Choosing Your Next Writing Project

I’m pretty young, and already I have more projects ideas than I will be able to write in this lifetime. This is true even if I have the fortune of living well into my 90s (which I suspect I won’t, as my family’s history is riddled with darkly comedic early deaths- too much pull toward adventure, and not enough common sense in the Sutton genes).

I do periodically root out the “bad” ideas- the ones that wouldn’t work because of the mediums I write in, or the zeitgeist, or because they would be better expressed non-verbally, or by someone who isn’t me, or the ones that go beyond my current skillset, or the ones that wouldn’t help along any of my personal or career goals. I hesitate to call them bad though, as any idea can be good under the right circumstances. But I’m all about efficiency. Do I have time or inclination to cultivate new circumstances? Not right now. Let’s work with the circumstances I’ve already got.

So even after whittling down the list, it’s still too big. How do I pick and choose what gets written and which ideas go into the big ether of ideas to hopefully get recycled and occur to someone else? Continue reading “Choosing Your Next Writing Project”

On trying not to lose sight of pursuits well-loved

I’m going through a dry spell right now: books sit next to my bed, unopened, and my ebook readers are chock full of titles I’ve planned to get to for weeks. I stop by the library at school daily, cast longing looks at the neatly-arranged displays, sneak peaks inside the covers of titles waiting to be processed, and move on my way.

As you can see, it’s not that I’m stuck without anything to read: something else has gotten in the way. This happens from time to time, mostly when work sneaks up on me so heavily that my brain is too full to step away for a bit, to get some respite amongst the pages where I know I really need to be. When I’m overwhelmed with life, it’s easy to forget that reading offers me beauty and relief from the stresses in the outer world.

I’m starting to find my way back in. Last week, Madeleine L’Engle taught me that “A book, too, can be a star, ‘explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,’ a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe” (Newberry Acceptance Speech, p. 245, Square Fish paperback edition).

Somehow, last week I managed to make time for Madeleine in a moment between things. I’ve read A Wrinkle in Time at least three times in my life now, and the first two times left me underwhelmed. I have a sense that I vehemently disliked it as a child; I tried it again in my twenties and still didn’t get it. I saw the previews for the new film and thought I should try again. I haven’t seen the movie yet (come on, spring break), but it seems to me that if someone loved this book so much that they envisioned something that looks so spectacular, then I must be missing something.

I tried again. This time, I get it. I can see it now more clearly and moved seamlessly through the tesseract with Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin O’Keefe. I adored Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which.

And it helped. I expanded my universe and my imagination in a moment when I didn’t think I could, and things became better.

Last month, author George Saunders came to town as part of his book tour for the paperback release of Lincoln in the BardoWhen that book came out more than a year ago, I couldn’t put it down. It’s set over the course of one night in a cemetery, and I stayed up well past my bedtime – in the comfort of my own bed, of course – sobbing through the pages.

The author event wasn’t quite what I expected – these things usually being sessions in which the author talks for a bit, then reads from their work – but it was far better. Saunders didn’t read from the book at all, but talked about his creative process and the two-decade-journey to create the book. I’d forgotten so much of the story, but hearing him talk about it, it all came back and I found I wanted more. Happily, there’s an audiobook featuring more than 160 people’s voices (including a few famous people) – and it is sublime.

This weekend, while driving to and from a distant family event, I listened to most of it and felt better. And sad. (It’s a sad story, and yet…not.)

Slowly, very slowly, it feels like things are turning around. Perhaps it’s that Mock Trial season has ended and we’re reaching the final two months of school. Maybe my impending spring break – and the warmer spring weather – are putting my mind at ease. I like to think Madeleine and George have been more than a little helpful in inspiring me to think about the world anew again.

Sometimes, in these craziest times of the year, it’s easy to lose sight of the things I love most, and oh-so-nice to get a glimpse of where I love to be. Those are the moments that help propel me on to get around the next corner and to the place where I can dive into a new set of pages.


