I caught my first episode of Netflix’s Nailed It! tonight, and this might either be the perfect metaphor for what I want to say this week, or the worst, so bear with me. In case you’re don’t know the show, the premise is pretty basic: think baking competition show with the worst amateur bakers possible. This isn’t The Great British Baking Show, where everyone’s doing these complex recipes that somehow come out at least decently, because everyone there knows what fondant is. No, this is the show with every single food-related Pinterest fail ever.
I read about Lynn’s year of writing and my first thought was “that’s excellent! I love when people decide on a path, then walk it despite their fear.” She’s such a strong writer and the world needs more of her voice. She’s got nothing to be scared of.
My second thought was “Oh boy, how do I follow this? My 2018 writing year is a hot mess.”
It’s all over the place! I wrote… all the things. For all the people. And the range is intense:
history lectures in my field for a church class, a co-written article on maps (not my field) for my crowd (professional historians), exhibit text for a general audience interested in makerspace culture, a talk on the Slave Societies Digital Archive for scholars of religion at SORAAAD, a talk on the Fort Negley Descedants Oral History Project for the National Humanities Alliance, a Digital History Profile, an academic book review, two very different grant applications, a trade history book proposal and sample chapters, blog posts, and more!
Unifying these incredibly diverse writing projects, is the question of audience. For who do I write, and why? For me, 2018 was the year I spent experimenting with audiences. Continue reading “A SmartWomen’s Year in Review: Writing Audience (Part II)”
by Lynn Clement
“’I don’t know what you’ve got in mind,’ said Pippi, ‘but I’m not the sort to lie around. I’m a thing-searcher, you see. And that means I never have a moment to spare…The whole world is full of things, which means there’s a real need for someone to go searching for them. And that’s exactly what a thing-searcher does.’”
-Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking, Penguin Group, Ltd. 2007 edition
As the holidays begin, and the year winds down, it’s a time for Smart Women to reflect. For this writer, 2018 has been full of highs and lows, lasts and firsts.
A few weeks ago I attended my first parent-teacher conference in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom. It was much as I’d expected: seated in a doll-house sized chair I learned of my daughter’s exploits (both good and, let’s say, not-so-good), which, to me, reflect her can-do attitude and Pippi-like personality.
While brave, imaginative, and sharp as a tack, my daughter has “difficulty with transition” and her teacher and I discussed strategies for improvement. She is not the type of child who can easily shift gears. Announce to her that she has 5 minutes left to finish whatever she’s immersed in and panic immediately sets in, as does the frustration, the anger, and the despondency. This is particularly the case when she is creating stories. Already she is well aware of the feeling that there’s so much to do, but not enough time to do it. She is a thing searcher, you see, and she feels as if she hasn’t a moment to spare.
The trait is hereditary because that summarizes my own year of writing. In many ways it’s been exciting. I have so many wonderful writing projects in the works, so many ideas to pursue, so many things to be researched and discovered and learned. In many ways it’s been frustrating because I have so much to say but not enough time to put it down. I’m a thing searcher, you see, but I haven’t a moment to spare!
However, “you get what you get, and you don’t get upset” (a phrase my kid has somehow picked up, though not from me because I’m constantly pissed). This is her way of dealing with the disappointment: the amount of ice cream in a bowl, the color of the free balloon at the supermarket, the amount of time we get and how we spend it. Her expression (ugh. She’s already SO much smarter than me), reminds me of something very important, something I have to remember about this journey that is writing; it’s about creating threads that transcend the time I am so obsessed with.
One of my goals for 2018 was to write more and to be braver about letting people read it. This is one of the reasons that I applied to be a contributor to Smart Women Write. I feel so lucky that I have had this opportunity because being welcomed into this writing community has been one of my biggest writing successes. Not only has my writing improved, but my approach to writing has improved. I’ve fallen back in love with it, I’ve used it to get through some really tough times, and I’ve found important threads that link me to others, past, present, and hopefully future.
While 2018 was about dipping a toe into writing again, 2019 will be about jumping right in, Pippi-style.
For the first time, I will be submitting an article for publication in an academic journal. It is terrifying. What if it’s terrible? What if I fail? What if they say no? What if reviewer #2 is so harsh they make me cry? Well, I’ll get what I get and I won’t get upset because even if it’s unsuccessful this time, the thread has been woven and it will find its way to those who need to read it. I have been researching the Paris Commune for almost a decade now, and this is my connection to the past, my thread to the revolutionary women that predate me, but to whom I feel deeply connected. They too were thing searchers and they were searching for equality. I will tell their story.
