The Smart Women’s Writing Desk, Part 1

I cleaned for you.

I know it doesn’t look like it, because my home desk is an eccentric travesty (or the desk of a maverick, as one of my super kind friends always says), but I spent a good 15 minutes cleaning up this desk. I was throwing out a half-empty vial of bubbles given to me during a Pride parade, tossing the 14 lipsticks (yes, there were 14) into a bag rather than having them strewn all over my stuff, hiding a fast food wrapper (my writing requires weekly crunchwraps, with plenty of Bajan pepper sauce, which, if you look closely, you’ll see I forgot to take back to the kitchen), stacking random papers and placing a clean notebook over the top of them as if it always looks like that, and blowing the dust off the top of my ancient speaker so no one would judge me.

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This is what my home writing desk looks like after 15 minutes of cleaning. I even lit a prayer candle!

Why do I feel the need for internet people to not judge me? I love being messy, but I hate being thought of as a messy person. Let’s just blame childhood and move on. That’s why my work desk (in an office I share with others) is very orderly. There’s a place for everything, and the ability for someone else to plug in their laptop and work without feeling like they are invading my personal space. That’s not the only reason I keep it clean, though.

At work, I have orderly thoughts. A large part of my job is helping to organize and prioritize the hundreds of pressing tasks that come to us from all of our project partners around the world- one of our Brazilian digitization teams hasn’t been paid yet, so I have to follow up with finance. An article I wrote for the Afro-Hispanic Review about cases of slave resistance in our archive needs another round of edits before it goes out, so I’ve got to make those. Our supervisor is going to Colombia, so I need to get a to-do list from her before she goes. Our grad student research assistants are due at any minute, so I need to make sure the space is ready for them to work in. A skype call is coming in in 30 minutes and there’s a grant application due soon so for the project I’ll be on in St. Eustatius. Have all of our volumes been ingested? Should we schedule a meeting with our partners at the library? Should I order lunch? What does everyone want?  Having a clean desk does help to impose that vital orderliness on a project that by its very nature wants to be chaotic at all times.

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My work desk. It does always look like this.

My home office though, is the place where I can tap into my own chaotic, creative brain.  I have the traces of several different projects there, as well as reminders of what’s important, why I’m working on them, who I am, and what I love. For example, in the top right corner, there’s a picture of Jem, an 80s cartoon show. The husband of a friend I went to grad school with worked for the same company as the woman who voiced Jem (Samantha Newark), and to surprise me got me her framed autograph. It means a lot to me- that he would know me well enough to know it’s something I would treasure.

My younger self loved Jem so much because she was, well, truly outrageous. She was the woman who had it all- She expressed herself through super femme 80s punkrock fashion, had a hunky boyfriend with purple hair (he was a bit dim, sure, but his heart was in the right place), and put her philanthropic careers first. She ran an orphanage for emotionally troubled girls, fronted an all-girl band, and worked for her record label, often doing free concerts for good causes. Though she was beautiful and stylish, that wasn’t her priority, but a means to an end. I loved that about her. I wanted to be creative and expressive and find ways for my talents to help people and resonate with them, too. Having her at my desk reminds me of what I’m working toward. And I love that right under her, is my bag of lipsticks. The stack of books hides it, but several of the colors- violet, fuchsia, orange – are colors she would wear. These are the things I keep around so that I keep doing things my child self is proud of.

There are lots of other gifts from friends at this desk- a figurine of Krampus (just a friendly little German Christmas demon who eats naughty children, given to me so that I can have a Krampus on Campus instead of Elf on a Shelf in December), a notebook with a glittery Cthulhu (just a friendly little Lovecraftian Edlrich horror abomination) who looks like swallowing the world is part of his drag performance, an incredible drawing of David Bowie as the goblin king from my favorite 80s cult classic film Labyrinth, several books gifted by friends who know the way I think and the types of thoughts I need to consume to stay well, a pirate mug, postcards from writers I love, and a rainbow patch of the Babadook (who has become somewhat of a queer icon, and as my friend said to me, “I’m Baba-shook!”). I like the thought of writing while surrounded by the things people gave me to support that habit. I think it’s important to turn toward those who do, and away from those who don’t.

Honorable mention goes to the desk itself. If you look closely, you’ll see that it’s not a desk- it’s a cheap folding table that is made of particleboard covered in a sticker of wood finishing that is peeling off. I found it leaning against a dumpster when I was a grad student. Someone had thrown it away because the legs fold weird and threaten to severely bruise your fingers if you don’t watch them.

