Thursday, July 14, 2005

Inspired, secretly

I keep thinking I should apologize for not posting much lately, but that sounds awfully pretentious, as though you were all waiting breathlessly for my next words of wisdom. I doubt that’s the case, but anyhow, I’ve missed being able to write more. My little head’s packed full of ideas, but I’ve had less computer access lately, so most of my posts never make it outside my brain.

But here’s one thing I’ve been pondering. One of my principal goals this summer was to set up a new research project, since the last one is in the final stages of being wrapped up. Of course over the past few years I’ve had nice pat answers prepared for the annual-report kinds of questions about my future research plans, but they were designed more to satisfy the report-people than to satisfy me. Lots of ideas, yeah, give me tenure, yada yada. Here, I’ve finally addressed the issue for real, and have tinkered with several ideas to see if they were feasible. About two weeks ago (June 22 to be exact), I had one of those rare mental lightning-bolt experiences where I knew exactly what the next book would be – not just a flicker of an idea but the concept for a full-fledged many-chaptered book, that sprang fully formed out of a tangent of a tangent of one of those earlier ideas.

What’s odd is that even though I find this idea enormously exciting and promising, and I jotted down in my research journal the exact moment of the lightning bolt to remember it fondly in the future, I’ve been reluctant to tell anyone. After a few days I hesitantly mentioned it to Mr. P/H, who was characteristically enthusiastic and supportive, and who had several suggestions about friends & researchers I should talk to. Eeeek! I’m not ready to talk to anyone. But why not? It feels risky enough to say it out loud to my husband; I can’t imagine turning it loose around anyone else.

In part, I’m afraid to get too invested in this idea until I have a better sense of whether it will really work out. The topic is very indirectly related to other things I’ve been working on, and although I haven’t ever come across anything written on this subject, it’s entirely possible that it’s already been done. (This brings back vivid memories of my undergraduate honors project, where I came up with the world’s greatest idea, thought it all through, and went to present it to my adviser, who said “In fact it is a great idea! But it’s just been done,” and handed me a book that was exactly the idea I’d hoped to pursue, written by none other than the best historian in the field and published only months earlier.) But I’ve been scouting for a couple of weeks now, and it really does seem doable, and it really does seem original. So why do I literally flinch at the thought of talking about it? Somehow the idea seems too young and fragile to survive on its own outside of my head; I don’t want to risk it getting banged up or misunderstood or laughed at.

But it’s an idea, not a helpless baby bird, and ideas thrive on company and light and conversation. I get my best ideas, without fail, when I’m kicking topics around with other people. Isn’t that what conferences are supposed to be about? (I know many of you have dark views of the value of the academic conference, but I’ve always found them richly useful for that very exchange of thoughts and perspectives.) What’s most likely is that I’m simply afraid that this topic isn’t half as clever as I think it is, and I can maintain all my fantasies about it as long as no one has the chance to poke holes in it. This of course is an entirely counterproductive attitude; if it does have holes, the sooner I figure them out, the better. The last thing I need is to obsess in great secrecy over this idea, only to have someone point out three years down the road its obvious flaws. And if it does turn out to be half as clever as I think it is, there’s the advantage of staking a claim to it early on, so that everyone knows it’s mine.

What do you all do with new ideas? Do you wave them around on banners, or guard them close to your chest?

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