In addition, for the first time I will be pursuing a more personal writing project that I also hope to get published. I recently discovered journals written by my grandmother. I never knew she was a writer, but apparently writing a daily journal was a lifelong exercise because there were copious wire notebooks in myriad colors. Even after she became too sick to write, my grandfather took up the mantle and did it for her. The entry on the day that she died is heartbreaking. It is one sentence, 4 words, but it conveys all his feelings (he must have been a writer too). Long before this day though, my grandmother detailed a birthday camping trip taken in 1974 with my grandfather and her youngest daughter. She wrote about everything: what she packed, how she packed it, when and where they got gas, their exact route, the people they met along the way, the weather, the landscape, all that she saw. Her descriptions of the landscape, in particular, made me realize that she too was a thing searcher. It is my plan to recreate the trip this summer on my own birthday (only days after hers) to a town in Canada that no longer goes by the same name. I, too, will document everything.
I will also be pursuing all the writing projects, here and there, that get me through my day: writing improved and inclusive lectures, learning to write code, and writing blog posts that help me to keep it all in perspective. Perhaps nothing will ever get published, but I hope my daughter will find my writings someday. They will be online and in randomly named documents on my laptop rather than in notebooks, but hopefully they’ll remind her that she is from a long line of thing-searchers and story-tellers.
For that’s what writers are, aren’t we?
Thanksgiving is upon us. Hopefully, for all of us, this will be a week of good cheer, warm reunions, and full stomachs. Besides spending a little time with my digital project and syllabus for the Spring semester, I plan on carving out a few days of relaxation with my partner to cook, bake, and do NOTHING (have you heard of that?).
Last weekend, however, I stepped out of my comfort zone. I attended an academic conference. Even though I’m in academia, attending and presenting at conferences is not my favorite thing. They require public speaking, constant performance, inconceivable amounts of intellectual attention, and self-interested networking.
Some senior scholars claim that it’s not worth it to go to conferences at all; they take up precious time during the semester, the feedback isn’t always valuable, and then there’s the fear of intellectual plagiarism, or conversely, wasting your time listening to too many half-baked ideas (a full professor in my graduate department once said that the only way to attend a conference is to go to your own panel and ditch the rest … and others have confessed to the same habit). And yet, while few scholars actually enjoy conferences, most (especially early-career scholars) must “endure” them to expand their professional network. Some have written on ways to attend conferences “strategically” and not exhaust yourself. But let’s face it: For many of us, it’s still just-a-little-too taxing to try and strike up conversations with 5 to 10 random people in a day, especially when we’re thinking in the economical, self-interested terms of: “what might this person do for me, now or in the future?”
Most of the time, we do not talk about how uncomfortable and fatiguing this part of academia can be. So, to “fill that gap,” here’s a review of my most recent experience at the 2018 PAMLA conference that I attended last weekend in Bellingham, WA. I applied specifically to this conference because there was a call for papers from an organization to which I belong, Women in French, asking for submissions related to “the theme of food in literature.” To my excitement, there ended up being three panels at the conference on the topic, which meant lots of food for thought (haha) and suggestions for further reading. On the second day of the conference, at 8AM (!), I read my paper, “Consumption of the Flesh in Marie NDiaye’s La Cheffe: roman d’une cuisinère,” in which I thought about how Jacques Derrida’s maxim on ethical consumption, “Il faut bien manger” (“one must eat well” OR “one must eat, of course”), structured the female protagonist’s culinary practices. Fortunately, I got a couple questions in the Q&A that helped me to think about how to move forward and flip the piece into an article. Continue reading “Relationality: Intermingling at Academic Conferences”
Last summer, I mentioned I was heading to a seminar in Cambridge as part of a sabbatical through my school. Now that the weather’s cooled and summer seems eons ago, I’m thinking about that experience more than ever – perhaps in no small part because I’m going to talk about it at school this week to all my colleagues and students, and because I finally retrieved the 750+ photos I thought I’d lost from the adventure.