I get asked a lot why I don’t just buy a real desk. I have a decent job. I could. But… I don’t know. I’ve written some amazing things at this table. It would feel disloyal, to just abandon it after it gave me several years of an amazing writing space.  Because… you have to honor those things that help you in some way. A writer’s space isn’t just a space, it’s a carefully (or uncarefully) curated area for your fledgling ideas, for your hopes, and for your dreams that you dare put on paper and send out into the world. I’ve cried at that desk, and I’ve cursed at that desk. I’ve eaten spicy crunchwraps at that desk. I’ve slumped over it, half asleep. And yet, when I look back over my body of work, academic, technical, non-fiction, fiction, both published and not, I’m really happy with it.

And I want to create so much more.

 

The Smart Woman’s Summer, Part 4: The Siren Song of Summer

by Lynn Clement


As with the season itself, my summer themed blog post has gone through a lot of edits.  Most recently it devolved into one sentence that started with the letter “A” followed by countless “H”s: a primal scream to express the despair induced by the summer of 2018.  Like my colleagues, I had begun the summer with high hopes to do what was important, professionally and politically, because summer is an occasion to carve out time for the work that gets neglected during the year.

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Detail of South Wall, Detroit Industry, by Diego Rivera, 1933, fresco, photo taken by author at the Detroit Institutes of the Arts

I tried. I really did.  I had a manageable, organized schedule of all the significant (and some insignificant) things I was going to accomplish.  I was going to update all my syllabi early and set up all my courses’ online components in May. I was going to do the bulk of my research for lecture improvements and attend important protests in June.  I was going to teach two summer classes in July.  I was going to do independent research in August.  I was going to arrive at the fall semester feeling prepared, having had a fulfilling and productive summer.

I’m going to say something that may shock those who work in fields that do not “observe” summer break, and it may even seem controversial for those who do:  I dislike summer vacation.  I equate summers to holidays like Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and ones 21st birthday.  Expectations are too high, you never end up doing what you really wanted, and most of the time it ends with you sweaty, stressed, and either too drunk or not nearly drunk enough.

I know I’m not alone when I say that my summer did not turn out how I had planned. Syllabi remain unfinished, I have yet to read a book in its entirety, another adjunct was kind enough to take my classes, and August is shaping up to be a real shit-show.  Despite the stress to come, I am glad I made this decision. Time with my family has been invaluable.  Most of my summer days thus far have been filled with a different kind of valuable work: trying to keep my daughter busy and happy as I help my mother take care of my father.  I never thought I’d be dealing with a dying parent at this point in my life, but here I am, living in my hometown, something I haven’t done since I was 18.  Although there have been picnics, crafts, sprinklers, and quality time with loved ones, I would be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that the weight of those unfilled expectations is staggering.  The thought of extending and postponing my to-do list until next summer is crushing.

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The Blue Gown, by Frederick Carl Frieseke, 1917, oil on canvas, photo of original taken by author at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

Being forced to slow my life to a screeching halt has been an incredibly tough adjustment, but it has given me some clarity and a new plan for summers to come.  I’m giving up the summer to-do list, possibly forever.

I do so with a happy heart, to honor my father because it’s time for me to find a better work-life balance in all seasons. Most of my memories of my dad revolve around labor, projects, and things that needed doing.  Running a successful family owned and operated heating and cooling business in a small town meant working hard…always.  Despite his large circle of friends, countless creative hobbies, and an aggravatingly optimistic personality he spent most of his life elbow deep in work.  It wasn’t until he was forced to retire due to the cancer that he was able to enjoy his “summer” and even then he spent much of his time on building projects.  I wish reconnecting with friends, traveling, and playing in a band had not been left to, what would become, the last years of his life.  I’ve inherited his work ethic and I’ve realized that I don’t want to sing karaoke as a pot-bellied 60 year old.  I want to do it now, as a pot-bellied 40 year old.

Like most everyone, I still have to deal with normal life constraints, but this doesn’t mean I shouldn’t give up on the idea that at some magical point in my year, or life, the stars will align and I will have the opportunity to get everything done.  The promise of summer often allows me to put off until tomorrow what should be today, and this is my trouble.  I have to strive to make time for what is important at all times, so that life may be fuller, rather than just busier. This will be more easily said (typed) than done, I know, but I can try.  I’m throwing the summer to-do list out and instead, each month I plan to do at least one thing I’d normally save for summer. It could be as small as finally reading that book that’s been sitting on my shelf for a decade, or big, like finally taking that research trip to Paris.

All the things on my list cannot not, and should not, wait until a literal or metaphorical summer.  Lectures will be re-written, research will be done, articles will submitted, Python and SQL will be learned, cabins will be rented with friends, parties will be planned, canvases will be painted.  It will all be done, but not if it is relegated to side projects to be executed during vacations and holiday breaks.

I look forward to the experiment of interspersing the year with greater flexibility for all important activities and opportunities.  If you don’t mind indulging me, I’ll tell you sporadically of the successes and failures in future posts.

