U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Writing Fears: Part 4,378

Kurosawa_I-live-in-fearI turned in my revised book manuscript about five weeks ago. In my situation, this deadline represented the stage where substantial future revisions are now out. I’ve responded to my readers, my series editor, and my own questions that had come up in between. I’ll be lucky if I can change more than few sentences going forward.

I was happy for about 12-24 hours afterward, but every day since then—and I mean EVERY SINGLE DAY—fears have arisen about, well, you name it. My list of fears is full of contradiction, irrationality, legitimacy, the complex, and the obvious. I’ll limit the following to my top issues (listed in no particular order):

(1) How will the topics and ideas I purposely excluded come back to haunt me? This fear has driven, in my part, my Guillory series of posts.*
(2) What counterexamples did I miss or undervalue?
(3) My analysis is inadequate. This has driven a persistent thought about how I’ve undertheorized parts of my book. It’s amazing how much there is to know—which undervalues what you do, in fact, know.
Fear-man-under-desk(4) Nitpicky reviewers will tear my book to shreds. This, by the way, is why I have always tried to be generous to books—even those I disliked—in USIH reviews. Then again, I’ve not been able to see anything but weaknesses in my manuscript since submission. So this fear is probably most palpable.
(5) I’m also afraid of reviewers who won’t read my book but use it to expound on their pet projects. Thanks for nothing.
(6) I’m afraid of success. This is an admittedly rare fear, but how will I mess things up if I’m put on the Big Stage?
(7) This is a kind of 6(a), but what if my book inadvertently provides support and comfort to the wrong people? What if I’ve misread my potential audience?
(8) What if no one reads or reviews my book? This is the most likely scenario, of course. And in some ways it renders null and void many of the fears listed above.

I never had these fears when I submitted final peer-reviewed articles. My theory on that is, with articles, the point is to be detailed, focused, and narrow. You’re providing a slice of your research to journals. But with books you’re going big—trying to capture more readers on the margins. And you don’t provide three points of support for every assertion. So a book, despite it’s increased word count, ironically makes you feel less secure. You’ve provided more breadth and, in some ways, less depth on particulars. But maybe this is just a problem in my case.

What say you? This can be an open-ended post about writing fears, or fears in relation to USIH colleagues. I’d especially like to hear from colleagues with a few of their own books out there. How do you handle your fears? Do some fears end? Am I not—gulp—fearing things enough? – TL

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* Only one deep as of today.

21 Thoughts on this Post

    • Maybe, in the age of the internet, we should fear this *less than* being given the wrong kinds of attention.

  1. Get rid of your negative, neurotic thoughts. If you satisfy your readers, your editor, and yourself, that is sufficient. Finish the manuscript. Submit the manuscript. Enjoy several of your favorite beverages.

    • Brian: I appreciate the imperative. When I say these thoughts intrude every single day, not all (most in fact) do not have much staying power. These thoughts last from a few seconds to a few minutes, and then life proceeds. So I’m less documenting a neurosis than the human experience—maybe post-partum type feelings.

  2. Personally, I’m much more wigged out by finishing articles because it’s *guaranteed* that so few people will read them, which ups the ante for your item nos. 5/6a. It’s so, so easy for two or three people to cite an article as being about “x,” and that’s it: the die is cast. Books are bigger and allow more room for interpretation, so that it’s harder for an entire discipline to mischaracterize them.

    Which isn’t to say that I didn’t go through all the items on your list (some of my own) when I turned my own manuscript in about a year and a half ago. If you think it’s bad now, wait until you send back your proofs.

    • Thanks for the comment. Even though my article fears ran in the opposite direction (not enough big picture and analysis), I can see what you’re saying. And I appreciate what you’re saying about the proofs! – TL

  3. I haven’t written any books myself so I can’t really give help on comments on the other items on your list. I can, however, speak to part of #8. I can’t do anything about the professional reviewing, but I can help with the reading and informal reviewing. As a longtime reader of the blog, I’ve been looking forward to your book’s publication for some time, and I will eagerly read it when it comes out.Thus, I will do my small bit in preventing your many hours of work and thought from disappearing into the literary void, falling stillborn from the presses, and all that. I’ll also be happy to email you an unsolicited review of the book from a semi-outsider’s perspective (I’m a Philosophy PhD student with a MA in History). I know it doesn’t mean much, but I can assure of these things at least.

    • David: Thanks a million for the generous offer. Your comments makes me realize, however, that #8 sounds like I’m begging for reviewers. And I sound like a damned whiner. I certainly did NOT mean it that way. It’s more the *fear* than the reality of not being reviewed. I should be more afraid of points 1-4 in relation to reviewers! – TL

  4. Tim, thanks for putting this post up. Blogs are supposed to be a more personal kind of writing — that’s what makes them such a refreshing change from journals, newsletters, etc.

    You mentioned “fears in relation to USIH colleagues.” That is a biggie for me.