Attending the Oxbridge Summer Seminar for teachers last year was an orchestrated effort on my part: I’m fortunate enough to teach at an institution that offers summer sabbaticals for faculty, and this was my second time applying. Whether or not you’ll get one depends on a variety of factors, including how many other people applied, but there’s also the limits of your own imagination. Most of the time, I haven’t applied because I couldn’t dream up something that sounded good enough, if I’m honest.
(A few years ago, I finally managed my first application, with a colleague in a different department. We didn’t get selected for the dream trip to Cuba, but two colleagues who actually teach Spanish did, so we were happy for them.)
Last spring, I discovered the Oxbridge Summer Seminar by chance and set about writing an application to attend “Why History Matters,” a week-long program held at Peterhouse College, Cambridge University. My proposal paired that experience with the idea of a few days in London to visit the Imperial War Museum and Churchill’s War Rooms, particularly because the world wars come up quite a bit when you teach 20th Century World History and US History.
What happens when you go abroad to spend a week contemplating “Why History Matters?”
First and foremost, of course, you have an amazing time.
The Oxbridge program, which included several seminars under one umbrella (mine, one on math, and one on English), included about 20 people from all over the world: Trinidad, Denmark, Pakistan, Taiwan, Canada, and various US states. In addition to our seminars, our program included daily activities, access to copious amounts of tea, speakers, and excellent food.
We took a guided tour of Cambridge, relaxed with drinks on a bridge over the River Cam, went punting on the river, listened to the choir at King’s College during Evensong, drove out to explore Bletchley Park (the home of WW2 codebreaking efforts). We strolled along the river, through meadows and cow pastures, to visit The Orchard Tea Room, frequented by the likes of Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke and John Maynard Keynes in years past. One night, we toured a local gin distillery (complete with tasting – and a try of truffle gin, amazing stuff). One afternoon, I walked up the grand staircase into the Trinity College Library, a building designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Cathedrals haven’t moved me as much as the site of those ancient books and shelves and card catalogs long unused.
With my History group, each day was an adventure on top of this. When you think “seminar,” it’s never quite clear how much time you’ll spend in a classroom, but Oxbridge did it right. Following breakfast each morning, our group of 9 or 10 conversed around a table in an upper room with our instructor, the first female fellow at Peterhouse. We explored the British history curriculum, analyzed war poetry and how (and why) we teach it, and even read about ancient magic rituals to think about the role of anthropology and archaeology in studying history.
And then we left the classroom, often first to the warm weather in the Fellows garden, circled up beneath the trees as we chatted over copies of British university history exams. From there, we walked (or drove) to places I had never heard of or had not thought I’d be fortunate enough to see.
We strolled through town. We took taxis out to the Cambridge American Cemetery (and were nearly left there when none returned for us). We explored artwork (mostly Antony Gormley’s). We traipsed through the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, discovering ancient bones on which poets have written a few lines. We didn’t just read about history: we encountered it, we explored it, and we came face to face with our own thoughts about how and why that matters to each of us, as teachers, as people, and as citizens of our respective places.
I left Cambridge after only a week, but it hasn’t left me, which is the way these things always go, happily. It’s always good, then, to have something to head off to next when one adventure ends, and mine included a jaunt to visit one of my oldest friends (not by age, but by length of our relationship). My peaceful weekend between trip legs included little more than sipping elderberry cordial, playing games, walking around a village (or two), and clambering over ruins that once hosted kings. I paid my respects to Sir Churchill, learned how to do the floss, and contemplated the myriad ways we make our lives as we wish.
I finished my summer interlude with a few days on my own, at least, in London. I left the
kindred spirits behind me and spent three nights in solitude at the top of a lovely inn across from the Imperial War Museum. (At night, the breeze blew in just right along with my view of the London Eye.) I tried to make the most of the time I had – as noted, it’s never enough, but I’ll keep trying. I got lost in the Imperial War Museum, waited in line for the Churchill War Rooms, discovered Ben Franklin’s House, and even managed, through a bit of patience, to score a ticket to see Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre. Along the way, I discovered the Tardis and King George III’s personal library, visited the Doctor Who shop, rode the London Eye, and visited the mummies and the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum.
My summer was unexpected from start to finish, but this trip – the most expected part of it all, and yet in so many ways so unexpected itself – was tremendous all around. Now that winter appears to have settled in on my corner of the world, it’s nice to have memories of England and history in summertime, and that dream that maybe one day I’ll be British when I grow up.
