When people ask me what I’m doing—especially if they ask in the summer, or when I’m on sabbatical, they run the risk of me telling them about what I’m writing. And if I’m writing something large scale, like a book, they’re likely to hear about where I am in the process. I’ve been asked, on a few occasions, to write about the process, usually because the person asking thinks it would have helped him or her back in the dissertation-writing days of grad school. I’ve always hesitated, though. I mean, Raymond Roussel could write “How I Wrote Certain of My Books,” and make it all sound interesting, but his books are weird and beautiful and idiosyncratic. But critical or scholarly books? Who in their right mind would want to read about that? “Don’t assume,” said a pal to whom I raised my concerns, “that any audience you have is likely to be in its right mind.” Point taken! And so here, for those who might care: the method I’ve evolved over the years for putting together a book.
One starts, of course, with the primary materials: for me, this has meant poems, and I’ve generally read them pretty casually and non-systematically before I’ve even decided to write about them. Before I made a decision to write Laureates and Heretics, for example, I’d already read most of the poems by the main figures in that book—and the same goes for the book I’m writing now, Making Nothing Happen. Sometimes this is just because I’m a poetry reader, sometimes I’ve taught a course on the work. Anyway, this is something that I’ve taken care of before I decide to write a book.
When I do decide to write a book, I generally write a chapter every summer (and, if I’m on sabbatical, a chapter per semester of the time I have off). I find this, combined with smaller projects like reviewing or writing conference papers or maybe a critical article, is a nice pace.
The first part of the summer involves me, slumped in a big red chair, reading the secondary literature. A ton of it. And not just the recent stuff or the classic stuff: indeed, I find that the oldest, the weirdest, the most out-of-the way material you can get your hands on is the stuff more likely to spark ideas that lie outside of whatever the current consensus or debate is. And reading the reviews that came out at the time the figure was writing is hugely helpful. Also biographies, journals, interviews, collections of letters, books by people associated with the main figure (so, for Auden, a lot of Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward and Stephen Spender; for Yeats, Madame Blavatsky, John Butler Yeats, novelists who wrote about the neighborhoods where Yeats lived, historians of Byzantine art, etc.). Just as importantly, I read a bunch of things having to do with the milieu or context of the poet in question – history, sociology, books on topics adjacent to the main subject, and, crucially, things from outside of my own field. I mean, I’m an English professor, and we tend to think that we’re fairly historicist nowadays, but compared to historians we’re ninnies when it comes to context. We think we’re attentive to, say, the pressure of context on reception, but people in communications theory do it better than we do. We think we know theory, but we know an excruciatingly narrow range of theory. And it’s very good to have a look at where your subject’s work appeared in print. I mean, I’d never have understood how W.H. Auden was taken to be much more of a red than he really was had I not noticed that poems we take as campy or ironic look quite different when published in left-wing journals full of earnest writing for the liberation of the workers.
But how to synthesize all of this material? How to stop it from slipping away or becoming a kind of general haze in the mind? For me, this involves a particular kind of note taking. I generally do this in the margins of the books, which I more or less destroy—but sometimes, when I’ve borrowed the book from a friend or (as a last resort) a library, in notebooks where I specify the page for each note. Essentially, what I do is make a note of what kind of category I think the passage in question would fall into in my proto-outline (which I develop as I read). So, when I was writing on Tennyson, I had a lot of passages marked “PUBMOR” (for those times when Tennyson was seen as, or acted as, a public moralist) or “AESTH” (when he was seen as, or acted as, an aesthete). In most cases, I come up with about 20 different categories as I read, sometimes discarding them or fusing them together. I’ve been reading up on John Ashbery in recent weeks, and categories include ARTWORLD, NONTOTALIZATION, LINES OF FLIGHT, ACADEMY, AESTHETE, ALIENATION, COTERIE, and about a dozen more. Each note is accompanied by between one and (rarely) five stars, indicating how important I think the passage will be to the writing of my chapter—important as a matter of fact, as a critic’s insight, or whatever. Quite often I'm not picking up on the main subject or argument of the thing I'm reading, but picking up something mentioned in passing. And most of the time I don’t treat what a critic has to say as the truth so much as take it as a symptom of the method of reception for the poet. So what Harold Bloom or Helen Vendler says about Ashbery becomes less a truth about Ashbery than it becomes a window on how Ashbery was received by a particular branch of the academy.
After I’ve been reading for six or eight weeks, I start to see the shape of things—how all of these categories might be made into a narrative or an argument. This is incredibly exciting, and I will actually heave myself up from my big red chair and pace around my secret backyard writing dojo, talking to myself and gesturing wildly, sometimes spilling coffee. With this outline in mind, I do some more reading and marginal note taking, often of shorter things like scholarly articles, getting a clearer sense of how it all might come together. I begin to treat the materials I read less and less as guides to where I might go, and more and more as sources of evidence for the case I want to make.
Then I have a few dull days, where I go back to everything I’ve read and make a kind of index for each piece of writing. So, for example, I’ll go back to Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of W.H. Auden, look through it page by page, and then make note (generally in the back of the book) of everything I’ve marked. “Pg. 12--★★★—PERFDOGMA,” for example, would indicate a semi-important passage on page 12 about how Auden learned, from an early age, to enjoy performing dogma, acting as if he believed in a grand systemic understanding of things and explaining it solemnly, even if he did not fully believe in what he was saying. Some books will have pages and pages of indexed notes, some just a few. In this stage I sit with a slowly shrinking pile of unindexed printouts and books on one side of me, a slowly growing pile of indexed books and printouts on the other side of me, and a constantly refilled cup of coffee in the middle, next to whatever I’m indexing. I tend to listen to a lot of Led Zeppelin at this point of the process.
And then, when I rise in glory above the indexed materials, I make the Grand Outline (beta version). A thesis, and a plan for where information on all of my sub-topics may go. By now I’ve refamiliarized myself with everything I’ve read, and have a good sense of how it all fits together. The back of my mind has been thinking about it while the front part was doing the grunt work and listening to Zeppelin.
At this point I cross-reference all of those indexed books and articles with the grand outline. So, for example, when I’d outlined my chapter on Coleridge, which has a section on the clerisy, I’d find all references to the clerisy in all sources and note them in the outline. When this is done, I go back to the primary sources—the books of poems—and read them systematically, making exactly the kind of marginal notes, based on categories or topics and ranked in terms of stars, that I’d made on the secondary materials. This makes for a few weeks of feverishly excited reading, and some heavily marked up books. Then I index these, reference the indexes on my grand outline, make a revised grand outline, and I’m good to write.
And then there’s the drafting, my absolute favorite part of the process. At first I write a paltry few hundred words a day, but with the outline in place, the materials at the ready, and everything referenced exactly, I soon hit a stride and can write thousands of words a day. I get up in the morning excited to write, I go to bed wishing the night would pass faster so I could get back to it. When I sit down to write I put music on, and I never notice when it stops. I get deliriously lost in what I’m doing as it all comes together and I end up feeling like the vessel of forces larger than myself, like I’m taking dictation from the gods. All I can talk about is my book and people either dig it or roll their eyes.
Of course everything needs revision, but that can wait until just before I start reading for the next chapter, when I re-read what I’d written weeks or months ago and it doesn’t wound me to slash and burn the thing. I’ve learned from some good editors (especially Christopher Ricks) that cutting something down to half its prior size tends to make it stronger.
And then I start again, with a new chapter (or maybe a new book) and try to do the whole thing better than before. This makes me happy, and I learn stuff.