I had my teeth cleaned today by a pleasant hygienist, who I paid £32.50 for the mildly unpleasant experience of having my teeth scraped and polished. I love the feeling after a professional clean, though; I keep running my tongue over my teeth. It’s a similar satisfaction to climbing into a bed that’s been made with fresh linen, or leaving footsteps in virgin snow. Here is something new and untouched and clean.

New beginnings, with a four-leaf clover for luck

On Wednesday, I went to my favourite local coffee shop and took out a new notebook. This one was a gift from a friend, and so I felt it should be used for something meaningful. I looked at the blank, clean first page for a while, and then wrote:

Academic year 2014-15
Long term goals

Writing those words down made the page seem blanker than when it had been an empty sheet. What the heck are my long-term goals for the next academic year? I know what my major long-term goal is over the next three years: to produce a monograph on the theme of medieval homosociality. But how to get from empty notebook to manuscript?

I think for many academics, the second book is the real challenge. The first book is often a development of the PhD thesis, and while it can be challenging to complete for a lot of reasons, often the basic argument and structure is already there. It’s a project that may be published in a form quite different from your thesis, but it began with research that was given lots of assistance by supervisors, fellow PhD students etc. For book 2, it can feel much more like you are on your own, and when you’re an early career researcher, juggling your many other commitments can make book 2 a bit of a pipe dream.

I’m extremely lucky in that I am, from the 1st October, an Early Career Fellow funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the University of Oxford. For three years I can work full time on researching and writing this project; although I will be doing some teaching, my schedule is much freer than it has been for the past three years (when I’ve been a lecturer in medieval history). Because of my good fortune in winning this fellowship, I’ve been loathe to admit that I am, actually, a little intimidated by it, because I know how many people would love to be in my position! But one of the things I love about the new online academia – the communities we’ve built up around twitter and blogging – is that it allows for a greater vulnerability.

One of my favourite historians here on WordPress is Matt Houlbrook. Matt is an accomplished, prize-winning historian; he’s also very open about the challenges, crises and insecurities of researching and writing academic history. For instance, I enjoyed his photo essay on the writing of a book chapter. Plenty of academics will admit to struggling with research or writing – in fact, it’s probably not socially acceptable in academic circles to say you find those things easy! – but not many academics actually peel back the layers of their working process so the public can see what tangled inner workings lie beneath the polished final product. More and more these days, as I’ve said before, I appreciate the mess and intimacy of doing history: the mistakes and false starts and getting entangled in the material. But of course, the last time I began a project of this length and scope, it was a PhD, where I had the good fortune to have not one but two extremely able supervisors to help guide me through the maze. If I’m Theseus now, I’m facing a labyrinth where I have no one to give me a ball of string. I need to be my own guide, now. It’s enormously liberating, and also paralysing. Do I go left or right?

I think I’ve decided that I’m not going to know where I’m going until I’ve had the opportunity to get lost. The threshold is the safest part of the maze, but standing there isn’t going to take me on a journey. I flipped over the page of my notebook, and wrote two more comfortable lists: Medium- and Short– term goals. Then, taking a breath, I wrote a couple of things on that first page.

It’s still a pretty empty page; but I am not a blank slate, and I will find the words to fill it.