Although everyone reads nonfiction every day, a lot of people think of it as dry, like writing a 5-paragraph essay for school. They often equate nonfiction writing with an encyclopedia article- a collection of well-organized facts that puts you to sleep. (Note: I don’t think that way, I’ve written encyclopedia articles, but I understand the sentiment).
But what about that fascinating personality profile you’ve read about your favorite celebrity’s brush with death as a child? Or the clever piece that was organized as a series of exotic meals, but was really about the small-town narrator’s growing comfort with an unfamiliar culture? How about the human interest story from the journalist in Syria who reveals to us the histories of the people who are trying to flee? Have you admired the way you can learn about the conflict not through 5 boring paragraphs, but through the eyes of people who live it each day?
That’s the magic, right there.
Seasoned writers know that. Beginning writers always say “yes, but that’s a celebrity, or someone traveling to Cameroon, or a trained journalist in a war zone. What about someone like me who grew up in Monterey, Tennessee and worked in a factory for 40 years? Who wants to read about that?” (This was a real question from class).
I’ve always considered it a great failing in my education that I never had the chance to take drawing classes, or any art making classes for that matter. In middle school and high school art was an elective sacrificed if you were on a college prep track and despite my declared major of art history in undergrad, I went to such a large university that only studio art majors could take the studio classes. Thus, it has been a personal endeavor to learn the techniques used to make art objects in order to gain greater insight into the creative process of those I study. While an important part of my profession, drawing, painting, and photography have also been an important part of my self-care.
After the sage advice posted this month by Angela, Tanya, and Raquelle, I felt overdue for a break in which I could think and act creatively. I am fortunate to live outside of Washington, DC where the opportunity to pursue these activities at a low cost are readily available, which is why this weekend I found myself at The Big Draw Festival at the National Gallery of Art with my daughter and a good friend. The Big Draw is a charity that supports visual literacy and celebrates drawing as an important tool for learning and engagement. Although headquartered in England, every October partners around the globe host their own festivals. At the National Gallery in Washington, DC live models posed for the enjoyment of amateur and professional artist alike and entire galleries were given over to contemplating the movement of the human body captured by some of the most celebrated sculptors through history.
It wasn’t until the 15th century that drawing was considered an art form in its own right, though it has long been used as a means of studying various fields in a deeper way. For example, drawing has long been used in scientific fields to heighten observational and communication skills and more recently medical schools have added art classes to their curriculum. What struck me most about the latter is how art classes have helped doctors to better understand emotional expressions and cues. Drawing forces you to observe the world in order to replicate it, and observing the world leads to a deeper consideration and understanding. This is especially true when looking at people.
The friend who drew with me this weekend commented on how the exercise of sketching forced him to look, observe, analyze what might otherwise be overlooked. It was during this quiet reflection that, unbeknownst to us, shots were fired hundreds of miles away at a Synagogue in Pittsburg. Mere days earlier, two African Americans were targeted and slain in a grocery store and bombs were delivered by innocent postal carriers to leading political figures. Afterward, as I tried to digest the violence, I looked over my sketches and considered what my friend had said and remembered what I had seen. Models who had smiled and laughed when poses changed, who stretched and tended to sore muscles, and were applauded for their noticeable effort. Docents who had welcomed us with drawing materials and information. Fellow lovers of art who sat beside us sketching their own visions or who walked through galleries filled with history in visual form. My own daughter, my favorite muse, who I drew as she played video games after she’d grown bored of sitting still. What had made this such a magical day, such a memorable moment was more than just the action of drawing, but drawing together with people of all walks of life. I had tried to capture these figures of flesh and stone on paper, nameless to me, but so human, and so delicate. How is that human-ness lost to others?
The Big Draw’s claim is that “drawing changes lives”. I don’t know if that’s true, but taking the time to contemplating the world, and especially the people around us, can’t be a bad idea. While I’d always found creating art as part of taking care of myself, it wasn’t until this weekend that I considered it an important part of how I care for others, or more importantly, how I saw others.
I don’t know if my words are working together to convey what I wanted to in this post as it currently feels like a stream of consciousness. It’s all become so much to take in, but I can’t stop looking.
I’m a historian of Atlantic Africa, the slave trade, and Africans in the Americas, so often that’s where my focus is. But this week I want to remember that while this nation was built by the enslaved, it was built on native land taken by force. I want to remember not to make anyone feel guilty, but to take some moments to sit in my discomfort with America’s past. White people’s attempts to avoid discomfort have caused a great deal of hurt and destruction, and change begins with the self. I will sit in discomfort, and I will help others do the same. I truly believe that it is only when we tolerate our discomfort to fully acknowledge the injustices of our shared past that we can move into an equitable future.
I still believe it is possible, even if the ideal of an equitable future feels far away sometimes. Especially this week, especially if you are a woman or a non-binary person with any history of sexual harassment, abuse, assault, or related trauma. Which is, well, all of us. We all have some experience with it, either directly, or through friends.
I’m not going to mince words. This week, most women in the US, like many other groups of people targeted by this administration, have felt that their country treats them like garbage.
That’s because right now, women (and other groups) are treated like garbage by our country. It’s the only way I have to explain what happened with Kavanaugh.
Something I want to address is how much something like this can affect the writing and productivity in general of women. Most of us are one “let’s give him the benefit of the doubt” away from either full-on screaming or bursting into tears in public. Our writing outputs are suffering. Continue reading “Self Care for Women Writers in the Age of Kavanaugh”→
Labor day weekend can be a mixed bag. While I never lament a Monday off, especially to honor workers past, present, and future, this weekend does herald the end of summer.
