The Nachlass monster
Yesterday, I came to an unfortunate realization about fatherhood: I can no longer keep my daughter’s weekly schedule in my head. As I write this, Beatrix is enrolled in two different preschool programs, which she attends on mornings and afternoons on alternate weekdays; gym on Tuesdays; and ballet on Fridays. We also have a bunch of informal obligations every week, like playdates and making the rounds of our grownup friends in the neighborhood. This busy routine is mostly by design. On a typical day, both my wife and I work from home, dividing child care between us in chunks of three to four hours. A morning with a three year old can seem awfully long when you don’t have an activity planned, and there are only so many times you can go to the park or library. We’re lucky to be flexible enough that we can ferry her from one appointment to the next, and she seems to enjoy all of it. But I felt a little sad when I realized that our lives had imperceptibly crossed a threshold of complexity at which I couldn’t easily remember what we were doing on any given day. In a few weeks, I expect that I’ll have internalized it, so that I no longer have to worry about forgetting to pick her up when preschool is over. For now, though, it’s too much for me to track on my own, so I suggested to my wife that we get one of those erasable calendars that you see in people’s kitchens. She jumped on the idea as if she’d been waiting for me to bring it up—which means, I guess, that we’ve officially entered the whiteboard stage of parenting.
As it happens, I recently had a similar revelation about my book project. I’ve been working on Astounding, off and on, for about a year now: according to my diary, I started thinking seriously about writing a biography of John W. Campbell at the end of last summer. It became a real job in March, after I signed a contract, and I’ve been plugging away at it ever since—gathering raw documents and secondary sources, approaching potential interviewees, and thinking all the while about how to structure this very complicated narrative. I’m still a few months away from the actual writing, but I’m already daunted by the amount of material that I have to keep under control. Campbell alone left an enormous literary estate: novels, short stories, editorials and filler items from three decades of the magazine, nonfiction works, interviews, and something like twenty thousand pages of correspondence. Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard have just as much, if not more. In German, the word for an author’s unpublished papers is Nachlass, which has always sounded to me like a vaguely sinister, lumpish form lurking in the attic upstairs. When you’re wrestling with a big archive, that’s how it often feels, until the estate comes to seem like a sentient entity in its own right, apart from its underlying subject. It acquires a life of its own. And just as there comes a time when you can no longer handle a three year old using the same strategies that you used with a toddler, you also reach a point when managing the information you’ve found becomes a second job in itself.
Over the last month or so, then, I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that the Nachlasse of my four central figures are too large for me to handle using the makeshift tactics I’ve used so far. I’ve been taking notes in a few huge text files, which is a more workable approach than it might sound—my laptop lets me search for everything instantly using Spotlight, so I can usually find the specific tidbit of information that I need without too much trouble. This doesn’t include the countless scraps of paper or books in which I’ve written down notes, however, or the information that I’ve saved in my email. It isn’t great for organizing or manipulating the material, either, which is going to become increasingly important as I start outlining. I’m currently hoping to tackle the next stage using a combination of text files, spreadsheets, notecards, and maybe even a software program like Scrivener, if I can persuade myself to try it. But I’m well past the point when I could easily carry all of this information in my brain. This is partially due to the passage of time: after you’ve been working on any project for more than a few months, the details of what you were doing toward the beginning start to fade. I have trouble remembering what I read in April or May, simply because I’ve done so much else in the meanwhile. A huge research project tends to become unmanageable along two separate axes: a horizontal or temporal one, as the earliest stages retreat into the past, and a vertical or spatial one, as the pile of paperwork that you’ve accumulated grows ever larger.
And the analogy to raising a child isn’t a bad one. With a baby, one day is pretty much the same as any other, and early on, you’re more likely to think in units of two hours at a time. As the kid grows up, you develop a rudimentary routine that differs from day to day, but it’s still possible to rely on the same skills that you were using before: the difference is quantitative, not qualitative. At some point, though, you find that you need to buy a whiteboard, and that it’s only going to get more complicated. There isn’t a clear moment when this happens, and you may well realize that it occurred a long time ago, and that you’ve been muddling along with an imperfect set of tools without knowing it. When you have no choice but to acknowledge that things have changed, it’s tempting to feel nostalgic for what you’ve left behind: it all used to be so much simpler. But for writers, as well as parents, managing complexity is one of those tasks on which we’re going to be judged on performance, even if our mistakes tend to be more visible than our successes. Forgetting an important fact or losing a crucial piece of paper may not be as publicly mortifying as forgetting to pick up your daughter from ballet, but it reminds us how much this kind of organization is taken for granted. It’s worth noting, of course, that the specific solutions will differ for everyone, and that both writers and parents are likely to go with whatever works. Most of the outcome is also out of your hands—which just means that preserving your own sanity should be your first priority. You won’t slay the monster overnight. But it helps if you have a calendar.