Oh, not everyone takes paper up with them to make their
Well, old habits die hard.
One of the perks of being a writer is that you’ve always got
words- usually far too many- whenever they are needed. This month, I was maid
of honor in the wedding of one of my closest friends. Without saying too much
here, watching her move through life and appreciating just how much she has
grown in so many different directions in the time we’ve known each other has
been remarkable. Friendships like that make for difficult speeches, because how
can you convey all of complexity in just a page or so?
Only if you are willing to let go of someone for their own good, do you become worthy of them.
While there’s no way I can condense the essence of my friend
and our friendship, as well as her relationship with her husband as I
understand it into a mere page, I can definitely narrow down the topic. Conventional
writing rules still sort of apply:
Theme: One of the reasons why my friend and I are so close is that we see the world in similar ways. We also see relationships in similar ways. Both she and I only want to be with people who are safe to grow with, and who prioritize our growth and their own over other goals or distractions in life. The commitment aspect of a relationship isn’t to love the other person no matter what, but to always ferret out the things that will help them become who they were meant to be, and tirelessly champion them, being their safe place to explore, to fail, and to try again. And of course in turn, they do the same for us. The feeling of being in love can come and go, but the feeling of being with someone who has your best interests at heart and supports those over what is comfortable for them isn’t something that comes along every day. When you find someone like that- someone who cares enough about you to let go of their ego and the need to control an outcome and instead just facilitate your soul’s growth regardless of where it takes you both- you hold on. That’s the theme of the speech.
Plot: Like with everything good to read, stuff has to happen. There has to be an arc of narration. To ensure the speech hit all the sweet spots, the same rules apply- ensure there’s an opening, the rising action, the climax, and denouement. This gives it emotional roundness, and makes it resonate. Rather than just listing out things, I told a story that illustrated how her growth and mine have intertwined, to show that I understand the trajectory of her life That puts me in the position of understanding how her husband is facilitating her growth and dreams.
This March, I took two trips for work that ended up having a profound effect on the way I see my job and my place within it. I think this is a good place to talk about that.
My job involves grants administration. Vanderbilt is part of a consortium of five universities in which the Mellon Foundation has taken an interest to facilitate digital humanities collaboration. My job is quite broadly defined- I assist the PI on the grant to do whatever is necessary to help ensure that all the things that were promised in the grant happen. A big part of that is facilitating collaborations between faculty and staff at our partner institutions in the consortium, and the best way to do that is to build relationships in person.
Two of our universities are in Nashville as well- Fisk and TSU. Relationships between Fisk and TSU and Vanderbilt have been taking place for a long time. But we also have Berea up North in Kentucky, and Tougaloo down South in Mississippi, and the distance between the three of our campuses meant that collaborations hadn’t been as long-standing. This is exciting for me- going to new places, meeting new faces, and getting to feel like the good news fairy. I kept repeating, “I know someone at a partner institution who works on that! Let me connect you,” or “That would make an amazing collaborative grant application, write that up!” and “there’s definitely money in the grant for that kind of faculty development.”
It was also fun to help facilitate important discussions and presentations. There were Digital Humanities skill-shares, planning for future events, teaching talks, postdoctoral presentations, and so much crucial foundation-building work.
But beyond that, what was amazing about these two trips this month was the feel of both Tougaloo and Berea. Both schools are smaller and deeply mission-driven. Tougaloo College is an HBCU just outside of Jackson, Mississippi, built on the grounds of the Boddie Plantation. Just opposite the old mansion in direct juxtaposition to it, is a church that has hosted many of our world’s finest Civil Rights thinkers: MLK, Angela Davis, Joan Baez, and Stokely Carmichael, to name just a small selection. During the Civil Rights era, Tougaloo Campus sheltered Freedom Riders and other Civil Rights activists, and their Special Collections room holds a fragment of a cross that white supremacists burned on that campus as a reaction to this.
One of the trip’s highlights was getting to meet John Johnson, who worked with Professor Phoenix Savage to produce an exhibit funded by one of the collaborative grants.
Berea College has a similarly inspiring history. It was
founded by a white Southern abolitionist, the son of a slaveholder. He was
disinherited for this, and his family threatened often. Berea’s mission was to
educate black and white students together, and it was the first co-ed
institution in the South to accomplish this. In addition to that, the founders
of Berea wanted their students to never have to pay tuition, so they committed
to fundraising to ensure none would. That promise lasts to this day, and as a
result the majority of Berea’s students are first-generation students and/or
come from households with limited income. In rural Appalachia, where
opportunities for economic advancement are few and far between, Berea College
stands out as a beacon of hope.
Though Berea and Tougaloo each have their own distinct feels, they both share a vibrant commitment to mission. Each person I spoke with cared deeply about students, about social justice, and about creating a better world through education. They reminded me of why I was attracted to this world, and of how far education has propelled me. I too was the first person in my family to go to college, and the school in which I landed (the University of Stirling in Scotland) was also an institution with a mission. Set in Scotland’s coal country after the closure of the mines, it too attracted faculty who cared about reversing the economic depression of the region through teaching a specific population of students. All of my professors were so cognizant of the additional challenges first generation students faced, and despite being overworked and underpaid, they gave so generously of themselves to ensure that we could reach our goals. They did so much with what they have, just like the faculty at Tougaloo and Berea.
