A guest post to motivate, encourage, and inspire
The Next Thing
“Books continue each other, in spite of our habit of judging them separately.”
I used to tell my graduate students–the ones who were wide-eyed with panic–not to worry. The most urgent thing was not The Idea or even, necessarily, The Thesis but The Practice: the act of putting one word after another, day after day after day. Your subject will find you, I told them.
That had been my experience: months after I left the world of high theory and settled into my own non-academic writing practice I found my voice, one that merged my love for lyric narrative with my geeky passion for unearthing fact. That my subject was the daily, quotidian life of motherhood was almost an accident.
But then a funny thing happened. Writing the book led to further writing: articles, essays, OpEds, blog posts, columns. During my publication year, I always knew what the Next Thing would be. This wasn’t just the matter of promoting the book, though there was certainly that. More simply, I followed the trail of what I needed to write. One project led to–one project continued–the next.
Over the years, Woolf’s assertion has meant many things to me. When I encountered it first, in college, it was a revelation. Books continue each other! There was Tradition! Community! Conversation! I thought of all those books talking to each other and there seemed no end to the possibilities of prose. Then, predictably, I panicked. What was left for me to say? “Belated” did not begin to describe that particular despair.
I learned to live with the albatross, and when I began to teach I thought of Woolf and urged my students: Know your history. What kind of writer will you be? In what traditions will you write?
As I readied my first book for publication I saw even more clearly. Publishers, booksellers, editors, they all ask the same thing: How is your book like other books? How is it different? None of us writes–or publishes–in a vacuum. As my book came to market, Woolf helped me see clearly the tradition of writing about motherhood (and, beyond that, of narrative nonfiction) that my book would join. My sense of community and continuity–of conversing with other books and their readers–was enlarged. My book would find its place on the shelf among other books, other voices. And by embracing a narrower genre, a particular shelf on which my book would live, I continued the conversation–and helped more readers find their way to my part in it.
My second book, a co-edited anthology of food essays, seems in many ways discontinuous. Yet even as it swerves into a new genre I can see how it continues two important impulses: a deep interest in the inner workings of family, broadly construed, and a profound belief that the most ordinary stories of daily life can be revelatory. This last thing, too, I have taken from Woolf.
My next long project is yet another swerve, and there are days when I slip into a graduate student-like panic. Then I remember Woolf and count all the ways this new book continues the previous ones. Woolf’s quote is not written above my desk. It never was. But it’s more enduring than the bills, to-do lists, and receipts that clutter my white board. These days, Woolf’s insight does not inspire, nor cow, nor send me out into the wider world looking for that rich vein of conversation. These days, Woolf’s declaration puts me in my place, facing the page, in conversation with myself. I tell myself: I don’t have to begin something new. I simply have to continue.
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