The Liturgy of the Book

Esther Wheelwright (1696-1780)

Esther Wheelwright (1696-1780)

When Tenured Radical wrote a blog post about the “Grafton Challenge” this summer, I was both impressed and completely intimidated by the blistering pace at which Tony Grafton writes:  3,500 words a day!  Amazing.  Then when she followed up to report that Matthew Gutterl had drafted a book this summer by. . . sitting down to write every day and cutting out distractions like blogging!. . . I thought to myself:  how much longer do I really want to live with the book I’m writing now, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright?  Isn’t it time to move on?

So, I decided to finish a rough draft of my book this fall, with Christmas day as my drop-dead date.  When I finished the second draft of Abraham in Arms eight years ago, the only time I had to myself that was completely free of familial distractions or responsibilities was from 4-6 a.m.  So, several days a week I now get out of bed at 4 a.m. and try to write for two hours.  It’s not as difficult as you’d think.  Caffeine helps, as does a shockingly early bedtime the night before.  I’ve had a cold this week, and the high-test antihistamines I’m on also give me a kick.  (I think it’s the stuff they cook meth out of, so no wonder.)  I prefer the silence of the tomb when I work, and my brain is freshest first thing in the morning, so 4-6 a.m. it is.

(I was reviewing a chapter I had already drafted, and I re-read something I had written last summer about how the Ursuline nuns I’m writing about would rise at 4 a.m. to begin their day.  Coincidence?  Who knows.  But instead of the Liturgy of the Hours, my day is now occupied by the Liturgy of the Book.)

I’m not writing very fast.  In fact, in this draft I’m still figuring out how lots of tiny bits of evidence fit together, so many days’ worth of “writing” might only yield a page or two in a chapter.  But, that’s because of the subject I chose:  reconstructing the life of a girl and a woman who never wrote much of anything down means that I have to reconstruct a life, not just report on it.  Even after drafting the book, I’ll still need to do more research to make sure that my arguments are correct, and to make sure that I’m wringing all of the details I possibly can out of my archival sources.

Matthew Gutterl has some great advice for those of you who want to go on a writing jag.  In short:  get plenty of sleep, and cut everything else out of your day that’s not completely necessary.  He also has some great examples as to how continuous engagement with your material is something that will snowball and lead to more connections and insights.  The only thing I’m doing differently from Matthew is that I’m continuing to run and to go to yoga classes, whereas he cut out exercise almost entirely while writing this past summer.  For me, running and yoga are as much about mental health as physical fitness–I enjoy the time to let my brain wander.  And I enjoy the social aspects of yoga, as well as the fact that when I’m taking a class, I don’t have to make any decisions–I can just follow someone else’s instructions, and bliss out.  But, I’m not on a publisher’s deadline like he was!

40 thoughts on “The Liturgy of the Book

  1. Way to go, Historiann! I’m trying to do the same thing: write every morning before teaching, email, and service take over my brain. At the same time, I’ve renewed my commitment to work out regularly. I want to finish my book manuscript, but I want to do so in a way that doesn’t compromise my health (physical or mental). It’s been working well so far, although I’m just hitting my first major hurdle: a batch of papers to grade. Good luck, and please keep us posted.


  2. Hey, Historiann! I totally agree about the importance of exercise to productive writing. Running is the time that I mull over ideas and work through writing and teaching dilemmas. It’s meditative, and I swear I do some of my best thinking while I’m pounding the trail.

    I’m running a small writing group for the fall on my personal site. We’re about four weeks in with eight to go, but anyone is welcome to hop in at any time. It’s all about weekly goal-setting and low-stakes accountability. If you want to join us, just hop into the comments, introduce yourself, and tell us your goals for the week. HistoriFanns also welcome!


  3. Without solid work habits one is lost. Yet, we differ vastly in the speed we do things. A slower, sometime more contemplative, worker shouldn’t even try to adjust to speeds of fast workers.

    In both research and non-research, only one question has to be answered: is the work good/significant/innovative/essential?

    Run, walk, swim and write at a speed you are comfortable with. That’s the universal advice. Sounds good to me.


  4. I am impressed. I was just talking about what a challenge it is to fit in exercise, let alone productive writing, in between teaching and family stuff.


  5. My running and yoga are going pretty well, but I can’t even seem to keep up with the blogging part of my writing life these days. You inspire me, cowgirl. Maybe I’ll try some of this early to bed, early to rise stuff and see what happens.


