Friday, April 23, 2010

Surviving the Book

Over the past two years my wife and I co-authored a book titled Aging Together: Dementia, Friendship and Flourishing Communities. I am happy to say that the writing is done and the book is now “in press,” which means that it will rattle around various departments of our publisher for a full year, doubtless coming back to us several times along the way. I am also happy to say that our marriage of 40 years appears to have survived this experience—there were a few moments along the way where it was touch-and-go.

One of our goals for this stage of life was to do more work together, which seemed a noble goal until we actually attempted to do it. We are different people in many ways. Susan is very much a scholar, and I am not. The library is her “happy place”—she can easily lose all track of time when she is doing research. For me, “doing research” means checking to see if we are low on peanut butter before going to the grocery store.

Susan can read a dense academic book as if it were a Nancy Drew book. She regards this ability as normal, and therefore never hesitated to haul seven or eight such books into my office and say “you should read these before you start the next chapter.” Always my heart would sink, and it would occur to me that the garage needed cleaning. Immediately. I would stack the books up neatly, dust them once in awhile, and finally choose the two or three that I would actually attempt to read. Or at least read parts of.

Susan writes in a disciplined manner. She sits down at her desk, books piled all around her, and methodically churns out page after page. I sit down at my desk, fiddle around with paperclips and rubber bands, stare at the blank screen for awhile then get up to put a load of laundry in the washer. This can go on for hours, even days, until the muse pays a visit and I am ready to write.

What I write, at least in first draft, will bear a suspicious resemblance to a sermon. I have done far more preaching than writing, and in preaching you do not need to cite your sources. In fact you should not, because the congregation has not gathered to hear a list of footnotes. When a pastor buddy of mine wrote his first book for an academic press, his editor was dismayed to discover that he had not cited a single reference. When he was asked where he got all his facts and ideas he replied “from preacherland.” To his disappointment, he was told that “preacherland” was not an adequate way to cite his sources. I had the same problem: Susan had to do a fair amount of remedial education before I learned the rules for academic writing.

Unavoidably, when you are facing a deadline and have such different styles of reading, thinking and writing, there will be occasional moments of tension. Voices were never raised and furniture was not thrown, but I am sure we each had moments where we wondered “Can I really do this with her (him)?” But we did, and I am confident that it is a better book than either of us could have written alone, precisely because we brought different fields of knowledge, different perspectives, and different styles to the project.

At times along the way we each insisted that we would never attempt to write another book, much less write one together. But having survived the process with our relationship intact and seeing that the end result is good, I am guessing we will. Next time, I hope, it will be a Nancy Drew book.