On Progress and the Occasion of Its Lack Thereof

I have over the past few years increasingly encouraged students to keep a journal of some kind as they begin work on projects. Blogs are acceptable, since they give one the chance to publish something — or at least create an atmosphere in which one is reminded that you hope to find, or create, a public interested in your work. Whether a journal or a blog, the most important thing is to write. Words don’t just flow; they don’t just happen. They have to be strung together into sentences and those sentences grouped into paragraphs and those paragraphs diligently blocked into sections called sections or chapters.

But the key is to write.

My friend Rodger Kamenetz once said, “You have to be there to get it.” And by that, I have always thought he meant that you have to write. Writing is like any other activity, any other skill: it requires practice. The great thing about writing is that sometimes the practice can turn out to be a really useful, and usable, piece of prose that one can use in a “non-practice” venue. The truly useful thing about a journal, or blog, whether it be handwritten or electronic is that one is free to copy from it to another work.

I am writing all this here as a way of practicing quite literally what I preach. After a really nice start to the summer with something like 12,000 words written in the manuscript, the past two weeks have seen the mighty wheels of the book grinding, if not quite to a halt, then grinding much more slowly. So much so that I decided to take a momentary break to revise an essay for the _Journal of American Folklore_ that is very much past due.

I will have a bit more to say about the revision of the essay in the next day or so, as I complete that work, but I did want to spend some time here noting the slow-down in writing and encouraging myself, and my students (should they read this), to try this: chronicle even the moments when the writing is not going so well.

I’ll even go so far as to offer up a bit of a chronicle…

As some of you know, I am trying to write this book less like a scholarly monograph and more like trade nonfiction. This has been harder than I could have imagined. A lot of the practice I had been getting in by writing various commissioned essays for the Louisiana Crossroads performance series were really more belletristic than I imagined this book being. Like some of my scholarly work, those belletristic essays are very tightly-bound pieces, the binding made up of very careful turns of language that, I hope, convey an idea with a fair amount of precision. I want this manuscript to be “looser,” with the ideas being conveyed not in highly-tuned sentences and paragraphs but in paragraphs and sections that feel like packets of information casually, but purposefully, put together.

The structure of these sections looks something like this:

1. **Making Land**
* *Something Amphibious This Way Comes* – description of a crawfish boat at work
* *The Olinger Repair Shop* – introduction to the book’s multi-threaded argument
* *Hills and Holes* – the geology and topography of south Louisiana
* *We’re Not That* – a very brief history of the Cajuns
* *(no working title)* – a very brief history of the Germans
* *Ein bateau* – a survey of the area’s folklore
2. **Making History**
* Survey of Louisiana folk boats, especially with an eye to amphibious forms
* The Rise of the Crawfish Boat
* The First Field Day
* … Profiles of the various makers
3. **Making Minds**

Each section is designed to be 2000 to 5000 words long, which gives me a lot of flexibility, which is the goal of having no chapter structure. So what I have are parts and sections, each of which can grow or shrink according to demand and desire.

Within that scheme, the first and third sections of the first part are done as are the second, third, and fourth sections of the second part, as well as various sections in the third part of the book (whose structure is not yet clear to me).

The last week of June just sort of got frittered away, but I spend last week working on the second section of the first part, the crucial laying out of the thesis section. I am 3000 words in, make no mistake I got some writing done!, but I am not entirely convinced that any of the plans I have cooked up for that section have been or will be successful.

And so I jumped out of that section and into the Cajun history section, §4 of Part I, where I got hung up on how to construct the frame for the section.

Two things to note here:

* First, each section of the book possesses a narrative frame. The book simply doesn’t tell you about the crawfish boat: it puts you in a boat with someone — in this case, Randy Gossen. The book doesn’t talk about shops … okay, enough about what the book does … I don’t talk about the shops and what happens there, I want to put you in a shop so that you can “see” some things while I talk about them. In the case of the section that follows on geology, I narrate a fair amount of material while Dwayne Gossen in his tractor water levels a field.

* Second, I want to narrate the history of Cajuns while traveling with the Mermentau Mardi Gras … and, I just figured out how to do that while writing this entry.

And so, I made my point.