Every time I write something, a well-meaning friend asks me that.
It makes sense: audience is key. To help critique someone’s work, it’s best to know who the intended audience is. But implicit in this question of “what are you going to do with that?” are issues of final product. It implies that if you’re going to bother going through the hard work of writing something, then you had better do something with it. I don’t disagree with that notion (though I will say, sometimes writing for its own sake is a worthwhile process), but I do think it can lead to some unhealthy thinking when it comes to writing. Namely, it promotes thinking of your writing in terms of products, and that leads to product-based goals.
We’ve all made those before: I want to write two dissertation chapters this semester. I will have finished my novel by September. I will write an article each month this year.
I used to set goals like that for myself at the end of each year. I’m pretty driven, so I achieved most of them, but when I didn’t, I felt like I let myself down.
So last year, I didn’t make any product-based goals at all. Instead, I switched to process-based goals. Instead of having a goal of x number of pages written, I asked myself if I could make a commitment to show up to the page for an hour 5 days per week. Rather than running that 7 minute mile, I wanted to see if I could commit to physically changing into exercise clothing and moving in some way four times per week. They were very low-stakes goals, great for not provoking anxiety.
In a prior post I wrote about my dedication to reading this year and I am happy to announce that I did reach my goal of completing 40 books. I ended on a high note by reading Tara Westover’s memoir entitled Educated. I greatly enjoyed this elegantly written reflection on the author’s unique upbringing and the tough choices she was forced to make as her academic quest conflicted with her family’s beliefs. I read a lot of memoirs this year, which is ironic since I spent most of the year refusing to think too deeply about my own life. (There were many quotes from Westover’s book that resonated with me and I’ve interspersed some here where I felt they summarize my feelings better than I ever could.)
I think this is one of the reasons I asked for a hiatus from my contributions to this blog when I was diagnosed with cancer is March. Much of the year was spent actively avoiding reflection for mental self-preservation. “…I closed my journal and put it away. Journaling is contemplative, and I didn’t want to contemplate anything.” However, my ultimate return to writing was for the same reason.
Despite my apprehension about contemplation in 2019, I learned more this year than I’d like to admit. I learned how to live my life when I was told I might lose it.
When I first met my oncologist, on a sunny day, in April, I was ridiculously optimistic, almost flippant, about what I was about to undergo. The disease had just been found but I’d had no symptoms. I assumed, falsely, that they’d caught it early and that I’d be training for another marathon in no-time. When, instead, I heard the words “stage IV” and “aggressive treatment” and that if I chose to forego treatment I’d likely be gone in “3 to 6 months” the floor went out from under me. I don’t know if he was looking at the wrong file (sometimes I still wonder) or if he was exaggerating to make sure I was listening (terrible yet effective), but either way I knew things were going to change.
“The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.
You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.
I call it an education.”
The first transformation, perhaps obviously, was my relationship with time. My daily life changed very little this year: I still get my kid ready for school, I still go to work, I still watch tv and play games on my phone, I still talk to my husband about the major (and minor) plot points of our favorite TV shows. However, I am much more protective of how I spend my time.
Being an adjunct means always hustling. Finding new places to teach and expanding one’s contact list is essential for cobbling together enough classes to make ends meet, and this continues to be my reality despite cancer. Recently I was stood up for an interview by a department head, twice. Prior to this years’ experience I would have agreed to a third, fourth, maybe even fifth chance at an interview. I’m an adjunct and having my time devalued is part of the game, but not this year. I knew it meant giving up a chance at more income, but more importantly, my new consciousness of time has manifest in a deeper respect for myself and a demand that my time be respected. “It has never occurred to you, he said, that you might have as much right to be here as anyone.” It does now. I’m happy to say that I’ve also become more respectful of other people’s time and priorities. This has not just be a reflection inward, but also outward.
