When inspiration doesn’t hit, write.

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I’m going to be honest. I struggled to write my post this month. It might have been the long to-do list leading into Spring Break (next week!), or the other writing projects that have taken most of my attention. Actually, if I’m being really honest, I wrote an entire post and decided it was the wrong topic at the wrong time. So, maybe inspiration hit, but it missed.

In the Q&A of the keynote address at a conference I attended this weekend, a student asked Brontez Purnell how he responds to writer’s block. First, he answered that he doesn’t really have that problem but the opposite, “writer’s vomit.” (Purnell was the recipient of the 2018 Whiting Award, so we’re not all that surprised that he’s amazing and doesn’t struggle with writer’s block.) But then he shared that leaving your writing project for an hour and writing about what is directly in front of you, like that 5×5 square of wall before your eyes, can help to release the tension while still exercising the writing muscle. So, I am going to take his advice. Sort of. I’m breaking from my traditional, more-focused post to share some general updates and things that are on my mind. Continue reading “When inspiration doesn’t hit, write.”

Writing a Trade History Book, Part 2: The Proposal

Click here to see Writing a Trade History Book, Part 1: The Introduction.

When I wrote my first Non-fiction book proposals, with all of its moveable parts, I felt intimidated. I had to create an overview, author bio, market analysis, competition, plan for promotion, the table of contents, my chapter summaries, and a detailed explanation of my source materials before a literary agent would even consider looking at my idea for a book.

I definitely can’t tell you how to write a non-fiction book proposal (thankfully others have gotten into that), but I can tell you about my experience creating and revising my first one (I’m now working on my second, woo!), and how worth it it really was.

Of course I loved creating the table of contents and the chapter summaries. Doing that helps you figure out if you’ve got enough material for a book, or if you’re trying to collapse too many elements into one. And the part where I explain my source materials? Really fun- I loved gathering all of my books, microfilms, photocopies, and archival photos into once place and taking stock of all there is. Seeing all the primary sources together like that helped me to ask where the silences were, and where the meatiest parts of the story existed. That caused me to make a few changes to my table of contents. Then gathering up my secondary sources helped me to figure out if my book had a chance of being fair and balanced, or if I over-relied on a handful of historians whose interpretations I enjoy more.

But then there were the other parts. A big shout-out to my agent for being patient enough with me to revise them multiple times before sending it on to publishers. The other parts are much more marketing-oriented. I tried to imagine how someone in the book-selling business would see this book of mine, and how they would sell it. On which shelf would it go? To which books could I compare it? What kind of reader would want it? How could it be made most profitable without losing its essence and integrity?

Writing those parts of the book proposal showed me that I hadn’t been paying enough attention to the world of publishing. And that’s to be expected- I’ve spent the past twelve years in academia. While I do read widely and enjoy trade history books (and other trade non-fiction), the majority of the books I’ve gone through in that time have been academic. That means that I have been exposed mostly to books created to fulfill professional curiosity and research gaps, not books created to entertain and teach the public about history. I had to entirely re-orient myself.

Thankfully, that’s where the teacher-brain took over. I sell history to everyday people all the time. My students, whether they are undergrads or older adults continuing their education for fun, do better with historic material if it’s presented in an interesting way. I weave together all kinds of stories for them upon which to hang all the facts and theories they need to know. I’m always picking the unconventional and surprising historic figures in my primary sources and showing students the larger paradoxes of the time periods through these characters’ daily lives. When my students lean forward and stop surfing the net, I know it’s a story that will sell.

Writing the book proposal taught me that the main difference between writing an academic and a trade book is like the main difference between sitting in the archives and standing at the lectern: it’s audience. The “So what?” is important in any non-fiction book, but the other academics who read your academic book don’t need it: they understand the intrinsic importance of most historic research, and if your book has to do with their topic, they’ll give it a glance. In a trade book, however, how well you nail the “so what?” is everything. If you show your readers how everyday people were affected by the thing you’re writing, they want to know more. Just like you’ve got to convince your students that the time and money they have invested in your class will pay off, you’ve got to reassure the reader that your book is worth it. It’s a mental shift that affects every other part of the proposal and your book, and opens up so many exciting avenues to explore.




First Impressions 15 years in the Making

by Lynn Clement


Ah, February.  The month that heralds the final demise of the dreaded January and when I can consider my semester officially off to a successful start.  It occurred to me recently that 2019 marks an important anniversary for me.  It was 15 years ago that I started teaching art history.

A lot has changed in that time: schools, technology, hair-dos, but nothing more than how I approach that first day with my students.

