Flailing to write the book

The book, the book, the book. For a long time after I graduated with my PhD and somehow got a job I wasn’t making any progress on my book at all. In fact, I took a whole year off from even thinking about writing the book during my first year at my old job at Clemson University. And then after that year, I wrote a lot of things that were supposed to be the book but that didn’t feel right. I was cobbling half-baked ideas together and putting band-aids on chapters I didn’t know how to end or begin and glossing over things that seemed important because I couldn’t articulate how they fit with my grand design. But I kept pounding away at it, doing what I do best, which is trying really hard. It wasn’t working. I did a lot of flailing, which is not quite failing, but which can feel like it.

Luckily, after a year of flailing, I applied and got into the First Book Institute at Penn State’s Center for American Literary Studies. (Sidenote: If you are working on your first book in American literary studies, you should apply to go to the First Book Institute. It was a transformative experience.) On the first day, Priscilla said something to this effect: Sometimes the concept you cling to the hardest is the concept holding you back from writing the book you want to write. I realized in that moment this was exactly my problem, although I wasn’t ready to admit it until a couple of months after the institute.

You see, during that time of flailing, I was still trying to write the book I thought my dissertation should become. I had written this whole dissertation, after all, and I wasn’t going to waste all of that effort. My dissertation was a media studies project about national security. I examined different kinds of what I called “security media” — including stuff like policy documents, disaster preparedness training exercises, popular films and novels, surveillance networks, and databases — and tried to figure out what any of it had to do with digital media. Turns out, I couldn’t figure it out, not really, not in time to finish my dissertation. But the book, I thought, was my chance to rectify that. I would finally do good on my promise to write something about mediation and national security!

But I couldn’t do it. I started a new job and tried to fathom actually finishing the book. Then something shifted.

I read back through my notes from the First Book Institute and discovered that I wrote a lot about fiction. When Priscilla and Sean asked us to reflect on what was important to us about our books, I reflected on fiction. I realized a lot of the feedback people had given me about my chapters was about how and why I was thinking about how preparedness materials use fiction. I remembered that Matthew, another participant at the institute, actually said, “I don’t think your project is really about preparedness media.” After the institute, I went home and read the terrible fiction of Richard Clarke, former national security advisor. His books were painful and often boring to read, but there was something about these airport political thrillers that wouldn’t let me go. I recalled what fascinated me about my dissertation topic from the very beginning: how national security discourse relies on fiction — on made-up disasters — as a form of knowledge production. How national security discourse takes these made-up things way more seriously than literary critics and scholars ever would. I reflected on the parts of my dissertation I enjoyed writing the most, and reminded myself they were all about fiction or fictionality, the concept of fiction. The more I let go of the media idea, the more things came into focus. I would write about the concept of fiction, broadly conceived — about how national security materials use fiction to shape how we imagine and respond to catastrophe.

So, I decided to scrap most of the content and theoretical focus of my dissertation, but keep the topic. This has meant re-writing everything from the ground up. Some small parts of my dissertation will make it into the book, I think, but not many. But it’s a much better book for it.

The weirdest thing to me about this whole story is how I somehow forgot what most interested me about my book topic in the first place. Or, I didn’t quite forget it, since I was writing about fiction all the time, but it had become an implicit rather an explicit concern of project. I think some of that has to do with excitement about media studies from grad school. Most of the materials I write about in my book are not really works of fiction (although Richard Clarke found his way in there!); rather, they are things like preparedness training exercises or national security plans and documents — materials that use fiction or concepts from fiction to do their political work. That threw me off for a good long while. Plus, all the cool kids (who got jobs!) in grad school were in media studies.

But getting a job in an English Department, and teaching contemporary literature classes, and thinking a lot about methods in literary studies and what it means to read literature and how to teach other people to do it — all of this brought me back around to where I started. Turns out I wanted to get a PhD in English because I wanted to think about literature. Although my book doesn’t contain a lot of literature, it is definitely about literature. Or, at least, it’s about one of the things that literary scholars have spent an awful lot of time thinking about: fiction.

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