Blogging My Way to a Book

In 2014 or so I was a tenured professor, less than happy in my job, but without any plan for making a change. It is not easy to get a job as a professor in classics; it is harder to get job after you have tenure; and it is nearly impossible to do so without that holiest of holies, the single authored monograph.

I was tenured without a book because the department I was in didn’t expect one and I had published a lot otherwise (including a co-authored general audience book on Homer). The fact is that I really did not want to write one. Most successful academics are expected to turn their dissertation into a book. I hadn’t done that on purpose (I was sick of my dissertation and I wanted to do something different).

Perhaps more importantly, I also didn’t know how to write a book. It is not that I didn’t want to write about things. I just wanted to write about them in shorter segments. It may have been a lack of imagination as much as anything else, but I found many more reasons not to write a book than to write one: the fact that no one reads them, that lives are disrupted to write them, that we have an entire economy of knowledge dedicated to big books about small things, etc. etc.

That last phrase is not fair, completely. But, to crib from an ancient proverb, there’s a difference between a book that needs to be written and needing to write a book. After 2012, however, I started talking, thinking, and writing about the Odyssey in a way that clearly pointed to a lengthy treatment of a topic, if not wholly original, at least markedly different from work I had read before.

Some graduate programs do better jobs than others in training you how to do independent research. Many do a great job in preparing students to turn their dissertations into books. But few anticipate what to do next. This is not a huge problem, since the paths people take are so different depending on their institution, interests, etc. But the irony is that although I was a book review editor for a journal, had reviewed a dozen books, and had helped to write one, I really didn’t know what I was doing.

So, once I gave in to the desire to write a book, I started lamenting that I didn’t have enough time to do it. Fortunately, I have a spouse who is constitutionally incapable of not calling me on my bullshit. Over drinks in 2015, while I complained again that I just needed the time to write a book, she said, “look, you ran a stupid marathon last year. You spent hours every day running, training, and keeping track of every thing you did. I don’t know why you can do that and not write a book. You’re not a runner; you’re a Homerist.”

Now, to be honest, the conversation hurt my feelings a little bit because (1) running marathons didn’t come easy to me (I run like a rhinoceros, except uglier) and (2) she was absolutely right. I started to keep track of hours a week spent on the book project, making lists and schedules, and trying to break down the project into little bits.

It worked: I have books out in 2018, 2019, and 2020 (changing institutions and getting some summer funding for childcare also made a huge difference; the blog was crucial to those books too). But part of the story is also this website. I have written about the importance of the discipline of posting daily on the blog, but what I haven’t explained clearly enough is how each of the books I just mentioned relied on this regular writing practice for drafting, brainstorming, and progress.

So, for curiosity, inspiration, mockery, and whatever else may come, here’s an overview of the more than 30 blogposts that are part of my book on the Odyssey, out this week (The Many Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology and the Therapy of Epic). I am posting one each day on twitter with the hashtag #BloggingABook for about a month, but here’s a more organized collection.

Let’s start at the beginning. This post was one of the first that directly translated into content in the book, showing up as a table on page 16. It helped me to organize my thoughts about the structure of the poem without making an entire labor out of the structure of the poem.

Less often, I used posts to explore combining theoretical modern work with ancient concepts as in this early post about the work of Mark Turner, Aristotle, and narrative character was written at a Starbucks in San Antonio and is well integrated into the theoretical framework of the first chapter on Homeric psychology. Similarly, this post on correspondence and coherence in Odysseus’ lies.which became the framing for Chapter 5.

A good deal of the theoretical research of this book took me through post-structural theories like those in disability studies, which made me think differently about ideal bodies in Homer. I used some posts, like this one about Telemachus and monstrosity, to think through this. This ended up in a chapter NOT about Telemachus.  Several posts arose from my reading of disability studies texts alongside Homer, like this one about Thersities and beautiful minds, which in turn became parts of chapters and a forthcoming article.