For many of the early years in my career I felt that my main hurdle upon meeting a group of students at the start of the semester was getting through the syllabus without everyone falling asleep, myself included.  However, I now know that addressing the issue of relevancy on that first day is most crucial.  This has become even more urgent as students, and I for that matter, need more from art history.

I begin with a question: “Why does a college require you to take a class such as this?”

In my experience this is a more productive question than those asked of me when I was on the other side of the podium.  Questions like “why are you here?” or “what do art historians do?” or (my most despised) “what is art?” often dead end with answers like “because the college is forcing me to take this class” and “we look at art” and (my most dreaded) silence.  Art history was not required at my university, but I was very lucky to happen upon it completely by accident.  I still feel lucky, but also saddened and a bit angry that it had not been a part of the traditional curriculum at any point of my education.  This is because I immediately saw its worth.  This is what I want my students to consider the moment we meet.

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Thus, my class now begins with a discussion of critical thinking.  We talk about what it means to think critically about what we see in the world around us and how we can hone the skills they already have.  I don’t have to search very hard for examples that support how this will help them after they step out of the classroom.  We are bombarded with visual culture at every moment with smartphones, laptops, tablets, television, and on the surfaces of public transportation.  We now also seem to live in this terrible time in which you can see a video or photograph and be told that what you are seeing is NOT actually what you are seeing.  How do we learn to trust our own eyes and our own analysis of what we see?  Hopefully by taking my class.

This discussion leads us to an actual exercise in looking.  Again, I try to pick an image that is relevant, which is why we’ve been spending a lot of time with Napoleon’s portrait in the Tuileries gardens from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.  This image easily shows how power can be conveyed through the visual and heavily contrived, also by those in power.

I also try to speak to relevancy in terms of my assignments. It’s just not a hoop, or torture, I put them through because I’m a terrible person!  Really!  I focus less on the parameters of the assignment and instead on why I feel the assignments are important and what skills they’ll strengthen through their successful completion.

I’m particularly proud of the way my final research paper has shifted over the years.  While traditional research papers are still an option, I’ve found that more and more students are interested in researching and assessing how visual culture is presented to them in their communities.

Taking inspiration from the call to decolonize museums (like those made by Olga Viso), the Museums Are Not Neutral movement spurred by LaTanya Autry, and Uncomfortable Art Tours provided by art historian and independent art guide Alice Proctor, I ask my students to prepare a grant proposal, or marketing/business plan that would help to diversify a museums holdings. To complete the paper they need to research the current state of a museum (either the diversity of their holdings, the diversity of what they show on the walls, or how the information provided in wall text or on the museum website might be hiding hard historical truths.)  They have to state the specific problem to be solved or task to be accomplished and explain how do they propose to solve the problem or what questions they need to ask to solve the problem?

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Photo by Riccardo Bresciani on Pexels.com

Not surprising, my students have gone above and beyond my expectations for this assignment.  In addition to considering how race is treated in their local museums, they are examining gender, access for the differently abled, and issues with conservation and preservation.  What I like most is that they get what I’m trying to do with this assignment and they have used their experiences and creativity to expand what can be done.  Thus, needless to say, the evolution continues.

I’m not sure if I’ll still be teaching in 15 years.  With the state of the college system who know what it will become (more on that in another post). However, I like that I’ve seen this kind of change and improvement in my own approach to teaching art history and it gives me hope for the future…even in the bleak midwinter.

 

From Dissertation to Book

After my defense—at 11:30AM on the day of the solar eclipse in 2017—, I felt a change in the cosmos. Not just because we were actually going to experience total blackout that day in Nashville, TN, but because I was liberated from this document that had been dictating my life. Or at least, that’s what it felt like. The topic I had once been in love with had started to feel less exhilarating and more like a weight. Post-defense, I needed time to reassess, to pursue other projects, and most of all, to go have fun. 

Now I realize that it is typical for such a huge project to lose steam. Especially when the author has difficulty maintaining a healthy relationship to writing and letting the project breathe. Dissertators are not great at establishing either.

Given the arduous writing process, some people walk away indefinitely from the dissertation. Others go on to publish a series of articles based on the research. And then others find a gem of an argument in those hundreds of pages and completely restructure their diss to craft it into a publishable book.

So, the question is, how in the world do you begin to approach this process?

Like other forms of academic writing, the process of flipping the diss into a book seems to be shrouded in mystery. After some searching, I stumbled upon a longer-form piece, From Dissertation to Book by William Germano (once high in the ranks at Columbia UP and then Routledge and is currently a Professor of English at Cooper Union). Germano covers everything from re-reading the dissertation and deciding whether to move forward with articles or a book project to specific suggestions for chapter style and length. 

