As promised, I landed myself a part-time job down here in the hopes of making this last leg of the journey sustainable. I’m still hoping to wrap things up within the next few months, but some income means I don’t have to burn through my savings to do it. It’s a tutoring gig, and it remains to be seen whether I’ll be able to pick up enough hours to offset my expenses down here, but I’m trying to pick up more freelance work either way. The tutoring job is nice, though, because the hours are flexible, the pay is decent, and from my time working as a tutor in college, I know it’s fulfilling work. I’m grateful I didn’t have to pick up a marketing job.
I’m also off and running with the interviews. I’ve done a few phoners already and have an in-person interview to get to as soon as I hit publish on this post. The majority of my interviews from here on out will be over the phone, though. I always prefer to do them face-to-face when possible, but while more of my remaining subjects live in Athens than anywhere else, the majority of them live elsewhere. The upside there is that when I travel (like when I head up to Philadelphia for a few days next week), I can keep my momentum going.
And now that it’s a theme, I’ll plug the book I just finished reading: Jesse Jarnow’s Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock. Must be nice to only have one band to write about. In all seriousness, though, this was a really thorough history of a band who preceded the Elephant 6 by a solid decade but who occupied similar space. That is, Yo La Tengo is a beloved indie band that toiled for years before flirting with the mainstream, never quite let itself be pigeonholed, forged important connections all over the indie rock world, and left a bigger mark creatively and critically than commercially. Jarnow’s account weaves the story of the band into a larger context—of the Hoboken DIY scene specifically and the emergent indie rock world more broadly—gracefully, portraying Yo La Tengo as unique within that sphere without neglecting the band’s more common traits that fit it neatly in that sphere in the first place. I like Yo La Tengo quite a bit but never quite latched onto them the way a lot of writers of my ilk have, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed the book more were I a bigger fan. But as a writer with some similar goals for my own book, it’s a valuable reference point.
There’s a myth about artists of all kinds that the best ones are depressed, and there have certainly been a lot of great artists (writers included) who battled depression and other mental illness. Many of my favorites committed suicide.
But as someone who has dealt with depression and anxiety myself, I’ve found I’m significantly more productive when I’m feeling good. I can’t speak for anyone else, of course, but I suspect that’s the case with most people. And maybe it’s different with different media, but when I’m feeling depressed, writing is often the last thing I want to do.
The tricky thing about depression is that, in addition to making it harder to work, not working makes me more depressed. It’s brutally recursive. But whether I’m feeling good right now because I’ve been productive or I’ve been productive because I’m feeling good, I’m doing my best to maintain both. I’ve been feeling mostly pretty great since I’ve been down here (not always, of course, but that’s fine, too), and I’m trying to put that energy and my current abundance of free time into a foundation that will endure when I have to deal with things like “having a job” and “being cold sometimes.”
I bought a juicer and have been eating much healthier in general. I walk a ton, do a lot of yoga, and I started running for the first time in my life (I’ve never been able to go more than a quarter mile without getting shin splints, but I made it a mile and a half the other day with no pain). I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone socially. Generally, I’m trying to build up a pretty strong routine, so that when I do start working again or move somewhere that gets cold in the winter or have to deal with any of the other negative or just banal things that life throws at me, I can keep at it. And I’ve been more productive in the meantime. It’s pretty good.
I’ve also been reading a lot more. In my last post, I mentioned Love is a Mix Tape, and since then I’ve started and finished Both Flesh and Not, a David Foster Wallace essay collection (I’m consciously reading authors whose style I want to emulate in my own writing, and though I’ve outgrown some of Wallace’s views, his prose is among my favorite ever), and Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age, by Mark Knopper, a deep dive on how the record industry’s major contraction is a product of decades of stunningly poor decision-making. Basically, I’m bouncing back and forth between reading books to make me a better writer by osmosis and reading books on topics that relate specifically to the one I’m writing.
I’ve got about a week of rewriting left to get this second draft where I want it, and then I’m passing it along to a friend of mine to get his thoughts. This is a big deal for a couple reasons.
First, it’s the first time I’ll have shown this to anybody since I started. I’ve shared a few paragraphs at a time with a handful of folks within the innermost ring of my social circle, and I think my dad saw 15-20 pages four years ago. But most of what I’m passing has been heretofore unseen by human eyes besides my own. I’m happy with where it is right now, but there’s a very tense feeling that comes along with anything like this. I’ve basically been working in a vacuum for more than seven years. In the same way moving a rifle just a fraction of a degree on your shoulder can cause the shot to miss your target by hundreds of feet if it’s far enough away, I’m worried about what I’ve hit. I hope I’m on the right track, but I’m asking this editor-in-pal to be brutally honest (and I chose him specifically because I trust him to do so). Writers develop thick skin early on dealing with editors (or they stop being writers), but it’s been a while since that was a regular part of my life, and I feel myself bracing already.
