Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
This is the first post I’ve written in a couple of months. I started blogging to get myself back into the rhythms and routines of writing; I turned to Twitter to explore the practice of being a historian from behind-the-scenes with the countless other people whose experiences I share. Over the past few months, however, blogging and the buzz of social media has felt like more than I could deal with.
Vanishing point? I have gone into virtual hiding. Struggling to complete the last two chapters of The Prince of Tricksters, the book I am trying to finish this year, I have pulled the plug on the world and focused all my energies on writing and trying to make sense of the lies and lives of Netley Lucas. Blogging about writing and the conversations that have developed out of it have been things I have relished over the past couple of years. More recently, however, stimulation and reassurance turned into distraction. I have had neither energy nor inclination to blog; the endless cycle of tweets has felt like white noise in my head. And all along the demands of the book have become more insistent—compelling my attention and my anxieties.
Crisis point might be another word for it. Perhaps in the spring I reached that point at which the “progress” I had made was overwhelmed by the sense of the new academic year drawing nearer. Having research leave has been wonderful. I have been knocked back enough to think of grant applications as investments in rejection letters and to know just how lucky I am to have the time and space to write. As the months have passed, however, the clock has ticked louder and I have been unable to stop counting down until my time is done. Six months, five months, four months… Two chapters to draft, one chapter to draft, revisions and cuts and reworks and re-reads… Writing gets harder the more you rush. Panic gets in the way of progress.
It has been a long time since I wrote a book. I had forgotten the jarring jolting dissonant rhythms of a longer project like this. The demands of establishing a daily routine that works sit alongside the difficulties of setting targets for the weeks and months ahead—let alone the difficulties of meeting those targets. Above all of this, I now remember, is the longue duree of a research project’s life. It feels tidal somehow: forceful, inexorable, and overwhelming with its slow moving peaks and troughs. I have been in one of those troughs for the past months. Tiredness has been part of it; switching my mind between different themes or issues has been part of it. My writing has returned to the flamboyant deceptions of the gentleman crook in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. That is where The Prince of Tricksters began around a decade ago, but it is material that has felt unfamiliar and overwhelming and more than I can make sense of.
Crisis point? I have talked before about how all writing is co-writing. That still holds true. My work would be impossible without the fantastic historical scholarship on which I draw. It would be greatly impoverished without the serious and sustained ways in which my friends and colleagues have engaged with my arguments over the years. Timing is everything, however, and there are periods in which even constructive criticism sounds damning. Conversations and comments have been bruising—even though I know that looking forward they will make me a better historian and The Prince of Tricksters a better book. As I have tried to write about the crisis of confidence that marked 1920s British society and culture, I have experienced my own crisis of confidence in my abilities as a historian. Netley would laugh.
So I ran away from the blog and from Twitter. I sought silence and solitude and space in which to think. Two or three months pretty much unplugged; several weeks in a rented cottage and local cafe in north Oakland as a visiting scholar at Berkeley; long rides in big hills overlooking the Bay Area and northern California; redemption and revival under the sun. This is where I hid out, and then wrote my way out of a trough. At least, that it what I tell myself now: it’s a more reassuring story, isn’t it? Perhaps the wave has just passed over me, for now.
I finished the first full draft of The Prince of Tricksters just before two o’clock yesterday afternoon. It took me three and a half days of not leaving the flat, a pile of unwashed dishes, and a few decent beers to take the edge off my anxieties. I got there in the end though. Isn’t that the point?