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Always looking back and wishing I could do it again

I’ve been toying with a book review article for a scholarly journal for months. At first, the review was due in April. But that deadline has been pushed back several times. Now, it’s due in less than a week.

Illustration by James Yang (

This thing has pricked my conscience since its conception. A professor friend recommended me to the journal’s book review editor. It was work, my professor thought, that I could handle. Of course, when the opportunity arose, I said yes.

I read the books thoroughly, noting the arguments, arc of stories, and intricacies of the primary and secondary evidence the authors used in their works. I contemplated the books for a good long time. But as the deadlines floated farther into the future, so did I. I let the work hang on. As a procrastinator, I didn’t while the time away. Few procrastinators do not think heavily about the tasks before them.

In July, I drafted the book outlines, laying out the course of the narratives and the complications of the subjects the authors wrote about. I put off, however, the actual work of crafting the essay until just a relatively short time ago. Now, I have the piece. I have read the sample essays that the book review editor sent me. I tried to emulate the course of the reviews I read and have come up with I think is a reliable review of the literature.

I faced a basic and seemingly insurmountable problem. How do I put four very different gooks together in one review? Ultimately, a multi-book review is supposed to be an essay in its own right. These books share just one aspect: They are about rivers. One is an environmental history of the Mississippi. Another is about the reputation of John James Audubon based on his granddaughter’s sanitized edition of his Missouri River journals. A third concerns a steamboat wreck on the Missouri and the archeology of its contents. The last is a book put together for an exhibition of George Caleb Bingham’s Missouri River paintings.

I really don’t know how to put them together. They are so multi-faceted and each one deserves the 2,000 words I’m limited to. So, I crafted the outlines of each book’s story, its strengths, and its weaknesses. The supporting framework I am less certain about.

The result is that I sit today going over what I have written. I am struck by a couple of fears. The first, of course, is that what I’ve written will not be good enough for the journal. This is nonsense, as I know what I’m writing and that I write well. It’s just that my head and my heart are not on the same page. My head says, well, this is just all right. My heart is filled with doubt.

Another thing bothers me. Did I get it right? The books range from sophisticated environmental history to the background of an art exhibition. Each of the volumes deserves explication, though not as detailed as if I was writing on just one book. Have I boiled the stories down in a way that reflects the actual contents of the book I’m writing about? Will what I write be useful to historians and other scholars?

I’m on a stage here. The fact that I have a doctorate in history means that people will expect that I am not only a colleague, but one who knows just a little something more about these books than they do. I hope that my work helps them in their researches. I want these books to be expansions of the knowledge we already have.

One of the problems I always have is with my own proofreading. I am a terrible reader of my own work. Despite my best efforts, I always send away what I consider to be finished pieces. But they inevitably come back with missing articles, prepositions, and often verbs. I mean well. I see them in the text. I let the pieces lay a day or two and come back to them with fresh eyes. Still, these little errors escape me.

I also want to be accepted and liked. I send away this review article with the hopes that it will fulfill the requirements of the journal. I want the editor to come back to me and say, well, that was good. More importantly, I want him or her to say, well, this was great, how about if you do some more?

The review article just highlights the kinds of things that go through my mind with any piece of writing I produce. It can be an E-mail (which always read like letters), a report for the neighborhood organization center, and for just about any note I scratch out at home in my unlovely script.

About the only place I don’t worry too much about writing is my journal. It is a freeform document that includes all the mistakes and inadequacies of my writing. As soon as I say that, however, I have to take it back. I always write as if I have someone looking over my shoulder. I look through the journal now and see where I have scrawled out a phrase and replaced it with a better one. The journal, like all of my wiring, I suppose, is in a state of constant revision.

So it is with this review article. It’s done. Cooked. Finished. I’m sending it away. Sure, there are ways that I could have made it better. I could have sat on it another day. I should have. But I have been working and reworking this thing for months. At some point, it’s time to stop and let the editor have his or her say.

And it always can be better. I look back on my published works. I see places where I could have said something in fewer words, with better verbs or in more detail. At some point, I think, it has to end. I will hear back from the editor. I may curry his favor.

In the end, the only time a piece is done is when it winds up in print. I will forever be looking back and wishing I could do it again.

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