The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

The biography of a book chapter: a short photo essay





It starts with the sources and stories; that’s where it always starts. Not stories that exist full-formed and discerned. No. These are stories that exist always-already in-the-process-of-becoming; stories that consist in half-thought ideas, half-glimpsed connections, half-baked moments. Intuition? Perhaps. Often I do not know where they come from. Always I suspect they are wrong but worth trying still.





It continues with the sources. Hard won over many years and forgotten long ago. To re-enter box files is to meet old friends or to be struck with the shock of the new. I told you I had forgotten these sources long ago. It continues as an archaeology of our accreted days and months in some dusty archive or other.





It stops. It stops just at the moment when you open a document to begin. The blank page takes on the haunting qualities of nightmare. The blank page seems a proxy for a blank mind now full of nothing.





It continues as copying. Transcribing noting scribbling – sometimes ideas and arguments still half-baked; more often content and quotes that build up as words and paragraphs and bullet points and pages. Say goodbye to that blank page. Say hello to more words and fewer ideas than you know what to do with.





It continues as the sources. Are they necessary? Not to fill the page with words, no. Are they necessary? Yes, to absolve a guilty conscience or diffuse that creeping paranoia. There is something that you have missed. There is something that you have missed.





Fuel for the mind: no one writes a book chapter on pan y agua.





It slows down then it moves. That chapter that began in the head and took life on the screen can only move on with the distance that pen and paper bring. Those connections and layers cannot take form without colours and lines and shapes and drawings. That’s what I tell myself, in any case. Illegible handwriting and a tangle of lines bring temporary order in the chaos. And in the background always more sources murmur and taunt. And in the foreground the nagging suspicion that all of this is wrong and cannot be anything but wrong.





Chaos is in order; more coffee is in order. Does anyone really have a tidy desk? Getting the detritus out there clears out from in here, right?





Moving from the page to the screen and colour and circles and underlines become headings and subheadings and fast-typed arguments. It builds and grows and shrinks and changes from here. Cut and paste; revise and rework; write then elaborate then rewrite and elaborate and delete and cut and move around the pieces. Half-thoughts double; glimpses become clearer. Baked?




Window gazing.





Escape. Not to forget but to displace. Not to forget but to leave that chapter to one side. It grows faster that way. Not to forget but to reflect when the mind is – or should be – at least part elsewhere. A purposeful daydream; sitting quietly before the sources; history looks different over the bars of a bicycle.





Moving from the page to the screen and colour and circles and underlines become headings and subheadings and fast-typed arguments. It builds and grows and shrinks and changes from here. Cut and paste; revise and rework; write then elaborate then rewrite and elaborate and delete and cut and move around the pieces. Half-thoughts double; glimpses become clearer. Baked?





Escape. Perhaps to forget this time – or, at the very least, to take the edge off things and to mute thoughts and ideas and arguments that become louder. It does not work nor last.





Then in a rush it is done. However long it has taken to come into being the end is always a surprise. There is a pause; maybe an attempt at introspection and reflection (is that what this is?). There is definitely a lingering cruising gaze over endnotes of perfect form: that is the moment that makes it all worth it. Breathe deep; convert to PDF; email to friends and colleagues and sit and wait and wait and wait and wait and wait. Then that chapter to which you thought you had said goodbye returns. Not as you sent it out, but with new scribbles and circles; new annotations; new connections and ideas and arguments – all more compelling than yours and (now, at least) obvious. All writing is rewriting; all writing is co-writing. These are things we know and take for granted. That we know and take them for granted does not make them easier though. And so there is a return to that chapter.

Never good, but perhaps good enough, for now.

92 comments on “The biography of a book chapter: a short photo essay

  1. Pingback: The many stages of writing: a personal take | the many-headed monster

  2. Pingback: Blogging Our Criminal Past, part 2: history turned upside down? | Conviction

  3. Pingback: Tabula Rasa: The struggle to begin new research | Meny Snoweballes

  4. Wonderful plot and the author has done good.

  5. Conor Bofin
    December 5, 2014

    In my work, I often have to bring creative projects from a poor client brief through to a cohesive communication. I probably employ every aspect of your process, if it is a process. I get most achieved when out on my bike, not thinking about it.

