I haven’t been in Athens even three weeks yet (though it feels like months already), but I’m heading back up to Philadelphia this week for various Thanksgiving-related festivities, plus feline retrieval, so this seems like as good an opportunity as any to check in.
In short, I’m very happy with my progress so far. I expect to finish this rough first draft by the end of the calendar year. If I push myself, I could likely get it done even sooner, but given the next phase is heavy on interviews and I don’t want to bother anyone during the holidays anyway, it makes more sense to take my time on this phase and start coordinating interviews in the new year.
The way I’ve structured everything so far, I have the content I’ve accumulated outlined into chapters based on geography, which I’ve found helpful to chunk out a very complicated story. Individual folks moved around a lot, not to mention tours across America and Europe, but grouping things chronologically and geographically helps to make sense of it all. So one section takes place in Ruston, the next in New York, then Denver, then Athens, then back to Denver, back to Athens, and so on. So each chapter, as its currently outlined, is a different place, and then within each place, the content is outlined into subsections. So for example, in the Ruston chapter, there are passages about Jeff Mangum and Robert Schneider meeting in elementary school, about the college radio station that so many nascent Elephant 6 folks volunteered at, and Bill Doss’s dalliance with the National Guard. To name just three. Some subsections have sub-subsections, and some of those have sub-sub-subsections.
As it’s currently outlined, I have about 250 of these different sections in varying stages of completion, but all of them have been initiated. Some of them will end up being a paragraph or two, while others are already several thousand words. Some will likely be split and separated, and others may be merged together. In short, the outline itself will definitely change in both size and sequence, but with such a complicated story, having an outline (and outlines within that outline) has been extremely valuable.
All of these sections, as they stand now, at least have some quotes copied and pasted in there, typically from interviews I conducted, though sometimes from other sources. The first step within a section is to layout whatever content I have within it, which is usually just a short outline of topics. Scrivener makes this very easy to do, such that each of these sections is nested and ordered as appropriate, and jumping around is as simple as navigating a website or the folder structure of my hard drive.
Once I’ve laid out the structure of a given section, it gets a test tube icon (thanks again, Scrivener), which tells me to come back to it to string the quotes together, add context and commentary, and just basically write the thing. Separating these two steps allows me to better prepare for the mental effort one or the other might take, or I can tackle a batch of one or the other based on the headspace I happen to be at a given time. As much as I’m trying to structure this process, it’s a creative project after all, and this allows me to be productive when I’m not feeling as creative (the outlining tends to take less mental exertion than the actual writing) or spend my creative energy most wisely when I’m just teeming with inspiration.
Once I’ve finished writing a coherent passage using the layout I came up with and the quotes and other sources therein, the test tube switches to a check mark, which tells me it’s basically done for now. When I was working full time, I was lucky to get to more than one or two check marks in a given week, and I often didn’t even get that far. But since getting to Athens, I’ve been knocking off at least a few every single day. I’ve probably accomplished more in the two-and-a-half-weeks I’ve been in Athens than I did in the rest of the year combined. I can’t overstate how good that feels. When I was writing so slowly, it felt like the story itself was growing more quickly than I could write it. In the time it would take me to write 1,000 words, something would happen (e.g. a new tour or album, or a whole new band) that might warrant 2,000 more. I felt like I was running a foot race that kept getting longer as I ran it. But now, even though the finish line still isn’t planted firmly, I’m sprinting toward it instead of shuffling. It actually feels like it’s getting closer.
Of these 250 or so [([(sub-)sub-]sub-)sub-]sections, I have about 80 percent switched over to a check mark. The remaining fifth are mostly test tubes, which I expect to turn into check marks in the next few weeks, even with the Thanksgiving travels. There’s also a handful that aren’t even test tubes yet, but those are basically pieces that I feel like I don’t even have enough material to outline yet. That’s not to say that some of the test tube and check mark sections are still in need of additional research—many if not most of them are—but some of them still need so much that outlining what I have now would be kind of a waste of time. Any outlining I do in those sections now would either get heavily rejiggered with the forthcoming material, or the outline I come up with now would actually get in the way. But even with those, it’s mostly a case of knowing what I don’t know yet, which is of course much less mentally taxing than not even knowing what I don’t know.
Once a given section is all check marks, I can piece them together into a coherent chapter. As of now (I’m just going to stop saying “and this can change,” because everything can change, and most things will, in this project and everything else in the universe. Dukkha is no joke.), I expect to reorder these chapters in an achronological sequence, and while individual subsections may shift within them and in some cases even move to other chapters entirely, the chapters themselves should remain largely intact. To date, the only chapter I’ve completely drafted in this way is the Ruston one, but a few others are ready for that process.
