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.”
The best dissertation is a done dissertation. When you turn it into a book, “Good enough” is good enough. Your work is never finished, it is merely abandoned. Every writer has heard this, and has experienced it. Once you’ve experienced it, you know that it’s true. Fitness works in exactly the same way. Tanya’s last post here was about her fitness goals and inspired me to share with you a bit about how and why I move my body, and why the best workout is a done workout.
A couple posts ago I wrote about a fabulous show I’d found on Netflix and the excitement it inspired in me to use television in the classroom, something I rarely do. I’ve noticed, as I examine my approach to teaching (and its evolution over the past 15 years) that I often need to fight against the traditional way my own collegiate education was administered. During undergrad and graduate school my professors followed a very teacher centered pedagogy in which the instructor was in control of the communication of knowledge. Lectures were the primary, and often the only, class format. While this had (and has) its merits, I’ve found that this approach works less and less the longer I teach. Although lecturing still has a place in my classroom, active student-centered learning makes up the majority of my class. Large and small group discussions in which students are asked to lead has been incredibly successful this semester largely due to the stellar group of intelligent and talkative students I’m working with. Despite my evolution in how I structure my class, and despite the wonderful new material available, I have remained hesitant to incorporate film, television, podcasts, and the like, into my curriculum.
Luckily, this old salt has learned much from her contemporaries and acknowledges that the types of educational materials my professors would have spurned are valuable sources to take advantage of, especially with all the new technology available in the lecture hall. Thus, when I came across an art history related program on Netflix I knew it was finally time to give it a try. To recap, briefly, from my previous post “Fake or Fortune is a BBC program hosted by journalist, Fiona Bruce and art dealer, Philip Mould. The two come together, along with various researching side-kicks, to investigate the style, material, and provenance of art works in order to determine their authenticity.” Last week I finally had the opportunity to test this show in the classroom, and I am happy to report that it was huge success.
So, here I am to give you the update, just in case you also need an excuse to let your students watch tv in the classroom. First, and I think this was extremely important, I explained the reason I was excited for them to watch. I often do this when discussing what we do in class, or when discussing what requirements I’ve included in the syllabus. Showing this show wasn’t to give me a break or to fill up time. I discussed the merits of the show and how it would reveal to them the various ways in which art historians come up with and research a topic. This was especially timely since we had just discussed their final research project.
Next, as we were watching I utilized the wipe board and wrote down the research process as we saw it unfold. The show is very compelling so it would be easy to get caught up in the “history mystery” and forget how these researchers were uncovering information. I was able to pinpoint how these researchers developed a topics, how they came up with the questions they wanted answered, when and where they found clues, how they followed that up with research into primary and secondary sources, and how those questions and answers changed as more information was uncovered. My students were able to see how the show arrived at its “thesis statement” and, again, how they were able to uncover appropriate information that could support, or shift, the main idea. I have to admit that deconstructing the show helped my students, and myself, rediscover the important process that goes into quality research and writing, setbacks included.
After the conclusion, we not only discussed the content of the show, but also the process that they had seen. We talked about what surprised them, what confused them, and what excited them about both the research and the outcome. All in all, I would say that it was a huge success and it made me realize that I had been remiss in overlooking television and film as an important part of the learning process. While reading a research paper (examples of which I provide each semester) is great at conveying your expectations of the product, being able to see people research conveys important lessons on how that research project actually came together. As we continued to talk about their ideas I saw that my students seemed more excited and more confident about how they were to go forward.
I am happy to say I am a changed woman and I think my students, present and future, will be equally happy about this. So, now I’m curious to what else I’ve been missing all these years. What films, shows, podcasts, etc. do you use in the classroom? How have you found them helpful? I would love to learn more from you, dear reader.
Aging and birthdays are usually not a big deal to me which, now that I really think about it, likely stems from childhood. Having a summer birthday meant I missed bringing treats to school and birthday parties were useless when everyone was out of town. Thus, I’ve long been accustomed to marking my journeys around the sun with minimal celebration even at major milestones. This was the same with turning 40, which I did in August. While my lovely friends made sure I celebrated properly later, I spent that actual day taking a 7 hour road trip from an indoor water-park hell-scape to home. The day itself may have felt lackluster, but the anticipation of this monumental number did inspire me to make some challenges for myself months prior. On New Year’s Day I was making plans for my 40th year. I had planned to run my 6th marathon and a total of 2019 miles in the year, had planned to take a big trip, for fun and for research, and I had planned to read 40 books. While life shenanigans interfered with the first few, I am happy to announce that I am on schedule to celebrate my 40th year with 40, completed and contemplated, books.
I am also happy to announce that most of the books I’ve read this year (currently working on numbers 33 and 34) have been wonderful. I decided to be choosey about the titles so I would not get derailed from my goal, which can often happen since I am stubborn and hate to give up on any book, no matter how terrible. In addition, even though cancer treatment made exercise and travel almost impossible, it did afford me some uninterrupted time for reading. The hours spent in cars, waiting rooms, infusion chairs, on radiation tables were given to memoirs, biographies, historical fictions, historical non-fictions, true crime, poetry, etc., etc., etc. They provided much needed escape, and I must take a moment here, dear reader, to assure you that I didn’t just choose short stories to help reach my goal. In fact, one of the more enjoyable of the books was The Goldfinch by Donna Tart, a 771 page journey detailing lost lives, lost art, and lost souls. The story centers around a lost painting and equally lost young man, and although it was not without its faults, it was worth the effort.
The Goldfinch was recommended to me by many because of its connection to art history. I usually shy away from these types of books because of my background, but I gave it a chance, and I’m glad I did. I have to admit that it was fun to think about art in a new way. Contrary to my expectations, the visual details of the painting and its history amounted to only about 2 pages of the more than 700. The Goldfinch (aka Het Puttertje) is an actual painting Donna Tart saw during a visit to the Mauritshuis museum at the heart of the Hague. Measuring little bigger than a sheet of paper, and depicting an even smaller, chained, pet bird by the little known artist Carel Fabrutus, the reader might initially question the value of a work such as this, especially when it enters the narrative amidst Vermeers, Hals, Rembrandts, and other master works of the Dutch Golden Age. However, our understanding of the value of this work is established on a personal level as it anchors itself to times, places, and people that mean so much to the main character.
This led me to thinking about the possibly for fictional tales centered on factual events and objects. History and its imagery is filled with a wealth of possibility for invented stories and a basic Google search on making the transition from non-fiction to fiction brings up a wealth of sites with advice and success stories. Would it be worthwhile to approach my own research topics similarly and could these histories be told in new ways? Or, perhaps more importantly, should they? I don’t know the answer to these questions yet, but the thought of this type of experimentation with research and writing excites me.
I have been dealing with a bit of a writing dry spell, particularly in regard to my academic research. However, the possibility of using what I’ve learned to create a new, imagined story provides the kind of inspiration I’ve been needing. Writing community, I would love to hear if you’ve tried something similar! Please comment or tweet your advice, tips, or experiences! My own updates to come…
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.