  6. Go for it, just the way you’re doing: it sounds as if you’re preparing Slow Food, and that’s what readers want and need. I try to do that by blasting out a draft and then rewriting endlessly–my first draft is, as was said of Kerouac, less writing than typing. Your way sounds great. I especially like the early rising–I love being up and working in a silent house, before dawn, and eventually bringing MS TG coffee and her wakeup call.


  7. You go, gurl!!

    That line about how immersing yourself in the work creates a snowballing effect is so true! You’ll start wringing details from the sources in your dreams!

    I’ve been managing to work rather well this past summer, producing between 700 and 2300 words per weekday (though the latter is unusual). It feels really fantastic to be in this zone, but I think I’m starting to lose friends because I became such a hermit. I plan to send it off by the end of the calendar year and then find another circus to join or something.


  8. Thanks for the encouragement, everyone! It will of course mean less blogging–but you probably already figured that out. It’s great to hear from all of you.

    Squadrato, I have been thinking of you for the past 5 weeks and dreaming of writing a post like you did when you reported on 2011 as being the year in which you finished a draft of your second book. I want to do that too about 2013! (BTW, what are you writing so furiously about? Is it your book revisions, or something else?)

    As for CPP’s suggestion that I wear one of those “nun hats:” I think you mean the veil? 18th C Ursulines don’t wear anything but a cap, band, wimple, and veil. However, it’s not a bad idea, because the vision and muffled hearing you’d get from that getup is meant to encourage contemplation & a turning inward of the self.

    If you want to see the 18th C Ursuline habit, including how to put on the cap, band, wimple, and veil, just click here, and then click the link under “videos” on the right side of the page. (I think I have met both of those women–they look so familiar.)


  9. Yup: revisions and an additional chapter I decided to add. This is (I hope!) the final go-round before it goes to the press at the end of the year. I re-draft a lot.


  10. I look forward to seeing the results Historiann!

    A friend of mine told me a few years ago that if you could write 1000 words a day, then you could write a book in three months. I’ve never managed this, but I hold on to it like a security blanket- if you wanted to, you could finish this project in three months. And, even before reading this, I had decided it was time to do just that. I am about to go away for a research and conference trip (Huntington whoop!), but when I get back in November, I’m beginning the 1,000 words a day – finish the book in three months schedule. I actually have quite a few words written already, so this should allow for a bit of slippage and perhaps Christmas Day off! To achieve this I was hoping to get up at 6 – any earlier and my body just won’t function (I’m naturally a night owl), and then write in the morning, leaving afternoons for other work stuff (this overlaps with our summer holidays so hopefully there won’t be too much work stuff going on), writing prep and, er, entertaining my mother in law who is visiting for 6 weeks! Then yoga in the evening, because without it the RSI in my shoulder will make all that writing painful!


  11. More encouragement from another HistoriFann! I am currently in a non-intensive writing phase and enjoying being able to go to the gym, but I will join those cheering you on.


  12. I couldn’t do it that way, in terms of the 4-6 a.m. part at least, but then again, I’m still trying to finish a book that I was at least already thinking into being back when I first met you, Historiann, and you know how long that is. So I guess I have more tolerance for the torment of being cell-bound with a subject forever than I do for getting up before dawn. On the other hand, I do look enviously at all of the jovial-looking people waiting on line for yoga classes to begin while I grind away mindlessly on top of my usual All-Terrain-Machines (or whatever you call them) at the gym. So maybe I should try that and see if I can maybe graduate to an early schedule. Hope to see the book, in any case; yours, mine, or both.


  13. “How much longer do I really want to live with the book I’m writing now?”

    I find I’ve been very unmotivated by the second book. But the days when I am, this is the ONLY thing that does it.

    For me, the big problem is that, where I’m at, there’s no carrot and no stick with regards to anything beyond the first book. All the motivation has to come from within. I used to have those reserves. Time to find them again.


  14. “For me, the big problem is that, where I’m at, there’s no carrot and no stick with regards to anything beyond the first book. All the motivation has to come from within.” Ugh, you are SO NOT kidding, Notorious. It’s the same for me.

    If anyone wants to get really depressed about the state of being an Associate Professor these days, go read Tenured Radical.


  15. I am in awe. Getting up at 4? Four? I might stand a chance if that was PM. And then getting stuff done at that hour in the AM? I’d be sitting in a chair, swilling tea till about 9:30. (No, I am not a morning person. At all.)

