Sunday, August 27, 2006

The obligation to begin

I would have preferred to be enveloped in words, borne way beyond all possible beginnings. At the moment of speaking, I would like to have perceived a nameless voice, long preceding me, leaving me merely to enmesh myself in it, taking up its cadence, and to lodge myself, when no one was looking, in its interstices as if it had paused an instant, in suspense, to beckon to me. There would have been no beginnings: instead, speech would proceed from me, while I stood in its path--a slender gap--the point of its possible disappearance. . . .
A good many people, I imagine, harbour a similar desire to be freed from the obligation to begin, a similar desire to find themselves, right from the outside, on the other side of discourse, without having to stand outside it, pondering its particular, fearsome, and even devilish features.

Ah, Foucault. You say it so well. Beginnings are devilish indeed.

For I have no gift for first chapters. None at all. Zero. Zip.

The main (or at least a *big*) reason my book is still in process is that the first chapter keeps eluding me.

Having read a number of other people's first chapter drafts, I know that this is a common experience: the first chapter is always the hardest to write, often the worst of the lot. But I thought at some point I would surely manage to overcome this obstacle.

For the longest time, I was trying to make my old first chapter "work." I thought I just needed to do more research, find a new way to focus it. Finally, I threw in the towel and decided, no, the problem was that the chapter just wasn't doing it. It no longer fit in the book as I had reconceptualized it after the dissertation stage. I didn't want to get rid of a whole chapter, but I did.

So, I thought, I'll just start with what used to be Chapter 2. I had already decided I needed to add a new chapter in the middle, so I would still end up with the same number of chapters.

But now I'm slowly realizing Chapter 2 also sucks as a place to start. Why start with Chapter 2? There's no particular reason to start with Chapter 2. It just appeared in the gap left by Chapter 1.

Here's the latest plan:start the new chapter. The one that was slotted to be Chapter 4. I think that chapter, or at least some version of that chapter, needs to be Chapter 1.

Sounds kinda crazy. Especially when you consider that I *thought* I was more or less writing a history, and Chapter 4 deals with a decade quite a bit later than the first three chapters. Doesn't seem too historical to put a later period first.

But what Chapter 4 (Chapter 1?) does is establish the exigence for the history I'm telling. In that chapter, which focuses on the 1970s, I'm looking at a decade that saw the emergence of a new professional organization devoted to administration, a decade that also saw the publication of a bajillion classic books on management, including Braverman's Labor and Monopoly Capital and Chandler's history, The Visible Hand. It's also the decade when, in the words of Geoffrey Sirc, composition became no fun. A significant decade, a significant moment: an exigence for watching the circulation of a managerial affect, both before and after that decade.


jeff said...

But what Chapter 4 (Chapter 1?) does is establish the exigence for the history I'm telling.

That sounds like a great way to start. I often do stuff like that - start with the problem, an anecdote, a moment, an encounter, or something else that we might call an exigence.

This book sounds like something we are all going to have to read.

VTmtngrrl said...

Of course our students also struggle with this--getting started. And so, on the first day of school, at the start of a new writing class, I think this might be an appropriate passage to share with my students--illustrating the shared difficulty of getting writing to begin. It could be part of a longer introductory discussion about what makes writing difficult (for all of us).

Thanks for the quote!

Zil said...

Believe me, I feel your pain. And if you're interested in founding a "Finish the G*&*d*( book club," I am so there.

The Dingo (did not eat your baby) said...

Perhaps the handout I just gave my Gender and Sexuality Theory students is apt for this "exigence." The handout contains 6 suggestions for ways to approach reading critical theory and other difficult texts. Point 3 says the following:

"Read the conclusion first: Now this might sound like silly SAT/ACT advice, sometimes even the most accomplished writers do not really figure out their own argument until the end of the essay where they tend to state it more clearly. If you are really struggling, then read the conclusion and see if it gives you any hints."

So Chapter 4 might not have been your conclusion but maybe it is where you just happened to figure it all out! Kudos to you for figuring this out before publishing your book. The authors my students read for today do not appear have figured this out.

Donna said...

Thanks for the good words, Jeff. I should go reread your hip-hop article for inspiration.

Glad you liked the Foucault bit, VTmtngrrl. I often find him inspiring, though not necessarily always the best model.

Let's do the club thing, Zil. We may not admonish each other (as I somewhat cryptically suggested the other day), but we can inspire, support, and keep tabs.

Inspire is my word for the day. Dingo, glad you've been inspired to join the blogosphere. Welcome!

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