Parallel to Shore
As I sit here starting this essay, I am waiting for an important call from my publisher. Today, the editorial board meets. All day I will be waiting to hear if the project I have been working on for over 10 years, and one for which the press patiently waited for 5, will finally find its way into print. I do not teach today, so I will fill my time with other work and regular routine: morning exercise, mowing the lawn, cleaning house. I will be trying not to stare at the phone, or check e-mail 47 times an hour. I will wait, but I will be thinking about this project no matter what I do -- the book is always with me.
That has how it has been with this project from the moment I found the Embree diaries in the American History Center at the University of Texas at Austin, during my preliminary research for my dissertation on women’s diaries. I’d had three body chapters planned, had already found the primary sources I’d need for the chapters on the overland journey and was searching for the diaries I’d need for my chapter on the personal impact of the Civil War. I’d planned a chapter on something else, but when I found these diaries, I knew I’d be writing on them instead. The diaries of Henrietta Baker Embree, the first wife of Dr. John Embree, and Tennessee Keys Embree, who married the widower Embree, covered 28 years of life in mid-19th-century Texas and related the experiences of two women who struggled with a difficult marriage to their mercurial and abusive husband. After I wrote about these diaries in my dissertation, I knew I wanted to bring the complete diaries to publication. This edition was the project I wanted to complete after my dissertation, which I defended over 10 years ago, and was my answer to the question “what next?” that my committee posed at the time.
I took this project with me into my visiting professorships, trying to complete the work while struggling with four classes a semester and one or more in the summer sessions, always worrying about whether the job would be renewed. During those years, I scraped together time, resources and the last scraps of creative energy I had, to put the pieces of this edition together. I received a tiny grant to reproduce the photographs from the archives. I found graduate students to help me transcribe the typescripts. I held onto this project despite the crushing weight of a six-year job search that netted only two interviews and no tenure-track job offers. I published my first book even as I was thinking of this one. I held onto this project as I entered the "adjunct track" and tried to balance part-time work at my community college with part-time work at a university 30 miles away, so I could make a living wage.
There were many, many times when I doubted my ability to bring this project to a published close. As teaching and earning enough income consumed more and more of my energies, the idea that I could devote any time to the project at all seemed a fantasy. As I assumed more and more responsibilities as the caregiver of my aging parents and the daily tasks of their household management, the time and peace I needed for writing evaporated. I knew the project was valuable, but I despaired that I would never be able to complete the work. Other important needs took precedence over the writing. And there was always the question of tangible worth. What was the point of this edition? If it sold as well as my first book, I could count on a three-figure income in royalties. I was no longer applying for tenure-track positions, so it would not be (nor it had ever been) the key to that elusive academic prize. Oprah was unlikely to call.
The one thing I knew, however, was that when I worked on the edition, when I re-read the lives of these diarists, I found the value unquestionable. I could not allow myself to not continue the work, no matter how sporadic my time on the project became, no matter how little financial reward there might be for the project in the end.
And so, when the night before classes began in January 2006 one of my two classes was withdrawn and given instead to a tenure-track faculty member whose class had not made for the semester, I was left with panic, time, and a little savings from the previous semester when I’d taught at two institutions. I also had a query from my press “Are you still working on this project? We’re still interested.” I’m surprised they didn’t ask if I was still alive.
Yes, I replied. I am still working. I gave myself a final deadline: Finish before the year is out. Finish or let the idea go. Finish or let some other editor take the project to publication. Finish, or be done. There were no graduate students, there was no stipend, there was no grant to complete the work, there was no tenure decision pending. There was just a universe-enforced semester course reduction and a book waiting to be completed. Still, it took the entire year.
My parents helped review the manuscript. As former teachers and avid genealogists, they found the work compelling. My father’s first career as a Methodist minister enabled him to shed light on many of my diarists’ theological dilemmas and church experiences. My mother’s careful reading of the original typescript helped me to correct many transcription errors. As I worked, I remembered all my students who found this story compelling, who loved it when I talked about my work, whose own grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents kept diaries. I thought of every single person who brightened with interest when I talked about my work. And I thought about the two women who wrote their own words a century before, who struggled with their own ideas of success. The project took on new purpose in that last year, and when I finished my work -- writing the final section, purposefully, on December 31st, 2006 -- I knew I had done my part. If the project didn’t go any further, I had at least done what I could do. Now, I am down to the waiting.
To escape a rip current, we are told, “Swim parallel to shore. Do not swim toward the shore or fight the current because it is a fight you cannot win.” The danger, though real, is easy to escape if you remain calm. One of my current clients, who I am coaching as she works on her master’s thesis, hopes to finish “before the next disaster.” I understand her need and also the unlikelihood of that accomplishment. Having only just returned to safely to shore myself, all I can tell her is keep swimming parallel to shore.
Amy L. Wink has taught at five different universities as visiting professor, a part-time professor, and is currently an adjunct professor at Austin Community College. She is the author of She Left Nothing In Particular: The Autobiographical Legacy of Nineteenth Century Women’s Diaries (University of Tennessee Press, 2001), and the editor of Their Hearts’ Confidante: The Diaries of Henrietta Baker Embree and Tennessee Keys Embree, 1856-1884 (forthcoming, University of Tennessee Press). She is currently working on her third book, a collection of personal essays, entitled A Seat at the Window.