Labor Day

How do you know when you've found your life's work? You'd think I'd know by now. Why then am I so assailed by doubts? About whether I'm doing the research that I should. About whether I'm writing the book that I should. About whether I should be in academia at all.

I'm told that this angst is a familiar predicament for those who have recently gotten tenure. Given that I have had tenure now for nearly eight years, I must be a late bloomer. Either that or I'm peculiarly thick-headed. An accident of my youth? I was always--well, always after about age 10--a good student. Going to graduate school seemed the thing to do. And I did have so many things that I wanted to learn. I know many of them now, and yet I'm still unsatisfied. Has it simply gotten too easy? Too familiar? It's not really that the challenge is gone. I still find writing frustratingly difficult. And there are still so many things that I want to find ways to say. I'm just not sure what the point is anymore.

So, God willing, I'll finish this next book, hopefully find a publisher, watch obsessively for the first few months that it's out...and then what? Find another book to write? Will anybody actually want to read that one? I'm being unfair to myself; I'm told by some who've read my first book that it's actually pretty good, even enjoyable to read. Am I just worried about whether I can do it again? Very likely. My first book amazes even me at the moment; how on earth did I manage to write it?! I'm missing the passion and, yes, the terror that the fear of losing one's job at tenure review can inspire. And, conversely, I'm also a little bit resentful: haven't I proven myself already? Aren't I finished with my homework yet?

I have a fantasy about the way that writing should feel. It's the way it feels some days when I'm writing a blogpost: not something I have to do because of any external compulsion, but simply because the question itself is so pressing that if I don't write it, I'm going to explode. I wish I had stories (yes, novels) burning inside of me like that, but I don't. Or, I wish that the questions that hit me had the scope such that they might be of interest to some magical "wider audience," for Harper's or The Atlantic Monthly, for example. But do I really want to be a journalist? Perhaps more an essayist, maybe.

I realize I've said this before; maybe I should start listening. But I'm scared. Every time I think about writing anything in a voice other than the one I use here--confessional, first person, claiming only the authority of my own experience, not some great insight into the hearts of other human beings or the larger workings of society--I panic. I know so little outside of my own experience and even that, old as I am, is fairly limited: academia, fencing, this little corner of Chicago, a few places I've visited. Nor would it necessarily help to go out and travel: I am wildly distrustful of most travel writing (although I sometimes enjoy it), including most anthropology. Sorry, that's probably not entirely fair, but, really, how can you learn what it's like to live in any culture simply by hanging out and "visiting" with people for a year?* I barely know what's going on in Hyde Park, and I've lived here for over 15.

Some days I'm not even sure I should be a writer. Ironic, I know, but there you go. I started keeping a diary when I was eleven or twelve, about the same time that I read Anne Frank, and like her, I saw my diary as a way of practicing for the writing that was to come.** Alas, my writing was never as inspired as hers, nor (in so many ways her counterpart) Anais Nin's. I read Nin's early diaries when I was in graduate school and so wanted to be like her: such a trenchant observer of people and her own reactions, so Bohemian, so talented, so daring.*** I fantasized about writing novels one day like she did; maybe, I even told myself, one day somebody might publish my diaries, if only I could write them expressively enough. Now, of course, I'm not so sure that is such a good idea.

But I'm tired of practicing. I want my writing to mean something, not just to be an exercise for yet more exercising. When does it get to be real? When it's published I know (does "publishing" here count?), but I am published, and even then it doesn't feel as real as it seems it should. There's everyone else who has published more, for starters. Why have I published "only" one book? I can hear my uncle now, after I told him a few weeks ago about the awards that I had received for the first book as well as my teaching: "So what are you doing about your research?" I probably misunderstood him, but all I could hear was: "So when are you going to become a real writer?" Because, you know, I'm not really. Not yet.

If only I could be something else: a painter, for example. A comic-book artist. I once had a dream of becoming a children's book artist like Trina Schart Hyman (d. 2004). I have almost all of the fairy tales that she illustrated, and when I was thirteen, I spent one summer copying a number of her drawings, fantasizing how one day, maybe I, too, could draw as well. I once even wrote to her, including a sketch I had done of Old Cricket to show her how much I admired her work. She wrote back to me and included a sketch that she had done of her daughter and her daughter's then-boyfriend ice-skating. So why don't I draw? Alas, I was always better at copying than I was at coming up with anything to draw myself, unlike my son, who is a positive font of new images. I watch him and know that I could never be an artist; he draws all the time.**** That, I know, is what Real Artists do, not just make copies of other people's work.

What do I do all of the time? Read. Look things up. Make notes. I have a whole collection of Moleskins current at the moment, like Anna in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (1962), one for each aspect of my life (although unlike Anna's, mine are gradated by size rather than color): a larger one for taking notes at lectures, a smaller reporter's notebook for making notes for my own book, another reporter's notebook for making notes about my diet, yet another one (this one in burgundy) for taking notes for ideas about my blog. And, of course, I have this blog. I certainly practice writing a great deal. Doesn't that make me a Real Writer? Not, apparently, in my uncle's eyes. Even more important, not, apparently, in mine.

*Can you tell I'm still listening to Elizabeth Gilbert? Now she's in Bali.
**I even adopted her conceit of writing the entries as "letters" to a friend. I called mine "Toni."
***Up to the point when she started her affair with Henry Miller, that is. I bought but never read Incest (1993). By that point I was thoroughly disgusted with her, particularly the way she treated her husband.
****Now, he does more drawings of machines than of characters, but he used to do extraordinary comic strips and had a whole cast of marginalia with which he decorated his homework.


  1. Having spent most of the day with your first book, and finding it as illuminating and intimidatingly good as I found it the first time (not to mention profoundly helpful to my own work), I'll admit to being less than sympathetic to this post.

    You may have written "only one" book. What matters, however, is that you wrote the book that needed to be written, one that took the next step, showing grad students like me that there actually is a rigorous way forward that makes historical empathy and Collingwoodian imaginative reconstruction not only possible, but superior to the reigning academic acidity. I got sneered at for suggesting as much; but now I can point to 676 very real pages that show the way forward.

  2. Thanks, millinerd! This means a lot to me. I suppose the way I'm feeling about the current book is in part the price one pays for trying to do something (again!) for which there is no model. "If only," I sometimes tell myself, "you could just write a straight-forward 'academic' book," but then I can't; the material--and my Muse--simply won't let me.

    I SO agree with you about the "reigning academic acidity." It really is heartening to know that there are younger scholars like you who are so passionately interested in challenging it. Courage!


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