The Book as a 400 Individual Medley

poolWhen I swam in college, I had a teammate named Liz, who probably swam every event in the meet lineup at least once during the three years I swam with her. This versatility is unusual in a swimmer; we tend to be specialists who have one to three events we hone over the course of four years. But Liz’s ability to take on different events, distances, and strokes made her a perfect (or unfortunate, depending on how you see it) candidate for the ironman of all swim events: the 400 yard individual medley. Shorter than the mile by far, but just as grueling because of its demand that swimmers be proficient in all four of the strokes, this race was one I never had to swim. I was a middling backstroker, and my coaches used to make me swim breaststroke when they wanted a laugh. I was a butterflyer, an occasional middle-distance freestyler, and a relay sprinter—but I knew the theory of the 400 IM. You had to pace yourself on the ‘fly, especially if you weren’t great at it, work the underwater kick off the walls on the backstroke, keep the breaststroke long and strong, and get the hell off the wall and head for home with everything you had left in your lungs for the freestyle.

Remember, way back when, when I said I’d check in to talk about the book-writing process? Those of our readers who’ve written a book or two probably thought that promise was hilariously ambitious, and I’m inclined to agree.

I’m working on a metaphor here.

I feel like I’ve come up for air at the end of the breaststroke, and that I’m clutching that wall for dear life before that last, sprint-as-hard-as-you-can-even-though-sprinting-after-300-yards-of-strokes-you’re-not-great-at-is-ridiculously-impossible stretch.

There’s a lot about writing this thing that reminds me of the 400 IM. Writing the dissertation is like being an ordinary swimmer; you take one or two of your strengths and you hone them over several years until you’ve made your specialties as good as they’re going to get before it’s time to get out of the water. Writing the book, though, has involved confronting the things I’m not so great at. For me, that’s theory, and learning when to emphasize my argument and when to acknowledge that other historians’ work is more persuasive than mine. It’s also meant cutting the pieces that were slowing me down.

Here’s the other part of writing a book that’s like the 400 IM: the team. When Liz swam the 400 IM, or when I swam the 200 butterfly, you could guarantee that there’d be teammates at either end of the pool, cheering you on whenever you raised your head for a breath, whenever you came into and off the wall, and during that last 25 yards when all you wanted was to touch out, pull yourself out of the water, and flop onto the deck and breathe the humid, chlorinated air. If you were really in the zone your teammates’ yells dropped to a murmur in the background, amplifying only when you hit the walls and once you finished. But the cheering was especially crucial during the tough races, the ones where you started butterflopping instead of butterflying, when your training hadn’t quite caught up with the pace you set yourself at the start of the race. I feel like that team is still here at the end of draft one of the completed book manuscript, and it’s been cheering me on the whole time.

Time to push off, put my head down, and put this race to bed.

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