Grrrrr . . . I’ve written before about how drafting a history exposes doubts about what actually happened. Sometime in 1949 or 1950, Russian scientists and engineers started to design a power reactor – a reactor exclusively built to generate electricity rather than to make plutonium for bombs. In 1954 they started up a tiny reactor that did just that, and the following year, at an amazing international conference, the Soviet Union could blare that it had just built the world’s first “peaceful” nuclear power plant.
I possess most of the available research material on this subject. (When I say “most,” I know there are some Russian-language odds and sods I don’t have, but I can’t believe anything new would come from these.) Previously I’ve been through my material in exhausting detail. I drafted the chapter. I plotted it afresh. Now I’m rewriting. And guess what?
Suddenly I’m unclear on exactly what happened as against the story of “Russia’s first peaceful nuclear power plant.” What is truth and what is a tale? Western writers have offered a few variants but who is right? When did the decision really take place and exactly why? It’s vital for me to get this right but all my earlier work is now under suspicion.
So forgive me if I grrrrrumble . . . this will take a day or two, and suddenly my timetable is smashed.
I tell myself to go “big picture,” this is not such a crucial narrative, I can be opinionated.
I don’t. Cope, that is. Writing novels used to be easier: miss a self-imposed deadline and I was a couple of months late. But this leviathan of a book seems to never reward but always to crush.
It’s all my fault, of course, as anyone except I could see from the start. I spent far too long gathering far too much material on an expansive topic. I made no attempt to winnow – my mantra was “I’m keeping an open mind.” I drowned myself and now writing is a brain-shredding exercise in slash and burn.
The upshot is that whenever I’ve planned, any realistic plan stretched out to infinity, so my actual announced “plans” have always been dreamy aspirations that quickly soured. Disappointment after disappointment after despondency after dejection . . . you get the picture.
I don’t often chat about this because responses tend to be unhelpful. The reaction I hate most goes like this: “Ah, but you’re keeping yourself busy, it’s clearly a labour of love, thank goodness something interests you, so many retirees get bored.” Find me a steep cliff, I think (but don’t open my mouth).
Luckily, this Writing Big Year spurred me to find mental models and working methods that have sped things up. On a wing and a prayer, my 2017 Writing Big Year (it’s actually 15 months) bestows on me a “plan” that is, I reckon, a real plan.
The Jogging Big Year: a cinch to write about because I’m on target. Most of my energy, however goes into the Writing Big Year, this book that fires me up but threatens to crush me. And that much grander daily preoccupation has not achieved what I’d hoped and planned.
I commenced 2016 committed to writing daily (lots) in order to finish drafting the book’s 20 chapters by year’s end. Over the past years, I’d often laid out such “plans” and then drowned, just drowned, and so it proved this year. On July 1, I revised the deal to two big years, drafting Chapters 1 to 8 this year, Chapters 9 to 20 next year. Well, on December 31 I’ll have in hand drafts of Chapters 1, 2, 5 and good chunks of 3 and 4. Statistically 2016 has been a 50% failure.
I wish it were otherwise. I wish I had no regrets. I wish I wrote this without a hammering heart.
But the Big Year notion has, in fact, driven huge changes in my writing approaches and methods. I’m doing better and, perhaps naively, have faith in my mind and my pen. On some mornings, a vision of the end flickers before me.
Writing an “everyperson” history in a technical area means having to make tricky word/phrase decisions. Consider radioactive waste. Very broadly, countries categorise their radioactive waste into high-level waste (that is, deadly shit) and low-level waste (much less dangerous although still dangerous). (Some countries also interpose intermediate-level waste, a complication beyond me.) High-level waste has an acronym: HLW. Similarly there is LLW. Different countries use different definitions of high-level waste versus low-level waste – but an easy decision for my book is to skate over those differences unless they’re important for some event. The definitions have varied over the decades, indeed in the early days, after WWII, there really weren’t any definitions – again I’ll glaze over this unless it’s important.
So here’s the question: do I write “HLW” or “high-level radioactive waste” over and over again. “High-level radioactive waste” is a horrid mouth stuffer that gums up paragraphs, but it has the virtue of being full words that carry meaning. Nonetheless it’s still jargon. “HLW” is concise but it’s gobbledygook. Which is better?
90% drafted. The last 10% is tricky but I can see how to do it. Back from birding in Tasmania in a couple of days. Push it!
One of my heroes, Austin Kleon, writes of seriousness versus lightness:
Stay at it, but stay light. Don’t be afraid to do what comes naturally. Fight the urge to be serious. Don’t let it destroy the very thing that makes you you.
(Photo via VisualHunt)