I recently stumbled across a 2016 Paris Review essay about Robert Caro ("The Art of Biography") that notes, "If there is a question that annoys Caro more than ‘Do you like Lyndon Johnson?’ it is ‘When will the next book be published?’" I understand. No question makes me cringe more than "What are you working on next?"
Last summer I published my second book, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War. It features the recurring motif of an empty well at Fort Monroe, Va. Held by the Union throughout the Civil War, Fort Monroe became the destination for thousands of slaves who ran to the Union Army. The fort offered a refuge from slavery, but it could not offer fresh water, notwithstanding the army’s diligent efforts to find some by digging a 900-foot well, meticulously documenting each layer of soil along the bone-dry way. Well-diggers could not have worked harder, but neither could they produce a single drop of fresh water.
Right now, my writing life feels exactly like a 900-foot empty hole in the ground. Moreover, it is an empty hole that I cannot force to refill by dint of my own effort. Sure, I can keep throwing my bucket down the well, but the harder I throw, the louder the clang against that parched wall. All I am likely to get when I haul up the bucket is rope burn, and possibly a dent in the pail. Until a spring bubbles back up again, the well will not so much as dampen — and I have no control over bubbling springs.
Coming to that realization stinks. It goes against everything I tell my students about writing.
A lot of the time writing feels boring, I tell them, because nothing obvious is happening. Still (I sagely continue), bum-in-chair remains the single biggest, most necessary step to writing — so write every day, no matter what. Realize that inspiration is what comes when you create a space for it, which you do by working steadily and accepting no excuses from yourself. (By now I am really on a roll.) Keep at it! Write first! Write constantly! (Here comes the big finish.) Writer’s block, shmiter’s block, keep at it even if you do nothing more than just type everything you now think is looney about what you wrote yesterday. Do. Not. Stop.
Most of the time, that sort of standard writing advice holds true. But there are other times when it needs to come with an asterisk.
I am in an asterisk moment right now — which would hardly be worth wasting ink on, except that I suspect I am not alone. I certainly thought I was aberrational in that regard, until three or four people asked what I was working and I jokingly replied, "I think I’ll write an essay about not working on anything right now." Their vigorous agreement suggested that such an essay might serve a worthwhile purpose.
First things first: The premise of "not working on anything" contains the assumption that the only type of project that really counts is a book project. I am "working on" plenty of things. It is just that none of them are destined for two hard covers with my name on the title page and a Library of Congress E-Four-Fifty-Something call number on the spine.
For the past two years, I have been on faculty leave and employed in a staff position, where I write every day on all sorts of topics, in various formats — none of which go out under my own name, but all of which help keep the writing muscle memory reasonably fit.
Meanwhile, a lot of what I "work on" every day has nothing to do with writing at all, but instead has to do with life — that is, with caring for my two sons on the autism spectrum. Other scholars might not spend the same amount of time teaching their children basic life skills, hanging out at various kid events in case of meltdowns, restoring calm when things go disastrously wrong, or navigating school and insurance bureaucracies as I do, but everyone’s life presents challenges that can be hard to reconcile with scholarly life as we envisioned it back in graduate school.
That gulf — between our expectation of uninterrupted erudite productivity and our various lived realities — can feel a lot like failure. But is it? Now, I firmly believe that bona fide failure serves a necessary purpose in life, but that is a subject for another day. Being without a book project isn’t necessarily a failure.
I propose a different explanation: The problem isn’t that we’re failing to meet our writing expectations; the problem is the expectations themselves. Yes, scholars should write books. I am all for good books and high standards. But the idea that a scholar should always be writing a book is flawed.
I am acutely aware of the danger of making "the writing process" sound like something mystical, airy-fairy even. I know well that writing is less a matter of following a beguiling sprite down a moonlight-bedazzled lane and more like slogging blindly through mud. But writing is a slog that demands respect, in much the same way that marathons and childbirth do. Marathons, childbearing, and writing require neither superpowers nor excessive alarmism, but they do demand a willingness to admit that forces more powerful than oneself are sometimes in control of things.
To cultivate respect for the rhythms of the writing process is to recognize that not every moment of your work life is exactly the same as every other moment. In short, there are book-project seasons and no-book-project-right-now seasons. Trying to force a book project out of season is ultimately impoverishing because, even if brute-force efforts result in a published book, it will probably read like a burden, with little payoff for the author or for any readers who manage to trudge through it. And it will not earn you a job, tenure, or promotion — only a useful and important book will do that.
Moreover, trying to force a book in an off-season diverts energies from whatever else the rhythms of the writing process are really calling for in that moment. Other worthwhile pursuits exist, which might enrich the field in a different manner, or turn out to be important later, or end up having nothing to do with scholarly endeavor at all.
So the asterisk that needs to accompany the "write no matter what" advice is this: What you write does not always need to be a book. In fact, there are times when it should not be a book.
To say so is not to issue blanket permission for academics to sit idly by. You have to keep going to that metaphorical well, and if your bucket brings anything up, you have to work with it, even on the days when its contents resemble sludge more than water. But you also need to recognize the difference between a mucky well and a truly dry one.
Ultimately, for a spring to start bubbling up and refilling your well, you need a good question. In particular, you need the kind of question that just won’t let you go, not necessarily because its importance or relevance is obvious to anyone else, but because you feel like you need — really need — to discover an answer to it.
The frustrating thing is that very rarely can we will that question into existence. However, there are a number of divining rods that are worth a try. Reading other books might excite a specific curiosity. Teaching can sometimes do the trick, when you try to explain something to a student only to realize that you do not have a very satisfying answer. Reading in primary sources is another worthy method, and one that has most reliably worked for me in the past.
At the moment, however, if there are any projects lurking in my photocopies, digital photographs, or OneNote files, they have yet to announce themselves. Sometimes there is no alternative but to remain quiet, pay attention, and listen intently for the sound of a spring burbling up in its own good time.
No-book seasons feel restless and uncomfortable, and there is no getting around the discomfort. But discomfort serves important purposes, and no-book seasons are good times to attend to whatever the discomfort might reveal to you. For example, I happened upon the idea of writing this essay because I was embarrassed and uncomfortable about having no good answer to the "what are you working on" question.
Of more importance is my new, discomfort-inspired resolution. I work in a field where there are already more books than any of us can really read with the attention that so many years of a fellow scholar’s life deserve, and I do not want to add to a culture that sentences anyone to years of hard labor on a project that they pursue out of a joyless sense of academic duty rather than out of a swirling, roiling drive to find the answer to a question.
So from now on, if we meet on a campus or at some conference, I will try not to ask what your next book project is — unless you clearly signal that there is some question driving you, one that will not let your rest, one that fills your well. And then when you finish the book, I hope I will be too busy reading it to ask you about the next one.