What Are You Working On?

Troubled RefugeAcademic historians often ask this question of other academic historians.  Sometimes when a person asks this question at a social gathering they are sincerely curious about the other person’s work.  Other times this question is something akin to “nice weather we have been having….” The later folks really do not care what the heck you are “working on,” but they need to keep the conversation going until they can figure out a legitimate reason to slip away to another awkward conversation.

Every historian must have an answer to this question.  If you do not have an answer, you will send a message that you are lazy, not a good historian, or have no interest in contributing to your field.

Chandra Manning rightly rejects everything I wrote in the preceding paragraph.

Manning teaches history at Georgetown University.  Some of you may remember that she visited The Author’s Corner last September to talk about her book Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War.

Here is a taste of her Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “On Not Writing a Book Right Now.”

I am in an asterisk moment right now — which would hardly be worth wasting ink on, except that I suspect I am not alone. I certainly thought I was aberrational in that regard, until three or four people asked what I was working and I jokingly replied, “I think I’ll write an essay about not working on anything right now.” Their vigorous agreement suggested that such an essay might serve a worthwhile purpose.

First things first: The premise of “not working on anything” contains the assumption that the only type of project that really counts is a book project. I am “working on” plenty of things. It is just that none of them are destined for two hard covers with my name on the title page and a Library of Congress E-Four-Fifty-Something call number on the spine.

For the past two years, I have been on faculty leave and employed in a staff position, where I write every day on all sorts of topics, in various formats — none of which go out under my own name, but all of which help keep the writing muscle memory reasonably fit.

Meanwhile, a lot of what I “work on” every day has nothing to do with writing at all, but instead has to do with life — that is, with caring for my two sons on the autism spectrum. Other scholars might not spend the same amount of time teaching their children basic life skills, hanging out at various kid events in case of meltdowns, restoring calm when things go disastrously wrong, or navigating school and insurance bureaucracies as I do, but everyone’s life presents challenges that can be hard to reconcile with scholarly life as we envisioned it back in graduate school.

That gulf — between our expectation of uninterrupted erudite productivity and our various lived realities — can feel a lot like failure. But is it? Now, I firmly believe that bona fide failure serves a necessary purpose in life, but that is a subject for another day. Being without a book project isn’t necessarily a failure.

I propose a different explanation: The problem isn’t that we’re failing to meet our writing expectations; the problem is the expectations themselves. Yes, scholars should write books. I am all for good books and high standards. But the idea that a scholar should always be writing a book is flawed.

Read the entire piece here.

Manning is consistent.  Here is a taste of her Author’s Corner interview:

JF: What is your next project?

CM: I am not sure. Troubled Refuge was a very difficult book to write on many levels, and it drained me dry. It will take awhile for the well to refill, especially because there are some either things that need my presence and attention right now. What comes next could be completely different.

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