Every time I write something, a well-meaning friend asks me that.
It makes sense: audience is key. To help critique someone’s work, it’s best to know who the intended audience is. But implicit in this question of “what are you going to do with that?” are issues of final product. It implies that if you’re going to bother going through the hard work of writing something, then you had better do something with it. I don’t disagree with that notion (though I will say, sometimes writing for its own sake is a worthwhile process), but I do think it can lead to some unhealthy thinking when it comes to writing. Namely, it promotes thinking of your writing in terms of products, and that leads to product-based goals.
We’ve all made those before: I want to write two dissertation chapters this semester. I will have finished my novel by September. I will write an article each month this year.
I used to set goals like that for myself at the end of each year. I’m pretty driven, so I achieved most of them, but when I didn’t, I felt like I let myself down.
So last year, I didn’t make any product-based goals at all. Instead, I switched to process-based goals. Instead of having a goal of x number of pages written, I asked myself if I could make a commitment to show up to the page for an hour 5 days per week. Rather than running that 7 minute mile, I wanted to see if I could commit to physically changing into exercise clothing and moving in some way four times per week. They were very low-stakes goals, great for not provoking anxiety.
The best dissertation is a done dissertation. When you turn it into a book, “Good enough” is good enough. Your work is never finished, it is merely abandoned. Every writer has heard this, and has experienced it. Once you’ve experienced it, you know that it’s true. Fitness works in exactly the same way. Tanya’s last post here was about her fitness goals and inspired me to share with you a bit about how and why I move my body, and why the best workout is a done workout.
Aging and birthdays are usually not a big deal to me which, now that I really think about it, likely stems from childhood. Having a summer birthday meant I missed bringing treats to school and birthday parties were useless when everyone was out of town. Thus, I’ve long been accustomed to marking my journeys around the sun with minimal celebration even at major milestones. This was the same with turning 40, which I did in August. While my lovely friends made sure I celebrated properly later, I spent that actual day taking a 7 hour road trip from an indoor water-park hell-scape to home. The day itself may have felt lackluster, but the anticipation of this monumental number did inspire me to make some challenges for myself months prior. On New Year’s Day I was making plans for my 40th year. I had planned to run my 6th marathon and a total of 2019 miles in the year, had planned to take a big trip, for fun and for research, and I had planned to read 40 books. While life shenanigans interfered with the first few, I am happy to announce that I am on schedule to celebrate my 40th year with 40, completed and contemplated, books.
I am also happy to announce that most of the books I’ve read this year (currently working on numbers 33 and 34) have been wonderful. I decided to be choosey about the titles so I would not get derailed from my goal, which can often happen since I am stubborn and hate to give up on any book, no matter how terrible. In addition, even though cancer treatment made exercise and travel almost impossible, it did afford me some uninterrupted time for reading. The hours spent in cars, waiting rooms, infusion chairs, on radiation tables were given to memoirs, biographies, historical fictions, historical non-fictions, true crime, poetry, etc., etc., etc. They provided much needed escape, and I must take a moment here, dear reader, to assure you that I didn’t just choose short stories to help reach my goal. In fact, one of the more enjoyable of the books was The Goldfinch by Donna Tart, a 771 page journey detailing lost lives, lost art, and lost souls. The story centers around a lost painting and equally lost young man, and although it was not without its faults, it was worth the effort.
The Goldfinch was recommended to me by many because of its connection to art history. I usually shy away from these types of books because of my background, but I gave it a chance, and I’m glad I did. I have to admit that it was fun to think about art in a new way. Contrary to my expectations, the visual details of the painting and its history amounted to only about 2 pages of the more than 700. The Goldfinch (aka Het Puttertje) is an actual painting Donna Tart saw during a visit to the Mauritshuis museum at the heart of the Hague. Measuring little bigger than a sheet of paper, and depicting an even smaller, chained, pet bird by the little known artist Carel Fabrutus, the reader might initially question the value of a work such as this, especially when it enters the narrative amidst Vermeers, Hals, Rembrandts, and other master works of the Dutch Golden Age. However, our understanding of the value of this work is established on a personal level as it anchors itself to times, places, and people that mean so much to the main character.
