The joys of unpublished writing: learning stuff

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Do you know that moment when you’re reading one of the countless books about writing and the author tells you that if you’re writing just to get published, you should just go ahead and stop now? And you roll your eyes and think to yourself, “Easy to say coming from someone who’s already published!” You mumble under your breath that of course, that should be true, but really what you want is to get published and become famous and make lots of money, right? That’s what this series of posts are about.

I already explained how writing almost makes washing dishes enjoyable. And so today…

Joy #2: Learning stuff

This is probably not surprising coming from an academic. Let me reveal to you a secret about people who become college professors. We are basically people who at some point as undergrads, looked around and said to ourselves, “I don’t really ever want to leave here.” We could’ve become those 10th year senior types (some of us may have). But instead, many of us went to grad school and endured another 6-10 years of schooling so that we could spend the rest of our lives in college. Learning stuff.

Of course, as a college professor it’s part of my job to continue to learn stuff. But often the kind of stuff you’re encouraged to learn is specialized. I consider myself lucky to be a sociologist because, as I’m always telling my students, you can do a sociology of anything. If there are humans involved, there’s something sociological to be said, so that’s a pretty wide field of knowledge to cover.

But sometimes it’s what you might call a disciplinary stretch to learn about certain things. And sometimes, quite frankly, I don’t want to learn about something from a sociological perspective. I just want to learn about it. This is where writing comes in handy.

Some of my favorite books are those that expose me to a world or a body of knowledge which is completely new to me. I think of Andrea Levy’s novel, Small Island, which tells the story of Jamaican immigrants in post-World War II, England. Or more recently, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, where I learned all about the inner workings of Google. And so while it’s perfectly possible to write without having to do any research, if I’m going to write the kind of fiction I want to read, there’s probably going to be some stuff I’ll need to learn.

bears in Indiana

Random bear

Writing the draft of my first novel, I learned about the history of bears in Indiana, as well as the gradual reintroduction of bears to various states across the Midwest. I also did quite a bit of research on the most recent wave of Chinese immigration to the United States, and more specifically, on the lives of the people who run all the tiny Chinese restaurants in rural towns across the United States. And the science of miscarriages. How do all these topics fit into one novel? You’ll just have to wait until it’s published to find out.

The book I’m working on now has led me into research on the history of 19th century medicine, and a fascinating account of doctoring in the southern United States. I can now tell you all the different words doctors used to describe a pulse back then (hard, slow, soft, frequent, small, quick, corded, feeble, undulating, depressed, thready, shallow, weak, jerking, bounding, and tense), and that though stethoscopes had been invented, in the 19th century most doctors still didn’t use them, preferring the intimacy of putting their head to their patients’ chests. What’s particularly interesting to me about this period in the history of American medicine is that doctor’s had to do some work to convince anyone that a physician was worth going to when you were sick. And quite frankly, I probably would have picked the local healer or midwife over the doctor, whose “healing” techniques included bloodletting and a lot of purging (making you puke and poop).

That’s all the learning that happens largely from reading books or Googling things on the internet. Then there’s the kind of learning that requires actually going out and talking to people. Oddly, for a sociologist, I find this kind of learning more exciting in the abstract than I do in the concrete. Still, I’ve learned some interesting things in talking to folks for various blog posts about local shops. But that gets into yet another joy of unpublished writing–getting to know people, which I’ll save for next time.

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