I'm taking a deep breath right now – not that I really have time to – before tackling the next round of writing projects. (Well, before I tackle them I've got a stack of Iliad tests to mark, & a conference paper to lick into shape, so I'm not exactly lounging in the sun...) Those should be relatively easy: a set of four successive book reviews, all of books that I'm interested in & keen to write on. Indeed, I've already finished one of the books & have started drafting a 1st paragraph of the review, so I feel for once that I'm ahead of the game.
This has been in some ways a very busy year for writing, but gratifying in surprising ways. That is, about 18 months ago, I started getting solicited for book chapters. Lots of book chapters: four, in fact, all of them in the sort of highly prestigious projects that I would have killed to be in ten or 15 years ago. On top of that, I was committed to writing a big career-retrospective essay on Guy Davenport for Parnassus, whose editor essentially told me to take as much space as I wanted to – yes, a dangerous thing to tell a writer. The book chapters ranged between 6 thousand and 9 thousand words – between twenty-odd and thirty pages apiece, & needed to be highly polished, smart, and all that.
I took a leaf from Mayhew's book, & decided to keep pretty close records of my writing progress in tackling each of these. And now that the last of them has been sent off, here's what I've noted:
•The Davenport essay, the longest of them (some 40-odd pages) took me precisely 15 working days; the others took between 10 and 17 working days. More or less, that is, three working weeks for each essay.Now here's the surprising & gratifying part. In case you haven't figured it out, I feel a great kinship with Samuel Johnson, who notes that he wrote his Lives of the Poets "in my usual way, dilatorily and hastily, unwilling to work, and working with vigour and haste." But I don't have Johnson's serene self-confidence in my own abilities, and to be perfectly honest, I didn't feel entirely "up" to any of these assignments – one in particular felt like it was pressing the limits of my knowledge. And I felt more than a little uneasy about the pace at which I dispatched these pieces.
•I revise pretty continually as I work, so that when I come to the final sentence of a piece, what leads up to it has usually been worked over several times. When I begin the day's writing, I usually go back over what I've already written and make changes before I begin new sentences. And when I finish an essay, I typically spend a single writing session on final revisions – but no more than that. (That's what editors are for, after all.)
•I do my citations in as close to final form as I write; if I'm writing in MLA style, I start building the Works Cited with my first quotation, if some variant of Chicago, I start making footnotes as soon as I quote something. That way, I entirely avoid the pit I've seen colleagues (mostly in grad school, but once in a while in academic positions) fall into of spending half a day or more at the end of their writing cycle running down the sources of their quotations.
But mirabile dictu, once the essays went one after another into the mail (well, the e-mail) and I'd done my best to repress the memory of the "dilatory haste" with which I'd written them, the editors' responses started coming back – and they were all astonishingly positive. Believe it or not. Time and again, I'd open an e-mail expecting to read Sir, we have read your essay, and it will not do, and I'd find a note saying Golly, thanks! this is great, this is just what we wanted!
I must be doing something right. I'm not quite sure precisely what, but something. So forgive the momentary laurel-resting and gloating; after all, right now I'm foreseeing five new shiny publications over the next year (well, six, since there was another essay out there before this batch). Now to write some poems.