Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
If the first cut is the deepest, then the last word feels like the hardest.
Ten years after I started trying to write this book, and after a year on research leave when the ideas finally came together, the flow of words has slowed to a drip the closer the end has come. The end of my time away from teaching, the end of this version of the manuscript, and an end — of sorts, and for now — of the project itself.
As I started reworking and cutting the first draft of the book I pressed on with the help of P.P. Arnold. Now as I try to finish The Prince of Tricksters I find myself reaching back to The Smiths in the way that I have done since I was a seventeen year old indie kid.
I started something
And now I’m not too sure
Finishing a book (or article, or chapter, or blog) is hard, isn’t it? I stare suspiciously at a blank screen and half-coherent notes. I mooch around the flat and decide that the bathroom needs cleaning and the spider plants have to be watered. I try to sneak out on the bike to clear my head then get guilty that I’m not working and cut the ride short. Sometimes I write a couple of sentences and delete a few words that don’t work. More often I procrastinate.
I write a blog.
Typical me, typical me
Typical me, typical me
Finishing something is hard because it often happens when we are most tired. After months doing nothing much other than write I feel physically and intellectual drained just at the time when I need to be sharpest. If I haven’t quite gone feral yet it is a close run thing and the lack of social interaction is starting to tell. I started something that has left me tired and unsure.
Finishing something is also hard because I tend to leave the most awkward sections of my writing until the very end. Is that fear or another kind of procrastination? Once you identify something as awkward, of course, the self-fulfilling prophecy takes over and the task becomes even more daunting. I have written and revised this book backwards — starting with the denouement to the lives of Netley Lucas and retreating through the successive stages of his career as a royal biographer, crime writer, and confidence trickster. Working that way round meant I noticed unexpected resonances and surprising threads. It now leaves me facing down the barrel of the introduction.
After all this time I should know what the book is about. I think I do, but finding the words and phrases that convey exactly what the book does is a daunting task. How do I express how The Prince of Tricksters suggests new ways of thinking about 1920s and 1930s Britain? If this book is an attempt to explore how we might do history differently, then what words encapsulate my argument most succinctly? The stakes are high because this is where readers will come to the book. Get it wrong, and they will put it down.
So I have written the introduction backwards, I have procrastinated and hidden, and now I find myself locked in battle with the first section of the opening chapter of the book that I have spent ten years of my life working on. A couple of weeks to go and there is nothing else left to write, nowhere else to go. Now I’m not too sure.
That phrase — “I have spent ten years of my life working on” — is revealing, I think. Finishing is also hard because once a book (or article, or chapter) is done it is no longer our thing alone. It becomes public property — in the world for others to read and to explore and to react to. It is not just our ideas about 1920s and 1930s Britain, or about the possibilities of critical history, that it takes with it. When a book is finished and enters the world it takes something of us — our sense of self — with it, because so much of who we are has gone into the process of bringing it into being. It is hard not to feel unsure when finishing a book also means exposing yourself to criticism and hostility. I know many people will hate The Prince of Tricksters. Perhaps that is another reason why I subconsciously struggle to let go.
I started something that I have to finish — to make the most of research leave, for my publishers, and for my own sanity. That doesn’t make it any easier though.
Hair brushed and parted?
This blog is part of my ongoing attempt to explore the process of writing a book from behind the scenes.
Thanks to Sarah Pett for the conversation that inspired this blog.