Autumnal Reveries

I’ve felt restless this month, caught between one thing and another, going here and there, completing work, finding new tasks, never quite feeling done. It is a month of muchness: three days of parent-student-teacher conferences and four consecutive weeks of assessment after assessment to read and mark. October is that time of the school year, when we come into our own as students and teachers, reaching into potential more deeply than we did when the leaves were still green and our minds turned back to summer.

Continue reading “Autumnal Reveries”

Nobody Wants to Change

Generally, people don’t like it when you tell them they need to change.

They really don’t like it when you tell them how to do it.

They might grudgingly do it when they recognize you are right, but the world will be a little duller for it.

At this year’s Southern Festival of Books, everyone seemed to be ruminating on these truths in one way or another. Without having planned it, most authors I got to hear speak and read kept circling back to this idea that those who most desperately need to change are also the most resistant to it.

A few even took stabs at figuring out what to do about this. I was so drawn especially to Nicole Krauss, whose latest book, Forest Dark, is about the courage to turn from the certainty of self, toward the unknown in hope of personal transformation.

She said (and I’m paraphrasing- it’s possible this isn’t exactly how she said it, but it’s how I heard it) that the self is a narrative- a story we tell ourselves, and are told, since we were small children. This means that the story is much more flexible than we think. When the narrative we tell ourselves stretches too tight and limits who we are or who we can become, it’s entirely possible to enlarge our sense of self.

But so few people do this, because changing is terrifying and it is stigmatized. It’s embarrassing to concede that we have grown into a corner and must now take a different direction. It’s doubly embarrassing to be told what to do in that moment of personal crisis.

In the end, you’ll change when you have no other choice. And when it’s time to change, what do you need? Continue reading “Nobody Wants to Change”

Lost and Found: A Post-ac’s Book List

In this week’s blog post I want to share some of the books that have helped me through the 2-year transition between receiving my PhD in art history and now, when I more fully identify myself as PostAc, and more specifically as someone starting a new business on my own.   If this list seems a bit idiosyncratic, that’s because it reflects an evolution in my interests as I edged closer to figuring out what I wanted to do next.

I think documenting various aspects of this kind of transition can be helpful to others who are just starting out as new doctorates. Two years ago I had no inkling that I’d be interested in working on a business that focuses on connecting kids to the outdoors (though I could have probably told you back then that I feel more comfortable being my own boss than working for someone else). Part of my processing involved becoming okay and comfortable with the reality that there are points in our lives that are filled with uncertainty. We just have to have faith that eventually something will work itself out. So you’ll find books in this list about the idea of processing, and the concept of uncertainty, as well as books that are more specific to my current interests.

A side note before I begin. Although I have not yet read Kelly Baker’s new e-book, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, I had been following her essay reflections on a life post-ac when they were first coming out in blog form a couple years back. Her work dives deep into what it feels like to have to start fresh after the dreams of an academic career disappear. Based on what I’ve read of her essays, I’d definitely recommend it to any recent doctorate.

Now without further ado, here are some of the books that I have found especially useful over the last couple years.

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed.

Strayed’s memoir was one of the first books I picked up after graduating with my PhD. At the time, I had chosen it as a purposeful break from the heavy political content that I had been wading through for my dissertation topic (which was related to political satire and the grotesque during between WWI-WWII). What Wild ended up providing was a validation for my lifelong desire to get outdoors as a form of self care. Strayed’s memoir was also helpful because it is grounded in the thesis that uncertainty, mistakes, pain – all of these are okay and are a profoundly vital part of what it is to just be a human. Anyone who has read it knows the book is specifically about working through loss; the book is also about moving past regret for any choices you might make when you are grappling with that loss.  I found both her physical journey through the PCT and spiritual journey of processing useful models for navigating through the uncertainty of finding a career after the doctorate.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit.

It’s hard to explain the value of this book except to say that if you are feeling uncertain about yourself or your place at this moment, you’ll find solace in Solnit’s celebration of what can be gained from feeling and being lost. Her work demonstrates that the state of confusion is an essential component of discovery and change. The essays meditate on this concept through a variety of frameworks – from the idea of longing during uncertain times in one’s life, to the transformative effect of experience the unknown.

Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott.

Bird by Bird is not a book about writing – or I should say, it’s not just about writing. It’s a compassionate, gentle, hilarious, guide for getting through just about anything in life that’s tough. It’s a book about the acts of faith required to take new steps. It’s a recognition that no one ever really knows what they are doing when they start out on something new. Of all the books I’ve read since graduating, this is one that I wish I had read earlier in career, before the toiling period of dissertation work.

The Artists’s Way, by Julia Cameron.

Regular readers know I love this book, so I’ll spare the details, instead just say that I found the exercises throughout this book extraordinarily useful as I spent time trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. The book has sections that help with the “gremlins” and Imposter Syndrome. It has sections about procrastination, perfectionism, and fear. And as I’ve noted before, Cameron’s concept of the Morning Pages continues to use.

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey.

Confession: I’m a bit of a self-help book junkie. After years of reading  dense critical texts about the history and theory of art, this genre of writing feels like such a breath of fresh air. But some can get a little too breezy. Behind the “you can do it” spirit is mostly just fluff. One of the reasons I like Covey’s book so much is treats the subject of “self” with a degree of compassion and seriousness lacking in many newer books. Covey’s book is informed by his Christianity, but is not religious. Rather, it is grounded in the idea that one must have a clear sense of their own values and priorities in order to be effective in the world.

The Hundred Dollar Start-Up, by Chris Guillebeau.

