While a lot of people are just getting into the swing of their semester, in my K12 world, our second trimester of the school year just concluded. It’s always strange to say that, or maybe it just feels that way because saying “It’s the end of the trimester!” has made people ask me if I’m pregnant (more than once).
No, it’s just how we do things. On the one hand, being on trimesters is great because of the way it breaks up the year. On the other, end-of-trimester is always a busy, stressful time. To offset that, in November, we get a three-day weekend between trimesters. In February, we get a four-day weekend (thank you, Presidents Day!). In both cases, students tend to get a lot of assessments and faculty get the opportunity to give students feedback on their work (also known as grading).
It feels like I’ve had a lot of chances to give students feedback recently, and it’s in those moments that I realize just how much I’m still using from grad school.
When I wrote my first Non-fiction book proposals, with all of its moveable parts, I felt intimidated. I had to create an overview, author bio, market analysis, competition, plan for promotion, the table of contents, my chapter summaries, and a detailed explanation of my source materials before a literary agent would even consider looking at my idea for a book.
I definitely can’t tell you how to write a non-fiction book proposal (thankfully others have gotten into that), but I can tell you about my experience creating and revising my first one (I’m now working on my second, woo!), and how worth it it really was.
Of course I loved creating the table of contents and the chapter summaries. Doing that helps you figure out if you’ve got enough material for a book, or if you’re trying to collapse too many elements into one. And the part where I explain my source materials? Really fun- I loved gathering all of my books, microfilms, photocopies, and archival photos into once place and taking stock of all there is. Seeing all the primary sources together like that helped me to ask where the silences were, and where the meatiest parts of the story existed. That caused me to make a few changes to my table of contents. Then gathering up my secondary sources helped me to figure out if my book had a chance of being fair and balanced, or if I over-relied on a handful of historians whose interpretations I enjoy more.
But then there were the other parts. A big shout-out to my agent for being patient enough with me to revise them multiple times before sending it on to publishers. The other parts are much more marketing-oriented. I tried to imagine how someone in the book-selling business would see this book of mine, and how they would sell it. On which shelf would it go? To which books could I compare it? What kind of reader would want it? How could it be made most profitable without losing its essence and integrity?
Writing those parts of the book proposal showed me that I hadn’t been paying enough attention to the world of publishing. And that’s to be expected- I’ve spent the past twelve years in academia. While I do read widely and enjoy trade history books (and other trade non-fiction), the majority of the books I’ve gone through in that time have been academic. That means that I have been exposed mostly to books created to fulfill professional curiosity and research gaps, not books created to entertain and teach the public about history. I had to entirely re-orient myself.
Thankfully, that’s where the teacher-brain took over. I sell history to everyday people all the time. My students, whether they are undergrads or older adults continuing their education for fun, do better with historic material if it’s presented in an interesting way. I weave together all kinds of stories for them upon which to hang all the facts and theories they need to know. I’m always picking the unconventional and surprising historic figures in my primary sources and showing students the larger paradoxes of the time periods through these characters’ daily lives. When my students lean forward and stop surfing the net, I know it’s a story that will sell.
Writing the book proposal taught me that the main difference between writing an academic and a trade book is like the main difference between sitting in the archives and standing at the lectern: it’s audience. The “So what?” is important in any non-fiction book, but the other academics who read your academic book don’t need it: they understand the intrinsic importance of most historic research, and if your book has to do with their topic, they’ll give it a glance. In a trade book, however, how well you nail the “so what?” is everything. If you show your readers how everyday people were affected by the thing you’re writing, they want to know more. Just like you’ve got to convince your students that the time and money they have invested in your class will pay off, you’ve got to reassure the reader that your book is worth it. It’s a mental shift that affects every other part of the proposal and your book, and opens up so many exciting avenues to explore.
Ah, February. The month that heralds the final demise of the dreaded January and when I can consider my semester officially off to a successful start. It occurred to me recently that 2019 marks an important anniversary for me. It was 15 years ago that I started teaching art history.
A lot has changed in that time: schools, technology, hair-dos, but nothing more than how I approach that first day with my students.
For many of the early years in my career I felt that my main hurdle upon meeting a group of students at the start of the semester was getting through the syllabus without everyone falling asleep, myself included. However, I now know that addressing the issue of relevancy on that first day is most crucial. This has become even more urgent as students, and I for that matter, need more from art history.
I begin with a question: “Why does a college require you to take a class such as this?”
In my experience this is a more productive question than those asked of me when I was on the other side of the podium. Questions like “why are you here?” or “what do art historians do?” or (my most despised) “what is art?” often dead end with answers like “because the college is forcing me to take this class” and “we look at art” and (my most dreaded) silence. Art history was not required at my university, but I was very lucky to happen upon it completely by accident. I still feel lucky, but also saddened and a bit angry that it had not been a part of the traditional curriculum at any point of my education. This is because I immediately saw its worth. This is what I want my students to consider the moment we meet.