Where History is Alive

I know, I’m sorry, I’m late!

Actually, I’m not sorry. I’m late with my post because I am on the beautiful Caribbean island of Sint Eustatius for work, and it is so heart-breakingly breathtaking that I needed a minute to just appreciate being here and learning.

SWW2You see, the formerly Dutch island is also a location in the nonfiction history book I’m writing. Known as the “Golden Rock,” it was the center of Atlantic Commerce in the 1700s, and a lot of that was deemed illicit by the other European superpowers of the time. It was filled to the gills with pirates, and plunder, and esoteric objects from around the world.

The island isn’t a big tourist destination (outside of a small and devoted group of returning diving and nature enthusiasts), and doesn’t have a place for larger cruise ships to dock, so much of the material remnants of this history remain. Down every alley, over every cliff, is evidence of corrupt governors, the enslaved, plantations, merchant homes, warehouses, etc. Yellow bricks imported from the Ijssel River regions in the sww4Netherlands comprise some of the most important ruins. Sherds of blue and white Delftware can be seen embedded in the runoff from several forts and plantations. Divers still regularly find glass beads used in trading in the sand. Many residents live in or on top of historically important buildings and sites. Everything is free and open to be viewed by anyone who cares enough to look. Every breath you take, is saltwater and history.

Thankfully this island also has people who appreciate all they have, and work hard to keep it safe for the future. I had the fortune of meeting them, and seeing the history through their eyes.  And you know what happened? I discovered that several of the things historians like to repeat about this island in the literature, had to have been written in error if they weren’t outright falsification.  When you can tangibly step into a place that you only before knew from the documents, a whole new truth unfolds right in front of your eyes.

This happened to me when I visited Ghana in 2010: many of the slave forts I wrote about, I had discovered in documents in The Hague, where most Dutch imperial materials are kept. From reading them, I had an idea in my head about what it must have been like. But actually going there, showed me that many of the things people wrote about would have been impossible. I walked several of the trails mentioned in the documents to see how long it took. I looked at the distances between forts, and how far away they were from the ocean, to see which cannon shots claimed in the literature could have made it, and which wouldn’t have. I saw the way the vegetation grew. I looked at how ruins were positioned. I realized at what points of the day which way the shadows would lie. I made note of the directions the wind blew. All of the sudden, a whole new world of what would have been possible and what wouldn’t opened up.

SWW1It’s the same here. Seeing the bays makes it obvious which could have sustained ships, and which would have wrecked them against the rocks. Seeing the plantation setups allows me to make guesses as to how many enslaved workers there could have been at any one time. Seeing the steep immensity of the inactive volcano known as the Quill (pictured above) makes it clear that no planting could have happened on its sides without some serious twenty-first century landscape architecture. Going to the ruins of the governor’s mansion helped me to see the types of things he could and could not see from his desk. All of these facts are incredibly helpful, and will breathe life into my book that I wasn’t even aware was missing.

I’m living the dream, folx.

Looking Out For Yourself in the Academic Gig Economy

Note: want to write with us? See this post and apply by March 10!

When you have a salaried academic job, your tasks could fall roughly into two categories: Things you must do, and things you should do. When you’re surviving off of pay from adjuncting, your list and their list are not going to be the same.

When salaried, I know I must do: Teach. Research. Publish. Go to mandatory meetings. Conferencing. Attending department events and participating.  If I don’t do these things, I likely won’t keep my job. It will be noticed almost immediately.

