I have just thrown away an entire dumpster full of notes and essays related to the book that I’ve been working on for more than 10 years and that I am having some trouble giving up. I have carted these papers around -from Arlington, Virginia to St. Louis, Missouri, and then on to Pittsburgh and then to Washington, DC, and then to Los Angeles and London. Many papers came back with me from the British Library, where I spent eight hours a day for three months going quietly mad. These flew home with me to Pittsburgh and some came out to Santa Barbara the summer after my father died and I had to clean up the estate while crawling out of darkness. I tossed whole chapters, whole years, into the bin.
I feel somewhat as though I’ve just had a miscarriage, or as though I’ve just forced myself to accept that the fetus was dead and I no longer even wanted the child. I’ve been carrying it, mostly formed, around inside of me for so long, and I’m finally coming to terms with the truth that it has stunted my intellectual, professional, and emotional growth. It has been a permanent dis-ease, a burden I could not put down, an illness I could not give up.
I put everything else aside–my painting, my political activism, my genealogy hobby, my cooking, my gardening, my social life, my health–in order to “focus on the book.” For years after I stopped believing that anyone would ever read it, I’d say to myself: I will do that when the book is done. But it was never finished! I didn’t particularly burn to write it, either. I’m not sure I ever did, but maybe I have forgotten. It was simply what I had to do, the hoop I had to jump through, in order to get to the next level in my profession.
No book no tenure no job no income no respect no self-esteem no identity no self no thing.
Or so the chain of associations seemed to go. My entire self-image became fixated, frozen, limited, fetishized, like a shrunken head. It hung leadenly around my neck and bent my back. I should be rejoicing, not grieving, for I am like Christian at the gate to the Delectable Mountains.
Writing a book and getting tenure are both very fine goals, especially if one is writing a book that one passionately wants to publish, and if one feels well-supported and nourished, in all possible ways, at the tenure-granting institution. In my experience most people write books because they must, not because they have an important message to share, and spend most of their lives in a state of self-aggrandizement and anxious paranoia.
Still, I am melancholy. My book was my art for many years, and I am very fond of it. I think lots of it is very, very good, and innovative, and interesting, and I do burn to share it. But I do not know quite how, just yet. I haven’t thrown out all the notes–I’m far too much of a packrat and a historian and a collector to do that. Perhaps I’ll share it with you here, in pieces, as poems. Or I’ll publish it privately. Or send it down a well, or create a massive collage and hang it in my living room. Or have it compressed and made into a bench. Or shred it with cheese and make omelets. Or beads. Or stepping stones to the next destination.