Stressful Thoughts, Layer Four (and Counting)

They're like the layers of floor in our kitchen that the workmen have been taking up. First you peel off the ugly brown linoleum that was your initial impetus for wanting to replace the floor, and then there's a layer of puke green. You tear up the puke green and there is yet another layer, this time of streaky green-and-yellow squares. Under the squares are the planks for the original finished floor, but even those planks have to come up. Under the planks is a layer of black tar paper (or, at least, something black) and under the tar paper is yet another layer of planks, the subfloor, through which the electrical conduits for our downstairs neighbors' kitchen run. One would think this was enough, that now we had reached the bottom of the floor, but, no! The foreman just told me that even this subfloor is going to have to come up, taking everything down to the beams. Only when this subfloor is gone will they be able to lay the new, properly leveled base for the floor.

I wonder how many old, stressful layers I have left in thinking about my academic work before I can start laying my new intellectual floor.

Next layer of stressful thoughts: "I should write something original." "I shouldn't write about anything that other people have already written about." "If somebody else has just published a book on this topic, there is nothing left for me to say." Is this true? Well, it feels like it is. It is, after all, what everybody wants to know whenever you start a new project: whether anybody has ever worked on this material or question before. The point being that (good) academic work is supposed to be "on the cutting edge," out there where nobody has ever been before, asking the unasked questions. But can I absolutely know that this is true? Well, of course it isn't, everybody knows that, too. All scholars are standing on the shoulders of giants, even the giants. Nobody ever asks anything that has never been asked at least in some fashion before, particularly historians, otherwise (ha!) we wouldn't have any sources, now would we?

I have this conversation with my students all the time. "What is there for me to say," they ask, "when there is so much published already on this very topic?" "Well," I answer them. "That's a good thing; it means you won't be starting from scratch." But I have trouble with this, too. There's a corollary to this thought: "I want to be the one to have written the book on this topic that everybody references. Why does she [interestingly, it is usually a she in my case] get to write the book, not me?" How do I react when I think this thought? Angry. I'm angry. And jealous. "That," I want to scream, "was my topic. How dare you [colleague who has just published a book on something that I considered part of "my" research] write about that when you knew it was mine? It's so unfair. You have so many other topics that you've written on. Why couldn't you leave this little one for me?" Which is idiotic, I know, but it's my thought.

This thought has pups as well. "Why is it that whenever I think of something that I am sure nobody has ever thought to write about before, more or less the next day I always learn that somebody else has just come out with a book (say, in the last six months or so) on that very thing?" So I'm sort of on the cutting edge, in the sense that it really is a question newly addressed in my field, but on the other hand, I am hopelessly behind, academic projects being what they are. If there is a book coming out now, it has likely been in the works for at least five, more likely ten years or more. So how do I catch up? What I tell my students (again, if only I would listen to myself) is not to worry about it. Ask the questions that you care about, not the ones that nobody (including you) cares about or, worse, simply the ones you think are what the field wants to hear. "But, but, but," I want to scream (again), "that's what I'm doing! And still my questions just come out asking about something that we already know."

I can feel this panic rising every time I sit down to write an academic piece. Preparing lectures and discussions for my students is different. Then, it's okay to use "other people's thoughts" (with proper acknowledgment) since part of the point of what I am doing in class is to teach them "other people's thoughts" (a.k.a. the historiography). But when I am writing what I am supposed to be writing as part of my research? Oh, no, that had better be "wholly original." Who would I be without this thought? Now, there's an interesting question. To a certain extent, we're back where I was on Thursday, thinking I couldn't just write about what interested me. Who would I be without the thought "I should write something original"? Someone who simply wrote, without all the second-guessing about whether what I was saying was important or startling or unusual or previously unthought enough. It would be enough that it was what I thought, what I wanted to say.