Thus, my class now begins with a discussion of critical thinking. We talk about what it means to think critically about what we see in the world around us and how we can hone the skills they already have. I don’t have to search very hard for examples that support how this will help them after they step out of the classroom. We are bombarded with visual culture at every moment with smartphones, laptops, tablets, television, and on the surfaces of public transportation. We now also seem to live in this terrible time in which you can see a video or photograph and be told that what you are seeing is NOT actually what you are seeing. How do we learn to trust our own eyes and our own analysis of what we see? Hopefully by taking my class.
This discussion leads us to an actual exercise in looking. Again, I try to pick an image that is relevant, which is why we’ve been spending a lot of time with Napoleon’s portrait in the Tuileries gardens from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. This image easily shows how power can be conveyed through the visual and heavily contrived, also by those in power.
I also try to speak to relevancy in terms of my assignments. It’s just not a hoop, or torture, I put them through because I’m a terrible person! Really! I focus less on the parameters of the assignment and instead on why I feel the assignments are important and what skills they’ll strengthen through their successful completion.
I’m particularly proud of the way my final research paper has shifted over the years. While traditional research papers are still an option, I’ve found that more and more students are interested in researching and assessing how visual culture is presented to them in their communities.
Taking inspiration from the call to decolonize museums (like those made by Olga Viso), the Museums Are Not Neutral movement spurred by LaTanya Autry, and Uncomfortable Art Tours provided by art historian and independent art guide Alice Proctor, I ask my students to prepare a grant proposal, or marketing/business plan that would help to diversify a museums holdings. To complete the paper they need to research the current state of a museum (either the diversity of their holdings, the diversity of what they show on the walls, or how the information provided in wall text or on the museum website might be hiding hard historical truths.) They have to state the specific problem to be solved or task to be accomplished and explain how do they propose to solve the problem or what questions they need to ask to solve the problem?
Not surprising, my students have gone above and beyond my expectations for this assignment. In addition to considering how race is treated in their local museums, they are examining gender, access for the differently abled, and issues with conservation and preservation. What I like most is that they get what I’m trying to do with this assignment and they have used their experiences and creativity to expand what can be done. Thus, needless to say, the evolution continues.
I’m not sure if I’ll still be teaching in 15 years. With the state of the college system who know what it will become (more on that in another post). However, I like that I’ve seen this kind of change and improvement in my own approach to teaching art history and it gives me hope for the future…even in the bleak midwinter.
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.
How do you make time to write when you’ve got a day job?
I think it’s something every working writer struggles with. Most of my friends write, some of them full-time, and others on the side of a full or part-time job, and it looks really different for everyone. Here’s how I found the best way for my current life:
First of all, I had to face that I have many more ideas and dreams than I can feasibly turn into reality. But rather than being sad about all the ideas that won’t get written, I try to be excited that I’m in such a position of opportunity. I have the desire and ability to write academic articles, non-fiction trade books, encyclopedia articles, think-pieces, creative non-fiction essays, novels, short stories, screenplays, blog posts, and more. I have ideas for all of these things, and most of them are exciting to me and allow me to examine something I am interested in or passionate about.
That said, my other goals in life- personal, financial, career- mean that most of my time is spoken for, and there’s not really much I can move around or give up. Every piece I chose to write takes time away from a career development opportunity, time with family and friends, or time I could have spent earning money. Radical honesty means being honest about my shifting collection of needs and how they conflict: my needs for creative expression, versus my needs to feel like I’m doing a good job at work, versus my need to pay bills, versus my need to connect with the people I love. So realistically, I can only give up about an hour a day to writing projects that are not connected to finances or career.
Knowing that means that I have to pick and choose my projects more carefully. I have to be honest about how many hours something will take to complete and how many weeks that will take at the rate of one hour per day. Or actually, less than an hour per day, because most days I use part of that hour to write morning pages.
And by “writing morning pages,” I mean, I scrawl some stuff longhand into a notebook, just to dump all the miscellaneous thoughts that are taking up valuable brain space. Morning pages (the idea comes from Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way, and is discussed on this blog) are a way for me to stay connected to the page and explore how I feel about my writing and the things that get in the way of my writing. I don’t fully understand why they work, or how exactly, but I do know that when I write them, my writing goes more smoothly and I produce more of it, and when I get away from that habit, I start to be more blocked and writing feels like squeezing blood from a stone, so I avoid it. I’ve lived long enough to know that when something works (and doesn’t hurt anyone), you don’t question it, you just do it.
In order for me to wrest that daily hour away for myself and my writing, it helps me, sometimes, to have a routine. I’m definitely not religious about it, and I don’t always need it, but I find that during the semester especially when my to-do list is a mile long, having a routine helps. I take my writing time as seriously as I take my savings- I pay myself first. First thing in the morning, I don’t get online to check emails, I get straight to the morning pages and then transition into my writing project of choice. After an hour, I feel connected to it, and am much less begrudging of the other tasks I have to do for the day.
