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Early progress

November 22, 2015

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.


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