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.

 

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.

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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.