March should have zapped my energy with two additional
business trips thrown into the busiest part of the semester. Instead, I came
away feeling renewed, hopeful, and excited about the future. Visiting these two
places helped remind me of why I do what I do, and why the long hours are so
incredibly worth it.
How do you make time to write when you’ve got a day job?
I think it’s something every working writer struggles with. Most of my friends write, some of them full-time, and others on the side of a full or part-time job, and it looks really different for everyone. Here’s how I found the best way for my current life:
First of all, I had to face that I have many more ideas and dreams than I can feasibly turn into reality. But rather than being sad about all the ideas that won’t get written, I try to be excited that I’m in such a position of opportunity. I have the desire and ability to write academic articles, non-fiction trade books, encyclopedia articles, think-pieces, creative non-fiction essays, novels, short stories, screenplays, blog posts, and more. I have ideas for all of these things, and most of them are exciting to me and allow me to examine something I am interested in or passionate about.
That said, my other goals in life- personal, financial, career- mean that most of my time is spoken for, and there’s not really much I can move around or give up. Every piece I chose to write takes time away from a career development opportunity, time with family and friends, or time I could have spent earning money. Radical honesty means being honest about my shifting collection of needs and how they conflict: my needs for creative expression, versus my needs to feel like I’m doing a good job at work, versus my need to pay bills, versus my need to connect with the people I love. So realistically, I can only give up about an hour a day to writing projects that are not connected to finances or career.
Knowing that means that I have to pick and choose my projects more carefully. I have to be honest about how many hours something will take to complete and how many weeks that will take at the rate of one hour per day. Or actually, less than an hour per day, because most days I use part of that hour to write morning pages.
And by “writing morning pages,” I mean, I scrawl some stuff longhand into a notebook, just to dump all the miscellaneous thoughts that are taking up valuable brain space. Morning pages (the idea comes from Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way, and is discussed on this blog) are a way for me to stay connected to the page and explore how I feel about my writing and the things that get in the way of my writing. I don’t fully understand why they work, or how exactly, but I do know that when I write them, my writing goes more smoothly and I produce more of it, and when I get away from that habit, I start to be more blocked and writing feels like squeezing blood from a stone, so I avoid it. I’ve lived long enough to know that when something works (and doesn’t hurt anyone), you don’t question it, you just do it.
In order for me to wrest that daily hour away for myself and my writing, it helps me, sometimes, to have a routine. I’m definitely not religious about it, and I don’t always need it, but I find that during the semester especially when my to-do list is a mile long, having a routine helps. I take my writing time as seriously as I take my savings- I pay myself first. First thing in the morning, I don’t get online to check emails, I get straight to the morning pages and then transition into my writing project of choice. After an hour, I feel connected to it, and am much less begrudging of the other tasks I have to do for the day.
Since I only have that daily hour to write, I don’t have time to waste on projects that I don’t love. If I’m being paid for a project, I don’t do it in that hour- I count it toward my career and do it during the workday. That daily hour is for my passion project. These projects may never see the light of day or result in a paycheck. I write them for sake of doing it- for the sake of being involved in a creative pursuit, for investigating something that is important to me, and for keeping me tethered to my interests on days when my job or personal life don’t do that as much. It’s a creative, artistic, and spiritual pursuit that I do completely independently of expectations. No matter how successful a writer I become, no matter how many publications I rack up, no matter how much money I get for my writing, I want to always set aside this hour to just do what I feel like doing. If it later ends up becoming a viable project that sells, that’s great, but it’s also ok if it never amounts to anything more than my own enjoyment. Ironically, since I’ve been squishing expectations, a lot of my writing-hour projects have seen publication.
Now it’s disclaimer time- I have the type of job (a postdoc) where writing is built into it. I have set tasks I do in exchange for my salary, and then I have more abstract expectations of what I should be doing with the rest of my work week. This gives me tremendous flexibility in terms of my writing projects. It means that once a project I’m working on in that morning hour becomes a viable project that either will further my career or get me paid, I have the flexibility to incorporate it into my work hours and then use that personal hour of writing time for something else. The way I structure my day makes sense for my day job right now, but this won’t always be my job. Writing, on the other hand, will. I think setting up a habit for daily writing outside of my job hours sets me up for continuing this habit regardless of my day job.
Thank goodness for this obligation opportunity to reflect. And it really is an opportunity. Because meditating on your experiences and coming up with a narrative about your progress (or lack thereof) can lead to an unexpected diagnosis or even generate a much-needed sense of accomplishment.
Reading through my co-bloggers’posts on their year-in-writing has stirred up feelings of relief, empathy, joy, and excitement. Our relationship to writing is constantly in flux, and we are paying attention to that. We are thing-searchers, as Lynn says, and we respond to that impulse. At least we try to.