    You, Andrew and I are all spilling some ink over the same battle — the canon debate at Stanford — but you guys are going to press years before I even finish my dissertation. I’m always worried that one or the other of you — or, worse, somebody else who is writing a dissertation on the same topic but has the good sense not to broadcast it to the whole world — will say what I am hoping to say, only a) first and b) better.

    But it’s a weird worry, because while I’m “worried” about it, I’m also hoping for it — I like to see my colleagues succeed.

    Either way, you will be read carefully and no doubt footnoted extensively. Same for Andrew.

    And if you get away with capitalizing “Culture Wars,” that just gives me something to argue about. Not that I am short of topics to argue about. But still — if we get saddled with Culture Wars as a historiographic term, it is gonna be on like Donkey Kong!

    • I think all dissertators fear getting “beat” to their topic. I did. And I compulsively kept my ear to the ground for rumors of others either working in or on the Adler papers. In the end it was all for naught. Other projects I heard about ended up in smaller venues, or with different emphases, or were flat given up. And then it has taken me 13 years to see my project all the way through: 2 years in and out of archives (2003-2005), finished diss in 2006, failed book proposals, many conference papers, job changes, and now likely publication at the end of 2013. It’s been a long strange trip. The life cycle of our projects is such that worrying about others ends up being a waste of time and energy.

      Adding to this point, on our shared topic, all of us (the known quantities here, that is) are coming at the Stanford Debates from different angles, which both enables and limits us. For my part, I still had to bring the story back to Adler and the themes/topics I had already developed (i.e. Stanford Affair as prelude to the GBWW release in 1990, and race in relation to Adler and the history of the great books idea). That’s a limitation for me, but there are many currents into and out of the Stanford Debates. And we all express ourselves differently, appealing purposely and otherwise to different audiences. So we’ll all be fine.

      As for The Culture Wars (there—I did it), well, I’m also for other “culture wars” in their varying historical manifestations. But we’ll hash that out another day. 🙂 – TL

    • @L.D. B.
      I haven’t written a book (and probably won’t), but I did write a dissertation.

      You should not, IMO, spend any time worrying about the possibility of some other grad student working on the same topic. No two people write the exactly the same way, no two people have the same exact approach to anything. If you do happen to find someone working on a related topic or even the same one, that might even enhance the whole experience. But bottom line: don’t worry about it. It’s a waste of mental energy.

  5. I sympathize strongly with #8, Tim. It’s easy to fall into the trap of: whatever attention my book gets, it’s not enough; and whenever anyone says something positive about it, they’re just being civil. Given your presence at USIH and in the field more generally, I highly doubt your work will be overlooked.

    What do others think: There’s still time for some substantive revisions during the copyediting process. For instance, I didn’t encounter Kevin Schultz’s Tri-Faith America or Hollinger’s OAH address until after my initial submission, and so I had to add them in during the copyedit. My editor (who might very well be Tim’s!) was very kind about the whole thing. My recommendation is to read the entire ms. again BEFORE the copyedit comes in (which will be QUICKLY for PM) as well as get a colleague to read. Write up additions or mark deletions (the rule is to cut as much as you add). But it would be nice to get a second opinion on this strategy.

    • You’re right, Mark, in that I might be overplaying my fear of mss immovability at the copy-editing stage. I’ll probably be able to add a few more sentences here and there. Still, I won’t be able to take care of numbers 1-3 in the context of fast turnaround times. Some fears will just have wait until their real or perceived fruition. At some point all you can do is add to the conversation apart from the permanence of the text submitted.

  6. This list is entirely reflective of my own thoughts after sending in my absolute final manuscript changes a few weeks back. I will also add that I felt a certain amount of odd, profound sadness to think that I will be moving on (not entirely, of course) from having worked on the subject.

    • Adam: Is your book The Vegetarian Crusade with UNC? Looks fascinating!

    • Adam: I don’t think I’ll EVER be able to move on from my topic. I say this, in part, because I another book (co-author endeavor) in the works on international implications (so much as I can gather/find them). And then there’s the idea of a longer Adler biography that moves away from his great books endeavors. So I haven’t yet moved on to any stage of sadness yet. Perhaps I’ll feel that after the copy-editing is over and the book is in hand.

      • Tim: I do wonder if when I begin another significant personal research project (whenever that might be given my public/digital history world) if I will return to my subject. As you pointed towards in your post, there are so many self-doubts about gaps once you have a finished product that as much as one is interested in letting others tackle the missing components, it is still difficult to not feel guilty for the silences, things missed, etc…

  7. LFC, thanks for the words of wisdom above. Others have offered similar reassurances, and I’m sure you all are right.

    But I’m not sure what I would do with all this mental energy if I didn’t waste at least some of it. Like revving the engine while you’re in neutral before you throw it into drive and peel out from a green light.

    Not that I would ever do such a thing.

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