In Raquelle’s most recent post she recounts a beautiful experience at a silent retreat. That time of self-examination allowed her to reflect on how she is not entirely defined by her work and how she is able to find fulfillment in other areas of her life. My own experiences this year have led me to a similar conclusion. The problem with this new approach to time is the horrible pressured to live life to the fullest, while simultaneously acting like you’re totally fine. I don’t enjoy roller coasters so jumping out a plane was always out of the question, but prioritizing fulfillment was necessary. I realized that those mundane daily activities were what I wanted and needed: both the normalcy and the contentment of teaching students, but also reading and spending time with myself, my family, and my friends. These are things I would never regret devoting precious time to.
My relationship with my body and exercise has also changed. Like the wisdom written in Angela’s post it’s now less about numbers and crazy goals and more about getting it done to stay happy with body and mind. I continue to be amazed that despite poisoning it for 4 months and then bombarding it with beams for 2 that I remain strong and well. I get on the elliptical almost every day. I don’t go as fast or as far as I used to, but I can feel my muscles strengthen, my heart pump, my lungs expand, and that is enough. To do it at all is a success.
My relationship with people has perhaps been the largest transformation. “All my life those instincts had been instructing me in this single doctrine—that the odds are better if you rely only on yourself.” Independent, self-sufficient, and private were words I lived by, but triumphing treatment truly took a village. Tanya, in her timely Thanksgivng post, wrote about gratitude and I, too, reflect upon this greatly this year. Recently a doctor asked how I was able to maintain such a good attitude through all this and the answer came easily; I am surrounded by the most amazing people. Family and friends took care of me: they dropped off dinners, sent care packages, and sent me words and music of encouragement. Nurses watched over me and doctors healed me. My students brought me ginger candies to help with the nausea and my co-workers supported me in countless ways. To say that I am grateful is an understatement and there aren’t enough days in this year or the next 20 for me to show how thankful I am, but I still try and am much more open with my words and my gratitude.
For 2020 I have a lot of hopes: to be cancer free, to be done with this journey, and to finally be able to write about something other than my illness! I also want to take what I’ve learned from this experience and build upon it rather than avoid it like I tried to do this year. Despite the scare, I know I’ll be well. I still don’t have any symptoms aside from those caused by treatment, I still feel strong, and the same oncologist that had once warned of my demise now expects full remission. On Dec. 20th I will undergo the last phase of my journey: surgery. Recovery will be difficult, but I plan on beating the odds.
“To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else’s.”
History is a relatively solitary field. The vast number of articles and books written have just one author, and many historians go their whole careers publishing alone. I don’t mind doing that, but have found the Atlantic World projects I’m most interested in generally require more than one person’s worth of expertise to do well. No one person can cover the scope of the Atlantic World: 4 continents over 4 centuries with primary sources in dozens of languages. So when I find opportunities to collaborate, I jump on them.
I’m pleased to announce that The Historical Journal is going to publish the results of one of these collaborations. It’s a co-authored article entitled “Projections of Desire and Design in Early Modern Caribbean Maps.” This article came out of a collaborative map analysis project funded by the John Carter Brown library’s relatively new Collaborative Cluster fellowship that allowed my partner and I to meet up for two weeks in Providence to analyze maps and plot out an article. After the two weeks, he and I finished the writing together electronically, and we learned a lot about workflow when it comes to collaborative writing and co-authoring in the humanities.
Midsummer 2019 was the day I moved into my first house. The sky blackened as I drove a carload of belongings there. I made it to my new neighborhood in North Nashville just as the thunderstorm hit. Pulling into the driveway, a loud snap shook my car. I watched the thick, sturdy tree in the front yard of the neighbors across the street collapse onto the road. It pulled down power lines right across the driveway making it unsafe to drive out. Fortunately, the damage was to property, and not people.
Stranded, I decided to make the most of it and unload my
things. The rain started up again, and cardboard boxes nearly disintegrated in
the deluge, but I got everything in more or less undamaged.
