in which I forget everything and begin nothing

I have a terrible memory. Sometimes my forgetfulness is an inconvenience, resulting in a missed credit card payment or a forgotten birthday. Sometimes it’s a professional embarrassment, because I really can’t remember the plot to any Dickens novel. (They all involve some sort of impoverished street urchin, right? And a blowhard middle-aged man with a catchphrase about being but a child or eating one’s hat?) Now and then my forgetfulness is painful or baffling, because I can’t remember my own past. As someone who studies childhood, my own often feels far away. Thinking back to my elementary school days in Franklin, Tennessee and Cary, Illinois, I grow still and squint, as if doing so will help the blurry edges of my memories solidify into sure lines. They never really do.

A few weeks ago, lying in bed, I tried to sort out the geography of my Franklin neighborhood. Our rock-and-cement back patio led to a slow hill that sloped to a pond full of mallards and, oddly, snapping turtles. I used to run down that hill with a bread bag full of stale crumbs, and the ducks would bite at the pom-poms attached to the backs of my socks. (The turtles, thank goodness, remained water-bound.) There was a trio of weeping willows where the edge of the pond swung away. I wasn’t supposed to venture under them, no matter how tempting it would be to Anne-of-Green-Gables it under their canopy of silver-green, because a neighbor had once spotted a water moccasin lurking there. (Man. My memory-neighborhood is hazardous.) Beyond that, a pool and some tennis courts, I think. A playground maybe? Further on, my brain stubbornly insists upon a haunted house which, if there at all, was certainly only there in October. I imagine it as a ramshackle shed that would only accommodate a handful of people, which doesn’t make sense. I was never brave enough to enter, but my brother told me there was a fake surgical theater inside featuring real human organs — that at the end of the night he saw the staff packing a liver and a heart in coolers full of ice.

All of that is probably wrong. Trying to sort out the landscape, I felt like I was watching a 3D movie without the red and blue glasses. Everything was imprecise, and houses and trees ghosted by their misaligned doubles. I teetered a little bit on the edge of panic — why can’t I remember anything? — before deciding I should just live with the smudginess. Really, I have no choice. I could embrace it even. Maybe I could create a map, I thought, that represents Franklin as I remember it, punctuated with stories and speculations and half-truths that will never be wholes.

I’ll likely never create that map, although I like daydreaming about it. In my head it can grow more and more sophisticated: a sprawling pop-up full of trap doors, origami windows, and calligraphied narratives of my life from kindergarten through second grade. By the water’s edge: the afternoon my brother, fishing in the pond behind our house, cast backward and accidentally lodged a fishhook into the bridge of my nose. The winter morning when I cried into my cereal as I watched the snow-caterpillar I’d built, its antennae two pert carrots, slowly melt on the hillside outside our back window. I was seriously inconsolable about that snow-a-pillar.

All of this probably seems far from scholarly writing. I’m not trolling JSTOR for articles to clarify the warped geography of my childhood neighborhood. (Although seriously. Those people who study geographies of childhood? Very cool.) But, because I remain in a post-tenure slump full of research rabbit holes and zero meaningful research projects really completed, I am beginning to understand the value of spinning out imagined projects, scholarly and otherwise. Realistic research agendas are important, and I certainly have a series of upcoming deadlines that attest to the professional necessity of staying attuned to those commitments. But there is also something to be said for imagining an article, a podcast, a book, a painting, an encyclopedia, a short story, or a childhood map that you likely will never start, let alone complete.

Here, for your reading pleasure, is a selection of projects I have imagined but not really begun:

A book — scholarly? trade press? — about Queen Victoria’s childhood, based on material artifacts.

A scholarly article on nineteenth-century children’s literature and magic lantern performances, perhaps accompanied by a magic lantern show, which would require me to buy Victorian magic lantern slides. (I just looked them up, and they are not expensive! Maybe I should revive this idea.)

A short story about taxidermied squirrels playing chess.

A book about the children of famous authors who tried to become authors themselves but really weren’t very good.

A gallery of paint-by-number paintings in my campus office, all famous modernist art.

An essay about picture books recounting the childhoods of modernist artists, especially picture books about artists whose lives were horrible or raunchy or just really full of drugs.

A biography of Georgia Engelhard Cromwell, whose child art was displayed at 291 in New York and who become a famous mountaineer.

Some of these are truly bad ideas. Some aren’t so bad. (That Cromwell biography sounds like a good time, but that’s coming from someone who has never written a biography.) Most fall somewhere in between. But revisiting them, even just listing them here, gives my brain some much needed exercise in understanding the proper scope of a project. It helps me think through why something I create might be interesting or important or worthwhile. And it gives me practice in imagining tasks (writing or otherwise) that are both exciting to me and actually possible.

Often graduate students struggle, while writing a prospectus and navigating a dissertation, with imagining a project, and admittedly figuring out the contours of a book-length endeavor is particularly difficult the first time you do it. (Your prospectus is probably two-and-a-half dissertations worth of material. Maybe three.) But I’m here to say, as I always do, that this problem does not go away once you have a PhD in hand. (That should be the subtitle of this blog: the problems that you thought would go away but instead persist post-PhD.) Figuring out how to set a task before yourself that makes sense, and makes meaning, is a skill that requires constant rehearsal. What would your idea look like as a grant proposal? As an article for an academic journal? As a blog post? As a book? What if you took that tangential point and moved it to the center? What if you acted it out with finger puppets?

Don’t do that. Finger puppets are creepy.

I need to hone this skill, because I’m definitely feeling stuck these days. I am, happily, surrounded by a lot of rich research. (OMG you guys. CHILD MEDIUMS. So many babies channeling the dead.) But that research just won’t organize itself into… well… anything. I’m going to keep up with the castles-in-the-air, keep rehearsing how ideas work. In the meantime, feel free to comment with your own unrealized project.

Who knows. Maybe we have the makings of a taxidermied animal edited collection.

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