The Elusive Nonfiction Writing Voice

I’ve always been somewhat of a giant. Being the tallest kid in every class made me a bit shy,  and so I retreated often into my head, where all of my favorite stories lived. In kindergarten, I loved going to the bushes at the edge of the playground during recess and collecting the ladybugs that lived there.  I would let them crawl around on my hands with their tickly little legs as I gave them names and invented stories about their lives. Every now and then the other kids would ask if I wanted to swing, or play house, or do other things kids did, but I was obsessed with the ladybug game, so I thanked them and promised next time I would.

One day, a boy came up to me and asked me what I was doing.  I knew him as kind of a mean boy, but he had never done anything to me, and truth be told, though I was shy, I had my meangirl moments so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I explained the ladybug game to him, catching him up on the latest drama in bugland.

“That’s really neat,” he said. “Can I hold one?”

None of the other kids had ever expressed interest in my game. Eager for a friend to share in the joys of my ladybugs, I held my hand to his and nudged Esmerelda onto his thumb as I explained her backstory. She was going to become the first ladybug in space.

He held her up to the sun and nodded, then looked into my eyes. His squinted as the right side of his mouth curled up into a smirk.  He dropped the ladybug onto the ground, then stomped it while looking at me in glee.

Everything inside of me screeched with the injustice of it. He hadn’t just ruined my game, he had ended a life. It was unforgiveable.

I think maybe he expected me to cry. Or to run and tell the teacher. Instead, in one fluid movement, I shook the other ladybugs off of my hands, grabbed his hair, and threw him to the ground. Then I put my little pink sneaker on his throat and held it there until he started to cry and the teacher intervened.

Now, why am I sharing this story that paints five year old me in an incredibly unflattering and violent light?

It’s all about writing voice. Bear with me.

Continue reading “The Elusive Nonfiction Writing Voice”

The Smart Woman’s Writing Desk, Part IV

By Lynn Clement


Even though Virginia Woolf’s famous essay about the importance of creative space for women (both public and private) was published in 1929, it wasn’t until 2013, after the birth of my daughter, that I finally claimed a room of my own.

I lost myself a bit after becoming a mother and I struggled while my body, mind, and purpose felt as if they were no longer fully my own.  Personal space suddenly became more important as I grappled with identity and nagging doubts about career and choices, in general.  So I staked a claim in my home to help me retake my place in the world.  This was also important for legitimizing my work, to others and myself.  My contingent faculty career status had often been maligned, and this often made me question my place and worth.  Both became stronger after I added “mother” to my list of jobs.  “Maybe now you should focus on something more worthwhile?” “Maybe this could be a chance to switch careers?” “Are you even going back to work?” “When?”  “How?” “Why?”

I did go back to work because I love what I do, and I didn’t switch jobs because I’m also good at it.  However, I needed to find equilibrium between my career and my new role as caregiver. To do this I needed space. I found a tiny section of my already cramped home and tried to carve it into something. I ripped up carpet, scrubbed floors on hands and knees, stripped wall paper, patched walls with joint compound, painted newly sanded surfaces and trim, hauled books, dragged furniture, hung curtains, and remade the space as I tried to remake myself.

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It’s not perfect, and it’s a bit chaotic, but it reflects me: who I have been, who I am despite the changes I have undergone, who I may become.  My actual work space, a narrow desk with an obsolete X-Files mouse pad, is surrounded by objects that make me contented: books, art, notes, papers, mementos, trifles.  Tomes on art, popular culture, programming, science, culture, politics, and religion are stacked below art made by my grandmother, my sister, my students, and my daughter.  (The drawing by my daughter depicts me, fighting a dinosaur with a sword.  Totally bad ass.)  Mismatched bookcases and sills hold some of my most prized keepsakes.  An antique typewriter found at a img_20180804_171120236garage sale was given to me by my parents.  They had high hopes that I would write my first book with it.  I won’t, but it is a sign of the support I have from family and friends.  img_20180804_171106780A guitar built by my great-uncle from an old stump that was half rotting in the backyard of my childhood home serves as a reminder to find inspiration in the unlikeliest of places, and to make something beautiful and useful.  My collection of running medals, all earned during road races of varying distances, reminds me to put in the work no matter how tedious.

Not everyone has the luxury of a room of their own and sometimes I still don’t.  I began writing this post on one of those yellow legal pads because my daughter had commandeered both my desk and my laptop.  In addition, my office now temporarily houses her new kitten and all his kitten accouterments.  However, the process of making that space my own resulted in an important change of mindset about room and my need to make some for myself in the world.  It’s okay to take up space.


 

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.