#AcWriMo 2018: Liking and Writing

This is another #AcWriMo reflection post, adjacent, but not directly in response to the reflections designed by Scholarshape.

My father asked me a tough question a few months back. He asked me if I like to write. I hedged, if I recall correctly, first saying that I liked having written, before answering affirmative. 

And yet, when I told my partner that I was writing this, she laughed at me, saying that I obviously do.

The reason why this is a difficult question for me is that I don’t like my writing, much as I don’t like my handwriting. While there are individual pieces that I like well enough in retrospect, there has never been a time that I have actually liked my prose. Since the process of writing is, in effect, being forced to sit and look prose for extended periods of time, it can be painful when your opinion of that text is that it is clumsy and labored.

On the flip side, I have written quite a lot over the past ten years. I wrote an MA thesis (c.130 pages in MS Word), a PhD dissertation (c.500 pages), three articles (c.5, 25, and 40 pages), a book proposal (c.25 pages), three published book reviews, a dozen conference presentations of varying lengths, a few hundred thousand words of blog posts, as well as seminar papers, assorted scribblings and thoughts in other venues and physical journals. If you subscribe to the idea of words as a zero-sum game such that writing one place limits your ability to write elsewhere, there is a critique here about where my words are going and I should try to find more outlets that are not self-published, as much for the purpose of having an editor as for any other reason. Other people write more and other people write better, but this is a considerable output that indicates that, at the very least, I don’t hate writing.

But not hating writing and liking writing are two different things, in much the same way that there is a small, but significant difference between responding to the questions “how are you doing” with “not bad” and “well.” It is also inadequate to say that I like having written because it distills writing to its completed form, boiling away both process and the work that goes into writing. I had the thrill of seeing my words in print this weekend when an editor sent me a digital copy of my article due out this month, but this payoff is just the tip of the iceberg of the rounds of research, writing, feedback, and revision that went into the publication. Reducing the pleasure of writing to the pleasure of having written fits well in an age of instant gratification, but the implication that writing is painful is suggestive of an artiste suffering for his art.

I may never like my prose. I can see obvious improvement in hindsight, but still find it wanting, particularly contrasted with stylists whose prose conveys depth, erudition, and wit. The pain of working with my writing is thus the pain of frustration and envy. I may never be the sort who writes the perfect sentence, but there is beauty even in a plain style and every sentence I write gets me closer to finding it.

There are days that no words come, but writing is thinking. Writing is a means of organizing thoughts and making sense of what I read. So, yes, I like writing.

#AcWriMo: Identity

I am intermittently participating in Scholarshapes’ “reflective” #AcWriMo for 2018, not necessarily in-step with the prompts. I previously wrote a post on the topic “about”; today’s post is on identity categories, the prompt for day 14.

In some ways my scholarship seems to have almost nothing to do with my identity. Being entirely superficial about it, I am not, for instance, primarily interested in questions of gender, sexuality, religion, or rural, small-town identity. In each case, I recognize the importance of and like reading about these issues to incorporate into my teaching, but they are not the questions that comes first to my mind when I sit down to research. Nor do I research books, games, sports, or food, my other hobbies and interests, though I hope to research food as part of a future project. In fact, the questions that come first to me as a student and now an early-career scholar tend to look like those of someone who grew up reading old-school political histories and fantasy novels—probably because I was.

This does not, however, mean that my identity is absent from the types of questions that influence my research. It just took a while to figure out what linked the questions I kept coming back to in classes and, eventually my dissertation.

There are outliers, but unifying threads to most of my research is the tension between the center and periphery and a dissatisfaction with histories that normalize the political, cultural and economic centers. This manifests in a number of forms, including an interest in how the Macedonian court of Philip and Alexander incorporated newcomers into their court, interest in the Roman provinces, and an interest in parts of Greece outside Athens and Sparta. In particular, it manifests in my main research project that reinterprets the position of Ionia in the Aegean. The question is how any of this a reflection of my identity.

I grew up in small town Vermont, far enough north that I’ve had people tell me that it might as well have been Canada. Fads and trends came almost stereotypically late before the arrival of fast internet, like in Pawnee from Parks and Rec. In fact, Woodbury, which is where I went to elementary school, was peripheral to the larger town of Hardwick, where I went to high school, meaning that this peripherality operated on two levels. Adding to all of this was that my parents had moved to Vermont from the midwest. I recall that the integration to high school was harder coming from Woodbury than anything about my parents’ backgrounds, but these factors are all woven together into my background.