But what if what I wanted to say was, well, banal? What if nothing I think actually is original, extraordinary, new? I'm supposed to be that "A" student, coming up with novel questions and dazzling insights, not the "B-" student simply saying what was in the book that I just read. I've been here before, too. The surest way to write the most derivative paper or book possible is to try to write a wholly original book. Somehow, oddly enough, the harder one tries to say something profound, insightful, never-bef0re-been-said, the more stilted and artificial and--predictably enough--predictable it becomes. And yet, when one simply writes what wants to be written, without trying to dress it up in trendy, avant-garde clothes, the more avant-garde and unexpected it actually becomes. I know this. I really and truly, honest-to-goodness know this. And yet, I don't trust myself to instantiate it. I panic.

Okay, it's hard for me to imagine myself without this thought. It seems to be something I'm clinging to. Let's try to turn it around.

To the opposite: "I shouldn't write something original." It is true that, since what I do in my academic work is largely to talk about the meaning of other people's work, nothing that I say can be wholly original as such. My job is to comment on what their work means. But does this mean that I am not allowed to write something original? That because, as an intellectual and cultural historian, I write about other people's thoughts, that is the extent of my job, of what I am supposed to do? Maybe it's that when I say I want to write something original, what I really mean is that I want to write something that other people will enjoy reading. After all, it's not like there are actually that many stories in the world; much of the pleasure that people take in reading even "great" literature is in rediscovering the same recurrent plot structures, characters and truths. But there is a deeper mystery here, too. "I shouldn't write something original" could mean that I should not imagine that I (whoever that is) is actually the source of what "I" write. Maybe "I" can't actually write anything. Maybe, as I've said before, it all actually writes itself.

To the other: "Other people should write something original." Hmm. Of course, I think they do (write original things, that is). I am astounded at how much other people write; it is really quite daunting to think of how many thousands and thousands and thousands of authors there are. Even if we represent only one percent of the population of the world, that would still mean there were 6 million of us (I read somewhere that this is the number of blogs in the world; it seems a good estimate). All of us desperately trying to get each other's attention and all hoping that what we say will be of interest to someone other than ourselves. No matter what we say, however original it is, only a tiny fraction of us will capture anything close to a popular audience.

To myself: again, this is the hardest turn around to phrase. "Something original should write me"? I know, I know, I know that the answer is to stop worrying about being "original" and just write. Let the ideas come, stop censoring them with anxieties about whether they're "original" or "right." I wish I could experience this as a refreshing thought. But, what with one thing and another, it's taken me all day to write this post, and I'm running out of juice. Where do I get juice if it is not "I" who is doing the writing? Original thought: "I should write something original." I know that my colleagues will judge me not only on whether what I say deals with material that nobody else has written about, but also on how well I say what I say, but will they really condemn me if I never say anything new? Some of it depends on how I think they will judge, but it still feels like the answer is yes, they will judge me in this way. Or is it that I will judge myself for not saying something new?

I've been trying for months to accept this lesson, that it's not about me, it's about the work, but I'm still stuck worrying that there is nothing left for me to say about my topic because others have recently published very popular books that, no matter what I do, will ensure that my book (if I ever finish it) is more or less ignored. Ah, that must be the black tar paper layer. I suppose there's more stripping down still to do.


  1. If other people have recently written about your topic, doesn't that show that there is an active conversation that you can join? Sometimes original ideas can be dismissed as "too out-there" whereas adding to an ongoing discussion may give you a chance to be the person who gets things just right.

  2. I know exactly how you feel, even though I dare not try academic writing but the more popular forms as well as fiction. I feel as if everyone has "beat me to it" every time, not only stealing my thunder but most of the market! Worrying over this has gotten in the way of my writing so many times.
    I think that topics emerge out of the collective consciousness through a much larger movement than any one person, which is why a cluster of books about a given topic will come into existence around the same time. Maybe I have to stop thinking of myself as an individual writer but as part of the species' writing mechanism.
    You and I should discuss this over lunch or tea sometime.--Vinita


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