When salaried, I know I should do, to ensure the health and longevity of the field: Peer review. Book reviews. Mentoring graduate students.  Guest lectures for colleagues. Public outreach and activism within our larger communities. Administrative tasks necessary to invite scholars, arrange symposiums, help out with conferences, etc.  Taking academic guests out to dinner. Driving guests to/from the airport, and generally being a good host. Closed-door chats with concerned colleagues. Grant writing. Creating and sharing educational materials. Office hours with students.  Supervising student workers. Committee work.  Maintaining listservs. Twitter. Volunteering when the local public needs a professional opinion. Responding to email requests from unknown scholars and grad students who want to share resources or research. Collaborating with centers on campus that correspond to my research interests. Teaching others how some program or equipment in the lab works. Probably more things I can’t think of right now. All of this takes time, and I don’t really get rewarded for doing it. If I don’t do it, people will eventually notice, and I won’t be considered a team player. The field will suffer from the lack of people putting work in.

The problem with these Must Do and Should Do lists is that everything on them takes a certain amount of time. Everything on them also occupies a certain place on your CV. All the things I must do take up about 40 hours of my week, if I do them well. Anything additional that gets added on from the should do list, comes out my personal time. It’s a constant calculation – is task x worth spending y hours of my personal time on? Do I like doing it? Would I rather go on a hike, or have that line on my CV? How will I be perceived next to all the people who chose to forego the hike and add that line to their CV?

And back before I was salaried, when I had just finished grad school, I pieced multiple jobs together to keep afloat. I adjuncted (paid per class), I tutored (paid per hour), I translated (paid per word), I freelanced (paid however I could get) and I did some administrative tasks for the department (paid per hour).  As I supported myself, my first priority was ensuring I took enough paying work to keep my finances in order.  I needed to pay bills, and that took at least 40 hours per week. In my little spare time, I strategically chose things from the Must Do and Should Do lists, making CV and time calculations in my head. Which tasks were most worth it? Which tasks had the biggest payoff for the least amount of time investment? To who was I beholden?

Most of the things I did came from the Must Do list. Choosing from the Should Do list was a calculated risk, because many of those things would only matter if I stayed in academia. I don’t have to tell you that the chances were, and still are, against me. If I couldn’t find an academic job, like most people who graduate with a PhD nowadays, many of these tasks would be close to useless on a re-tooled Resume for the corporate world. So to be very strategic and yes, mercenary, about my time and my life (You only get one, after all, and no one knows how long that will be), I prepared myself for alt-ac.  I chose to do the tasks that would best translate from a CV onto a Resume. That means choosing the tasks that would push me to learn skills that are valued outside of academia, such as collaboration, organization, giving presentations, grant writing (and all writing in general), high-level administration and management, and digital skills.

So for the purposes of this post, maybe instead of dividing these tasks up by Must Do and Should Do, I could divide them by helpful only in academia, and helpful in both academia and alt ac. They would look very different then.

The point of this blog post, is that you shouldn’t feel bad for getting by however you can. The Must do and Should Do lists were created long before you were born, back when nearly everyone with a PhD and a baseline mental stability got a tenure-track job, and was salaried. As the work model changes, and universities hire more contingent labor that gets paid per gig, a lot of these tasks on the Should Do lists become greater and greater risks for the untenured. They are risks you do not have to take.

Repeat after me. You do not have to take these risks.

You do not have to perform service to your profession until your profession has let you in, and invested in you. It is exploitative to perform this work for free, when you are getting paid (usually quite poorly and less than what your labor is worth) by the hour or class. Right now, only do those things that you love and will help you get ahead, however you are choosing to define that. Once salaried, you can start giving back.

Until then, practice saying no. Be strategic about the unremunerated labor you perform for the profession. Make sure it benefits you, too. It’s what any salaried academic would do if their job security were threatened and they had student loans to pay off while making adjunct-level money.

Being a Writer in 2018

This year was a rough one for content creators.


For everyone in our circles, 2017 was filled with too much gin, not enough vegetables, and eternal guilt for not doing more: not resisting more, not creating more, not exercising more, not inspiring others more, not loving ourselves more.

But we muddled through, didn’t we? Not all of us, but many of us. And in times of desperation, unashamedly being yourself and getting stuff done is brave, and it is resisting. Every time we didn’t succumb to despair and instead lived our lives with compassion and truth, we succeeded.

