5 Things I Learned While Writing World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia

I’ve been in hyper-writing mode for the past few months. My days—and nights—have been consumed with writing. I would begin writing early in the morning, take a break to go to the gym (a spin class or boot camp class—something to make my heart pound and my body drip with sweat), and then go back to my keyboard for the rest of the day. Sometimes I stopped to make dinner; sometimes I didn’t. I didn’t do much of anything else. I didn’t want to stop to make phone calls or do the grocery shopping, or pay bills (OK, no one wants to do that anyway). Books and papers piled up around me. I have felt like I couldn’t pause or relax or do anything except write. In a strange way though, it has been exhilarating and empowering. I have never written so much so quickly. I amazed myself.  My feelings may change once I’ve heard back from my editor, but in the meantime, here are some other things I learned while working on this book—my tenth!

1. I’ve admired—and envied—my daughters’ ability to write quickly and well. I’ve seen my younger daughter write brilliant school papers in an hour or two–while watching TV and answering texts. Both daughters have written school and professional papers, blog posts, plays, and of course, the annual Passover skit for our family Passover dinner. Well, the envy is gone because now I know I can do it, too.

2. I’ve learned there is actually some scientific research that supports the idea that the more you write, the better you become at writing. You can read about it here and here.

My brain has been practicing quite a bit. I’ve even been having writing/editing dreams. What’s interesting to me is that they did not seem like anxiety dreams. They were more like my subconscious giving me encouragement. I was seeing eighteenth-century texts in my head, and Dream Me was kind of saying—“Hey, look at this.” Or, “remember to look for this tomorrow.” A couple of nights ago Dream Me even saw and read from Thomas Paine’s The Crisis, “These are the times that try men’s souls. . . ” I read much more to myself in the dream, as I saw the words on a page. I definitely couldn’t quote it to you now, but somewhere in my brain, those words exist. How weird! How wonderful! (Hmmm. . .maybe I do really know Italian, I just can’t remember it when I’m awake.)

3.  Dealing with contributors. Has anyone written a book on that?  I’ve edited four encyclopedia projects now, and two collections of essays, so you would think I’d know that contributors can be horrible and wonderful, but with this project I seemed to hit extremes at both ends. World of the American Revolution a much bigger project than others I’ve worked on, a fact that my otherwise wise and creative brain (see above) failed to recognize at the outset. With this book I had more contributors simply vanish into thin air after agreeing to write (and of course, they were usually the ones who insisted they could write many, many entries). I had others who thought plagiarizing was no big deal. Uggghhhh! I had a few who simply did not know how to write an encyclopedia article. Seriously, you’re an adult, I shouldn’t have to send you multiple e-mails telling you that you’ve missed the deadline, or explaining to you that you can’t plagiarize. If you agree to write article, write them, do them correctly, and get them in on time. If something comes up, then send me an email so that I know.  Really, I’m not your mom, and I shouldn’t have to nag you. (Not that I nagged my kids. . .much).

SOOOO. . . I had to write many, many more articles than I thought I would have to write.

However, I also had wonderful contributors who took on writing additional articles. And if any of them are reading this—a thousand thanks!

4. The bright side of having to write so many more articles myself? I’ve gained all sorts of fascinating knowledge about subjects I knew nothing about before starting this book. (Yes, I am a cockeyed optimist. See, I can’t even maintain my rant!) I’ve learned from reading articles, of course, but there’s something about researching and writing about a topic that makes it stick more firmly in my head.

5.Finally, I’ve learned that despite my best intentions, I am not an organized writer. This is what my kitchen table looked like.

My assistant sits on Mt. Chaos

My assistant sits on Mt. Chaos

Anne Lamott says:

“Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.”

My philosophy? I aim for perfection in my writing, but it takes an enormous mess to get there.

So if I announce I’m going to work on a new project, please remind me of some things. Remind me that if the next project involves contributors, I’m going to be frustrated. I’m also going to be disorganized, even though I start out with lists, perfectly organized files, and good intentions. By the time I finish, my house will be a complete mess, and most likely I will be, too, but I will also feel that I’ve accomplished something remarkable. It’s an awesome feeling.

And now, I’m going to get started on Thanksgiving cooking!

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8 thoughts on “5 Things I Learned While Writing World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia

  1. Merril, I’m in another universe sorting, recycling and boxing our mother’s things experiencing the push-pull of chaos and order. I definitely subscribe to Anne Lamott’s quote.

    I will welcome the movers’ truck so we can put an exclamation mark. Through it all, strenthening bonds with my siblings.

  2. Dear cock-eyed optimist, I read the post on the fly over too many boxes and Scotch shipping tape. At 8:30 pm I am getting my second wind and wish to applaud your accomplishments.

    Ten books – wow, oh, wow – you are soaring. I am so proud of you, persevering through all the zig-zags of the writing/living process and reveling in the research too. Mount Chaos is also Mount Metamorphosis. It looks like you have arrived, Merril.

  3. Hi, Merril. I keep seeing you at Marian’s website, so I hopped onboard here to learn more about you. I’m writing an essay now for an edited collection. I’m one of those troublesome contributors. 🙂 My hat is off to all editors who patiently do the work, deal with the chaos, and somehow pull order out of it.

    I’m off now to work on the hardest, third section, of my 8,000-word essay. Best wishes on your project. And yes, it will be worth it in the end!

    My background is American Civilization. What a great idea to write an encyclopedia of daily life.

    • Hi Shirley! Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your comments.
      What is the collection you’re working on (if you’re allowed to say)?

      I wish I could take credit for the daily life idea, but it’s ABC-CLIO’s. They have had a daily life series, but they decided to re-brand it with a more features, and they offered me this one. I don’t know what my next project will be, so stay in touch. 🙂

  4. I’m contributing to a book about vocation and education. A group of academics have gathered to read great books, discuss, and then write about the many ways the idea of vocation can add meaning to the classroom setting for professors in many fields as they help their students see the significance of their studies for meaning making in their lives. Book, not yet named, will probably come out in 2016.

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