The other big thing here is that I’m not going to be touching the draft very much while it’s in his hands. It’s interview time. Having read through what I have a few times now, I’ve come up with about 15 people I’ve already interviewed and have follow-up questions for. In most cases, it’s just two or three, but in some cases it’s more than a dozen, and even when there’s just a few, those conversations can branch off into a lot of different directions. But it’s mostly folks who live in Athens and all folks I’ve already interviewed, so I think I can bang them out pretty quickly. The other crop is the group of people I haven’t interviewed yet but would like to. That list is about 60 deep right now and likely to get deeper as I talk to the people on it, as they’re wont to suggest other useful contacts. It’s certainly a long list, but I don’t expect to interview every single person on it. The more, the better, but if even most of them don’t want to talk to me, it’s not going to ruin the book. They’re mostly just to add some color and texture.
The main challenge here is going to be just staying organized. That’s about 75 people I’m trying to interview, which is going to require me to be a bit more coordinated than I’ve been so far. Sending out 75 “hey do you wanna talk to me” emails is easy. Keeping track of who has responded, when they’re available to talk, who I need to follow up with, etc. gets a little tricky. On top of that, I need to make sure I’m transcribing the interviews soon after they’re completed and then working the relevant pieces into my manuscript as quickly as I can. Transcribing is majorly tedious, but I can’t let it get away from me.
I’m planning to be aggressive about the interviews, though, and I think I can bang out the bulk of them in two or three months. If I can stay active folding them into draft as I go, that leaves me with another month or two for additional rewriting and locking down whatever stragglers remain, wrapping up a final draft in the early summer. We’ll see.
I’m finished my final read-through of my first draft, which means I’m now ready to start rewriting what I have and scheduling interviews to flesh out what I don’t. There’s a lot of work left to do, but certainly not more than I was expecting or more than I should be able to handle in the next few months. And feeling like I know what’s left makes it seem easier to tackle.
Not only do I know what’s left, I’ve sorted it into four color-coded spreadsheets. The first is a list of people I need to interview for a second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) time and all of the follow-up questions I have for them based on what we’ve already discussed. The second is a list of general questions and talking points I’d like to discuss with folks, but not necessarily anyone specifically. In those cases, they’re topics I’ve already got covered a little, but I want to add more voices and perspectives to the mix. The third list is all of the people I would like to talk to but haven’t yet, which is mostly people on the periphery at this point. That is, if I’m not able to interview anyone I haven’t already, I’m confident with what I’ve got. I think it’ll be better the more of these people I can talk to, but there’s no individual on whose participation this project is contingent. The last list is a chapter-by-chapter list of high level edits to make. There’s all kinds of small edits within the draft itself—sequence these quotes differently, condense this paragraph, expand on this idea—but the high level stuff is more general and typically requires more research.
Of course, that’s not all there is left to do. Within the draft I have now, there are a whole bunch of different placeholders. In some cases, it’s a sentence I need to turn into a paragraph. Sometimes it’s a few bullet points I need to replace with a few paragraphs, or a prompt to dig up a bunch of reviews of a particular record. In all cases, though, I have a kernel of what to write there. I just need to actually write it.
As a bonus, I’m focusing my literary consumption on stuff that might be relevant to this project. Right now, I’m reading Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, by music writer Rob Sheffield. I picked it up at a (now closed, sadly) used bookstore downtown in search of material for a passage about the impact of the cassette tape on music history, and I’ve gotten some, but it’s turning out to be a pretty moving memoir. Sheffield uses a collection of mixtapes he’s accumulated over the years as a vehicle to tell a devastating collection of stories. It’s a breezy read, but it’s also caused me to cry in public multiple times already, so don’t underestimate it.
I’m heading up to Philadelphia again tomorrow for New Year’s, etc. and expect to be only so productive in the week that I’m there, but I’m pleased with where I’ve gotten at this point.
I finished the first full read-through of my first full draft yesterday. I definitely still have a lot of work to do to fill all the holes I’ve identified, which was to be expected, but what I do have is further along than I thought it would be. I need to move some things around and smooth out some transitions, but it’s in pretty good shape. I also cross-referenced the various documents I built up over the years with high-level notes about how I want the story to flow and what I want to accomplish. With only a few exceptions (which I’ll address in the next draft), anything that still seems like a good idea to me is already in there.
