On 17 August 1478, the married men of the Staple of Calais challenged their bachelor brothers in trade to an archery match. A few hundred years later, I wrote about this match and it became an article which has just been published in History Workshop Journal.
That sounds like a simple process, but of course it wasn’t. The process of writing this article was rather a tortuous one; I thought reflecting on the process here might be interesting for my fellow academics – and maybe encouraging for students who see the people a bit further up the ladder cheerfully tweeting about their latest output.
I had the nebulous idea for this article all the way back in 2012, when I gave a conference paper that used the archery match invitation as a way of starting to ask some of the questions that would eventually make their way into the project proposal I put together for the Leverhulme Trust in 2014. In 2014 I gave another conference paper which used it to explicitly state what I hoped I would do with my project on homosociality.
The obvious move was to turn it into an article. But somehow that just kept…not happening. In 2015, after a few months of my fellowship, I felt I’d done enough research into some specific sociological discourses to be able to come back to the archery match and move on from an interesting 3000-word conference paper to producing an article. I fiddled with it. I wrote a few outlines. I was preoccupied, however, because I was pregnant, and for a lot of my pregnancy not very well in various ways. I worked on another article instead that somehow felt easier. I gave a couple of conference papers. I did more research on other things. The Calais article went back in a drawer.
On returning from maternity leave in summer 2016, this project was one of the first I came back to. Unfortunately by this point the idea of it had become something of an albatross. I had a strong sense that I should have damn well written the thing already, and each time I opened the file I looked at it with a sense of dismay; after a while just opening the Word document made me feel literally queasy. In hindsight, I wish I had decided to mark my return from maternity leave by starting something brand new. Instead I wasted much of the summer working on this piece, feeling dissatisfied with it, and once again shelving it because it just wasn’t coming together.
The first half of 2017 flew by in a blur of other deadlines. By the summer I decided I’d finally finish this damn article. But I was extremely tired. Was I getting burned out? As it turned out, I actually had three blood clots in my lungs, the effects of which had been slowly making my body and mind grind to a halt. As soon as I started taking blood thinners, the heavy fog that had descended over my thoughts lifted. Unfortunately, the crushing fatigue returned and in fact increased – this is a known side effect of the drug I was on. I felt intellectually more alert than I had done in a while, but physically too tired to do very much. I was signed off sick, initially completely and then I had several months at work part time.
During this period I came back to the Calais article. I decided to start from scratch, and wrote a brand new outline before starting the process of writing the piece. Academic writing for me is a slow process. I plan very extensively, and then I write quite meticulously. What goes down on the page is never a rough draft; while of course I edit before I submit work, that is usually a case of rearranging paragraphs or tweaking sentences. If this sounds enviable, it’s not; it means I can spend entire days writing only a few words because I can’t convince myself to just jot something down and come back to it later to fill in the gaps. This can feel extremely demoralising – though at least once I’ve finally written something I normally feel reasonably pleased with it.
So. I finished off the article, and I thought it read quite well. The problem was by then that because some of the ideas for the piece had been in my head so long they no longer felt particularly fresh and interesting to me. Reading it over, I thought – okay, this is a decently-written article, but why the hell has it taken me this long to write it? I decided I should just go ahead and submit it because otherwise I would be tweaking it until the end of time. I was pretty sure, though, that it would come back with a revise and resubmit.
Instead at the start of 2018 I got an email saying my article had been accepted subject to revisions. Great news! When I opened the comments from the readers, I was surprised to find that they wanted only minor changes, and virtually all those changes were things that I agreed made the piece stronger. I told the editor that one suggested addition wouldn’t really be feasible, but I considered the spirit behind the suggestion and used it to add a useful footnote. Then the article went back, went through the usual proofs stage and now is out in the world.
I think my big problem with this article was allowing it to acquire too much psychic weight. Each time I tried to work on it, it acquired more and more baggage, until I felt suffocated by it. Because I had been thinking about it on and off for years, by the time I tried to write it in earnest, I felt like it should be some great and important work. I would read back the paragraph I’d laboriously written on a particular day and feel disappointed in myself. Is that it? I’d say to myself.
I’m still not entirely sure what got me out of this rut of working on this for a little while, realising I had other deadlines coming up or finding an excuse to work on another piece of writing instead and shelving it for another few months. I think I just finally reached a place where I said to myself: it’s now or never. And it helped that I started once again with a blank page, trying to force myself to think of the article as something new. It is, after all, not a piece of writing that by the time I submitted it was five years old. It was informed by the thoughts I’d had years ago, but reading it now I can see that the way I’ve framed it could only have been written by me now, with the new skills I’ve acquired during my fellowship and also – perhaps more importantly – the new preoccupations and priorities. Now when I read the article I can see it makes a quiet statement about the kind of historian I hope I am becoming, which is different from the kind of scholar I imagined being in 2012 or 2014. So Ready to Disport With You is a piece for the Rachel of 2018. Next year I may feel like it belongs to someone else. That’s alright; our work, after all, is a product of our time.