    The beers never worked. Though, when I was younger, I thought they did. Now, they just prevent anything from evolving. On the upside, when an idea is hatched, expanded and sold, there is nothing as well earned as a couple of cold ones.

  6. cojjeemj
    December 6, 2014

    Reblogged this on fidepoetica.

  7. ColoufulCactus
    December 6, 2014

    really cool post! I love seeing into the creative process of others

  8. workor1
    December 6, 2014

    nice job here

  9. adamjasonp
    December 6, 2014

    Nice, consise look into the process (though I don’t drink coffee/tea). But it must get distracting sometimes with all the red skwiggles—the word processor not getting the UK spellings. (There must be a setting for that…)

  10. Mark
    December 6, 2014

    It’s like…filling out an insurance form. You’ve got to do it right, You’ve got to fill out every space and make sure the answers are right otherwise the insurers wont be happy and you’ll get nothing. And, in the end, after you’ve double and triple checked everything, all the right boxes are checked and it’s looking spotless, you always think that you’ve done something wrong.
    It’s only when you get the paycheck that you know you done everything right.

  11. Don Royster
    December 6, 2014

    Thanks for the post. It is always interesting to read or hear another creative person’s process.

  12. A Rebel Minded Society
    December 6, 2014

    Reblogged this on Words from A Rebel.

  13. Ysabel Klara
    December 6, 2014

    I love how you honestly draw out this process through words and pictures.

  14. emilyardenauthor
    December 6, 2014

    Love it – great post on the challenges and joys of writing… some of this looks very familiar!

  15. emilyardenauthor
    December 6, 2014

    Reblogged this on Emily Arden, author and commented:
    I love the post below – it provides many insights into the rocky road of getting a book ready for publication.

  16. zfandy
    December 6, 2014

    Reblogged this on zfandy and commented:

  17. Motiv
    December 6, 2014

    and i thought my tiny little notebook of ideas were something. coolpost

  18. oldcheeseblog
    December 6, 2014

    Reblogged this on CharmYourPantsOff and commented:
    “Perhaps. Often I do not know where they come from. Always I suspect they are wrong but worth trying still.”

  19. PoshPedlar
    December 6, 2014

    Really enjoyed reading your post.
    Impressive process, far too much of my build up relies on procrastination and ‘I think I’ll just….. walk the dog, clean the fridge, paint my nails…. etc’.
    You are v disciplined!

  20. joojk
    December 6, 2014

    Reblogged this on joojk.

  21. ameerbaathar
    December 6, 2014

    Enjoyed reading your post.
    Thank You

  22. Michelle
    December 6, 2014

    Very nicely expressed 🙂

  23. fbickham2012
    December 6, 2014

    Excellent. Will save for future reference. Might add the need for vigilance against the urge to revisit again and again after its done, like trying to break oneself from constantly opening and closing the fridge door to tell if the light is still burning.

  24. NeoAaragorn
    December 6, 2014

    Found this very interesting. Can’t imagine the process that goes into flushing out an entire book. Respect to authors everywhere.

  25. vijitmalviyablogs
    December 6, 2014

    Wow! Amazing

  26. hemphaus
    December 6, 2014

    Cool post!

  27. LissaCaldina
    December 6, 2014
  28. Snowa Fox
    December 6, 2014

    So very true it is a hard, fascinating sometimes aggravating process that takes a long time. Then there are wonderful days where the words flow and the ideas hit you at 3:00am or while doing something where you are so busy you have to stop and capture the fleeting thought that is a perfect scene for the book.

  29. Angela Roberts
    December 6, 2014

    Reblogged this on angelarobertsliblog.

  30. Babehofmann
    December 6, 2014

    Reblogged this on esquesoymujer.

  31. evilhomersgirl
    December 6, 2014

    Reblogged this on A little taste of home.