I won’t even list all the posts on ancient medicine and mental health—I spent some time trying to learn more about these topics and most of the research ended up on the website (at least a dozen or more). This scholion on drugs made me think about ancient beliefs about addiction. As I explored ancient ideas of madness in philosophy and medicine, it was helpful to see how mythical figures at times appeared to help explain things like isolation and mental anguish (as in this passage from Aristotle). This contributed to Chapter 3’s examination of heroic isolation

Just a sample of posts and chapters

ChapterBlogpost
IntroductionSex, Trees, and the Structure of the Odyssey
Addiction and Self-restraint
1 Homeric Psychology Mark Turner, Aristotle, and narrative character
Complementarity
2 Treating TelemachusStudy of Scholia What’s Troubling Telemachus?
3 Escaping OgygiaHeroic Madness and Isolation
Sex and Anhedonia
4 Narrative Therapy[!]
5 Correspondence and CoherenceCorrespondence and coherence in Odysseus’ lies.
Eumaios, Storyteller
The Meaning of Odysseus’ Pseudonyms
6 Marginalized AgenciesA Little bit But not Too Long
Telemachus is not a Monster
The Millwoman’s Sorrowful Sign
Thersites and Beautiful Minds
How Much is a Slave’s Life Worth
His heart Barks
The Origin of Thersites
7 Penelope’s Subordinated AgencyPenelope and fidelity Naming Odysseus
Penelope Lays into a Suitor
8 Politics of IthacaThe Heroic Tale of Laertes
The Suitors Debate Killing Telemachus
The Trial of Odysseus
9 The Therapy of OblivionWhere Does the Odyssey End and Why?
Penelope’s Web Agamemnon on Feminine Fame
Conclusion, Escaping the Story’s BoundsPorphyry’s On Styx, Pseudo-Plutarch allegories from Metrodorus Allegories attributed to Porphyry by Stobaeus, Death and the End of the Odyssey

Part of what I love about research—when I get to do it freely—is the wandering path I take through things. Blogging gives me a sense of accomplishment (and that important reward feedback loop!) because it provides an end of sorts to a journey that lasts a day or just a few hours. Many posts are just me trying to make sense of scholia, especially longer ones like the large segments attributed to Porphyry in the Odyssey scholia. These were fodder for notes and content in the book.

Sometimes posts came from work in the scholia, like this one, where I tried to figure out the details of Telemachus’ journey for chapter 2. Indeed, many of my mythographical footnotes started or ended as posts on the site, like this one about Penelope and fidelity which contributes to one part of chapter 7. Some of the mythographical posts and studies didn’t make it to the book, but that’s ok because doing the work, as in this one on Nausikaa’s name, sharpened what I would say by helping me figure out what I didn’t need to.

Mythography doesn’t explain what audiences knew, but it can help show what they might have known which is why several posts talk about Thersites’ story outside of Homer like this one. A mere footnote in the book, but a useful one. On many occasions, I would think something might be important or interesting and find out only the latter is true, making it good for a post as in this scholion on Alkinoos’ marriage wish. It didn’t make it into the book, but Alkinoos did.  And I can’t even begin to figure out how to map my dozens of posts on Odysseus’ family and multiple sons onto the chapters of the book. But they were definitely formative.

Of course, some of the details I mined were important: this post on the end of the Odyssey was essential for footnotes in more than one publication. Often work on philological and literary problems, like what Penelope was weaving, produced posts that also involved scholarship and ended up in multiple chapters. In this case, a significant part of chapter 9. Sometimes philological investigations started as posts and then later added to larger arguments, as in this exploration of a speech introduction for Telemachus. This speech of Agamemnon became critical for both chapters 7 and 9 and appears in an article on Kassandra too.

Other posts respond to epic and other readings, shaping the tone of a section or chapter without necessarily being part of them as in this post on the hanging of the enslaved women.