It is invaluable to hear an editor’s point of view. But I also value hearing from scholars’ personal experiences—especially from those who are in my field. So, I reached out to two scholars who do research in contemporary French and Francophone Studies and feminist theory: Régine Michelle Jean-Charles and Annabel L. Kim. Continue reading “From Dissertation to Book”

Writing Resolutions

by Lynn Clement


I wasn’t surprised when Marie Kondo started trending on my Twitter feed.  Not only did her show, “Tidying up with Marie Kondo”, recently debut on Netflix, but her approach seems to characterize what the month of January is all about: evaluation and change. I find New Year’s Eve to be annoying enough, but the rest of the month isn’t any less so.  It’s filled with making room in an already crowded space, weather that space be literal or metaphorical.  It’s filled with making piles: what to discard, what to pass on, what to retain, what to do with the things that fall between.

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More difficult than clearing out space for things is clearing out time for self-improvement. I am not a resolutions person.  I don’t like setting myself up for failure, which is usually what I associate with the pressure-filled tradition.  However, as it has been in years past, I thought that maybe 2019 could be my year.  What did I need to accomplish in 2019 and how would I get there?  A resolution?  A game plan? A promise to myself?   So, while hauling some shit out of, and some shit into, my basement, I contemplated the possibility of taking part in a twitter phenomenon that I had seen off and on posted by those I follow: the goal to write (enter seemingly random number, mine would be 400) words a day.

“Yeah!” I thought to myself, while finally dumping out container after container of play-doh that had dried to crusty clumps.  This will be perfect.  I’ll do it, and all my writing related productivity problems would be over! On January 1st I wrote 100 words, and then promptly forgot about my resolution until January 4th.  Seriously. Completely. Forgot.

This got me thinking about the nature of my resolutions and positive daily habits in general.  I don’t have have many daily habits that center on my own self-care/self-improvement except for one: I run.  I don’t say “I’m a runner” because that often conjures up images and personality traits that I do not assign to myself, but I do put one foot in front of the other, above an ambling pace, daily.

This is probably why I thought writing 400 words a day would be a piece of cake.  As a person who runs, I have become very good at keeping myself accountable and keeping track of numbers.  I have found ways to motivate myself into doing the work and logging the miles.  However, what I had forgotten is that it took years of successes and failures to get to this point.  Now I like it, feel good doing it, and feel the positive results of the hard work, but at the beginning it was a slog.  First, it was just about getting out the door and walking around the block.  When that got easier I quickened the pace or lengthened the distance.  Over time, I was able to do both.  It’s been an on and off relationship that has finally transformed into something beautiful and has allowed me to maintain my physical and mental health.  After 12 years of serious commitment, I’ll be running my 6th marathon this year, and I’m actually looking forward to it.  Although, I know when I reach mile 22 of said race I will question all the choices that have led me to attempt such a silly distance on foot because it has happened 5 times before and let’s face it, 26.2 miles is crazy and this is why humans invented cars…but I digress.

Of course during a morning run I began thinking about this journey and I questioned why I don’t approach my writing in the same way?  Certainly this physical and mental endeavor is akin to running.  In the same way that I don’t call myself a runner, I would never call myself a writer.  I am not special.  Anyone who can walk, can run, and this is not far from the assumption that anyone who can write, can, well, write.   While true, it’s so much more complex than that, isn’t it?  It needs to be done daily, and strengthened with proper training, equipment, and realistic goals.

Over the years I’ve read a lot of books and articles about running.  Runners apparently like to write, or perhaps writers like to run?  Chicken or the egg?  Sure I’ve had a lot of practice, off and on, writing in my professional and personal life, but I hadn’t read a book or taken a class on writing in about 20 years. I would never attempt to run a considerable distance without training properly, why would I ever expect to spin gold when I sat down to my laptop?  This is why I’m making strides to train properly as a writer and the first step I’ve taken is by reading.  I am in the middle of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and I find it’s a good omen that one of his early chapters focuses on clutter.

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Photo by Thought Catalog on Pexels.com

Rest assured, I’m going to persist.  I’m not ready for 400 words per day, not yet, but I’m ready to take daily actions that will help improve my writing skills like continuing to read about writing, learning more about the craft, about creativity, pursuing writing prompts, and making healthy writing practices a priority.  2018 was the year that I began to take my writing more seriously, 2019 is the year to take it a step further.  However, like my approach to running it’s not going to be a New Year’s resolution, but a lifelong endeavor that will have successes, failures, setbacks, and hopefully, personal victories.

Wishing you all your own writing victories this year!

 

Relationality: Intermingling at Academic Conferences

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?).

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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”

The Big Draw: Sketching to See the World

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.

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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?

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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.