When the electricity went out, I checked my phone and saw that the storm been upgraded to a tornado warning just as the sirens came on. There was nothing to do except wait it out as night fell.
I didn’t want to sleep with no bed, electricity, or water service, so once the warning was over, I considered driving through the front yard to get out. Then I saw that the power lines weren’t just across my driveway, but across the whole yard. There was no way out.
And then two men in soaked hooded sweatshirts and flashlights knocked on my car window. They introduced themselves as Ernesto and Big Will, neighbors from down the street.* They were going house to house checking to make sure no one needed anything. With their help, I was able to reverse out out through the backyard and in the alley. They rushed to clear away tree branches and garbage cans that the storm had knocked over so I could get home and waved me off. Before I left, they talked about bringing out their chainsaws in the morning and helping my other neighbors break down that tree, so I could get my moving van in, as it might be a while before the city sent someone up here. North Nashville, a historically black neighborhood that is now in the grip of gentrification, hasn’t traditionally been high on the city’s priority list. Or even on it, for the vast majority of its existence.
If I don’t go for a career in academia, I still want a position in which I can read, research, think, and write. To brainstorm possibilities for a future career––potentially outside of the university––I often look to individuals who have jobs and lifestyles that appeal to me. Lauren Collins is one of those people. To glean some insight from her path to writing, I requested an interview. She graciously agreed. And now I’m bringing her answers to the SWW community.
Lauren Collins began working with the New Yorker in 2003 and has been a staff writer since 2008 (she just published a fascinating piece on the pioneer-princess of Georgian cuisine, Barbare Jorjadze). She has also written a book, When in French: Love in a Second Language, that explores the nuances of affection in another language.
Oh, not everyone takes paper up with them to make their
Well, old habits die hard.
One of the perks of being a writer is that you’ve always got
words- usually far too many- whenever they are needed. This month, I was maid
of honor in the wedding of one of my closest friends. Without saying too much
here, watching her move through life and appreciating just how much she has
grown in so many different directions in the time we’ve known each other has
been remarkable. Friendships like that make for difficult speeches, because how
can you convey all of complexity in just a page or so?
Only if you are willing to let go of someone for their own good, do you become worthy of them.
While there’s no way I can condense the essence of my friend
and our friendship, as well as her relationship with her husband as I
understand it into a mere page, I can definitely narrow down the topic. Conventional
writing rules still sort of apply:
Theme: One of the reasons why my friend and I are so close is that we see the world in similar ways. We also see relationships in similar ways. Both she and I only want to be with people who are safe to grow with, and who prioritize our growth and their own over other goals or distractions in life. The commitment aspect of a relationship isn’t to love the other person no matter what, but to always ferret out the things that will help them become who they were meant to be, and tirelessly champion them, being their safe place to explore, to fail, and to try again. And of course in turn, they do the same for us. The feeling of being in love can come and go, but the feeling of being with someone who has your best interests at heart and supports those over what is comfortable for them isn’t something that comes along every day. When you find someone like that- someone who cares enough about you to let go of their ego and the need to control an outcome and instead just facilitate your soul’s growth regardless of where it takes you both- you hold on. That’s the theme of the speech.
Plot: Like with everything good to read, stuff has to happen. There has to be an arc of narration. To ensure the speech hit all the sweet spots, the same rules apply- ensure there’s an opening, the rising action, the climax, and denouement. This gives it emotional roundness, and makes it resonate. Rather than just listing out things, I told a story that illustrated how her growth and mine have intertwined, to show that I understand the trajectory of her life That puts me in the position of understanding how her husband is facilitating her growth and dreams.
I’m not a person who moves slowly. Growing up, I spent many years taking piano lessons and practicing for hours. I always added a bit more speed to the songs than they really needed. When I started learning how to type, my mother told me she wanted me to type at least 60 words per minute; I figured that was too slow. I walk quickly, I talk fast, and even in graduate school, I often worked at breakneck speed. I have a lot I want to do, and I get a lot done.