    You go! You’re an inspiration to us all. I’ve now made a resolution to at least get something done around noon!


  16. Thanks for the link, Dan. Love the coffee mug in your illustration for week 4 reports–wish I had one of my own!

    TR, I’m actually considering the cap, band, wimple, and veil. Aside from the compromised hearing and vision, I think I could really use something to cover up my wrinkly forehead. (And no mojitos before it’s 5 p.m. in Puerto Rico!)


  17. quixote, don’t be impressed. I go to bed between 9 and 10 p.m.! I just can’t do quality intellectual work after 7 or so, so that’s why I’m up early. Those who work well after supper will doubtlessly prefer to write for two hours then.


  18. I wish I could be guaranteed solitude for two whole hours between 4-6. I might consider the same plan. But alas, as much as I love the dark silence of the predawn hours, I prefer not to work in the house (I think better away from my own things) and my little ones are early risers (like 5:30 AM some days). I also seem to require several more hours of sleep per night than you. I would not be functional without at least 7.5 hrs. But I don’t need to go on a writing jag yet; right now I’m in the research and percolating phase – also writing about nuns who seem to follow me around despite my best efforts to shake them.

    Good luck, H! Can’t wait to read the new book.


  19. The super-early morning writing regime works for me, too, when I am trying to meet deadlines and especially to impose more work discipline on myself. Your reference to the early-rising Ursuline made me think of another early riser we early American historians know–William Byrd of Westover, who in the summer months (I seem to dimly recall) would rise at 4am to study his Greek and Hebrew, drink his boiled milk, dance his dance, and launch a day of whatever mayhem and visits lay ahead.


  20. Good luck! I, too, have trouble imagining waking up at 4 AM for any reason other than catching an early flight, so I’m impressed that those are productive hours for you.

    The Grafton Line challenge is really motivating – I’ve found it a good methodology for just diving into dissertation writing. I’m hoping that writing before I know exactly how it will all fit together isn’t a terrible idea, and I may have to slow down as I continue to do research for later chapters, but making visible progress feels so good! It’s also neat to know you are in a community of people making similar efforts.


  21. So eager to see the results – and congratulations on the decision.. And I love your strategy, though I’ve never been able to make it work. And I seem to be transitioning from an early bird to a night owl, who requires 7 hours of sleep…

    When I’m going well in writing, and more or less know where I’m going, I can knock out 1000 words a day. Though it has slowed down – partly because whee in the past I’d have a placeholder “check out x”, now I spend time online checking out X….


  22. Good Luck Historiann!

    It sounds like you’ve found your way, so stick to your guns!

    I’m still searching for mine. I will have to go back to writing at 4am, provided I can do it without waking partner and toddler. (I really need to get to bed earlier…)


  23. Upon further review (accomplished while dozing straight through the rooster’s first crow yesterday morning), I’ve decided I’ll try this just once, in symbolic solidarity with the Wheelwright project, and maybe to send a little karmic energy its way. I’d probably do it over Fall Break, except that we don’t have one. I’ll try it some Friday, then. I’m actually writing backwards now, paring down an overly-wrought manuscript, per an earlier line of posts and comments. So maybe that will be easier than actually writing.


  24. Good for you, Historiann! I had another colleague sing the praises of early mornings for writing. Of course, then I had to screw my schedule up this year by getting a new puppy. The hours that I spend keeping on top of her needs would put me well along my writing path. I’m just hoping that all of this training pays off and that her energy levels slow down a bit so I don’t feel as if I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul.

    Which reminds me: time to finish up the marks on this M.A. essay so I can review the dozen conference paper proposals I’m on the hook for with my June conference before assisting a junior colleague by reviewing new course proposals and then I can think about the article I’m writing which is due November 1. . . .


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  26. My colleague who “works on nuns” (makes him sound like some kind of a foreign car niche-mechanic, but I can’t think of a quick alternative) is anxious to read this book, gratefully took delivery on the picture, supra, and highly approves of this expedited work plan!


  27. How in the holy crap did I miss this?

    Good luck, H-Ann. May the words flow like honey. Gently, sweetly, and at the right pace.

    And you are right to keep up the yoga.


  28. Very inspiring as we head into winter! Early writing seems like winter activity I SHOULD enjoy. Haven’t done it since my kids were little either. Would be nice to try it when I don’t HAVE to!!! I’m not hoping for Grafton like productivity, but just settling in . . .


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