This led me to thinking about the possibly for fictional tales centered on factual events and objects. History and its imagery is filled with a wealth of possibility for invented stories and a basic Google search on making the transition from non-fiction to fiction brings up a wealth of sites with advice and success stories. Would it be worthwhile to approach my own research topics similarly and could these histories be told in new ways? Or, perhaps more importantly, should they? I don’t know the answer to these questions yet, but the thought of this type of experimentation with research and writing excites me.
I have been dealing with a bit of a writing dry spell, particularly in regard to my academic research. However, the possibility of using what I’ve learned to create a new, imagined story provides the kind of inspiration I’ve been needing. Writing community, I would love to hear if you’ve tried something similar! Please comment or tweet your advice, tips, or experiences! My own updates to come…
Midsummer 2019 was the day I moved into my first house. The sky blackened as I drove a carload of belongings there. I made it to my new neighborhood in North Nashville just as the thunderstorm hit. Pulling into the driveway, a loud snap shook my car. I watched the thick, sturdy tree in the front yard of the neighbors across the street collapse onto the road. It pulled down power lines right across the driveway making it unsafe to drive out. Fortunately, the damage was to property, and not people.
Stranded, I decided to make the most of it and unload my
things. The rain started up again, and cardboard boxes nearly disintegrated in
the deluge, but I got everything in more or less undamaged.
When the electricity went out, I checked my phone and saw that the storm been upgraded to a tornado warning just as the sirens came on. There was nothing to do except wait it out as night fell.
I didn’t want to sleep with no bed, electricity, or water service, so once the warning was over, I considered driving through the front yard to get out. Then I saw that the power lines weren’t just across my driveway, but across the whole yard. There was no way out.
And then two men in soaked hooded sweatshirts and flashlights knocked on my car window. They introduced themselves as Ernesto and Big Will, neighbors from down the street.* They were going house to house checking to make sure no one needed anything. With their help, I was able to reverse out out through the backyard and in the alley. They rushed to clear away tree branches and garbage cans that the storm had knocked over so I could get home and waved me off. Before I left, they talked about bringing out their chainsaws in the morning and helping my other neighbors break down that tree, so I could get my moving van in, as it might be a while before the city sent someone up here. North Nashville, a historically black neighborhood that is now in the grip of gentrification, hasn’t traditionally been high on the city’s priority list. Or even on it, for the vast majority of its existence.
Oh, not everyone takes paper up with them to make their
Well, old habits die hard.
One of the perks of being a writer is that you’ve always got
words- usually far too many- whenever they are needed. This month, I was maid
of honor in the wedding of one of my closest friends. Without saying too much
here, watching her move through life and appreciating just how much she has
grown in so many different directions in the time we’ve known each other has
been remarkable. Friendships like that make for difficult speeches, because how
can you convey all of complexity in just a page or so?
Only if you are willing to let go of someone for their own good, do you become worthy of them.
While there’s no way I can condense the essence of my friend
and our friendship, as well as her relationship with her husband as I
understand it into a mere page, I can definitely narrow down the topic. Conventional
writing rules still sort of apply:
Theme: One of the reasons why my friend and I are so close is that we see the world in similar ways. We also see relationships in similar ways. Both she and I only want to be with people who are safe to grow with, and who prioritize our growth and their own over other goals or distractions in life. The commitment aspect of a relationship isn’t to love the other person no matter what, but to always ferret out the things that will help them become who they were meant to be, and tirelessly champion them, being their safe place to explore, to fail, and to try again. And of course in turn, they do the same for us. The feeling of being in love can come and go, but the feeling of being with someone who has your best interests at heart and supports those over what is comfortable for them isn’t something that comes along every day. When you find someone like that- someone who cares enough about you to let go of their ego and the need to control an outcome and instead just facilitate your soul’s growth regardless of where it takes you both- you hold on. That’s the theme of the speech.
