Point A to Point B: How I Published a Book While Recovering from My PhD
I defended my dissertation in October 2015. At the time, I was so burned out I didn’t think I’d ever write again—academically or otherwise. It’s now a scant two years later and I’m holding in my hands a hard copy of my first book, published the old-fashioned way with a press and everything, on a nonfiction topic only distantly related to my PhD specialty.
How did this happen? In the next few posts, I’ll be tracing my journey, but first there are a few things you should know…
I began my PhD in European History in the fall of 2009 wanting to become a professor. I knew how unlikely that outcome would be given the current state of higher education, but at the time I was single and willing to do whatever it took to land a tenure-track job. That would change, but I’m stating that upfront to indicate I didn’t begin my degree with an altac or postac career in mind, not even as a possibility or last resort.
I have always been attracted to deep, difficult questions and my dissertation was no exception. I chose to research how people in sixteenth-century Germany perceived and described the year as a unit of time. Long story short: a lot happened during the sixteenth century that called concepts of calendars and temporality into question. I wanted to explore the impact of these shifts on everyday life and time sensibilities, so I combed through (literally) thousands of historical texts like sermons, mass-printed calendars, diaries, etc. It was a vast cultural history that drew on phenomenology, theology, and historical anthropology.
I loved my topic. Most of all, I loved how it opened up conversations within and outside the academy. I loved how it evoked in those I talked to a common sense of humanity—time, after all, is a universal phenomenon. Realizing that seemingly static temporal concepts—like what a “year” is—can change over time motivated my research with a kind of awe and mystery.
And speaking of change over time, a lot happened in my life over the course of my PhD. Among other things, I relocated several times for the necessary research and got engaged to a Canadian who is not an academic. Bottom line: I grew less and less intent on an academic job. I was increasingly less inclined to relocate for a position, and the thought of a postdoc and more hoop-jumping was nauseating.
A year or two before completing my PhD, I relocated to Canada, got married, and started the formal paperwork to become a permanent resident there. At the same time, I began training to become an academic editor. Although at times I sensed disappointment from certain profs, there were many who were supportive and I ultimately did what was best for me by seeking a career to fall back on after my PhD—a career I’m still working to build.
As I whittled away at the final chapters of my dissertation, I began to realize that although I wouldn’t miss academia, I would miss writing, researching, teaching, and communicating about my topic.
In a sort of contradictory fashion, however, I also felt increasingly suffocated by my dissertation. As fascinating as it was, I wanted to initiate broader conversations. I was sick of the narrow questions I’d get asked at academic conferences. I was sick of the strictures of my discipline and the way they limited the kinds of questions I could ask in my writing. I wanted to talk about time in a more general, existential way. I wanted to take what I’d pondered concerning time in historical and theological texts and use it to engage folks outside the academy, in a way that was somehow meaningful in their everyday lives. But I didn’t know how to go about it or if I was even capable of paving that new path.
Eventually, however, over the course of several years, I did find that broader conversation. I found my niche and my voice—as a writer and as a thinker. And, most rewardingly, I found my audience. I found the folks who are interested in the questions I’m asking.
If someone would have told me three or four years ago that I’d write a book on time and ancient Christian concepts of despondency (acedia), and that this book would be published with a non-academic press that would be an absolute pleasure to work with, and that this book would come to be one of the most meaningful things I’d ever done in my life, I wouldn’t have believed them. I wouldn’t have believed them because I scarcely knew I had this book (or even the topic of acedia) inside of me—I was too busy thinking about pastors and calendar makers in sixteenth-century Germany and funding proposals. I wouldn’t have believed them because my only frame of reference at the time was academic writing and publishing, and to envision a life as an intellectual outside of that somehow felt like adultery. But most of all, I wouldn’t have believed them because I didn’t think I was capable of publishing a book worth reading by a broader audience.
A lot of things had to happen for my book to come into existence—intellectually, creatively, emotionally, and professionally. Along the way, I had to do some work to heal the scars left by my (by no means terrible, but still not easy) grad school experience and reacquaint myself with my natural writing voice. I also had to learn what I am capable of (hint: a lot more than I would have assumed) and how to be an intellectual in a non-academic environment. Most of all, I had to figure out how to use this seemingly pointless PhD in a way that would benefit me (and the readership I hoped to establish) not just as a professional, but as a human being.
In the end, the book represents a coming together of sorts—a collaboration between the most important things I learned in graduate school with the human being I am and was outside of all that.
For the next little while, I’ll be tracing this journey in blog posts, starting with the last few months of my PhD (Fall 2015) and culminating in the publication of my book this past January (2018). If you’re somewhere along the continuum of academia and find yourself wrestling with a lot of the same emotional and creative questions I expressed above, I hope you find a sense of camaraderie in my own journey. We all have these unique intellectual and creative trails to blaze, but many of the challenges we face are universal. I’ll share what I’ve learned and, as a writing coach, sprinkle some tips and strategies as breadcrumbs to help orient others. But I’d also love to hear what you’re learning and the path that you’re on, so keep in touch!