Where I Am

As part of the effort to write this biography of Sam Johnson, I’ve used Twitter as a way to connect with people who have a wide variety knowledge of the 18th century. Not just people who study Johnson — in fact I think few of them are active Johnson scholars in the sense that they teach him at a university — but also people who know about aspects of life in the 18th century (what daily life was like) or who know about other writers and other figures in 18th-century England. It’s a very interesting and vocal group and I enjoy being part of this little community.

I’ve found it interesting, though I guess it shouldn’t be really surprising, that many of them talk about much more than the 18th century in their tweets and replies. I would say that the topics most frequently brought up are Donald Trump, COVID-19, political issues (lately, for example, Black Lives Matter and the initiative to remove statues in the US which depict historical figures who were part of the Confederacy), and personal issues (e.g., the difficulty concentrating and writing in the midst of a pandemic). Some of the people I follow on Twitter are language specialists, either directly, or indirectly in the sense that they are people who study literature and so they know something about language and its uses. I’ve occasionally made an effort to keep my political and other views off Twitter, but I’ve found that it’s hard to make those stark demarcations (“Twitter is only to help me with my Johnson book”). Some of the most interesting people I follow are very vocal about non-18th-century things, and I can’t help replying and commenting myself. Still, I try to keep it to some semblance of a minimum: for example, I might just “like” something from the Lincoln Project or from Sarah Cooper, but won’t go any further than that.

Twitter aside, I am making progress on my book. I’ve outlined the entire sequence of chapters and have both written parts of those chapters, as well as piled notes into some other chapters that I will at some point transmogrify into writing. I’m an organized person, so I can’t feel comfortable just writing a bit here, not documenting it, and then saving all that for a scramble at the end when I search out sources. I’m writing the book in a similar way as I make a dish from a recipe: the focus is on getting the dish to be successfully made, edible, and delicious, but all along I am cleaning up as I go, putting things in the dishwasher, discarding other things.

I also feel that in the last month or so I’ve found my focus better — that is, I have a clearer idea of what I want this book to be and how I want to carry it out. It’s not just making an excuse for not actually writing when I say that I’ve thought a lot about the book, how I can carry it out, and how I want it to be different from any other biography of Johnson. I’ve gone on road trips with my friend Oscar in the past where we just knew where we were headed — once it was to an exhibit in Kansas, I think it was, that featured art made from insects — but had no plan beyond that. We’d find accommodation where we could, we’d find somewhere to eat when we were hungry. I’m not writing this book like that!

To speak more specifically about what exactly I am doing the last few days … part of the research for the book has involved interviewing scholars and others about a variety of topics related to Johnson and the 18th century. I had all those interviews transcribed over the last couple of months and I’ve also already gone through the transcripts to hilite the parts that I consider particularly germane to my writing. So now I’m reviewing all those hilited parts and organizing them by topic. Once that’s done, I’ll have an overall look at my plan for the chapters and insert the quoted hilites in the appropriate spot for now, so that when I’m actually writing that chapter the topic and the quote will be right there, and I won’t have to wonder along the lines of “didn’t Interviewee X say something about this?” and then scrabble through my email or transcripts or other notes in an effort to track it down.

I’ve discovered a few things as I’ve gone along. One has been that I’ve gathered more than enough information about pornography and prostitution in 18th-century England. I do certainly plan to include that topic in my book, but with the combination of interviews I’ve done and books I’ve read, I really think I’ve got enough. Another thing is that I’ve had to remind myself that I’m not writing a book about life in 18th-century England or London. It’s not a full social history. I don’t need to cover that topic comprehensively, but given my aimed-for readership — the general educated reader — I do want to provide context, and I’ve figured out a way to do that. And finally I’ve learned not to be hard on myself and worry about not getting the book done exactly according to the schedule I had planned/hoped for. I’m on track. I am making progress. I won’t be done in 2020, I don’t think, but neither will it be 2030 nor will I be abandoning it. My interest in it, my feeling of it as a challenge, are both still very strong.

One final note. I’ve taken a break along the way to develop a line of greeting cards which include quotations from Johnson. The idea was, similar to that for the book: not to aim at people who already know a lot about Johnson but rather to design cards that are of interest to anyone who is looking for a greeting card. My tagline is Cards for most occasions or for no occasion at all. Funny and accidentally educational. The latter part refers to the fact that the person who selects a card because they needed one to say thank you to a friend, will only discover afterwards that those words that drew them to the card were in fact written a couple of centuries ago. If you’re interested in checking out what I’ve done, see here.

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