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I Killed My Book: And Other Highly Personal Thoughts On Writing To Begin the New Year

January 2, 2011, 3:47 pm

What would life be like if you started over again?

Sometime last fall I made decision to kill a book that I had worked on for a long, long time, a book that people still ask me about.  This is how it went.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I began Tenured Radical back in 2006 because I was in a Bad Way and trying to Work Out $ome $hit.  At the time,  I had gone through a major institutional trauma and survived it, just barely, and at a high cost to those close to me.   Central to this institutional trauma was a rather profound and vicious trashing of The Book.  Blogging became a way of returning to the book, a project that had become so utterly soiled by its use as a vehicle for expressing contempt for me that I couldn’t look at it without becoming enraged or suffering a profound sense of loss.

For a time, blogging worked to jump start what constituted a rescue operation rather than what could have been the satisfactory completion of an intellectual project that I was pleased with and whose progress gave me pleasure.  I did go back to The Book; I revised nearly all of it.  But it gave me no pleasure, and somehow I could never finish it.  Every time I tried to finish it, I would get stuck and become depressed.  In the meantime, in the parallel world of public life, I was more or less bouncing back.  I was snapping out blog posts, building the readership for Tenured Radical, developing relationships with other bloggers that led to collaborations and even print publications, getting my posts reprinted and linked to by a highly respectable web trade press, starting a monograph series with a friend, writing op-eds, blogging for the New York Times, finishing academic articles and nonfiction essays. One of my articles won a prize, of all things — an article that had been rejected by several journals before being accepted.

Mirabile dictu — about three years ago, on a whim I do not even recall conceiving in any deliberate way, I started a new book.

I went to Kauai.  I went to Paris.  I went to South Africa. I wrote my ass off everywhere I went.

The revival of my writing life — not as good as before but better than before, dude! — meant that I was also able to extract myself from other bad professional dynamics that were haunting me.  If for no other reason, I needed the time to write rather than to brood on the hypocrisy and evil-mindedness of others.  I have applied for jobs, not because I was desperate to leave the scene of the crime, but because I was finally able to imagine myself as an autonomous person who was not bound by other people’s unwelcome judgments and expectations.  In turn, at Zenith, I was able to extract myself from the big swirly hole of unresolved grievances.  (Here is a lesson learned:  it is often the case that academics do you dirt without ever believing it was personal, even when it was personal.  Holding this reality, and the opposite reality of deliberate cruelty you experienced or observed, in your head at the same time, can be a little mind-blowing.  But try it, because in my experience it actually works better as a strategy for getting on with life than imagining that people who dislike you through no fault of your own will apologize, or make up for, what they contributed to making your life hellish.)

You can be an academic and also be yourself. Try it.

But back to the book I killed.  I thought it was possible to write two books at the same time, particularly when one of them was nearly done, and I was so excited by the other one that the energy from Project 2 would have to leak over in some positive way to Project 1.  But in the end, it didn’t.  In the end, the project that became the object of such controversy was ruined for me.  The other problem was, not only did people keep asking me about Project 1, but the effort I was putting back into bringing it back from the dead was taking away from other things that mattered to me more. 

One day last fall, I wondered how long I could continue on with the fantasy that I was going to devote a significant chunk of what remains of my life to finishing a book that had so many bad memories and bad feelings associated with it, and that upon reflection, had been written by an entirely different person.  I then went into negotiations with myself, and the outcome was an alternative fantasy that seemed viable: breaking up what I had done into five separate articles and publishing them.  By that afternoon I had pulled a chapter, re-written it, and sent it off on its long, tedious journey towards publication.

Who knows?  Maybe some day some one will say to me, “Jeez, you oughta pull those articles together into a book!”  And then I will whip out the last, aged, essay, labeled “Introduction” and preserved from hard drive to hard drive, and do it.

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