Once I have all of the chapters drafted, it’s mostly just a matter of sequencing them, but more important there is having the chance to go through each of them individually to figure out what’s missing and start plotting out the next round of interviews. From there, I slot what I gather from that research into the draft and continue to rewrite with that new material. For example, one of the things I noticed about that first Ruston chapter once I pieced it together—and something that was hard to see when it was a bunch of smaller pieces—is that it lacked tension, which is necessary for both accuracy and creating something worth reading. I have a lot of quotes from people saying that it was hard to be an artsy weirdo kid in a northern Louisiana mostly populated by kids who wanted nothing to do with that world, but not much about why. “Show, don’t tell” is still the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever received, and this chapter has a lot of telling that people felt like outcasts and misfits, but not a lot of showing. So moving forward, in any interview I conduct with anyone who was around in the Ruston days, I’ll be asking for specific anecdotes. It’s one thing to have someone say “I felt alienated because I wanted to listen to psychedelic music and all of my classmates wanted to go hunting,” and it’s another thing to say “I watched my friend get beat up for wearing a Sonic Youth t-shirt.” Which probably didn’t happen, and I certainly don’t want to lead anyone with questions just to fit a preconceived narrative. But I definitely need more than what I have.
But that’s getting ahead of myself. For now, I’m just writing. I’m going to start looking for a part-time job in the near future, and I expect the search itself and the eventual job I land (fingers crossed) to eat into some of my writing time, but I’m not going to be taking a full-time job and certainly not one that is so demanding around the clock (at both of the desk jobs I’ve had since leaving in Athens in 2010, I was on call 24/7 for emergency communications and other duties, and while those actual duties weren’t all that demanding, it definitely made it difficult to get into the right headspace for writing in the little spare time I had). One of the nice things about having worked the jobs I’ve worked the past few years is that I have a little nest egg to live off until I find the right job. So I have the luxury of taking my time to find a job that won’t jeopardize this book project.
While I have the time (I don’t yet know how much or which parts of my time a job might claim), I’m trying to stay productive. I’m reading more, I’m studying French, and I’m walking a ton. I haven’t been here long enough to feel like I’ve established a real routine (and knowing myself and the nature of the work that lies ahead, I don’t expect any one day to closely resemble the day before or after it), but one area where I think I’ve matured since the last time I was living here is a stronger ability to take things one day at a time. So far, so good.
I’ve been in Athens for nearly a week now, so I figured I’d take stock of how things are going so far.
I’m not quite at my goal of writing upwards of eight hours a day, but I write a little more each day than I did the day before, and I probably put in a solid six hours today, so I’m getting there. Before leaving my job, I didn’t have a single month this calendar year where I was able to get six hours of writing done, so this is definitely progress. Given this week has also involved a bunch of errands and related “I just moved here” sorts of activities, I’m content with what I’ve accomplished so far and optimistic that I can get into the routine I want very soon.
As I’ve been working this week, my road map has changed just a bit. On one hand, I’m a lot farther along than I thought I was. I anticipated a few more weeks just to finish outlining (or sub-outlining my existing outline, to be precise), and then a few months of fleshing that outline into an extremely rough draft. I’m happy to say that the outline is pretty much done, and now that I’m writing for hours at a time instead of minutes and daily instead of once every week or two, I think I can have that rough (rough) draft completed much more quickly.
If that sounds hasty, it is. I had originally planned to be conducting interviews—some with people I haven’t talked to yet, some with people I have—while I was still in that rough draft phase. I’m writing this a chapter at a time, and when a chapter is finished (in its rough form; to date, I have one of an anticipated 18 chapters in that state), I go through and figure out what holes still need to be filled.
For example, that first chapter is about the early days in Ruston, Louisiana, where these artsy weirdos felt like outcasts. “Everybody would play sports or hunt or fish. Outdoor stuff. I wasn’t really into that. I wanted to come home from school and play guitar.” But there’s a lot of telling and not a lot of showing, so I realized when I read the draft of this chapter that I need to dig a bit for examples and anecdotes that illustrate why people felt like that. It’s one thing to say, “I felt anxious that I didn’t fit in,” and another thing entirely to say “My classmates beat the shit out of me for wearing a Sonic Youth t-shirt.” Not that that necessarily happened. But if everyone I’ve talked to says they felt a kinship with these likeminded artists precisely because everyone else was so different, I need to paint a more vivid portrait of why that would be.
Which is relatively easy, in terms of reporting. I just need to round up the folks who mentioned it and ask them if they can think of any examples that illustrate their feelings. But if I do that for each chapter as I finish them (which was, somehow, my earlier plan), I may end up having to interview a given person 18 different times. There are certainly people who only appear in a chapter or two and very few if any who appear in every single one, but if I can, I’d like to avoid having to talk to anyone more than once or twice apiece from here on out, out of respect for their time and to manage my own time efficiently (especially given how difficult it can be to pin certain people down even once).
