Hindsight

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Now that I’ve turned in final grades for this past semester, I should have more time over the next week to work on my bigger projects. Even though spring semester doesn’t start until the 25th of January, I will have some extra preparation to do for that, simply because I’ll be teaching two courses I’ve never taught before, as well as my first creative writing course in over a decade (which will require more work for me because it was originally scheduled for another instructor who’d already assigned texts for it, so I’ll have to adapt my approaches to those texts). I’ll also be teaching another Saturday morning creativity class here soon — keep tabs on my social media for an announcement about that — which will require its own preparations as well. Still, since the last week of December is usually considered a “dead time” by so many people, and I’ll still have three weeks to prepare for next semester, I figure that taking this next week for myself won’t be that big of a deal.

I’ve already had a couple of days this past week that I’ve been able to devote mainly to my current projects, but they didn’t go so smoothly. The big problem I keep running into is that no matter how much time I put into researching my next book (again, please join my Patreon for exclusive updates on that work, including a new one set to drop this Thursday), it never seems to be enough. I can recognize the volume of progress I make on a day-to-day basis, but the issue that keeps dragging me down is that each day’s work is such a tiny fraction of the total work I’ll need to do for this project that I often end my nights, even after hours of research, feeling like I didn’t get much of anything done.

The only real comparison to this project I can make is to my first novel, and that’s really not much of a comparison at all. The research required for that was minimal at best — even accounting for the books on novel-writing that I’d read years earlier — and I could handle that while writing the first draft. Even with limiting my writing to around two thousand words a day (maybe two hours of work), and taking a three-day break to watch coverage of that year’s UK General Election and visit a friend in Cleveland, I barely needed more than three months to get a completed draft in my hands. It’s true that I spent a lot of time after that in editing and pursuing agents and entering contests, but at least I had the positive energy from having finished that draft to carry me through that work.

With the pandemic keeping me cooped up in my apartment even more than usual, I’ve had the opportunity to go on the biggest reading binge of my life, and nearly every book I’ve read has related in some way, large or small, to my current research. As opposed to when I was drafting The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban, two hours is a slow day for me now, and cause for me to wonder what other things took me away from my research work for so long. A couple of weeks ago, I felt like I finally hit the point where I could start writing my next book if I needed to, but apart from drafting a chapter or two out to help me identify gaps in my research that I need to fill, I really don’t want to start writing here, simply because I have so many more books I need to read first. Especially in light of the responsibilities I’m taking on with this project, thorough research will be crucial to creating a book worth reading at the end of it all.

The mountain of work that I still need to do is something that I get reminded of on a daily basis, On top of the stacks of physical books (and unread books in the libraries of my ereader apps) that I’ve mentioned before, I also keep a wishlist of books I want to buy online, and I check it out at least once every day to see if any of those books have gone on sale. (While working on a grant application a couple of weeks ago, I calculated that I had over $5,000 of books that I still needed to buy. Needless to say, I’m doing everything I can to buy on the cheap here.) Because that wishlist keeps growing as I deepen my research, it can sometimes feel like I’m even losing ground, finishing one book only to find that five or six more have crept onto my to-buy list as a result.

The end of a calendar year usually hasn’t been a time for me to reflect on what I’ve done in the previous year — my birthday has always felt like a more natural occasion for that — but as has been the case with so many other things, this year just feels different in that regard. It’s difficult to avoid thoughts of what I might have done differently in January or February if I’d known what laid ahead through the rest of the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when it comes to things like visiting some of my favourite places in Toledo that might close up shop by the time I can make it back there safely. I’ve tried to make the most of the opportunities that have been presented to me in 2020, and being able to do so much research on my next book has definitely been one of the ways I’ve tried to take advantage of the pandemic restrictions, but as the year draws to a close, and I’m confronted every day by how much more work I still need to do, I have to wonder if I used all that time wisely.

The research has helped me beyond my next book, of course; I’m doing a monthly series of “virtual brown bag” events with my fellow instructors this academic year based on my research, and that’s been incredibly rewarding, plus a lot of what I’ve read has directly helped me with my day-to-day teaching practices. Just like with the amount-versus-proportion problem I mentioned earlier, though, I have a hard time feeling like I’ve invested my time wisely, even when I can recognize all the gains I’ve made from that time, simply because I have so much more left to do here. Even if I was stuck in a pandemic lockdown for the next three years, and I didn’t have to do more than the bare minimum of teaching to help me pay my bills, I don’t know if I’d have the time to do all the research I want to do here.

Spring semester starts four weeks from today, and while I’m sure that I’ll be as ready for it as I can be, the uncertainties of pandemic life (especially those related to online instruction) mean that I’ll probably be even more nervous before the start of the new term than I usually am, as was the case this past September. I know that a lot of my trepidation over my next book is simply caused by the fact that I’ve never done a book-length research work before, but just like the smaller vagaries of pandemic life can sometime pile up and feel like an insurmountable obstacle, all the work I still need to do before I can confidently write the first draft of my next book is often making me feel like I bit off more than I can chew with this project. I keep trying to tell myself that I got through this past semester, and all the problems I dealt with leading up to it, so I just need to keep plugging away at my research here, but thinking about that still isn’t helping me feel better. Maybe I just need to stop measuring myself entirely here, and just focus on the work, in the hope that eventually — just like the pandemic — it will all eventually be over with, and I can move on to whatever comes after this. At this rate, 2021 may prove to be even more difficult for me than 2020 has been.

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