Since I only have that daily hour to write, I don’t have time to waste on projects that I don’t love. If I’m being paid for a project, I don’t do it in that hour- I count it toward my career and do it during the workday. That daily hour is for my passion project. These projects may never see the light of day or result in a paycheck. I write them for sake of doing it- for the sake of being involved in a creative pursuit, for investigating something that is important to me, and for keeping me tethered to my interests on days when my job or personal life don’t do that as much. It’s a creative, artistic, and spiritual pursuit that I do completely independently of expectations. No matter how successful a writer I become, no matter how many publications I rack up, no matter how much money I get for my writing, I want to always set aside this hour to just do what I feel like doing. If it later ends up becoming a viable project that sells, that’s great, but it’s also ok if it never amounts to anything more than my own enjoyment. Ironically, since I’ve been squishing expectations, a lot of my writing-hour projects have seen publication.
Now it’s disclaimer time- I have the type of job (a postdoc) where writing is built into it. I have set tasks I do in exchange for my salary, and then I have more abstract expectations of what I should be doing with the rest of my work week. This gives me tremendous flexibility in terms of my writing projects. It means that once a project I’m working on in that morning hour becomes a viable project that either will further my career or get me paid, I have the flexibility to incorporate it into my work hours and then use that personal hour of writing time for something else. The way I structure my day makes sense for my day job right now, but this won’t always be my job. Writing, on the other hand, will. I think setting up a habit for daily writing outside of my job hours sets me up for continuing this habit regardless of my day job.
I wasn’t surprised when Marie Kondo started trending on my Twitter feed. Not only did her show, “Tidying up with Marie Kondo”, recently debut on Netflix, but her approach seems to characterize what the month of January is all about: evaluation and change. I find New Year’s Eve to be annoying enough, but the rest of the month isn’t any less so. It’s filled with making room in an already crowded space, weather that space be literal or metaphorical. It’s filled with making piles: what to discard, what to pass on, what to retain, what to do with the things that fall between.
More difficult than clearing out space for things is clearing out time for self-improvement. I am not a resolutions person. I don’t like setting myself up for failure, which is usually what I associate with the pressure-filled tradition. However, as it has been in years past, I thought that maybe 2019 could be my year. What did I need to accomplish in 2019 and how would I get there? A resolution? A game plan? A promise to myself? So, while hauling some shit out of, and some shit into, my basement, I contemplated the possibility of taking part in a twitter phenomenon that I had seen off and on posted by those I follow: the goal to write (enter seemingly random number, mine would be 400) words a day.
“Yeah!” I thought to myself, while finally dumping out container after container of play-doh that had dried to crusty clumps. This will be perfect. I’ll do it, and all my writing related productivity problems would be over! On January 1st I wrote 100 words, and then promptly forgot about my resolution until January 4th. Seriously. Completely. Forgot.
This got me thinking about the nature of my resolutions and positive daily habits in general. I don’t have have many daily habits that center on my own self-care/self-improvement except for one: I run. I don’t say “I’m a runner” because that often conjures up images and personality traits that I do not assign to myself, but I do put one foot in front of the other, above an ambling pace, daily.
This is probably why I thought writing 400 words a day would be a piece of cake. As a person who runs, I have become very good at keeping myself accountable and keeping track of numbers. I have found ways to motivate myself into doing the work and logging the miles. However, what I had forgotten is that it took years of successes and failures to get to this point. Now I like it, feel good doing it, and feel the positive results of the hard work, but at the beginning it was a slog. First, it was just about getting out the door and walking around the block. When that got easier I quickened the pace or lengthened the distance. Over time, I was able to do both. It’s been an on and off relationship that has finally transformed into something beautiful and has allowed me to maintain my physical and mental health. After 12 years of serious commitment, I’ll be running my 6th marathon this year, and I’m actually looking forward to it. Although, I know when I reach mile 22 of said race I will question all the choices that have led me to attempt such a silly distance on foot because it has happened 5 times before and let’s face it, 26.2 miles is crazy and this is why humans invented cars…but I digress.
Of course during a morning run I began thinking about this journey and I questioned why I don’t approach my writing in the same way? Certainly this physical and mental endeavor is akin to running. In the same way that I don’t call myself a runner, I would never call myself a writer. I am not special. Anyone who can walk, can run, and this is not far from the assumption that anyone who can write, can, well, write. While true, it’s so much more complex than that, isn’t it? It needs to be done daily, and strengthened with proper training, equipment, and realistic goals.
Over the years I’ve read a lot of books and articles about running. Runners apparently like to write, or perhaps writers like to run? Chicken or the egg? Sure I’ve had a lot of practice, off and on, writing in my professional and personal life, but I hadn’t read a book or taken a class on writing in about 20 years. I would never attempt to run a considerable distance without training properly, why would I ever expect to spin gold when I sat down to my laptop? This is why I’m making strides to train properly as a writer and the first step I’ve taken is by reading. I am in the middle of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and I find it’s a good omen that one of his early chapters focuses on clutter.
Rest assured, I’m going to persist. I’m not ready for 400 words per day, not yet, but I’m ready to take daily actions that will help improve my writing skills like continuing to read about writing, learning more about the craft, about creativity, pursuing writing prompts, and making healthy writing practices a priority. 2018 was the year that I began to take my writing more seriously, 2019 is the year to take it a step further. However, like my approach to running it’s not going to be a New Year’s resolution, but a lifelong endeavor that will have successes, failures, setbacks, and hopefully, personal victories.
Wishing you all your own writing victories this year!