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!