Under Construction


“The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.”

Charles Dickens


 I’ve been thinking about construction, construction in its many guises. For the past few weeks, we’ve been in the process of having our bathroom remodeled. It’s the only bathroom in our house, so we’ve put it off and put it off for many years, but it was finally time—the tub was leaking, and the massive amounts of caulking that my husband and a contract applied was merely a Band-Aid, a temporary bandage covering a serious wound. We’ve lived in this house for about 26 years, and the bathroom was old then. Over the years, we (“we” meaning my husband) replaced bits and pieces—the toilet, the window—and painted, papered, and trimmed, but it was time to finally get rid of that avocado green tub–and the tile that had also seen better days.

Since I work from home, usually in the kitchen, which is located below our second floor bathroom, I’ve been writing to the rhythm of hammers and drills, the insistent clatter of tools and equipment, and the sounds of classic rock drifting down from the bathroom  (“Sing us a song, you’re the piano man. . .”). I got used to it, as did the cats, who ran to hide in the basement and under dressers, as soon as the men appeared each day, and padded out cautiously to find me when the men left the house.

ImageYes this had to go.


The men who did the work were considerate, and they did a great job. I am not complaining about them. Construction is messy and dirty, and it takes time. And I think that is true of all types of construction. Writing, for example.

As the men worked, I was finishing the manuscript for a new book, a Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast (AltaMira Press). With books and papers piled precariously around me, I read and revised entries, finished writing others, sent out consent forms to contributors, and worked on all the extra bits: the acknowledgements, the introduction, the bibliography. I was creating and constructing, although the product remains within my computer and everything connected with it is now sent electronically.

Although books remain books, and the creative process—or in my case, the creative chaos—remains the same, the actual writing process, and the printing and physical construction of books has changed significantly since I wrote my first book, Breaking the Bonds: Marital Discord in Pennsylvania, 1730-1830. I remember the hours my husband and I spent printing out the pages, reprinting pages after finding a mistake, going out to buy more ink cartridges, and then having to mail the whole manuscript. Page proofs also arrived by mail, and then they had to be mail back to the press. I was always afraid they would not arrive.

Now, I send all of my work electronically, and page proofs are also sent to me in that format. It is so much easier!

It is simple to romanticize the writer, pen—quill pen!—in hand, scrawling lines across the page, crossing out words, and re-writing. It is fascinating to be able to look back the words of writers of the past and see how their thoughts and words changed in revisions. I was reminded of this recently by the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. President Abraham Lincoln wrote several version of the address, and experts say he also improvised as he delivered it. (Here is an interactive exhibit: http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/entity/%2Fm%2F037yx?v.filter=exhibits .)

Scholars have analyzed scraps of paper left by Emily Dickinson and manuscripts in William Shakespeare’s hand, as well as the work of other writers of the past in order to better understand their creative processes—and how they constructed their works of art.

As wonderful and sometimes awe-inspiring as this is, it is still romanticizing a process. Would Shakespeare or Dickinson have preferred to write on a computer? We’ll never know, although I can picture Will sitting in the local tavern iPad before him.  Colonial Americans made ink out of all sorts of ingredients, including wine. Ink, pens, and paper were difficult for many people to get, and it is difficult to write by candle light. The effort of Solomon Northup, an African-American man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the nineteenth-century American South, to write a letter by making his own ink and pen is dramatized in the movie, Twelve Years a Slave. In his memoir, Northup describes using a duck feather and ink made by boiling white maple bark.

             Handwritten records with scratched-out lines and re-written phrases are mostly now relics of the past, as writers work on computers and constantly edit their words. Yet, I know I am a better writer because I can write and rewrite with ease. Although I received good grades as an undergraduate, I think back on my writing at that time, and I cringe. It was too difficult for me to retype papers on my typewriter. One mistake meant a whole page had to be re-typed, and then mostly likely, the next page as well. “White-out” only worked if you caught a mistake as you were typing, or if you only had to replace a letter or two. Of course, I corrected obvious errors and typos, but other than that, I rarely rewrote.

            There is good construction and bad construction, and both might begin with the same tools and processes. 

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The bathroom construction is finished. (YAY!) My book manuscript has been sent to my editor. The talk I constructed based on my History of American Cooking went well; however, I suppose I am still working on the construction of my public persona. That will be an on-going process with blueprints that must be updated daily. I’m not certain I loved any of these creations, but Dickens is correct that I could not love the constructions until they were completed. I will be excited to see a Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast in print—and I hope I love it.

Coming soon—my construction of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah dinners. The creative process is in full swing–and I do love it.

            Happy constructing, everyone, and thanks for reading.