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Grasslands, painted by the author, July 2018, acrylic

 

The Smart Women’s Summer, Part 1

Summer is in full swing and the Smart Women want to talk about what each of their summers looks like.

Mine?

I’ve already had a full summer’s worth of life crammed into my summer so far, but why not live in the fast lane?

I just got back from Barbados, where I presented on the Caribbean holdings of the Slave Societies Digital Archive at the Association of Caribbean Historians’ annual meeting. Let me tell you, this group of scholars is amazing. About half come from institutions in the Caribbean itself, and the rest from everywhere else. They do simultaneous translation so that people who don’t speak English, Spanish, and French can hear the latest scholarship of the full region and ask questions of people a language barrier would prevent them from asking. And they are the only scholarly organization that I know of, that has a end-of-conference fete written directly into the constitution. Our right to party is constitutional! And what a fete. You haven’t lived until you’ve been part of a group of scholars who can both bachata and whine. Continue reading “The Smart Women’s Summer, Part 1”

Woman on a Mission: My Search for Community in an Academic Gig Economy

By Lynn Clement


The trajectory of my career has been driven by the firm belief that access to education in the arts should not be a luxury and my pursuit of this mission has lead me to teach at local community colleges. Working in this setting allows me the extraordinary opportunity to meet people of different backgrounds, with myriad academic interests and life experiences, all which improve my teaching and strengthen the approach to my discipline.  However, an adjunct professor, in particular, forges odd professional relationships.  Due to shifting, and often conflicting, schedules with our colleagues, it can be lonely work.  While I value deeply the interactions I have experienced in the adjunct faculty lounge, finding alternative communities in which to support professional creativity, development, and collaboration is also essential and can be found in unlikely places. FB_IMG_1515115484807

Not long ago I turned to Twitter in my quest for community (and cute dog pictures) and have found people there that have provided helpful insight and support. Sure, social media is a large briquette in our current political dumpster fire, but that doesn’t mean these forums are entirely unhelpful.  I started following museums, academic journals, and education organizations and from there was able to find other professionals to follow.  From their posts I get access to relevant and timely articles, information on conferences, symposiums, calls for papers, grant opportunities, and the like.

Without access to social media sites like Twitter, Linkdin, and Instagram I never would have come across important and supportive ways to amplify my voice, like Smart Women Write. It is through these communities that I attempt to use the power of words to convey the power of art.  And I’m not alone.  It’s through Twitter that I also learned of HistorioBlogs like Age of Revolutions, important art organizations like Arts Emergency, and scholars like @medievalpoc, all of whom are working to change the discourse of the art world.  They have impacted my work immensely.

My one constant as a professor is that I will meet new people every 16 weeks.  Despite their ultimate physical absence, students can leave a lasting impression. While negative experiences cause permanent amendments in your syllabus (“I guess I have to put that in writing”), positive experiences cause long-lasting growth in your life. I often recall the most invested and passionate students I’ve had the pleasure to teach. One, a successful engineer, with several advanced degrees already, was taking my class to learn something entirely unfamiliar, to attempt something entirely untried, to search for innovation in an unknown subject.  It was an approach to self-examination and self-improvement that I would first envy, and then model.

The courage I witness in my students inspires me to further my own professional development. For example, I am learning the programming language called Python.  I have reached the point in my career where I feel I can do more to make art education inclusive and broaden its reach through new media and technology.  I have my students to thank for this inspiration and motivation.

This motivation has also lead me to various professional events throughout the year.  Time and money are difficult to come by, but I’ve found that attending (semi) local conferences, symposiums, and lectures can offer great personal and professional development in addition to inspiring creative collaboration.  In addition, many offer live feeds or recordings of the presentations if you are unable to attend in person.

I recently had the opIMG_20180412_110542353_HDR.jpgportunity to attend a symposium entitled, “Searching Through Seeing: Optimizing Computer Vision Technology for the Arts” at the Frick Collection in New York focusing on the ways in which art historical inquiry (and even creativity) can be advanced through computer learning.  My trip included a 4 am wake up, several miles of walking, a crowded Friday night train, and amazing presentations by leaders in the fields of digital art history and computer programming. I ended my day dirty, hungry, and exhausted, but I also had a notebook full of quality research leads, names, and email addresses.  Many of those people were looking for professional contacts just like me.  Perhaps adjuncts are not the only group who are searching for community.

This is also one of the reasons that I was ecstatic to become part of Smart Women Write.  I look forward to writing more about my experiences as an adjunct art history professor, about my experimentation with technology, about my personal and professional interests, goals, and passions, and, like Raquelle’s fantastic post from last week, my own approach to self-care. In doing so it is my hope that you will also find community here.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.