And we believe we can all do one better in 2018.

We can let go of the guilt, for starters. We can recognize and really feel that we are living in unusual times, and that takes its toll. The feelings we are all experiencing- sadness, anxiety, powerlessness, concern, anger- are perfectly reasonable. We can make space for those feelings, honor them as typical reactions to abnormal situations, and find ways to press on and be effective in our lives despite them.

This Holiday season and into 2018, we are going to take the time to process these feelings, honor them, and figure out how to best adapt. We don’t accept the current political and social climate in the World, but we acknowledge its existence and effect on our lives. And we will fight to be more proactive rather than reactive. We will fight to find a balance between giving to those more affected than us, and putting time into things that help us nurture ourselves and grow. We will pare down that which no longer feels necessary and orient toward who we have always wanted to be.

And as always, we’d like to give you permission to do the same, if you want it. From three smart women to a whole lot more (and our men and non-binary readers as well, we love you, too), stay safe, grab happiness where you can, and find a way to make 2018 the very best it can be.

Love and light,

Angela, Bryna, and Tanya

Writing And Teaching About Difficult Subjects

Recently a tweet on #Twitterstorians caught my eye:

Tweet from @JohnRosinbum: A student just asked me, “In research how do you deal with reading depressing things?” Any help #twitterstorians?

I replied twice, but soon realized there was so much more to say.

I’m a historian of the Atlantic Slave Trade. There’s nothing but depressing things in my research and writing. Just when I think I’ve bottomed out on the amount of cruelty humans can inflict on one another, I find a new, more grotesque piece of evidence that proves me wrong. After a decade of researching this, you would think that I would grow numb to it, but I haven’t. Some days are definitely harder than others.

Our political climate compounds that- I know for certain that the racism pervasive in every element of our society today comes from what I’m studying- the horror of slavery for which we as a nation have never fully taken responsibility. The racism perpetuates itself because we haven’t had any reconciliation. We tell our children that we are all equal, and expect the descendants of our enslaved populations to pretend that the very real trauma they still face as the result of this history is all in the past and best forgotten. This perpetuates the mental violence of our slave society, to the detriment of all Americans now.

So when I see these depressing things in my source material, the weight of the terribleness is magnified. Not only am I crushed for the people who never had a voice, never had justice, but I’m so conscious of how this unaddressed act of violence I’m reading about reverberates into the present.  Our current systemic racism is made possible by these millions of historic acts of race-based violence that went unaddressed.

So what do I do with information like that?

Continue reading “Writing And Teaching About Difficult Subjects”

Nobody Wants to Change

Generally, people don’t like it when you tell them they need to change.

They really don’t like it when you tell them how to do it.

They might grudgingly do it when they recognize you are right, but the world will be a little duller for it.

At this year’s Southern Festival of Books, everyone seemed to be ruminating on these truths in one way or another. Without having planned it, most authors I got to hear speak and read kept circling back to this idea that those who most desperately need to change are also the most resistant to it.

A few even took stabs at figuring out what to do about this. I was so drawn especially to Nicole Krauss, whose latest book, Forest Dark, is about the courage to turn from the certainty of self, toward the unknown in hope of personal transformation.

She said (and I’m paraphrasing- it’s possible this isn’t exactly how she said it, but it’s how I heard it) that the self is a narrative- a story we tell ourselves, and are told, since we were small children. This means that the story is much more flexible than we think. When the narrative we tell ourselves stretches too tight and limits who we are or who we can become, it’s entirely possible to enlarge our sense of self.

But so few people do this, because changing is terrifying and it is stigmatized. It’s embarrassing to concede that we have grown into a corner and must now take a different direction. It’s doubly embarrassing to be told what to do in that moment of personal crisis.

In the end, you’ll change when you have no other choice. And when it’s time to change, what do you need? Continue reading “Nobody Wants to Change”