This project has been nothing but fun, and it has taught me many valuable lessons about time management, self-discipline, openness to change, overcoming doubts, and many, many other things. Writing a dissertation or a book is a labor of such intensity–sending the manuscript off to the publisher for review was like seeing my kindergartener off at the bus stop for her first day of school. *Sniff, sniff*
The most important thing I learned from this experience is simple: get to work writing! I first considered writing this book back in the late fall, early spring 2011-2012. I posted some of my first thoughts about the project on the blog here. (It didn’t transfer very nicely from the old Blogger site.) I worked on a paper on American exceptionalism during the summer of 2012 for presentation at Conference on Faith and History, held at Gordon College that year. Honestly, I thought it was a disaster (turns out, because it was a disaster!). I sat on a panel with two other presenters. When I gave the paper, I received no feedback, no questions, and the paper generated no discussion whatsoever. It was as if the thirty minutes of the presentation was a great void in time. I was totally dejected.
I considered giving up on the project. Maybe I’m the only person that thinks this is interesting, I thought. In fact, one of my fellow panelists suggested in his presentation that exceptionalism was not really a worthy topic of study–right after I gave my paper! I returned home with my tail between my legs, and seriously considered scrapping the whole thing.
But then, after a few days and some decent nights’ sleep, I thought I’d try and put together a book proposal on the topic. After all, I had a lot of good friends encourage me to keep plugging away. I wrote a book proposal, made appointments with six or seven publishers at the 2012 ETS meeting, and hoped for the best. InterVarsity expressed sincere interest in it, and a few months later, offered me a contract.
The journey from the dejection I felt at CFH to the moment the email came from IVP with a contract offer was a lesson in getting to work on the writing project despite suffering a setback. I recently looked over that paper I wrote in the summer of 2012, and yeah, it was true. The paper was not all that good. I hadn’t given the topic sufficient thought at that stage, so my ideas were half-baked and one-dimensional. But the experience forced me back to the drawing board, made me reassess my ideas, and motivated me to get it right.
The point of all this is–if you have a writing project you are turning over in your mind, then stop thinking about it and get to work writing! And if you’ve had some setbacks, then go back to the drawing board and re-engage the topic. It doesn’t matter if what you write is just brainstorming. The important thing is that you put your ideas on paper. You also need to be reading articles and books that are on your topic to help you back your idea into a corner. The turning point article for me was James Ceaser’s “Origins and Character of American Exceptionalism” also found here. I read the article about two weeks after the calamitous CFH panel. Ceaser’s insights rang a bell in my head, and it was as a result of reading his article that my ideas began to take shape and establish coherence–a coherence that was lacking in the paper I gave at the conference.
You should also consider reaching out to authors of books or articles you read and ask them questions about their observations and conclusions. In this day and age, all you have to do is Google someone’s name and you can find their email address. I emailed Ceaser (he teaches political science at UVA), and before I knew it, we were talking on the phone and having an enormously helpful conversation. Not only do you get insights from talking to people directly that you never would have had otherwise, you also build up a network, become an interlocutor in a conversation occurring on your topic, and even get other opportunities to write book reviews, blog posts, and conference papers.
Do you have a blog? If not, why not? Blogging is a great way to get to work writing. In this early post on exceptionalism, I asked for feedback on my topic–I got several good ideas from people who read my blog (more than just my mom!). Do you have a Twitter handle? If not, get one and start following people in your field.
Have you been to the library? Have you put together a core collection of books and articles that can serve as the basis for a bibliography? Have you been to Amazon to see what current books have been written on your topic? Have you been looking for calls for papers from conferences that are dialoguing about your topic?
All these things are important, and you should be doing all of them if you have a topic you want to write a book about. But as you do all of these things: write. Are you discouraged? Then, write. Bogged down? Write. Overwhelmed with the amount of work? Write. Stuck in a rut? Write.
Write. Write. Write.