Plot: Like with everything good to read, stuff has to happen. There has to be an arc of narration. To ensure the speech hit all the sweet spots, the same rules apply- ensure there’s an opening, the rising action, the climax, and denouement. This gives it emotional roundness, and makes it resonate. Rather than just listing out things, I told a story that illustrated how her growth and mine have intertwined, to show that I understand the trajectory of her life That puts me in the position of understanding how her husband is facilitating her growth and dreams.
While a lot of people are just getting into the swing of their semester, in my K12 world, our second trimester of the school year just concluded. It’s always strange to say that, or maybe it just feels that way because saying “It’s the end of the trimester!” has made people ask me if I’m pregnant (more than once).
No, it’s just how we do things. On the one hand, being on trimesters is great because of the way it breaks up the year. On the other, end-of-trimester is always a busy, stressful time. To offset that, in November, we get a three-day weekend between trimesters. In February, we get a four-day weekend (thank you, Presidents Day!). In both cases, students tend to get a lot of assessments and faculty get the opportunity to give students feedback on their work (also known as grading).
It feels like I’ve had a lot of chances to give students feedback recently, and it’s in those moments that I realize just how much I’m still using from grad school.
When I wrote my first Non-fiction book proposals, with all of its moveable parts, I felt intimidated. I had to create an overview, author bio, market analysis, competition, plan for promotion, the table of contents, my chapter summaries, and a detailed explanation of my source materials before a literary agent would even consider looking at my idea for a book.
I definitely can’t tell you how to write a non-fiction book proposal (thankfully others have gotten into that), but I can tell you about my experience creating and revising my first one (I’m now working on my second, woo!), and how worth it it really was.
Of course I loved creating the table of contents and the chapter summaries. Doing that helps you figure out if you’ve got enough material for a book, or if you’re trying to collapse too many elements into one. And the part where I explain my source materials? Really fun- I loved gathering all of my books, microfilms, photocopies, and archival photos into once place and taking stock of all there is. Seeing all the primary sources together like that helped me to ask where the silences were, and where the meatiest parts of the story existed. That caused me to make a few changes to my table of contents. Then gathering up my secondary sources helped me to figure out if my book had a chance of being fair and balanced, or if I over-relied on a handful of historians whose interpretations I enjoy more.
But then there were the other parts. A big shout-out to my agent for being patient enough with me to revise them multiple times before sending it on to publishers. The other parts are much more marketing-oriented. I tried to imagine how someone in the book-selling business would see this book of mine, and how they would sell it. On which shelf would it go? To which books could I compare it? What kind of reader would want it? How could it be made most profitable without losing its essence and integrity?
Writing those parts of the book proposal showed me that I hadn’t been paying enough attention to the world of publishing. And that’s to be expected- I’ve spent the past twelve years in academia. While I do read widely and enjoy trade history books (and other trade non-fiction), the majority of the books I’ve gone through in that time have been academic. That means that I have been exposed mostly to books created to fulfill professional curiosity and research gaps, not books created to entertain and teach the public about history. I had to entirely re-orient myself.
Thankfully, that’s where the teacher-brain took over. I sell history to everyday people all the time. My students, whether they are undergrads or older adults continuing their education for fun, do better with historic material if it’s presented in an interesting way. I weave together all kinds of stories for them upon which to hang all the facts and theories they need to know. I’m always picking the unconventional and surprising historic figures in my primary sources and showing students the larger paradoxes of the time periods through these characters’ daily lives. When my students lean forward and stop surfing the net, I know it’s a story that will sell.
Writing the book proposal taught me that the main difference between writing an academic and a trade book is like the main difference between sitting in the archives and standing at the lectern: it’s audience. The “So what?” is important in any non-fiction book, but the other academics who read your academic book don’t need it: they understand the intrinsic importance of most historic research, and if your book has to do with their topic, they’ll give it a glance. In a trade book, however, how well you nail the “so what?” is everything. If you show your readers how everyday people were affected by the thing you’re writing, they want to know more. Just like you’ve got to convince your students that the time and money they have invested in your class will pay off, you’ve got to reassure the reader that your book is worth it. It’s a mental shift that affects every other part of the proposal and your book, and opens up so many exciting avenues to explore.