I am not particularly sorry to see the summer end this time, though the magnitude of this goodbye is striking. Summer was a struggle that culminated at the end of July with the death of my father. August was spent much like the previous months, with family, facing the harder facts of life.
With the start of my semester approaching quickly after, I anticipated spending more time on self-care than ever before. To cope, I’d been baking, running, and encircling myself with friends. Despite those invaluable supports, when thoughts and actions turned to work I became increasingly negative. Saying goodbye to summer, no matter how difficult it may have been, is tough and welcoming a September of “same-old, same-old” can hold equal elements of hope and frustration. I found myself struggling to swallow the stress of what did not get accomplished over break, marinating in disgruntled feelings of another year with little recognition or compensation, annoyance at expectations that syllabi would be available a week before I had even signed a contract meaning months of working for free, and immense pressure about what I wanted from the year ahead and how I would fulfill those goals.
These negative thoughts were fed by recent articles and online dialogue about the cost of higher education, a deluge of emails and articles about the realities of student life, and more importantly, student debt. I am not new to the subject. I put myself through undergrad and graduate school, but I’ve always had a support system. Even though I worried at the start of every school year that my financial aid wouldn’t come through quickly enough, I always knew that I’d be able to make it. I had to work every semester, and ate a lot of noodle packs of varying quality, but work was part time, it never took precedence over my studies, and I didn’t have to worry about feeding anyone else. Senior year I had to ask my parents for money to buy books because the financial aid did finally run out. I knew they went without in order to help me, but the support was there. Those loans still haunt me, but I still consider them an investment that improved my life and career.
They are dark days indeed when one realizes that it could have been worse and it has been important for me to acknowledge that my college experience is not the same for my students. At the start of every semester, I read about the escalating monetary struggle of students. In the middle of every semester, I have students who disappear when funds ran out. They have full time jobs, they have families to support, they have higher costs and less help.
So where did I go when feeling so full of malaise? Costco, because misery loves company. It was enough to make me want to actually eat the 5 gallon tub of guacamole I’d put into my cart.
However, the deeper I dug into the articles and twittershpere, the more I found others who had figured out ways to help, and finally I could make steps to do the same, things I should have been doing all along.
Higher education has been changing considerably but I had inadvertently held on to ancient rituals that can no longer be supported. So I filled my cart with groceries to donate to my college’s food pantry, a much needed program that was established last year. I have also vowed that every time I am compelled to shop at that God-forsaken place I will buy enough for them. I’ll be bringing paper and pens to class for students who cannot afford the materials necessary to take notes. Something I had never even considered in the past. I have made every assignment available to turn in online so students need not worry about the costs associated with printing, or stapling. Last semester I brought snacks and meals to my classes during finals week and will do so again. Textbooks have always been on reserve at the library, but I also changed my syllabus and study guide so students can utilize older, and thus, cheaper versions of the textbook. In addition, I will loan out old copies that I have to those who cannot afford any other option. It’s not much, and it’s not enough, but it’s what I can do. More importantly has been the advice I’ve read about changing my approach to students and their struggles in and out of the classroom.
I am from a blue collar working- class background teaching a subject associated with the elite. Art should not be kept out of reach and neither should text books, education, and basic needs. I need to amplify my voice and find new ways to facilitate learning with the current academic and economic challenges. It needs to be something I consider every year, particularly on Labor Day weekend.
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.
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.
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.
Summer is in full swing and the Smart Women want to talk about what each of their summers looks like.
I’ve already had a full summer’s worth of life crammed into my summer so far, but why not live in the fast lane?
I just got back from Barbados, where I presented on the Caribbean holdings of the Slave Societies Digital Archive at the Association of Caribbean Historians’ annual meeting. Let me tell you, this group of scholars is amazing. About half come from institutions in the Caribbean itself, and the rest from everywhere else. They do simultaneous translation so that people who don’t speak English, Spanish, and French can hear the latest scholarship of the full region and ask questions of people a language barrier would prevent them from asking. And they are the only scholarly organization that I know of, that has a end-of-conference fete written directly into the constitution. Our right to party is constitutional! And what a fete. You haven’t lived until you’ve been part of a group of scholars who can both bachata and whine. Continue reading “The Smart Women’s Summer, Part 1”→
For everyone in our circles, 2017 was filled with too much gin, not enough vegetables, and eternal guilt for not doing more: not resisting more, not creating more, not exercising more, not inspiring others more, not loving ourselves more.
But we muddled through, didn’t we? Not all of us, but many of us. And in times of desperation, unashamedly being yourself and getting stuff done is brave, and it is resisting. Every time we didn’t succumb to despair and instead lived our lives with compassion and truth, we succeeded.
And we believe we can all do one better in 2018.
We can let go of the guilt, for starters. We can recognize and really feel that we are living in unusual times, and that takes its toll. The feelings we are all experiencing- sadness, anxiety, powerlessness, concern, anger- are perfectly reasonable. We can make space for those feelings, honor them as typical reactions to abnormal situations, and find ways to press on and be effective in our lives despite them.
This Holiday season and into 2018, we are going to take the time to process these feelings, honor them, and figure out how to best adapt. We don’t accept the current political and social climate in the World, but we acknowledge its existence and effect on our lives. And we will fight to be more proactive rather than reactive. We will fight to find a balance between giving to those more affected than us, and putting time into things that help us nurture ourselves and grow. We will pare down that which no longer feels necessary and orient toward who we have always wanted to be.
And as always, we’d like to give you permission to do the same, if you want it. From three smart women to a whole lot more (and our men and non-binary readers as well, we love you, too), stay safe, grab happiness where you can, and find a way to make 2018 the very best it can be.