Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
Writing is bloody tough. Not tough in the way that dealing with poverty or illness or disability or prejudice is tough. But in the context of what we do in our working lives as historians it is one of the biggest challenges we face. I’ve written before on the difficulty of finding time to write when the demands of teaching and admin are so great. Elsewhere I’ve written about my own fights with a blank screen and an even blanker mind. Writing is often a struggle, but it is at the very centre of what we do.
Writing is also not its own reward. This is one of the reasons why it is bloody tough. It would be great to think that crafting a well-balanced sentence or refining that oh-so important insight was enough in and of itself. It doesn’t work like that though. For sure, there are moments when our words and ideas can bring us pleasure when we read them back. But does this really allow us to gauge the success of the process that we spend so much time struggling with? In the case of writing I still don’t know what even counts as success. Do we go by the number of words we manage to write in a day? I can’t remember the number of times that I’ve churned out hundreds of words of pure and unadulterated bollocks. Can we measure success by the quality of the ideas that we develop in our writing? REF subject panels might think so, but being immersed in our own writing means we lack the critical distance and points of comparison to make that judgment. Who hasn’t had a late-night Eureka moment that turned out to be embarrassingly facile in the morning? What about when we finish an article or an essay or a conference paper or a book—that must count as success? Talk to most academics and I suspect they’ll admit that everything that seems ‘finished’ to other people still seems like work-in-progress to them: it’s good-enough rather than good.
Writing is also not its own reward because we invest so much of ourselves in it. Writing is bloody tough but it is also central to both how we think of ourselves as scholars and—more importantly, I think—to our sense of self worth. This can be a problem. The rewards of writing can be hard to see when so much of our identity becomes bound up with it. So many of the anxieties that accompany writing come from a sense that in putting a piece of prose into the world we are also putting a piece of ourselves out there: we sit in the open vulnerable and exposed for all to see. We beat ourselves up; we berate ourselves for our ‘failures’; we fixate on our struggles without giving ourselves due credit for our success. How can we find rewards in writing when what counts as success is so unclear?
All of this has been in my mind lately. Earlier this year I submitted a book proposal to the University of Chicago Press. In different ways I have been working on what is now called The Prince of Tricksters: Cultures of Confidence in Interwar Britain for almost a decade. I wrote then about how difficult I had found writing my second book. I also wrote about my worries about how the proposal and sample chapter would be received in the big wide world. It is one thing to think that a project works when you’re immersed in the history bubble; it’s a very different thing for other people to agree with you. In many ways—perhaps the ones that really matter—it is only the second of these that counts as success. For once the rewards of writing have become clearer to me. Two supportive, positive but challenging reports from readers and a wonderfully encouraging editor mean that I have just signed a contract for The Prince of Tricksters. And after years of thinking of writing grant applications as investing in rejection letters for the future something has finally come off: for the next academic year I will be a British Academy Mid-Career Fellow. Any unease at having reached the ‘mid’ of my career is tempered by the rewards of the time I need to actually finish the book.
Writing is not its own reward. Sometimes we need the reassurance and affirmation from others to convince us that we are doing things right: that has certainly been the case for me in the past few months. It is because writing is not its own reward that we should make the most of moments like this. It is because writing is tough that we should give ourselves a break and do something to mark the occasions on which it feels like we got something right. Does it matter how we define getting something right? Perhaps not: make your own judgements and set out what counts as success on any given day or in any given month. The important thing is to reward yourself when it feels like you’ve got there.
This is what I’ve always told my students so I thought I should take my own advice when I heard from my editor at Chicago and the British Academy. Marking the occasion in the company of two good friends, I rewarded myself with a few beers from the finest off-licence in the world and a quality takeaway. And just to make sure that I was rewarded enough I couldn’t resist treating myself: this has to be a writing must-have surely?