in which, out of fear, I make Dramatic Chipmunk Face

Book Two* is tentatively titled How Children See, and me and Book Two? We’re currently in the honeymoon stage. I love Book Two with the uncritical and (ironically) blind adoration I only can feel for a project I haven’t really figured out yet. Me and Book Two? We’re wandering, pinkies linked, through farmers’ markets on Saturday mornings, considering buying some local honey. We’re leaving stickie notes scrawled with lines from ee cummings poems in one another’s shoes. (i carry your unwritten thesis in my heart.) I haven’t yet learned that Book Two puts the milk carton back in the fridge with barely a sip left or that it doesn’t really “get” why Robert Louis Stevenson is nineteenth-century hot. (BLASPHEMY.)

Anyway. The point is Book Two and I are in a new relationship, and it’s not yet complicated.

Okay. That’s a lie. It’s really complicated. Because Book Two is haunted already by all the better books about how children see — books that I am yet to discover that say devastatingly smart things. While I’m scrawling whimsical lists of primary texts and potential chapter structures, bubbling in little hearts above my Is (eyes?), I’m also preemptively jealous. This book idea? It probably has exes. Who has thought about this book before?

Someone has. Someone always has.

There will be a day — it might be tomorrow, it might be (devastatingly) as I’m finishing up the first full draft of How Children See, and it might be (heartbreakingly) in a reader’s report — when I will encounter what will, at first glance, be my book already written. Someone will approach me casually after a conference presentation — a presentation in which I have tentatively planted a tiny flag, perhaps a hopeful whirligig, in the terrain of this idea — and they will say, “Have you read Dr. Ivy League’s How Young People Look at Things? It was published a year ago by Very Fancy Press That Rejected You.” And I will make the Dramatic Chipmunk Face:

groundhog

Because of course I have not read that book, you Jerky McJerkface with Your Face. So I’ll find a copy and read it over two weeks, in excruciating twenty-minute stints, staining it with my tears. I will be paralyzed, unable to take meaningful notes. I will ricochet between complete despondence, because obviously I am a fraud who has never had any original ideas, and consuming yet impotent rage, because I thought of my idea before reading Dr. Ivy League’s Book and without her help, and surely there is a way I can get some credit for that?

There is no way to get credit for that. Editors generally frown upon opening with “This book is about how children see, and I approach it in this very novel way that I figured out long before that dream-dasher at that terrible conference mentioned How Young People Look at Things. DIBS.” They also don’t appreciate defensive footnotes. “I KNOW ABOUT THAT OTHER BOOK, OKAY!?!”

I know this will happen, because it happens every time. I mean, sure. Once in awhile I’ll write about something that has received very limited critical attention, or that has not been featured in any research I’ve found. (See that? I’ve learned that you should never say that something has not received any critical attention. It’s like saying “Bloody Mary” in the bathroom mirror. It calls forth scholars who have written about that very thing.) Academics exult in the obscure, so even in researching and writing my narrowest of projects, I have had the come-to-Jesus, “that’s my idea!” moment. Every essay. Every conference paper. Most presentations in my seminars while I was earning my PhD.

And my dissertation, too, which turned into Book One. I was knee-deep in that project when I finally read Marah Gubar’s Artful Dodgers. Cue Dramatic Chipmunk. Adult-child collaboration! Victorian children’s literature! And Charles Dickens’s A Holiday Romance is in there! Someone else read that thing!?! Woe!

It can feel apocalyptic. Especially in graduate school, when you’re living in your hermetically sealed and myopic dissertation bubble, and when everyone around you wants to know about your contribution to the field. And I’m here, failing loudly, to let you know that it happens after you append “Doctor” to your name, and it will probably happen until you die. (You’ll come up with a real zinger of a parting word only to discover someone else uttered it on their last breath.) We are trained this way: to define the worth of our scholarship by its departures, the way it turns away to face a new and exciting horizon.

But here’s the thing: the book that you think is your dissertation? The essay that you think is your conference presentation? It is not. I repeat: it is not. I say this not from some precipice of superiority but from the terrible trenches of self doubt. Friends: it is not your idea, but an adjacent idea, and it is a gift. That scholar, treading uninvited on what you thought was your turf, is your friend. (Sometimes that person is awesome and supportive and really does become your friend. Hi, Marah! I’m so glad I had a meltdown when I found your book!) And there are at least two reasons why finding that book is a good thing:

First, in the words of Kelly Clarkson and every annoying inspirational poster at the gym, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Sure, you’ll have to find a way to disentangle your ideas from someone else’s, and that’s just… well… it’s really hard. That other person might seem smarter, better read, and even better looking than you. They might have what appears to be a fancier job. This may or may not be true, but it matters in only a very limited way, if at all. The book-that-resembles-your-book is a whetstone upon which you will sharpen your thinking, make your thesis precise (and perhaps bolder), and clarify why what you’re doing matters. After all, someone else thinks this thing you’re doing matters! Now you need to figure out if you think it matters for the same reasons, in the same way.

Second: you don’t want to be the cheese. You don’t want to stand alone. I think that’s true for a lot of reasons. Some are abstract and intellectual. For example, I don’t think we should be trained to think of our scholarship as departures, as only turning away from what’s out there, and the best teachers don’t teach that way. I would rather be in a conversation than in a dismissive screaming match. (I write about collaboration, after all.) But some of those reasons are more practical. Editors don’t want you to be the cheese, either, and you’ll have to prove that you’re nondairy when you write a book proposal. “List three, four, five books that you’re in conversation with.” (Sometimes presses instruct you to name books you’re in “competition” with, but seriously? This isn’t tug-of-war. I refuse your terms and substitute my own.) This is when knowing about Dr. Ivy League comes in handy.

I’m going to try to remember this in the coming months when, in researching How Children See, I stumble upon How Young People Look at Things and Why Laddies Observe and Kiddies Using Their Eyes and Hey VFS This Is Your Book Written By Someone Else.

Because it’s not. I swear.


* Book One is soon to be released, and I certainly will write about the nearly ten-year-long string of failures that led to that one. But hey! Book!

2 thoughts on “in which, out of fear, I make Dramatic Chipmunk Face

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