  32. kerryannleek
    December 6, 2014

    Reblogged this on .

  33. rodgersogada
    December 6, 2014

    Reblogged this on Pillows of Life.

  34. Fit_Singer
    December 6, 2014

    Coffee yes on the process, but then always end up ingesting more water to compensate the lack of hydration for the mind to actually begin a proper thinking process. The resources to improve writing are bountiful! Fabulous post on the joys & challenges. Thank you.

  35. jrhophotography
    December 6, 2014

    Awesome post, really enjoyed the pictures and definitely could relate to a lot of parts!

  36. Daniel
    December 7, 2014

    Reblogged this on Das coisas que vivo.

  37. tessthedancer
    December 7, 2014

    Absolutely love it! Books give so much character to photo. Great job!

  38. Dana
    December 7, 2014

    I love this post! Especially the window grazing part, and the coffee as necessity. Oh, pretty much all of it.

  39. Dana
    December 7, 2014

    Um, I meant window gazing… oh dear, I guess I need more coffee, or more sleep, or both.

  40. keriganw
    December 7, 2014

    Reblogged this on The Struggle Is Real and commented:
    Seriously, this is practically my life ❤

  41. jstar05
    December 7, 2014

    Reblogged this on Nuti-Balance Your Way to Health and commented:

    Nice process in prewriting. The tone has a twist that puts the frustration out the door.

  42. mustaphabarki2014
    December 7, 2014
  43. Ian Grundy Campbell
    December 7, 2014

    Great post! I loved “no one writes a book chapter on pan y agua”. As someone who has been struggling to cut down their caffeine and alcohol intake I can attest to this….

  44. bloggerboii
    December 7, 2014

    Reblogged this on bloggerboii14.

  45. Scylax of Caryanda
    December 7, 2014

    Reblogged this on Yellow El Camino.

  46. boomwing
    December 7, 2014

    This is enlightening.

  47. Robert Sendra
    December 7, 2014

    Nice article. It’s an amazing adventure the writing experience

  48. sonniq
    December 7, 2014

    I read a lot of me in your post – what I am going through now with my writing. I love to write. A couple years ago I wanted a book about something important to me. The Information was scattered in letters. They became my blog. Now I have begun my book. I can now visualize chapters that will have more info inserted before I can find a place where I can say its finished!

  49. zekewlpickle
    December 7, 2014

    Reblogged this on of sunsets and sea turtles and commented:

  50. Silvina
    December 7, 2014

    Reblogged this on Silvina Scheiner Redacción Corporativa and commented:
    Es muy complejo explicar a quien no es escritor, el proceso recursivo de la escritura. La idea de releer y releer suele caer en la inutilidad para todo aquel que no escribe. Si bien esto está en inglés, las fotos hablan por si solas.

  51. Silvina
    December 7, 2014

    thanks for sharing your pictures and your thoughts. For anyone who is not a writer its difficult to understand how the process is.

  52. panthergoody
    December 8, 2014


  53. bwencke
    December 8, 2014

    When it is done, does it still feel wrong?

  54. healingpilgrim
    December 8, 2014

    Thanks for reminding writers among us about the “good enough (for now)” principle 😉

  55. Bombus
    December 8, 2014

    Reblogged this on Babble on Bombus and commented:
    Very interesting read

  56. emmyrose101
    December 8, 2014

    Reblogged this on emmyrose101.

  57. Citizen Laryea
    December 8, 2014

    Reblogged this on Citizen's Blog and commented:
    Nice Concept

  58. tmariadm
    December 8, 2014

    As a writer I couldn’t agree more with your post and especially your bit about a purposeful daydream…some call it writer’s block, but I call it the process of taking a step. If you force creativity…it’s not creative right?

  59. merissawrites
    December 8, 2014

    Inspiring! I love to read about other writer’s processes, because it lets me know that I am not alone in what I do and the way I do it.

  60. Simple Northern Life
    December 8, 2014

    As an amateur writer I take great pleasure in knowing that a seasoned writer like yourself has his owned methods for capturing creativity as you described in the humorous post. I can relate to the gazing in the window and the blank screens. Feeling inspired looking forward to following your inspirational blog.

