When I handed my dissertation into my graduate school I couldn’t believe I’d just gotten away with writing a whole Ph.D. thesis about fabulousness. Yes, God! It was, by all accounts, exactly the dissertation I always imagined writing, so I mean yaaaaaaaasss, but I never knew it’d be possible to do it the way I wanted to. Now, a couple years away from the thing and on the cusp of submitting a wholly revised version for publication, when I flip through the dissertation I realize how terrible it was. The ideas are all there but, as a piece of writing, it’s a mess. Why are your sentences so long! How many times can you say “the ways in which” in one paragraph? Why is your literature review 200 pages long?
Good God Girl Get A Grip.
Now that I’m writing a book, no longer a dissertation, I think of the book writing process as something like doing a massive renovation. Imagine there’s a building you see in Central London or New York and it only costs $4000 for the whole thing. Cheap, right? But you can’t live in it the way it is now. The plumbing doesn’t work. There’s asbestos all up in that bad boy and you could never have anyone over for dinner. That $4000 building with poor syntax but excellent potential is your dissertation. When you revise it into a manuscript what you’re actually doing is keeping the basic structure you paid $4000 for but acting like a billionaire with lots of money to invest to make it better. You’re spending time with it, taking out all the stupid shit and making it the show piece you want people to see so you can have fabulous dinner parties and let other people taste your investment.
One of the most important things you can do to make your dissertation great book, I find, is to get some distance from it. Don’t read it, don’t even touch it or think about it for awhile. Moving to London has had a huge impact on the kind of book I’m writing. I’ve met different kinds of people. I’m in Europe and exposed to whole other ideas about fashion and style. There’s no way I’d be able to write the book I’m writing about fabulousness if I hadn’t moved to Europe, to London specifically, and if I didn’t get to spend time in Berlin or hang out where I hang out. Even if you don’t move abroad, and even if your research is about medieval poetry, having some distance from your dissertation allows you to mature as a thinker and to develop what you’re trying to say.
Then comes “first book” anxiety where it’s likely your entire academic reputation will be based on the first book you drop. “Your first book is what you’ll be primarily known for,” a senior colleague friend of mine told me. And he’s right. That’s why it’s more important than ever that your first book is your dream house.
There’s this thing in academia of not blowing your full intellectual wad until your second book. More than one senior academic has told me that your first book right out of graduate school is important, sure, because it’s what’s going to get you hired or what will secure you tenure. It’s really your second book, everyone says—the post-tenure book—that’ll be the book you really want to write. That’s where you’ll finally get to express yourself and show how you’ve grown and matured as a cultural critic. But I don’t believe that. You’re a cultural critic right now and you may not live long enough to make it to a second book, knowing how long it takes to do research, write books and get them published in the first place.
What keeps me going with my book is not the promise of getting tenure or being hired in a tenure-track position, neither of which is guaranteed. Every time I talk to someone about what fabulousness means to them, or each time I see how amazing they look in an image they’ve taken on their own, I realize what I’m doing means something. And telling their stories the way I am means something. I know I’m writing exactly the book I want to write, not the book I think will get me hired or tenured or that can make me a famous blackademic.
Your first book is dream house, and you’re the billionaire who can build it.