Part of writing is figuring out which path to take. Some times this means writing stuff that gets moved around a lot. I had a series of posts on allegory and Homer which eventually contributed to half of the conclusion (originally a transitional segment between the two halfs of the book). Posts include translations of Porphyry’s On Styx, allegories from Pseudo-Plutarch, allegories from Metrodorus, and others attributed to Porphyry by Stobaeus

And, of course, there are posts on expected topics in the Odyssey. Naming Odysseus is no minor affair, so I have several posts looking at Homeric epithetis and their ancient reception of a man of may ways who is also quite shifty. Researching this book forced me to rethink the political situation on Ithaca from ancient perspectives, showing that Laertes likely unified a somewhat odd island ‘state’. This is an important part of chapter 8, which looks at Ithaca as a traumatized community

Rethinking the representation of agency in Homer really made me look differently at the representation of women’s agency in Homer. Some posts arose out of shock at reading passages anew as I had never read them before. The emotion and scene made it to the book. Part of the journey of writing this book was thinking about the suitors as full human beings rather than simple villains, especially in their political wranglings as in this post looking at their debate about killing Telemachus. This scene is critical in the book’s chapter 8.

In rereading representations of agency in the Odyssey it was necessary to think about heroes, non-heroes, children, enslaved people, and women and how these categories intersect. Some of the more explicit comments on these topics informed chapter 6 but are clearer in posts, like this one on the cost of an enslaved person’s life. This post contributes to chapter 6.  In the same vein, I also used a post to lay out the passages where Odysseus thinks about or responds to enslaved women’s sexuality. Working through these passages helped me understand the infantilization of enslaved people in the Odyssey.

Many posts were part of my writing process, which is to translate passages I want to write about. Laborious, but it gives me opportunities to post Penelope laying into a suitor like this one. This passage became part of thinking about where Penelope claims agency (and doesn’t). I cover the end of the Odyssey in two chapters, so thinking carefully through the trial of Odysseus was really important, I started this process by translating and discussing the scene in a post. The translations are improved in the book, but have the same core.

A second part of my writing process after translating is looking at scholia and commentaries, a step  often preserve in posts like this one on Eumaios as a storyteller. Again, this becomes part of footnotes and discussions, not central arguments in the book. Other posts like this one on the meanings of Odysseus’ pseudonyms ended up as footnotes and detail.

On many occasions I wanted to think more broadly about ancient literature and narrative. Early drafts from chapter 9 look like this post on how liars communicate but ended up being edited quite differently. Similarly, I would at times start to right grandly and in generalizations not fit at the point of the book I was writing. This one on complementarity can be seen in some footnotes from the introduction, but not very clearly.

Many posts start with questions about what lines mean from the perspective of Homer—so doing the whole clarify Homer through Homer thing—like this one on Odysseus’ lack of pleasure from sex in with Calypso. The work here influenced some ideas in the introduction and chapter 3.

Some posts also emerged as summaries of the thoughts in the book, like this one written at the beginning of the pandemic. It reflects on a project finished rather than attesting to work in progress. Others draw on the frameworks developed during research, like the post on Toxic Heroism and a School Massacre. Sometimes ideas started in the book but had no space there. This is true of my work on Kassandra, which went into a post before it became an article elsewhere and my personal reflections on the scene of Argos, the dog.

I did not know what the conclusion of this book would add until one day I saw a line from Cavafy online and then wrote a post about death and the end of the Odyssey. This post formed a third of the conclusion once expanded.

Where there are fewer blog posts, it is because I wrote directly to publication for some topics as in the work that forms some of chapter 4 (“The Clinical Odyssey: Odysseus’ Apologoi and Narrative Therapy.” Arethusa 51: 1–3) and a chapter in a collection that contributed to parts of chapters 2 and 3 (“Learned Helplessness, the Structure of the Telemachy and Odysseus’ Return.” in conference proceedings, Psychology and the Classics, Jeroen Lauwers, Jan Opsomer and Hedwig Schwall (eds.): 129–141). And many sections were also written for talks at professional conferences and invited lectures.

I don’t think there’s a clean and just-so way to end this post. There’s lots of advice out there about writing  a book in an hour or two a day and I am here to tell you it is possible. But it helps to have short term goals and ‘outputs’ to work towards. It also helps (probably more than anything) to have a stable job, good funding, and a partner who calls you on your bullshit.

Some sites say this is out tomorrow (in ebook and print); some say it is out November 22nd and December 25th.

Leave a Reply