The Horribly Static Codex

For my digital essay project, I want to engage with the dark side of having a published book.

Earlier in March I got the word from my publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, that my book, They Were Still Born: Personal Stories about Stillbirth, is coming out in paperback later this year. As Katie (who was in the office when I found this out) can attest, my initial reaction was profound relief and joy. The first print run of my book has sold out and now it’s going into a trade paperback printing. This is great for a lot of reasons.

But if it was all sunshine and roses and happiness, I wouldn’t have much to take on in a digital essay, would I?

I’m conflicted because the essay I wrote for the book is fine; it was true when I wrote it. It was “right” for the collection. But it’s not where I am now, or even who I am now. It certainly doesn’t capture the most important elements of what I learned from my daughter’s death.

Yet it’s what goes out between covers anytime someone buys my book. Amazon ships it out, people read it, and that piece of writing represents, in some limited capacity, the story of Beatrice and what I learned from her. (Not to mention that I was 26 when I wrote it. I thought I was so wise then. I imagine I’ll look back chagrined at my current self 6 years from now…)

Of course, I knew even at the time that I had to choose a particular entry point for my essay. It’s not possible, in a few thousand words, to show it all. In picking a specific angle, I closed the door to all the other stories I could tell, all the other shades of significance. I said no to a lot of things to say yes to one.

That’s why I’m so frustrated with the book form. I celebrate the book’s continued life, but I also resent it. I resent that it isn’t a website instead (though that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun to say as having a book!), where the stories could link to each other, and readers could add their own narratives. I wish the book was somewhere, like one of my book’s contributors prompted and wrote on her own blog, contributors could share where they are now, several years further down the road. This wouldn’t change the original stories, but it would enable some addendums and follow up materials to be published, too.

This digital essay is my space to do this work, to ask those questions, to write another story, to say yes to something else. This is the form I wish my book could (have) take(n).

  • Texts/Materials: My essay will take for its genesis the text of my book, They Were Still Born. I will also bring in collaborative text that is newly generated among myself and a group of the book’s original contributors.
  • This new project will take up the question of what happens to stories born of trauma after they have been published. What are those texts afterlives? How do writers relate to their words after they are cemented in time, unchangeable, and sent out into the world of readers? Is it possible to reopen those texts and do new things with them even if they are published in a form that is unmalleable? Can people collaborate anew and what kind of product might better reflect the ways in which our work has informed or conflicted with each others’?
  • I think that Google documents will be the most apt platform for writing some sort of shared document. I then envision doing short video podcasts reflecting on the process, and posting the longform reflection on WordPress.
  • Can you identify a text that could serve as an approximate model for the sort of piece you’d like to compose? No.
  • What questions do you have at this point for me and your colleagues? I mostly would love to hear any feedback you have about this idea. Is it too self-referential? What aspect of what I’ve written intrigues you and what aspect(s) could you do without? What would you most want to know about that I’ve alluded to here? Finally, and possibly most importantly, I haven’t done much significant collaboration before, so I’m not sure how to best capture the versions we write collectively, or even how to show that in the final product.

I hope you’re all enjoying your break, and I look forward to hearing back from you when you have the time to respond.

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4 thoughts on “The Horribly Static Codex”

  1. Janel,

    I don’t think your project is too self-referential; my fear, like you expressed on Twitter today, is that it could quickly become too unwieldy. So, my main suggestion would be narrowing your scope from “published books” in general to the specific “genre” (however you want to use that term) of personal essays/narratives/creative non-fiction.

    I suggest this because your concerns about the afterlife of your story(ies) immediately made me think of David Sedaris and his wealth of published books. His stories are far from static – as he acquires more ridiculous life experiences, he revisits previous ones in some of his earlier works, at least via casual references to people, places, etc. So who is to say you couldn’t do the same thing with your story? I think the strongest aspect of t a personal narrative is seeing how the author feels years after it was written!

    Perhaps you could also tackle reader expectations/practices to see how they shift depending on the “genre” of a book. Do we, or can we, ever expect someone’s story to be finished, even in death?

    Finally, I’m not too up-to-date with collaborative digital technologies, but Google Docs sounds like it might be the easiest interface to use, even if it’s not super sophisticated or whatever.

  2. Janel,

    I’m psyched about this project–there is something truly frustrating in the temporality of printed texts after we’ve written them. Since a text that’s finished (in the traditional narrative of publication=done) manifests as an artifact of a very specific period and rhetorical choice, and since I think a lot of people have that same anxious experience, you’ll find a healthy audience for this inquiry on the internet. This is especially the case because the internet doesn’t solve this problem so much as allow you to update or explore alternate paths at different times–you can make different choices and re-start those paths of choices over and over again, but each time you’re effectively generating a new static codex, unless you change the method of “doing” the writing/reading cycle. Exploring ways around this, and fighting the uphill battle against post-publication joy-angst, gives this project a lot of personality, and has some really interesting implications for English-ey things as a whole.

  3. Janel,

    First, why is it only us guys responding to you? Second, I love your answer to my question #4.

    Third, and more substantively—let me offer a story in response to your ideas for a project. A few years ago, I was asked if I’d like to publish a new edition of a book I published back in 1996, A Teaching Subject. Of course I said yes, but then when I got into the project, I found that I didn’t want to revise and, in a sense, replace what I’d written before. That text had its own integrity—and its own meaning for me. So what I decided to do, instead, was to add to the original book—in the form of postscripts, addenda, etc.

    That’s what I see you doing with this project—not replacing, but adding. (And to venture where I know not, but that seems apt for your subject, too, no?) In that sense, you’re not responding to a “dark side,” but simply acknowledging the passage of time, and the added wisdom it can offer.

    So all that is probably useless as practical advice, but my basic message is: What a wonderful project! It builds on prior work, engages collaborators, makes use of the affordances of the web. What’s to stop you?

    Joe

  4. Janel
    First of all, congratulations on the publication of your book! I hope to find a chance to read it .
    I have my own long story about the widening gaps between the author an her previously published works. My first poetry collection was published when I was only fourteen, and the next one came out when I was eighteen. You can imagine how different I might be today, at 29, from the poet that I was that time. However, my second book is finding more and more readers every year, even more than my most recent collection. I still receive emails from its readers who ask me strange questions about a poem that I wrote at the age of sixteen. For them, the poet is there, always present. For me, she is far away.
    I never revise my poems for new editions, as they belong to the poet that I was, more than the one that I am. I do not dare edit her work! Still, I always feel responsible for whatever I have written and published in my life. It seems contradictory, I know! I am her future, and her works should exist as my undeniable past.
    The story would be different for academic works of course; up-dating a non-creative book might be a necessity in certain situations, whereas re-writing a more personal work is a matter of personal dissatisfaction.
    If you do not regret some aspects of your previous publications, you are not growing.
    Your subject has always been a big challenge to me, and I’m looking forward to reading your experimental digital essay.

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