In a recent e-mail exchange with Squadratomagico, we discussed something that relates very closely to the subject we’re exploring here in this space, namely, feeling like an untrained fraud when you move on to another book project and/or contemplate retraining yourself in another sub-field (or even an entirely different discipline). In a recent conversation with a senior person in her field, she said that his advice about moving into a new project (with whatever reading and/or retraining that might require) was not to be too intimidated by the existing literature in a given sub-field. His advice was to learn from that literature, but not to get stalled there or let it talk you out of pursuing your own ideas.
This is very much related to a conversation I had over a decade ago with a senior scholar in my field. When I expressed wonderment at keeping up with all of the new books and articles published in our field (because 3 years out of grad school, I was already far behind. Three years!). He said in response, “there are two kinds of historians: those who read books, and those who write books.” In other words, his advice was strikingly similar to the advice Squadrato got–you have to make time to write, and if that’s what you want to do, you just have to do your best with the existing scholarship and push the boat out anyway. Think boldly, act locally.
I think that’s very sound advice. I also suspect that once you’ve published a scholarly monograph that got at least decent reviews, you get more leeway with your second book. After all, you’ve shown you can bring a large project in for a landing, and you’ve proved that you have a right to have opinions about issues or ideas in your field or sub-field/s. I’d like to hear what the rest of you think–am I right about having freer rein with the second book, or am I kidding myself? (The answer, I’m sure, relates at least in part to our discussion yesterday, and precisely how far afield of your first book is your second.) Those of you who have finished second, third, or fourth books–don’t hold back out of modesty! Serve it forth.
More sage advice: as my husband delighted in reminding me once upon a time, when I was struggling to finish book #1, “you can’t talk about your second book until you have a first book.”)