This one feels like a milestone, and not just because it weighs as much as a slab of granite: I’ve finished my first draft.
There’s still a lot of work to do, but it’s a different kind of work. I’m not ready to show anyone else just yet, but it’s close to that point, and if someone were to see it in its current state, they’d at least be able to see what I’m going for. That is, it’s now an actual thing, with a beginning and a middle and and end that I can read and react to. I have a lot of reading and reacting to do, especially in the next few weeks, but it’s mostly just to dress it up a little. Even Frankenstein[‘s monster, you pedants] wore a sport jacket.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to read through it a few times and compile my notes into two categories: what can I revise on my own, and what requires additional information for revision. The first category is things like structure and style, reworking the content I already have. The second category is much more important in the short term, because that’s how I’m going to figure out who I need to talk to and what I need to ask them.
This manuscript is 356 pages, and I’d expect that to expand by at least 50% before I start really trimming it (though plenty of stuff has already been cut, obviously). But I’ll soon know exactly what I need, and most of the folks I’ll be interviewing are people I’ve already made contact with (or in some cases, already interviewed multiple times). So it will be easier to find people (even those I haven’t found yet will be easier via the connections I’ve already made) and I can be much more targeted with my questions. The paradoxical thing about interviewing is that while they’re a great way to gather information, they’re more fruitful the more you know in advance. And I know a lot more now than I did when I first got to Athens six winters ago. And transcribing will be easier, because I’ll know which quotes I need to grab, and they’ll be easier to slot into the overall work because it’s so put together already. It’s mainly just a matter of juggling a schedule of interviews with people who are mostly super busy, kind of flaky, or both.
The other nice thing about this stage is that I can work on it without a computer anywhere near me.
My last day of work at Philadelphia Zoo was October 2. I took most of October to get ready for my move down to Athens and have spent most of my time since working on the book, treating it like a full-time job. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the positives from working the desk jobs I’ve worked since leaving Athens in 2010 is that I’ve saved up a bit of a nest egg, and Athens is cheap enough that I’ve been able to live comfortably here without worrying about my lack of income yet. But as I’m finishing up this phase of the project and transitioning to a more research-heavy phase—and as we move past the holiday season and our beloved job creators shift their focus to hiring—I’m fixing to get myself a part-time job. I’m fairly open-minded about what this looks like, but it will need to be something flexible so that it doesn’t interfere with the book project.
So far, even on days I’m writing a ton, I still have some free time. Getting rid of a full-time job will do that, as will moving from a frenetic Northeastern metropolis to a slow-cooking Southern setting. I’m very aware that downtime is invaluable to the creative process, that boredom is sometimes crucial. That new ideas can pour only into an empty mind, never a full one. And so I’m protective of that free time, and I want to make sure I still have some even as I take on other obligations (in addition to—or instead of, if I’m really lucky—the part-time job, I need to start writing for publication again). But that mostly just means “do something else instead of sitting in front of my computer all the time.”
This is another obstacle I alleviated by leaving Philadelphia. Leaving a full-time job that was weighing on me even when I was out of the office was the biggest piece, but suffice it to say that I have fewer distractions down here. That seems counterintuitive given the ubiquitous gustatory temptations that abound down here and the fact that I can find a show worth seeing almost every night of the week, but I’ve found it much easier to focus down here. There’s a lot of small reasons for that, but I think one of the bigger ones is my social network. I spent three years in DC mostly feeling like I was missing out on what my Philly friends were up to, and when I moved back to Philadelphia, I felt like I needed to make up for lost time. Some lonely years in college before that (and really at every stage in my life) has ingrained in me—even though I’m very much an introvert who finds even enjoyable social situations exhausting after just a few minutes—a reflex to say yes to every invitation. I know plenty of people down here too, some whom I’m writing about and some whom I’m not, enough folks that on a given night I could find someone to hang with (including my roommate), but I feel less rushed, those opportunities seem less precious for some reason, and I feel less tempted to do things beside write. If I’m being charitable to myself, I can say that I’m somewhat more mature and just getting better at saying no, but much of it is circumstantial, even if I did create those very circumstances, for this exact purpose.
Having some distractions are important, though, so I’m certainly not living ascetically. I’ve been to probably at least one or two shows every week since moving here, for example. Things like meditation and yoga are hugely important, but taking a long walk or grabbing some lunch by myself (both of which are currently part of my daily routine) are great ways to let the mind wander, as is going to a show (even if you’re there with someone, you’re usually not talking to anyone for 40 minutes at a time). Time to actually sit at a computer and work is, of course, important, but to make that time productive, I’m making the most of my time away from the computer. I’ll be picky on my job hunt for that reason.