In honor of National Novel Writing Month, I’m going to tell you another story about the time I taught a nonfiction writing class titled “Writing Your Family History,” at the Nashville Public Library for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
Although everyone reads nonfiction every day, a lot of people think of it as dry, like writing a 5-paragraph essay for school. They often equate nonfiction writing with an encyclopedia article- a collection of well-organized facts that puts you to sleep. (Note: I don’t think that way, I’ve written encyclopedia articles, but I understand the sentiment).
But what about that fascinating personality profile you’ve read about your favorite celebrity’s brush with death as a child? Or the clever piece that was organized as a series of exotic meals, but was really about the small-town narrator’s growing comfort with an unfamiliar culture? How about the human interest story from the journalist in Syria who reveals to us the histories of the people who are trying to flee? Have you admired the way you can learn about the conflict not through 5 boring paragraphs, but through the eyes of people who live it each day?
That’s the magic, right there.
Seasoned writers know that. Beginning writers always say “yes, but that’s a celebrity, or someone traveling to Cameroon, or a trained journalist in a war zone. What about someone like me who grew up in Monterey, Tennessee and worked in a factory for 40 years? Who wants to read about that?” (This was a real question from class).
I think it’s such an important question. One that set the tone for the entire session. Continue reading “What’s your Creative Nonfiction Really About?”
by Lynn Clement
I’ve always considered it a great failing in my education that I never had the chance to take drawing classes, or any art making classes for that matter. In middle school and high school art was an elective sacrificed if you were on a college prep track and despite my declared major of art history in undergrad, I went to such a large university that only studio art majors could take the studio classes. Thus, it has been a personal endeavor to learn the techniques used to make art objects in order to gain greater insight into the creative process of those I study. While an important part of my profession, drawing, painting, and photography have also been an important part of my self-care.
After the sage advice posted this month by Angela, Tanya, and Raquelle, I felt overdue for a break in which I could think and act creatively. I am fortunate to live outside of Washington, DC where the opportunity to pursue these activities at a low cost are readily available, which is why this weekend I found myself at The Big Draw Festival at the National Gallery of Art with my daughter and a good friend. The Big Draw is a charity that supports visual literacy and celebrates drawing as an important tool for learning and engagement. Although headquartered in England, every October partners around the globe host their own festivals. At the National Gallery in Washington, DC live models posed for the enjoyment of amateur and professional artist alike and entire galleries were given over to contemplating the movement of the human body captured by some of the most celebrated sculptors through history.
It wasn’t until the 15th century that drawing was considered an art form in its own right, though it has long been used as a means of studying various fields in a deeper way. For example, drawing has long been used in scientific fields to heighten observational and communication skills and more recently medical schools have added art classes to their curriculum. What struck me most about the latter is how art classes have helped doctors to better understand emotional expressions and cues. Drawing forces you to observe the world in order to replicate it, and observing the world leads to a deeper consideration and understanding. This is especially true when looking at people.
The friend who drew with me this weekend commented on how the exercise of sketching forced him to look, observe, analyze what might otherwise be overlooked. It was during this quiet reflection that, unbeknownst to us, shots were fired hundreds of miles away at a Synagogue in Pittsburg. Mere days earlier, two African Americans were targeted and slain in a grocery store and bombs were delivered by innocent postal carriers to leading political figures. Afterward, as I tried to digest the violence, I looked over my sketches and considered what my friend had said and remembered what I had seen. Models who had smiled and laughed when poses changed, who stretched and tended to sore muscles, and were applauded for their noticeable effort. Docents who had welcomed us with drawing materials and information. Fellow lovers of art who sat beside us sketching their own visions or who walked through galleries filled with history in visual form. My own daughter, my favorite muse, who I drew as she played video games after she’d grown bored of sitting still. What had made this such a magical day, such a memorable moment was more than just the action of drawing, but drawing together with people of all walks of life. I had tried to capture these figures of flesh and stone on paper, nameless to me, but so human, and so delicate. How is that human-ness lost to others?
The Big Draw’s claim is that “drawing changes lives”. I don’t know if that’s true, but taking the time to contemplating the world, and especially the people around us, can’t be a bad idea. While I’d always found creating art as part of taking care of myself, it wasn’t until this weekend that I considered it an important part of how I care for others, or more importantly, how I saw others.
I don’t know if my words are working together to convey what I wanted to in this post as it currently feels like a stream of consciousness. It’s all become so much to take in, but I can’t stop looking.