    My gratitude is yours, Allie.

  61. mariamccabe87
    December 8, 2014

    Interesting.. and very detailed. That green hilly escape looks like Ireland, or somewhere else?

  62. clbchvz
    December 9, 2014

    Reblogged this on clbchvz's Blog.

  63. Luna Jora
    December 9, 2014

    Intresting portrayal of the creative process. Every writer has their own way of making something beautiful out of their minds scraps.

  64. Tim Girarde
    December 9, 2014

    Made me smile; the half thought out ideas and then the escape. Familiar feelings, but actually they really work! There are so many ways into words and stories. Love the mix of old and new.

  65. christianliving2014
    December 9, 2014

    Thank you for sharing! Great write!

  66. Jennifer Nichole Wells
    December 9, 2014

    That last line. Too true. Now, I’m not an author, but a visual artist and all of this is still completely relatable. Thank you.

  67. The Trickster Prince
    December 9, 2014

    Thank you so much to everyone for your kind comments and engagement with my blog: all of this is very much appreciated!

    PS the escape is to mid-Wales rather than Ireland…

  68. nitsthelycan
    December 10, 2014

    that is amazing! I never could have thought that the process itself can turn in to a story!

  69. siennalc11
    December 10, 2014

    Reblogged this on freethembirds.

  70. engie2313
    December 10, 2014

    Reblogged this on engie2313's Blog.

  71. Pingback: Shared from WordPress | Ngololo

  72. J.E.S
    December 10, 2014

    It’s a process!

  73. tracysagarnayal
    December 10, 2014

    Great 🙂

  74. MahoganyPoet
    December 11, 2014

    Reblogged this on Mahoganypoet's Blog.

  75. authorbengarrido
    December 11, 2014

    You forgot the most important part, the elaborate, 40 page outline that you immediately ignore upon actually starting the book!

  76. vickiewhat
    December 12, 2014

    Wonderful. It certainly is a process, and I enjoyed seeing yours.

  77. Jonesy Jones
    December 13, 2014

    This is really cool! (in all honesty I’m just trying to see how the wordpress comment system works) 🙂

  78. Matt
    December 15, 2014

    Interesting take on the writing process.

  79. flbarrett
    December 15, 2014

    Fresh off NaNoWriMo… can relate.
    Nice post.

  80. Cat Milton
    December 16, 2014

    Excellent description; photo essay! Really enjoyed reading this, although rather have heart in throat now as I’m just collating information to start my own book. Gosh. I’ve all this to come? Sigh.

  81. Pedro Calado
    December 16, 2014

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed, very interesting idea and post 😀

    Best regards,
    Pedro Calado

  82. Ann Neville
    December 16, 2014

    Blogging, reading other people’s blogs, time for Newsnight and a glass of wine. Oops, no time left to get on with that chapter – there’s always tomorrow.

  83. HeyItsHales
    December 19, 2014

    I love the idea of the box files! I would have never considered that. Thanks for sharing. It was very insightful.

  84. David
    December 20, 2014

    I was wondering if you could check my blog, Bleacher Boy. I am a 14 year old blogger and would love to hear feedback. My blog is a kid’s view on all things baseball! If you have any tips, tricks, and criticism, I would love that!
    -David S.

  85. bernquist
    December 31, 2014

    Awesome! Love your insights and techniques!!

  86. indiechickblogs
    January 1, 2015

    Reblogged this on IndieChick Blogs and commented:
    To any writers out there, or even those that are working on projects completely unrelated. Anything you do that is worth doing is a process.

  87. sambix
    January 4, 2015

    Reblogged this on sambix.

  88. drlindallabin
    February 5, 2015

    A very good story of the challenge of writing. If only we all had a book like Writing the Great American Novel for Dummies. Wouldn’t that fix us all??

  89. Pingback: How do historians write? | Doing History in Public

  90. Pingback: How Do Historians Write? | Doing History in Public

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