I just sent an essay on bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress off to my lovely editors at Chronicle Vitae. This essay was one I had to wrangle because there were so many things that I wanted to say alongside all the things I needed to say. Or maybe, this essay wrangled me because it refused to let me go until I had it in the necessary form for publication. Plus, there was the added pressure that I was writing about the work of bell hooks, who I admire and adore, on teaching, of which I have serious and complicated feelings. hooks is a force to be reckoned with; reckoning takes time. Her writing makes me pause and think about how the world works (and how writing works). There was much, much wrangling. I spent much time.
What I’ve learned as an essayist is that I cannot predict how long an essay will take me to conjure, to think about, and then write. Some essays surprise me by how quick they seem, and others are long, drawn-out affairs, which take months (or occasionally years) to complete. Some essays require my complete attention for days and weeks. Others linger in the back of my mind until I’m ready to write them. They bounce around as I work on other topics. They catch me unaware as I rock my toddler to sleep. They appear when I wake up in the morning or as I pour a cup of coffee. Some linger waiting for me to commit. Other ideas dissipate leaving me with a faint impression that I should write about something. Ideas don’t always become essays, yet the ideas that refuse to go away often do.
The labor of making an essay is solitary and not-quite-visible. I started snapping photos of my process in part to make my efforts visible. Inspired by Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work, I thought it might be cool to show folks a glimpse of what I was writing, editing, or researching for my essays. For me, to show, and for you, to see. For this essay in particular, I’ve been trying to capture each stage. I created photographic evidence, if you will, of what I do, but not all work is visible. I can only document that which materializes. Please keep this in mind. (more…)