So that linearizes the plan a bit. Outline, then draft, then interview, then rewrite. Very little overlap between those steps. Which is maybe for the best, creatively.
I have arrived in Athens.
The drive down from Philadelphia was, as it always is, long (about 13 hours door to door, including stops for gas and food) but relatively painless. I got in late last night and spent today unpacking and getting settled. I still feel like I’m in transition, and even though I’ve only been gone from Athens for about five years, there’s a bit of a city mouse thing going on. It’s been less than 24 hours, but “isn’t it sort of quaint how nobody seems to be in a rush to get anywhere?” has already given way to “holy SHIT don’t these people have anywhere to be?” So I still have some cultural assimilating to do, along with some logistical stuff (namely finding a modest source of income).
My priority is the writing, though, and my intensive regimen begins tomorrow. Because it’s my first day (and because I have a few minor errands that are nonetheless relatively urgent), I’m aiming for 4-5 hours of work, with a plan to ramp up to 8-10 hours a day within the next few weeks. Eventually, that will include interviews and other sorts of research, but for the short term, that’s all to be spent in front of my computer (though I intend to stave off restlessness by bouncing between my bedroom, coffee shops, libraries, etc. over the course of a given day).
The autonomy I now have is as liberating as it is terrifying. As quickly as possible, I’d like to establish a routine. With structure, I’m confident I can get this done. Without it, that confidence decays, and a writer without confidence is not really a writer.
This time six years ago, I was beginning to plan my first move to Athens, Georgia. I had conceived the project one summer prior, and spent the next year doing what I could from State College, Pennsylvania—some phone calls and emails, a jaunt to Pittsburgh for the first Holiday Surprise tour, a winter break pilgrimage to Athens to see it for myself—while I finished up with college. I graduated and moved back home in the summer of 2009, spent a few months at a desk job while I came to terms with my Millennial job prospects, and then packed up my car and moved down south for real in January of 2010.
After about eight months down there interviewing people, trawling through personal archives, and generally laying the foundation for this project, I moved up to DC and spent three years there, working and devoting whatever free time I could find to transcribing, outlining, writing and conducting additional interviews (typically by phone). I moved back to Philadelphia in April of 2013 and continued that routine here.
This time last year, I made my most recent visit to Athens. I went down for a little less than a week, to check out a few retrospectives of visual art that came from the Elephant 6 folks at galleries around town: show posters, paintings, etc. In the years since I first moved away from Athens, I’ve had less and less time to devote to the project. I was finding maybe an hour or two each week to work on it, and it was beginning to feel like it would never be finished. That trip recharged my enthusiasm for this adventure, but it also put into relief the difficulty I was facing in trying to hedge against the vagaries of the publishing industry with a burgeoning career in another field while also trying to complete an ambitious writing project.
Replete with anxiety and existential dread stemming mostly from my desk job (and due in part to the realization that I’d never be able to finish this book while maintaining such a job) and sincere envy for friends with ostensibly more bohemian lifestyles, I resolved this past spring to find a way to finish the book, even if it meant leaving my job.
Especially if it meant leaving my job.
I decided it meant leaving my job. I came up with a plan, gave notice in August, left at the beginning of this month, and have spent the last few weeks gearing up for another move.
This time next week, I will be in Athens again. Without a full-time job occupying 50+ hours of my week and a great deal of mental real estate, my “I’ll never finish!” malaise has been replaced by unbridled enthusiasm. I can do this, and I will.
Though I had only a bit of time each week to work on this the past five years, those bits did add up, and I’ve got a pretty solid foundation. The next step is to pull everything together into a rough (rough) draft and figure out what holes I have to fill, while simultaneously conducting interviews (mostly with both people I have already talked to, but a few with people I haven’t yet) to fill those holes. As I do those interviews, I’ll be folding the new material into that foundation to flesh out a real first draft of the manuscript. From there, I’ll be rewriting aggressively, draft after draft, until it’s in a place I’m happy with.
This time next year, I will be long finished the writing process for this book. I don’t know enough about the publishing industry or even publishing itself to know yet how or when the book would be released (even assuming everything goes to plan), but from conversations I’ve had already, I don’t expect it to be much of a challenge, at least not in comparison to composing the work. Maybe that’s naïve, but it’s not worth worrying about now at any rate.
I am way past the point of no return, which is to say that given the amount of work I’ve already put in But only a few months ago, this project was beginning to feel impossible. Now, though, it feels not only possible, but imminent. When you work on something for so long (especially something like a book, where it’s only done when I say it’s done), the endpoint becomes so abstracted that a path toward it is hard to see. But with a shift in my priorities and dramatically increased focus, I can see that path with more clarity than I ever have. I have a lot of hard work ahead of me, but it’s just a matter of time before I’m finished.
