I sold a bike this weekend. I’d had it for a bit over a
year, and had a ton of fun riding it, but I hadn’t ridden it in four months,
and when a friend posted a “Want to Buy” for just such a beast (single speed
mountain bike) on the local bike forum, it was a clear sign that it was time to
pass it on to another rider.
Selling a bike is always an occasion for mixed feelings, but
three main currents stand out. First, there’s the thrill of freeing oneself of
a possession, particularly a possession that has become part of one’s identity.
Second, there’s the regret at the loss of a freedom; there are now paths I can’t
ride which I probably could have. Third, there’s bewilderment: “How does the money
disappear so fast?”
It's not enough to write a book any more. Now you have to write a proposal to get the book under contract, a grant application to get funding, another grant application to get funding (rinse and repeat as necessary), a report for your department on what you've done this year, and what you plan to do next year... and now your publisher is asking for chapter abstracts and keywords when you send the final manuscript in for editing.
"Have you had any push-back from authors?" our manager asked. Well, no. They're used to writing about what they've written about—not that it's necessarily enjoyable, or valued. But the reflexivity of that activity (writing about what you're writing about) isn't just a cute way of stating the obvious, it reveals a bit of a truth about writing: the object of the writing (the research, the story) and the writing itself aren't easily separable. You're always trying to tell the story, you're always inevitably condensing and narrating and leaving out and framing and filtering. Whether you're giving your elevator pitch ("You'll love it; it's about this early modern German named Hermann Connring and the fundamental shift in the relationship of past and present.") or writing an 800-page manuscript, or editing that manuscript down to a reasonable 120,000 words, or even distilling that manuscript into a 7-line table of contents (Germans, by the way, call it a "table of content"—that little change always reminds me that there must be substance to the book.), it's always a representation. The only sharp line in representation is between the representations and reality.
And so, no, we don't get push-back. Maybe grumbling about another task to do, but hey, we've been adding to authors' tasks to do ever since we took away their typists (well, most of their typists) thirty years ago. (The division of labor giveth, and the division of labor taketh away.) We still overexplain the need; we throw around words like "mixed media environment," "searchability," and "discoverability," but fundamentally, we're asking for a map.
And so I write: You’ve already created one map of your book: the table of contents. The table of contents is a large-scale “highway map” of the general route that your readers will take. There will soon be another map in the form of an index; this is a very local map (“Where was that excellent taco restaurant? Come to think of it, where are all the taco restaurants? This guy did a wildebeest-shooting helicopter ride but I want to do a cross-country taco hop.”). The abstracts and keywords are yet a third kind of map: they’re like the maps posted on signs at the entrance to a campus, with a “you are here” to situate the visitor, and to show that reader, who may not have come in the main entrance, what there is to see. Publishing now involves searching and coming at books (and chunks—that's a technical term—of books) from all sorts of directions, and so you can't rely (if you ever could) on a reader looking at the Table of Contents and the Introduction.
But it's all representation, and it's What Authors Do.
We interrupt our regularly-neglected programming to bring you thoughts on "what I’ve learned from our week of small-group schooling (in brief)." (Future generations and foreigners reading this may want to know that this is occasioned by the Chicago Teachers' Strike of 2012.)
When you have a classroom full of kids, it’s fairly easy to get them all to do the same thing. You put on an air of command, say “sit down,” they all sit down. You say “listen,” and you can even get them (yeah, it may take some barking and nipping at the heels of the wanderers) all to sit quietly and look up at whatever you’re showing them.
When you’ve only got two or three, they’re a lot harder to control. They each want to talk more—no, they all want to talk, all the time. Except for the one(s) who never want to talk (but with them, you can’t say to yourself, well, he’s quiet and not disturbing the class; he must be doing ok). You have to get them all to buy in to what you’re doing, because there’s no pressure to conform working in your favor. You have to work harder. You can tell when they’re not learning, when their attention is wandering, when you just haven’t got the right tone or metaphor or explanation. You work harder, you re-pitch what you’re saying, you have to reach each of them individually. You have to work harder.
They learn more. They work harder (Evidence: Nellie has been completely exhausted every night this week.). There’s no hiding in a class of three: they can’t hide behind a superficial conformity; you can’t hide behind public persona, and, more importantly, the group pressure to conform that can make it look like they’re all learning.
Differences between kids stand out. The ones who get whatever you’re talking about get it, and want to move on. They can’t—they realize they don’t have to—slack through something they can do quickly. The ones who don’t get it on the first go-round—you can’t move on until they’re ready, because you can see it in every part of their bodies when they haven’t got it yet. You have to figure out how to resolve this.
It’s exhausting and great. It’s not scalable (though the really great classroom teachers come close).
Ahh, resolutions. The problem with them is that when you resolve to do something Every Day, and you miss a day, you've flunked. I've been riding every day this month (even if just the 1-mile round trip to the office and back) but manifestly not posting to the blog. Belated catch-up, this is, then.
But a bit more on self-motivation. I resolved this year to attempt to ride 100 miles a week. Resolve to attempt? sounds week. But it keeps the resolution fresh and renewable; if I miss 100 miles in a week, there's no reason not to come back at it next week. Keeping track of my mileage, I've had a week of 33 miles (just commuting and errands) and a week of 233 miles. Average is a bit under 100/week for the year, but no matter; as summer comes, we'll do more biking out to picnic for dinner.
Getting dropped is a common occurrence for a lousy bike racer like myself; this morning it wasn't due to an inability to maintain the speed of the pack, nor even the mechanicals that plagued my last two races. No, I can admit that my beloved spouse, riding along on what she refers to as her "granny" bike, with big 'ol front basket and (I'm embarrassed to admit; we have the same mechanic, Dr. Fledermaus and I, and he is me.) squeaky chain (it just started squeaking, honest!) and 8-speed hub gear that only reaches 4 gears, and unreliably at best (I've been working on it, honest! I replaced the crunchy cable housing but that didn't solve it; the shifter ring is sticky for some other reason.) dropped my sorry ass like a bad habit about seven times as we trundled the smaller of the Batchildren to his 2-year check-up and back home.
And she scoffs when I tell her she'd be good at bicycle racing.