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.

 

Choosing Your Next Writing Project

I’m pretty young, and already I have more projects ideas than I will be able to write in this lifetime. This is true even if I have the fortune of living well into my 90s (which I suspect I won’t, as my family’s history is riddled with darkly comedic early deaths- too much pull toward adventure, and not enough common sense in the Sutton genes).

I do periodically root out the “bad” ideas- the ones that wouldn’t work because of the mediums I write in, or the zeitgeist, or because they would be better expressed non-verbally, or by someone who isn’t me, or the ones that go beyond my current skillset, or the ones that wouldn’t help along any of my personal or career goals. I hesitate to call them bad though, as any idea can be good under the right circumstances. But I’m all about efficiency. Do I have time or inclination to cultivate new circumstances? Not right now. Let’s work with the circumstances I’ve already got.

So even after whittling down the list, it’s still too big. How do I pick and choose what gets written and which ideas go into the big ether of ideas to hopefully get recycled and occur to someone else? Continue reading “Choosing Your Next Writing Project”

There’s No Wrong Way to Do the Morning Pages

Several months back I wrote a blog post about using Julia Cameron’s concept of the Morning Pages (from her book The Artist’s Way) as a form of regular journaling. As I noted then, I began to develop this practice not long after finishing my dissertation as a means of self-care in that confusing landscape post-dissertation life. I’ve since received a number of inquiries about the Morning Pages. Do I still use them? How do they work? How are they helpful?

Although I have offered of basic thoughts to people one-on-one, I don’t feel like I’ve fully explained how I still find them useful. This is partly because they have become so routine that I hardly think about them anymore. The Morning Pages are part of a comforting morning ritual that happens before my child gets up.  I write them (almost) every day, always with a cup of coffee by my side, and usually on my couch with a blanket draped over me (it’s still chilly here in the PNW!).

Sometimes when people ask I feel like I can only explain their value to me as much as I can explain why I always drink that coffee from the same mug.  That’s the other reason I trip over explanations: the Morning Pages are personal. Once you start to do them regularly they can feel like an old friend – and like an old friend, for each person, they’ll provide a different kind of value. Still, there are common features to the Morning Pages that make them broadly useful – as I remembered once I went back to Cameron’s book as I was preparing to write this post. What follows are some of the main reasons they are one of my go-to morning rituals. Continue reading “There’s No Wrong Way to Do the Morning Pages”

A New Goal Emerges: Writing and Resistance in 2017

This morning, I drew a tarot card to give my day some shape, and it was Death.

It was the card I’ve needed to see for a while. This post is about scaling back your goals and killing off that which does not serve, in light of new priorities.

Instead of resolutions for the new year, I spend each December crafting my writing goals for the following year. I write them and pin them above my computer so that I have to stare at them every day, and so that every day I take a step toward them. And this works. I’ve had a really productive and prolific run these past few years- I landed a literary agent with a killer book proposal, I made headway on my first academic manuscript, and I wrote a few novels. This is in addition to the writing and publishing (academic articles, press releases, etc.) that I do for my jobs. I’ve been riding that cloud of smugness for years now, with no real empathy for the people who have to bleed all over the page just to get a few sentences down.

And then disaster struck.

It’s no secret that the new administration hell-bent on running our country into the ground has got me raging. Anyone even on the peripheries of my life has heard it from me, several times. Their misbegotten and selfish decisions already affect me, and most of the people I love, in countless little ways. It’s as if the administration wants to kill us with the death of a thousand cuts: someone’s health insurance here, someone’s livelihood there, someone’s ability to own property, to plan their family, to live the American dream.

And that has real-life consequences.

Suddenly, writing feels less important. Continue reading “A New Goal Emerges: Writing and Resistance in 2017”

Writing in the Apocalypse of 2016

“2016 is the year that killed satire.”

So many people have said it in the past few months that I don’t even know  who I should attribute this quote to. But it’s true: nobody can tell the difference anymore between awful reality and caricature. 2016 is the year that extinguished many of our heroes and filled the swamp with bonafide jack-booted villains who half-joke about rounding us up.

I’m not going to mince words: the world feels unspeakably grim right now. I know that my feelings are not 100% a reflection of reality, but they are a reflection of the uncertainty the US and the world are facing. They are also a reflection of the fear I have for  my own personal safety, and the safety of people I care about. A lot of things many of us were fortunate enough to grow up taking for granted, like universal human rights, are up for debate on a scale that only the most maligned among us truly saw coming. Nothing about this situation is normal.

Trying to peer into the future is incredibly scary, because the worst might actually come to pass. No one knows if it will or not, but it’s no longer out of the question. It’s a possibility. A deeply terrifying possibility.

So what do I do with that, as a writer?
Continue reading “Writing in the Apocalypse of 2016”

Teaching as Creative Process

“You teach?”

“I teach. Computer Age Philosophy…”

-Jonathan Larson, Rent

I tend to think of myself as a late bloomer. No, that’s not accurate. Let’s put it this way, instead: I have a lot of different interests, and I’ve always been this way. Growing up, I considered many career options as a result. First there was my archaeologist phase, in no small part inspired by the Indiana Jones movies and a fascination with ancient Egypt (which my dad happily helped foster). For a long time, there was also the doctor phase (pediatric plastic surgeon, pediatric neurosurgeon). And of course, I can’t leave out the time when I was going to get a degree in international business (for the traveling), and also own my own martial arts studio.

Teaching never crossed my mind, even when I figured out at age 20 that I wanted to get a PhD. Even then, I wanted the degree because I saw it as a personal milestone. I wanted it for the research and for the writing, and possibly also because it was a way to get to spend years reading books.

Continue reading “Teaching as Creative Process”