What’s your Creative Nonfiction Really About?

In honor of  National Novel Writing Month, I’m going to tell you another story about the time I taught a nonfiction writing class titled “Writing Your Family History,” at the Nashville Public Library for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Although everyone reads nonfiction every day, a lot of people think of it as dry, like writing a 5-paragraph essay for school. They often equate nonfiction writing with an encyclopedia article- a collection of well-organized facts that puts you to sleep. (Note: I don’t think that way, I’ve written encyclopedia articles, but I understand the sentiment).

But what about that fascinating personality profile you’ve read about your favorite celebrity’s brush with death as a child?  Or the clever piece that was organized as a series of exotic meals, but was really about the small-town narrator’s growing comfort with an unfamiliar culture? How about the human interest story from the journalist in Syria who reveals to us the histories of the people who are trying to flee? Have you admired the way you can learn about the conflict not through 5 boring paragraphs, but through the eyes of people who live it each day?

That’s the magic, right there.

Seasoned writers know that. Beginning writers always say “yes, but that’s a celebrity, or someone traveling to Cameroon, or a trained journalist in a war zone. What about someone like me who grew up in Monterey, Tennessee and worked in a factory for 40 years? Who wants to read about that?” (This was a real question from class).

I think it’s such an important question. One that set the tone for the entire session. Continue reading “What’s your Creative Nonfiction Really About?”

Self Care for Women Writers in the Age of Kavanaugh

First of all, Happy Indigenous People’s Day!

I’m a historian of Atlantic Africa, the slave trade, and Africans in the Americas, so often that’s where my focus is. But this week I want to remember that while this nation was built by the enslaved, it was built on native land taken by force. I want to remember not to make anyone feel guilty, but to take some moments to sit in my discomfort with America’s past. White people’s attempts to avoid discomfort have caused a great deal of hurt and destruction, and change begins with the self. I will sit in discomfort, and I will help others do the same. I truly believe that it is only when we tolerate our discomfort to fully acknowledge the injustices of our shared past that we can move into an equitable future.

I still believe it is possible, even if the ideal of an equitable future feels far away sometimes. Especially this week, especially if you are a woman or a non-binary person with any history of sexual harassment, abuse, assault, or related trauma. Which is, well, all of us. We all have some experience with it, either directly, or through friends.

I’m not going to mince words. This week, most women in the US, like many other groups of people targeted by this administration, have felt that their country treats them like garbage.

That’s because right now, women (and other groups) are treated like garbage by our country. It’s the only way I have to explain what happened with Kavanaugh.

Something I want to address is how much something like this can affect the writing and productivity in general of women. Most of us are one “let’s give him the benefit of the doubt” away from either full-on screaming or bursting into tears in public. Our writing outputs are suffering. Continue reading “Self Care for Women Writers in the Age of Kavanaugh”

The Expressions of Freedom: Contemplating Anger

by Lynn Clement


Despite being immensely inspired by Raquelle’s awesome post on “overcoming writing stalls”, I’ve had a difficult time being productive this week.  Current events have left me angry, distracted, and anxious.  I feel lucky, because many others have had it much worse: anguish, suffering, trauma.  Due to my professional training, I am quick to analyze what I see and, even after listening to hours of testimony, it was the images that lingered: the setting, the people, the facial expressions.

My writing has long centered on women’s involvement in revolutionary political movements and their subsequent punishment, in visual form, for entering into the public sphere.  Honestly, it’s been almost too easy to find topics because history is filled with demonized depictions of women who dared to defy societal norms and demand equal rights and an equal voice.  For so long, I had naively regarded my analyses as study of a distance past.  As an art historian, it’s a strange feeling when your research becomes terribly relevant and attempting to return agency and voice after centuries of vilification and erasure feels like a particularly pressing endeavor.

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By Artist or printers mark looks like “Bernard”. Uploaded by User:Nickpo – own collection, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3820117

 

My attention had remained on France and their age of revolutions because, again, there was so much to study.  Negative depictions of women revolutionaries abounded.  However, I’ve since turned my attention to how other political imagery, ones that we often consider to be positive or laudatory, might be creating a negative impact.   And I’ve turned my sights to my own country, which is how I found myself picking a fight with the Statue of Liberty.

Well, to be clear, not with the statue itself, but with the way that personification was changed by those who gave, and those who received, her body.  The statue of liberty became a logical image for me given its origins. Although the most recognizable symbol of America, and the liberty and freedom (arguably) found in its republic, Bartholdi’s statue was conceived of by conservative French scholars and politicians who saw the new county as a stabilizing influence against the dangers of monarchy, as well as anarchy. Unlike what comes to mind today, Liberty (since 1792) had worn the Phrygian bonnet (an ancient symbol of the freed slave), wielded a weapon, and had functioned as the powerful, often angry, leader of popular uprising.  Joan Landes’ states, in her book on women’s removal from the public sphere during the years before and after the Revolution of 1789, that “Liberty did not simply appear on the seal of the Republic, nor did she remain fixed on canvas or carved in stone.  She went into the public forum…”  She could be evoked by real women when they asked to be treated as equals.

I thought about this more and more as I saw photographs directly comparing the calm stoicism of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford with the overt anger and frustration of Brett Kavanaugh.

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By Edward Moran – Museum of the City of New York, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=229787

Liberty is someone/something we desire to evoke now, when the status of so many, even as humans, is being tested. (I was going to include a hyperlink, but there were just too many news stories that support this.  You know what I’m talking about.  Just open a newspaper and throw a dart.) However, the idealized depiction of Liberty found in New York’s harbor is a stern goddess with a rational respect for law and order.  Her vagueness denies any relationship with the people who might call upon her protection. Although Linda Grasso’s book The Artistry of Anger focuses on black and white women’s literature, one can apply her theories to the visual.  What emotional freedom would have been available to women and people of color when the Statue of Liberty was designed and erected?  To be allowed anger is to allow a sense of self, true autonomy. “Two unstated assumptions underlie these premises: one, that the rational, righteously angry person is entitled to desire self-satisfaction, pleasure, and just treatment; and two, that the rational, righteously angry person possesses the power to make judgments about one’s own and others’ behavior.  Both of these assumptions have, historically, not applied to women.” Thus, whose liberty is implied in the title of this statue? When the torch was lit rights for women, the working poor, and people of color were being squelched. The Phrygian cap’s replacement with a crown, the removal of her armament, and her composed demeanor seems poignant, to me, in this light, and much less majestic.

My research and writing has been cathartic this year, but it has also reminded me what we are up against: even the strongest visual symbol of this country and its founding ideologies has been constrained. Once celebrated for her righteous anger and willingness to cut down oppressors, she was sanitized for political reasons.  While our bodies are used as symbols of enlightened and universal political ideologies, like Liberty and Justice, our voices, our emotions, and our experiences have also been suppressed.

I don’t know if I can say that I’m glad this is a writing project I’ll be working on more and more (to examine and include depictions of America, Freedom, and Lady Columbia), but it feels necessary to fully research and consider. I’ve been seeing Artemisia Gentileschi’s depictions of Judith and Holofernes making the rounds on social media.  Perhaps it’s time to design a new colossal national monument…

 

 

 

 

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.