I bought this book on a whim last summer  when I was sifting through the self-help section of Powell’s bookstore. At the time, I was only starting to wrap my brain around the idea of maybe starting some kind of business. I didn’t know yet what kind of business it would be. This book ended up helping me narrow my focus (and also come up with a few back up ideas too). The book is not a comprehensive look at the ends and outs of business, but it is useful to make the concept of self-employment seem less terrifying and more possible.

Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv.

I picked up Louv’s book after deciding to start a business related to kids and nature, thinking it would be a useful framework for thinking about the value of the nature in family life. Having read it, I think it has a broader value to anyone feeling out of balance in their life. It’s not perfect; for example, I’m not fond of the way Louv uses ableist language (specifically his term “nature-deficit disorder”) to frame his concerns. But I do like his explorations of the ways that technologies and a culture of business impact us negatively, and his research on what is gained by breaks outdoors. Although his chief concern is children, his ideas apply to any generation.

*****

There are other books and essays out there that have been useful in other ways – from Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist to the numerous essays out there on higher ed. But these are a few that continue to stick out. What about you? If you have a PhD and are post-ac, are there any books that you’ve found especially useful?

Writing a Trade History Book, Part 1: The Introduction

I’m the kind of person who writes introductions last for pretty much everything. I always have, and I always will advise my students to do the same. It just makes sense- most of us who write, do so in order to figure out how we think about something. Only once we’ve written do we find out what our writing was about.

However, when you are trying to sell a nonfiction history book to the big four publishers, the introduction is one of the main deciding factors in whether or not it gets bought. Generally, just like with an academic book, you sell your nonfiction book based on a proposal that includes an outline and sample chapters. For a nonfiction history book, the introduction is probably the most important thing, because it does so much in so little space, therefore showcasing your skill as both a historian and a popular history writer.

A good trade history introduction will entertain, inform, and make promises, usually in equal amounts. Now, I’m lucky- my book is about pirates, and spoiler: one of them gets crucified. That practically writes itself, right?

Wrong.

Well, right and wrong.

You’d be surprised (I was) at how difficult it is to use documents created for one set of purposes (a criminal investigation, international diplomacy, taxation, etc.) and pull a narrative story that reads almost like fiction out of them.

It’s easy to summarize the documents “Well, here was the court case of the main witness against the pirate who said he bludgeoned his sloop’s entire crew. Here are the pirate’s last words before his execution.  Here are some random court documents that mention how he stole the captain’s wigs before killing him so that he could disguise his own distinctive hair. Here are some newspaper articles about other crimes that were attributed to him too.”

But that’s only really entertaining to other historians who see and immediately understand the value in having all of those documents together. See, historians tend to unconsciously process documents to get directly to the “so what?” moment. It’s rarely an explicit process, because we will read a collection of related primary sources and immediately understand why those sources are interesting and important, and how they affect what other types of things were going on at the time. Because of our training and instincts, we tend to skip the most important step of reconstructing the story, and instead link everything in our heads. So we analyze the documents, then explain how they fit into, alter, or corroborate our current understanding of history. One might argue that for academia and other related professions, that’s more than sufficient.

For a trade history audience, however, that does not work in the same way. A trade audience wants to be entertained. They don’t care how brilliant I am, and they don’t want to watch me solve the historical puzzle and explain how it affects our understanding of history. They want me to show them the puzzle, and introduce the contemporary people on the ground who were part of it. They don’t want a lecture on the 18th century Atlantic economy, they want me to drop details and pieces of the historical context only as necessary and when they first appear in the narrative arc of the story, and only as necessary to their understanding of what’s going on.  These readers are smart, and they don’t want me to explain to them, they want me to show them so that they themselves can figure it out. The whole purpose of my training as a historian is to re-arrange the evidence and the context and to figure out which historic information is relevant to the story and which isn’t, and accompany the reader along a journey like a guide who allows them to discover the historic relevance for themselves.

In other words, the entertaining part of a trade history book that many academic history books lack, is consideration for the reader’s enjoyment. My job isn’t to bombard the reader with every bit of information related to those primary sources I’m writing about. This isn’t a competition to see how much knowledge a reader can absorb. Rather, my job is to carefully curate this information into an enjoyable experience that allows the reader to become an active detective figuring out things as they go along, rather than being told these things outright. Just like in fiction, I’m showing, and not telling.

So back to the introduction of the book. It needs to promise this type of entertaining historical experience to the reader, while also assuring those who know a bit more about the business, that I know what I’m doing, and am doing it purposefully. In my book proposal, the chapter outline is where I get to show off to publishers what I know and how I’m planning on piecing it together, but my introduction is the first taste of how well I am going to do that. So it’s written like a piece of fiction, introducing characters only when they become relevant, and explaining only what needs to be explained at that moment to keep the story going. In this way, you have equal amounts of entertainment and information- the best of both worlds, at least in my opinion. Then later towards the end, you get a few pages to make some promises. Now that you’ve told the beginning of what will amount to a really bloody and captivating story, you get a very small amount of space to convince the reader that they badly want to find out what happens next.

This is similar to a film trailer- you show the highlights, and allude to how the reader will be changed at the end. For me, that means hinting at ways in which this pirate case will help illuminate a part of history (the American Revolution) that they thought they knew everything about already. I am promising that in reading this book, the reader will make some discoveries that enrich their understanding of our shared past, all while being entertained by pirates. It’s a tall order, and it takes a lot more skill to pull off than I initially thought.  Three rewrites in, and I think I’m finally beginning to get it.