What to Write....

when you've been writing all day and are tired? I was worried this might happen when I started working on my book. There I am, at the rock face (a.k.a. iMac) all day, chipping away at the thing that I hope is The Book and then I come home and need to think about something else to talk about, other than what I'm been writing all day. And there's nothing. Writing is so absorbing, I can't talk about anything else, can't think about anything else. It takes every scrap of concentration that I have just to find that next sentence. Not this one. Or this one. These are easy (not to mention, not all sentences). But the one that comes next after this: "Cathedrals dedicated to the Virgin were rather more open to the adoption of her hours." I don't know; that's the sentence that is going to be waiting for me tomorrow. And what will I say?

I have articles and books talking about how various centers adopted the Office, but I only know what they say passively, as it were. I could tell you now, but that would be to start trying to write and as I said, I'm tired. What, after all, makes it so hard if I can read somewhere else that Laon, say, or Chartres included the hours of the Virgin in its customary--see, I just told you--shouldn't all I have to do is say so? But then, do I really know this if I haven't checked the primary sources myself? And what if I can't? Many of the things that the articles and books are referencing are either manuscripts (some of which I have seen, but most which I have not) or editions of manuscripts that our library does not have. I can guess what they say from the paraphrases given in the scholarship, but more often than not, once I do check the sources, they say something rather different from what my scholarly colleagues have led me to believe. So I can't trust anyone, except to give me the references for where to look first.

And then what? I have to figure out how this bit of information fits with this other bit over here: who knew whom, where he (not usually "she" with the sources I'm working with right now) was writing, whether the source is what it purports to be and not some later retelling...and on, and on, and on. Just trying to describe the process here is making me tired. It's not that the writing itself takes so very long; the sentences usually come in bursts, half-formed with a hint of how they will finish. It's the trying to decide whether what they say is actually true. I think I spent two hours this afternoon on one sentence that I'd already written and was fairly pleased with, going over and over in my mind how many ways it might or might not be correct, trying to remember where in all the piles of notes and photocopies and books I'd read the thing that made me think what I had just said so that I could reference it, doubting when I found the reference whether it really was what I was remembering, looking through all of the books a second and third and fourth time, trying to make sure that what I had written was more or less right. And you wonder that I come up for air every so often to see what's happening on Facebook.

I'm not sure how you teach someone to go through this process. It's not that writing like I'm doing at work is simply about getting your ideas down. It is that--and sometimes it is the hardest part of the process, like trying to see the back of your own head, trying to figure out why you are so convinced that this bit of information is so important--but it is also about making a statement that can be tested against things (evidence, sources) not in one's own head, but rather out there, somewhere in the world, even harder, somewhere in a world that no longer exists except in scraps and traces, i.e. the past. Worse, there's so much of the past out there, how do I know which bits are actually important to this story that I am trying to tell here and how much I can assume that my readers will know and how much I have to tell them in order for them to feel comfortable with the information I've given them? Context, proof, more context, my idea, proof, context. Like a braid, weaving in and out, in and out. Or like balls I'm trying to keep all at once in the air.

The hardest part, I realized today, is understanding what not to say. It's as if the book somehow already exists, Borges-like, in all of the other books, and what I have to do is chip away everything from those books that isn't mine in order to discover what I am trying to say, somewhere inside. I can't tell you (because that would mean writing it!) how much I learned or relearned today simply in order not to have to write about it. Yes, I understand now who Manegold of Lautenbach was (is that spelled right?), but I don't really need to tell you everything about him, just enough to understand (I hope) why it is significant that he included instructions on how to say the hours of the Virgin in the customary (was it a "customary" or, rather, a "rule"? Should I say "constitutions" instead? Oh, but I just called Peter de Honestis's rule for his community a "constitution"; maybe "instructions"? No, that's not quite right....) for his community ("monastery"? "house"? but it's Augustinian canons, right?) of Marbach in Upper Alsace (is that right?). And so forth, to the end of the page.

And do you know what the most incredible thing about this whole process is? I want to be doing it! Amazing, eh? There is nothing so satisfying as having spent hours trying to decide whether Anselm of St. Saba (Sabas?) could have heard the story of Mary's healing a dying cleric with a few drops of her milk from someone who might have heard it from Peter Damian (are you lost yet? You wouldn't be if you were reading what I've been writing these past few days, because there I've given you all the context--and references--you need) because, at the end of it, you really know, at least to the extent that the sources allow. And then to be able to link this idea with that one, watch the pattern emerge ("Oh, so he knew him and he was there when she was visiting"), such that all at once, you realize that that is why you thought this was the right thing to say there. Everything pops into focus and the world makes sense, if only for a day.

So, I guess I'll be back at my desk tomorrow, celebrating my birthday (44!) doing the thing that I most want to be doing in the whole world: praising God for giving me the opportunity to spend my days thinking about all of the ways in which medieval Christians praised His Mother.


  1. OK, cool. That settles it. As if the world really needs it, I am going to start a blog. It's been on my mind for several weeks, but now, having read this (and the blog you link to) I actually believe I need to do it. Thanks.


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