Of course we don’t always meet our writing or professional goals, and sometimes we read this as a failure (especially when we set *really* high goals for ourselves—and when we have full time jobs, loved ones, and other passions to attend to!). I met some of my goals in 2018, but not all of them. Who ever does?
I read about Lynn’s year of writing and my first thought was “that’s excellent! I love when people decide on a path, then walk it despite their fear.” She’s such a strong writer and the world needs more of her voice. She’s got nothing to be scared of.
My second thought was “Oh boy, how do I follow this? My 2018 writing year is a hot mess.”
It’s all over the place! I wrote… all the things. For all the people. And the range is intense:
“’I don’t know what you’ve got in mind,’ said Pippi, ‘but I’m not the sort to lie around. I’m a thing-searcher, you see. And that means I never have a moment to spare…The whole world is full of things, which means there’s a real need for someone to go searching for them. And that’s exactly what a thing-searcher does.’”
As the holidays begin, and the year winds down, it’s a time for Smart Women to reflect. For this writer, 2018 has been full of highs and lows, lasts and firsts.
A few weeks ago I attended my first parent-teacher conference in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom. It was much as I’d expected: seated in a doll-house sized chair I learned of my daughter’s exploits (both good and, let’s say, not-so-good), which, to me, reflect her can-do attitude and Pippi-like personality.
While brave, imaginative, and sharp as a tack, my daughter has “difficulty with transition” and her teacher and I discussed strategies for improvement. She is not the type of child who can easily shift gears. Announce to her that she has 5 minutes left to finish whatever she’s immersed in and panic immediately sets in, as does the frustration, the anger, and the despondency. This is particularly the case when she is creating stories. Already she is well aware of the feeling that there’s so much to do, but not enough time to do it. She is a thing searcher, you see, and she feels as if she hasn’t a moment to spare.
The trait is hereditary because that summarizes my own year of writing. In many ways it’s been exciting. I have so many wonderful writing projects in the works, so many ideas to pursue, so many things to be researched and discovered and learned. In many ways it’s been frustrating because I have so much to say but not enough time to put it down. I’m a thing searcher, you see, but I haven’t a moment to spare!
However, “you get what you get, and you don’t get upset” (a phrase my kid has somehow picked up, though not from me because I’m constantly pissed). This is her way of dealing with the disappointment: the amount of ice cream in a bowl, the color of the free balloon at the supermarket, the amount of time we get and how we spend it. Her expression (ugh. She’s already SO much smarter than me), reminds me of something very important, something I have to remember about this journey that is writing; it’s about creating threads that transcend the time I am so obsessed with.
One of my goals for 2018 was to write more and to be braver about letting people read it. This is one of the reasons that I applied to be a contributor to Smart Women Write. I feel so lucky that I have had this opportunity because being welcomed into this writing community has been one of my biggest writing successes. Not only has my writing improved, but my approach to writing has improved. I’ve fallen back in love with it, I’ve used it to get through some really tough times, and I’ve found important threads that link me to others, past, present, and hopefully future.
While 2018 was about dipping a toe into writing again, 2019 will be about jumping right in, Pippi-style.
For the first time, I will be submitting an article for publication in an academic journal. It is terrifying. What if it’s terrible? What if I fail? What if they say no? What if reviewer #2 is so harsh they make me cry? Well, I’ll get what I get and I won’t get upset because even if it’s unsuccessful this time, the thread has been woven and it will find its way to those who need to read it. I have been researching the Paris Commune for almost a decade now, and this is my connection to the past, my thread to the revolutionary women that predate me, but to whom I feel deeply connected. They too were thing searchers and they were searching for equality. I will tell their story.
In addition, for the first time I will be pursuing a more personal writing project that I also hope to get published. I recently discovered journals written by my grandmother. I never knew she was a writer, but apparently writing a daily journal was a lifelong exercise because there were copious wire notebooks in myriad colors. Even after she became too sick to write, my grandfather took up the mantle and did it for her. The entry on the day that she died is heartbreaking. It is one sentence, 4 words, but it conveys all his feelings (he must have been a writer too). Long before this day though, my grandmother detailed a birthday camping trip taken in 1974 with my grandfather and her youngest daughter. She wrote about everything: what she packed, how she packed it, when and where they got gas, their exact route, the people they met along the way, the weather, the landscape, all that she saw. Her descriptions of the landscape, in particular, made me realize that she too was a thing searcher. It is my plan to recreate the trip this summer on my own birthday (only days after hers) to a town in Canada that no longer goes by the same name. I, too, will document everything.
I will also be pursuing all the writing projects, here and there, that get me through my day: writing improved and inclusive lectures, learning to write code, and writing blog posts that help me to keep it all in perspective. Perhaps nothing will ever get published, but I hope my daughter will find my writings someday. They will be online and in randomly named documents on my laptop rather than in notebooks, but hopefully they’ll remind her that she is from a long line of thing-searchers and story-tellers.
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.