Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Conditions of production

For everything in the world, every good and every service, there's the behind-the-scenes. Others can only judge the final product, as is fair. This is no less true of writing. Below, then, is a behind-the-scenes account. A process post, of interest, I suppose, to other writers, and to anyone curious about writers' neuroses and work-related anxieties.

I'm thinking, first, of my dissertation. Once I knew I'd be writing on French Jews and intermarriage, I had this goal of covering everything. After all, this was a narrow topic! I was going to write the definitive work about every last aspect of it. Fictional and real-life cases! Actual rates across time and location! Comparisons with other times and places! I was going to cover everything from the French Revolution to World War II! I was going to visit different regions and find out everything!

In the end, I had to focus on what was possible given existing sources (and resources) and my own methodological limitations. I did research in Paris and New York, and not across France. I stuck with the 19th century. And - and here's the big one - I was never being able to ascertain how many French Jews married out across this period. France didn't keep records of marriage by religion. I spoke with established scholars who are experts in Jewish demography, and they confirmed that not only do figures not exist in published works, but there's no simple way, likely no way at all, of figuring this out. 

Now, to some doctoral students, this might have posed an exciting challenge. (And I hope someone gets to it!) For me, it would have been a prohibitive sidetrack. I was in an interdisciplinary PhD program, but trained primarily as a literary scholar, housed in the French literature department. If I was going to write the dissertation I needed to and felt passionate about, and to spend less than a lifetime doing so, I was not going to self-train as a demography innovator. I was going to have to state what was known or knowable to a scholar from an adjacent field, and focus on the questions that most centrally interested me, which related more to perceptions and anxieties at the time than realities. 

The interdisciplinary nature of the program I was in, and the project I was doing, was in some ways freeing - I got to work with historians and write scholarship of interest to people in a variety of fields - but it was also daunting. I felt - and still feel! - a certain amount of... regret? guilt? at having not written the work on French Jews and intermarriage covering every possible angle and discipline. Yes, even though my committee was pleased with the result. I did my best to - and this is always the trickiest - make sure my argument as presented at the beginning of the document matched up not with the one-time everything-covering dream project, but with what I was actually able to produce. Still. 

So. While my book is not in the least bit based on my dissertation (it's about the idea of privilege in contemporary American cultural conversations, not that of intermarriage in 19th century France, and is for popular audiences, not specifically academics), the thesis-writing experience prepared me for the fact that the book I'd wind up with was unlikely to cover absolutely everything on the topic. I knew - again, from that experience - that no project can use every methodology. I knew that at a certain point, I'd have to determine which paths served my argument, as well as which were beyond what my skills (or, really, contacts) would allow. I knew I couldn't do everything, just, you know, some things.

Writing a book wound up being quite different than writing a dissertation - more fun as well as more challenging. A dissertation feels like a solo slog, but I wrote my in a cohort. Not continuously surrounded by friends doing the same (except at the BNF!), but often enough that I never felt like I was doing it alone. A book, on the other hand... it's really just you writing it. Yes, instead of an advisor, you have an editor. But there aren't a whole crop of other writers who start and finish around the same time you do. Or maybe there are, if you do an MFA, but I did not, so there weren't. From college, from social media, I knew (and 'knew', respectively) a handful of authors, none of books similar to the one I was working on.

And then there's the structure question. I was lucky to be funded throughout my doctoral program, including long stretches where my only responsibility was to write. Paid to write! Not paid a ton, but enough, and with health insurance. Books - with rare exceptions, as I understand it - are not like that. I was tremendously lucky there as well - editor-wise, publishing-house-wise, and even advance-wise - but there was never a question that I would still need to earn money in other ways while writing. Yes, yes, my privilege is always and forever showing, but I, the author of the privilege book, am not independently wealthy. As is normal for authors, I worked - in my case, teaching and doing other writing. For a year, free time didn't really happen, and I'm going to have to say, it was worth it. If not necessarily a schedule I'd repeat. 

And I think the whole needing-to-work thing was good for the book, as in, good for the end result that now sits before readers. Limited time forced me to focus, in a way I never had to for the dissertation, with those months spent living in a dorm room in Paris with all the croissant money a person could ask. (Also key: books have deadlines. Dissertations, not as much.) What is this book really about, and why does it need to be written? I had to keep this front and center. 

That said, does my inner critic immediately turn to places I would have added/expanded, had I had all the time in the world? Of course! Does this make any criticism that (inadvertently, of course) lands on wondering why this or that wasn't mentioned, where "this or that" is precisely what I'd have mentioned with more time, extra frustrating? It does. This, even though with more time, I'd likely have spent it making more thought-through decisions about whether to get a cappuccino or a matcha latte, and not turning my book into the imaginary, every-methodology-covering fantasy every project probably always will be, before practical constraints and my own limitations enter the picture.

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