Before my most recent entry, I had not updated this blog in about two and a half years. As I’m planning to post more frequently, I figured it would be a good idea to explain why.
Between a rough breakup, two parents battling serious health issues, a bedbug-provoked move, and a big pile of work-related anxiety, I rarely had the free time or mental capacity to write much. When I did, I felt guilty whenever I didn’t spend that scarce time working on the book itself. It was typically only a few hours a week at most, but it would have felt like a waste to spend even 20 minutes blogging when I had such little time to work on the book. (Thus my resignation from my desk job and the forthcoming move back to Athens.)
So in short, I had very little worth blogging about, and even less time to blog about it. Most of what I’ve been doing is stringing together content I’ve already gathered, though I did make a couple trips to Georgia for interviews and to check out a series of Elephant 6 retrospective stuff at galleries around Athens. And while I regret not making more time for this project over the last 5 years or so, working the time- and energy-consuming jobs I’ve worked allowed me to put a little bit of money aside and make this endeavor possible.
I don’t really know what’s in store for me moving forward, but I think I’ve done what I can to remove any foreseeable obstacles and distractions (and much of the safety net protecting me from catastrophe), and in doing so, I’ve eliminated any excuses I may have for not making this happen. If I can’t do it now, I can’t do it. (But I think I can do it.)
I started this project seven years ago, after a phone interview with John Fernandes (which, mercifully perhaps, appears to no longer be available online) the summer before my senior year of college. Aside from the eight months I spent living in Athens in 2010, I’ve treated it as sort of a hobby, focusing on class or a full-time job and working on the book in my spare time. But I’ve had less and less spare time the past few years, to the point where I rarely had more than an hour or two to devote to the project in a given week. It was starting to feel like I would never finish.
Lucky for me, those worries coincided with a bunch of other anxieties about work and other big picture stuff (how many quarter-life crises can one person have). I felt trapped at my job because I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing, I had no idea what to try instead, and whatever I could think of always seemed like it would get in the way of finishing this book.
As frustrating as that all felt, the solution now seems obvious.
I quit my job. My last day of work was on Friday. I’ll be in Philadelphia for the next few weeks tying up various loose ends, and then in November, I’m moving back to Athens to tie up the biggest, loosest end in my life right now.
I’ve given myself rough deadlines before and failed to meet every one of them. Each time, I’ve let other stuff get in the way, and because of the circumstances I’ve created for myself, I’ve suffered no tangible repercussions from that waffling. Now, though, failure isn’t really an option. If I can’t finish a first draft on this timeline, I’m sort of fucked. Maybe it’s stupid to put all your eggs in one basket, but when you do, you take really, really good care of that basket.
One upside to hedging against a writing career with a series of differently soul-crushing desk jobs is that I’ve managed to save a little bit of money over the past few years, and a nice thing about Athens is that it’s still remarkably cheap to live there. So while I plan to find (or at least look for) some steady source of income while I’m down there, I don’t need to worry about finding a full-time job that would distract me from the project (or at least, not yet). The book is, finally, going to be my top priority again.
If only to keep me moving, I’m also planning to post here much more frequently. My last post was over two years ago, so that’s not a high bar to clear, but I’m thinking a weekly update should be doable, at minimum. Stay tuned.
By now, you’ve probably already heard about the Neutral Milk Hotel reunion. The band has announced shows in Athens, Asheville, Taipei and Tokyo, with plenty more to come.
If you’ll recall, I gave myself a soft deadline a few months ago, and I coyly picked the end of next summer as the point by which I’d like to have a finished first draft. I couldn’t disclose it at the time, but the reason I picked that deadline was precisely because of this announcement. When writing about musicians who are mostly still active, it’s hard to find an endpoint, but I’ve been looking for a conclusion since I started researching this project, and a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion seemed as good as any.
Of course, now that that news is public, I have to also mention that I’m way off schedule to hit that deadline. I had been writing at a pretty good pace, but a few months ago, I began looking for a new job, and a big chunk of my free time was diverted toward finding open positions, sending off cover letters and resumes, and interviewing. That I was in DC and looking for jobs in Philadelphia made it a little more arduous. But eventually, I got an offer, and I’ve since spent the last few weeks finishing up at my old job and preparing for the new one (not to mention handling little details like finding a car and somewhere to live, both of which are still works in progress). What little time I’ve had for writing these past few months, I’ve spent it working on a 4,000-word feature about the Music Tapes’ Traveling Imaginary tour, which should be running in Shindig! magazine soon (It’s print-only, but I’ll try to find a way to post it here).
But I’m back in Philadelphia, I start the new job in about a week, and I should be settled here soon after that. I have a few other magazine pieces I’d like to write, but I haven’t even sent out pitches for those yet, and at any rate, this book needs to be a priority. I don’t know if I’ll hit that late fall deadline—I probably won’t—but I can still try.