point that the series of which my book was a part would only be published digitally (despite the contract being for a print version), and while I was supposed to be getting paid in installments every three chapters, I hadn’t received anything from them. Finally, hearing nothing about either concern, I stopped the project. I feel like I got ghosted, essentially.

I FEEL SEEN

And that was the last book project I tackled. I had 500 pages of manuscript that was now inert, after I spent the better part of two academic years (on a 4-4 teaching load) working on it. I resolved to get a new project going, and this time see it to completion. Now I have three book-length projects going right now, and none of them are complete. They are all behind schedule to varying degrees.

It’s really disconcerting to admit that I have real trouble sustaining larger projects. I pride myself on good writing. I feel like I’ve got useful and interesting things to say. I’ve published pieces in a variety of venues, and they have been well-received. I have a regular gig for a higher-ed publication, and just published a big piece with them that’s garnered a lot of positive feedback. Hell, I’ve even had tweet-threads go viral. Words are my stock in trade, I tell myself. But the more I think about what I need to do to finish the manuscripts I’ve committed to write, the more impossible the task seems. My gut clenches even as I write these sentences, as they’re an ackowledgement of how behind I really am. Complicating all of this is the fact I should be grateful for these opportunities, and that it’s a privilege to be able to have people think enough of my words to want to publish them. I so badly want to justify that faith and commitment.

I don’t like not following through on commitments. And I realize that it’s a rare project indeed that comes in ahead of deadline. But I’ve gotten to the point where I’m wondering if fear or imposter syndrome or something is working in my subconscious, leading me into quiet, self-sabotaging bouts of procrastination. I’ve read in a number of places that things like writing block and procrastination are the products of fear–fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of something. It turns out that a lot of how I think is conditioned by fear. That’s not optimal.

Maybe I’m afraid of finishing because I don’t know what it’s like to actually finish a big project. Maybe I’ve been telling myself that I can only do shorter pieces well. Or maybe I’m afraid that whatever I put out there will not be good enough, that I’ve over-promised, and in the end, the reaction will just be an overwhelming meh. Maybe I’ve never seen myself as someone who would be capable of actually writing a book and putting it out in the world, and I don’t know how to handle the fact that I have the opportunity to exactly that. I was told early in my career that I wouldn’t amount to much as a scholar, and while I know I have the power to disprove that estimate, there’s a small voice that keeps whispering maybe they were right.

Maybe I’m overthinking things so much that I’ve made these projects more intimidating and complicated than they really are.

More than one thing can be true, I guess.

♦ ♦ ♦

These thoughts are top-of-mind today, because as part of my efforts to maintain an effective writing practice, I’ve been keeping a spreadsheet that tracks what projects I’m working on and my daily word count. I know that there are plenty of ways to track writing practice, and that word count is not always the  best one to employ. For me, however, it’s been a useful metric to track time and progress on both short and longer-term work. My goal has been to write daily. Looking at my spreadsheet, I see stretches of 2-3 weeks where I’ve been able to do that, with other stretches (some as long as 1-2 weeks) where I wrote nothing. Despite the inconsistency, today was the day my word count for the year went over 100,000. That’s not nothing, I guess.

Not all of those words are still with us. I wrote about 100 manuscript pages on my main project, only to scrap most of them and move in a different direction. Ultimately, the new direction is so much better, but I’m still kind of pissed that I spent a lot of time and effort producing that text, only to have it rendered inert. It echoes that ill-fated manuscript of years ago, and that’s certainly not a pleasant association.

But as I look over the whole spreadsheet, I see a lot of articles, a large project on syllabus creation that I’m really happy about, some stuff I was asked to write for other platforms that were fun pieces to do, and yes, even some progress on the big projects. I haven’t tracked my writing this systematically for years, but I am reasonably confident that this is the largest word count I’ve done in a nine-month period since I finished grad school. So why do I feel like I haven’t accomplished enough?

Part of the answer is the endemic problem in academia that leads us to think that no matter how busy we are, we’re not busy enough. There’s always more to do, to read, to write. I look at what the scholars I admire have done, and compare my process to their results. I sometimes want to “have written” so much that I forget actual writing is necessary for that outcome.

Then there’s the stark fact that I set some goals for completion of my manuscripts that I failed to meet. I tend to approach projects with a zero-sum mindset; either I’m completely done, or I’m not working hard enough. I find myself engaging in an internal monologue about how lazy I am, or how I’m not dedicated enough to the work, a set of assertions that crumbles at the slightest touch of actual evidence–when I’m self-aware enough to even realize the monologue is happening, which is not as often as I’d like.

But there’s also part of the answer which lies in my difficulty recognizing what I have accomplished in light of what I still feel like I have left to do. In an academic year with numerous commitments, a position that got reconfigured, and no sabbatical, 100,000 words is nothing to sneeze at. If only that was the first thought into my head and not the last.

So what have I learned about myself as a writer this year? I’ve learned that I need to commit to a daily practice, but not beat myself up if I miss a day or two. I’ve learned that maintaining optimism and focus is extraordinarily hard in our surrent climate, where simply scanning the headlines is akin to being hosed down with sewage. I’ve learned that it’s too easy to let avoidance and aversion, and not ideas or goals, dictate my writing schedule. I’ve learned that there is always time to write if I allocate that time skillfully. I’ve learned that I’m often not skillful. And I’ve learned that not everything that goes on the page is going to make it to a final draft–or even survive the shitty first draft. But every word is a victory, and that’s the lesson I choose to hold closer than the others.

Those are some thoughts to accompany my writing milestone. Maybe they’re coherent, though I suspect that’s only semi-true. I told myself I would write a post once I hit 100,000 words, but Past Me neglected to tell Present Me what the post would be about. Past Me is a jerk like that. But if nothing else, this post is an object lesson in how writing things out can be an immensely clarifying exercise. I didn’t start this post with the perspective I finished it with. So me and my hundred thousand victories are going to be back at it tomorrow, ass in chair, headphones on, making the big projects a little bit smaller.

4 thoughts on “An Ambivalent Milestone; or, How’s the Book Coming?”

  1. Really enjoyed the article. Saw a lot of myself in it, just not the writing part. I’ve got a number of things, books and articles to read, paperwork to organize, craft projects to finish. But what do I do when I’ve got a little time? Watch preseason hockey. Watch my Cleveland Indians play. Anything but what I tell myself I should be doing.

  2. I had a similar problem with my book some years ago…and then came across a great quote that was a great reminder.
    Go to the edge of the light you see!
    Just do the next thing on the list and don’t worry about planning through to the end or worrying about all the “what ifs.” Worked for me! And still does!

    Good luck!

  3. I have read that writers of books need to understand the necessity of being willing to cut out extraneous parts, shorten others and to keep a manuscript to a reasonable length for publication.

  4. When I was writing for publication on a weekly basis, I got in the habit of “Morning Pages” (outlined in The Artist’s Way – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B006H19H3M/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1)

    I didn’t do three full pages most of the time, and most of the time the output was absolute garbage, but what I found was that writing became a habit and that habit of Garbage OUT in the morning really juiced my creative process as well as my organization and focus each time.

    It’s not for everyone, but it helped me a lot. My biggest problem, to this day, is the sunk cost fallacy. That I’m “wasting time” unless my output is worthwhile. I feel like the morning pages routine helped to reduce my self-hate enough to get past it.

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