The History of My Own Writing

Over the weekend, I spent some time re-reading my book manuscript on print media and the American Revolution, which was based on my Ph.D. dissertation. Comments came back from the anonymous reader for the pressa few weeks ago, and I’ve been working to draft a response and think about revisions. Since I hadn’t read the manuscript all the way through in over a year, it made a lot of sense to read the entire book first.

As I was reading, though, I encountered an odd feeling of déjà-vu. Every few pages, I would come upon a passage, usually just a few words or a sentence, whose origins I remembered. I described the feeling in a few tweets on Saturday:

// was truly striking how many times I encountered short phrases or sentences that I knew had been in this manuscript for a long time, through many iterations of the text. That’s something that happens with all long-term writing projects, but particularly with something like a dissertation. I’ve been thinking and writing about this project for quite a long time — I started graduate school in 2004, and several of my research essays in college (including my thesis) were within the same realm. None of the college writing still survives in the current work, but since 2004 my book manuscript has absorbed text from a number of different places:

  • Dissertation
  • Fellowship applications
  • Job letters and other application materials
  • Graduate research papers
  • Journal articles

That’s not even to mention the scrap writing, and now several drafts of the book as a book since I finished the dissertation. In all of these written forms over the past twelve years I’ve worked to refine the argument, add good evidence, and flesh out my historiographical contribution. In some cases, the long-lived passage includes language of which I’m particularly proud; other times, the words are more pedestrian, but somehow survive because they just do the job. (I’m now picturing in my head one of those deep-sea creatures in a science documentary that hasn’t evolved much in the past million years but just keeps trucking along.)

The experience felt a bit out-of-body, because having my memory jogged about a familiar line also seems to have the power to transport me to the places where I’ve worked. Here I was sitting on my porch in Massachusetts, and encountering a familiar sentence I was instantly transported to a different time and place: the library at my graduate institution, my advisor’s office, a research site, a train or plane ride, an old apartment of mine, my now-wife’s, or another friend. I can recall conversations about some of the ideas contained in a paragraph. I can remember the fights about how to word a particular concept. (NB: please don’t ask me whether printers were “middling.”)

As I said on Twitter, the writing—I think—flows smoothly, so no one else would ever notice whether a sentence written in 2008 immediately follows a sentence written in 2013, in a paragraph whose argument was realized in 2010. But our writing lives with us and tells a story to its author that almost no one else gets to see, our own personal palimpsests, if I may put it alliteratively. And in the meantime, I need to go back to my revisions, in hopes that at some point soon I can stop making writing memories on this particular project.

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