My dad is a builder. Though he spent his professional life as a highway engineer, dad build things as a his vocation. Whether he or my mom saw a set of cabinets they liked or he found a wooden toy someone had made, dad would come home fiddle in the garage with his table saw and other tools until he created the exact same thing he had seen. I knew about all the pieces of wood he threw away in the process as he missed a cut here or damaged some joint there. But he always completed the job and we would proudly show off the work to family and friends. The ultimate building project is the one he did for my mom when he designed and built her a house. Everyone marveled but he would point out the flaws, often requiring people to look in places they would not ordinarily look to see the missed measurement. A craftsman knows his work and spends a great deal of time on it. I had lessons in doing a craft, but I would choose a different route. His teaching would, however, come back to me one day.
For the past several years, I have been working on several writing projects. The first of those—Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era (I am not completely responsible for the subtitle)—will be released some time this spring. A chapter on the use of automobiles during the Great Depression I contributed to a collection on rethinking the South during the 1930s is due out some time this year as well. Late last year, I submitted for review a proposal for a book-length treatment of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Vietnam War, which is now in the final stages of vetting and I hope to hear something positive soon. As I noted in the post yesterday, I had given up on the vocation of writing almost a decade ago. Funny how things change.
For those who actually read this blog, it may be apparent why I gave up on writing: I am not particularly good at it. When I was a student, I often received the same comments on papers—great idea and research, poor execution. In the way that many of us learn how to write, I simply thought writers magically made their words appear on page and then went out for drinks or some other kind of social activity. Words never, I mean NEVER, flowed across the page or screen for me so I assumed I was not a writer. Even after handing over manuscript on Richmond, the copyeditor’s corrections made me think maybe I should not have written this “thing” after all.
But I also gave up on writing because my field requires me to spend significant time in archives that are located many miles from my home. Since I did not think I was a good writer and my subjects were so far away, I turned my attention to the other category besides teaching excellence for tenure and promotion: service. Even before I had tenure, I administrated a signature program in the College of Liberal Arts at Mercer. The year after I received tenure I took over chair duties for the largest department in the College, which serviced many of our General Education programs, including all of the signature programs at the time. My talents for leadership, which only appear when I see no one else will do the job, had me headed to the Dean’s office, or at least that is what one dean hoped for me. I learned a valuable lesson along the way; I hate administrating college programs. I will do my duty to serve as chair of the department when my time rolls around, but I do not ever want to serve in an administrative capacity for a college or university. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are people in this world called to that kind of work but I am not one.
I turned my attention to a few projects when I step down as chair and on my first sabbatical pulled out my dissertation to start ripping it apart to see if there was a book in that monstrosity of words. Here is the important part: I finally started practicing what I had been teaching for almost a decade in first-year writing courses. Writing is not done by savants who bang out books in minutes (they do exist but they are not my models). In one of my classes I had students read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird in which she talks about writing and life and shitty first drafts. Get the words on paper (or screen) any way you can, and then later kill as many as necessary to make sense of the work. Writing is craftsmanship, something my dad had taught me many years ago but in a different arena. I never saw the early days as a scholar as an apprenticeship. Heck, I had the most advanced degree and in our world that meant I could already do the work. But I missed something in the exchange. We build essays/books by constant revision and within a guild of people who, when they care enough, help us make sense of the words we put to paper and help kill the ones that are not necessary. It is work, and as William Zinsser suggested in On Writing Well it might cause one to bleed out of one’s pores in the process. I have not dropped literal blood on the page or keyboard, but I have felt the struggle to express myself with the correct words in the correct order and following the stupid rules of English grammar usage. It is a journey of sorts for me.
Last spring I raced to get the proposal for the book on King and Vietnam to the press. I set a goal of 500 words per day and met them fairly easily. With a chapter under my belt and the introduction, I was convinced that the proposal would fair well with the editor of the press and the series editor under whose duties the project would fall. I spent very little time on the actual proposal or the outline of chapter summaries. When I learned the proposal had been sent out to reviewers, I panicked a lot. With good reason, each reviewer suggested in its current form the proposal was not worthy of consideration by the press. Both reviewers, however, saw merit in the project and gave good feedback on how to make the proposal stronger. I thought I had bled blood on the first draft, but really I had simply created a shitty first draft. I started taking some words out, making better use of others, and adding where it made sense. Spending more time on the actual structure of the book this fall, I came to see the logic of the criticisms and how they helped me make a better case for the project. While I am convinced the proposal will need further revision, I am in a different place as a writer. It is not important to be perfect at the beginning—a craft maker never is—but to learn from the mistakes and the small flaws in the design so that the final product is good. And even when they are done, a good builder knows where the flaws still remain. I am sure teachers have been telling me this for years. It took the experience of teaching students to express themselves clearly for me to learn how to do it myself. It took showing them how to revise, revise, revise before I could do the same to my own work. All of it is still a work in progress, but I think the direction is a good one.