I don’t consciously think in these terms when I choose what I research, but in retrospect these factors absolutely shape my approach to history as much as they shape my exasperation with New York or Los Angeles as normal for America.***

ΔΔΔ

***This is not exclusively an urban-rural distinction, or a coastal-flyover one, but a complaint about using a funhouse mirror version of two of the largest metro areas in the United States as shorthand for “American” in cultural representation.

What my academic writing is about

I have never formally participated in #AcWriMo, an academic equivalent for #NaNoWriMo, but some of its tenets about accountability and tracking have shaped how I write. This year, Margy Thomas, the founder of Scholarshape proposed something a little different: an #AcWriMo with prompts for people to reflect on their writing process. The proposed format was short 2–3 minute videos, but she encouraged people to participate through whatever medium they want. I like the idea for a month of reflective writing, but, as my Twitter bio grumpily proclaims, I am eagerly awaiting the pivot past video, so I thought I’d pop in with a few thoughts here when I have a spare moment and the prompt fits.

The theme for day five is “about,” in the sense that periodically asking yourself what your project is about is a way to clarify its purpose, scope, and importance.

I describe my current research project as:

A substantial revision to the scholarly interpretation of Ionia, a network of twelve Greek cities on and near the coast of Asia Minor, at the intersection of ancient imperial systems in the Classical and early Hellenistic Aegean. My work confronts the scholarly consensus that the region was unimportant during this period along three threads: political and diplomatic history, cultural memory, and historiography. My 2018 article in Ancient History Bulletin weaves these elements together in a reevaluation of the traditions surrounding sanctuary of Didyma at Miletus that credit Alexander the Great with restoring the oracle after 334 BCE. I show instead how the citizens of Miletus and Hellenistic kings used Alexander’s memory as a means to legitimize the new oracle and thereby sell its rebirth. The first phase of this research project will conclude with a monograph, Accustomed to Obedience?: Ionia and Ionians 494–294 BCE, but I plan to continue it through a second book project, a history of Ephesus examining the city’s changing, but ever-present dual identities.

This paragraph is a slightly emended version of the recent project description in my job application letters. Brevity is critical in those documents and I am trying to show a publishing trajectory within an overall research agenda. I add to this elsewhere in the document where some of the significances of this project come in, including that I am interested in issues of imperialism, marginalization, and issues of how we remember the past, both through historiography and cultural memory.

But the framing of projects like this doesn’t come easily for me, and, to borrow from the #NaNoWriMo side, I tend to be more of an exploratory writer than a planner. This definition of what my project is “about” is at least the fourth iteration of trying to encapsulate what this project actually is, and to even envision this as part of a larger research project instead of “just” a dissertation or “just” a book.

Something similar happened in trying to describe the first book project. From the proposal:

This book, the first dedicated study of Classical Ionia, challenges the current scholarly opinion by reevaluating Ionia’s role in the Aegean world rather than seeing it as simply a marginal area located between Greece and Persia. Although most of the cities in Ionia were politically subordinate to Lydia since probably the seventh century, the advent of Persia in 545 BCE is nevertheless treated as a dividing line marking the end of their freedom. The conclusion to the Persian Wars is thus couched in terms of liberating Ionia and yet, in histories of the Classical period, the cities of Ionia are usually presented as prizes for the winner of imperial competitions between larger powers in the Aegean world. This situation became more extreme in the early Hellenistic period with an evolution in political posturing over Ionia and other Greek cities. Kings such as Antigonus and Ptolemy made dramatic gestures of granting Greek autonomy, but by a radically rewritten definition. By the early second century, the Ionians were not even afforded that nicety.

The central thesis of my book is that the Ionians were anything but obedient. Ionia did indeed become a game board for imperial competition in the Classical period and the Ionian cities pieces for the players to capture. In the fifth century, this competition was primarily between Athens and Persia, but then Sparta joined first against Athens, then Persia. In the fourth century, Thebes, the Hecatomnid dynasts, Persian satraps in revolt, and finally Macedonia joined the game. Alexander’s invasion of Persia swept clean the board, but the game began anew upon his death.

But what happens to the game when the pieces are not only conscious, but also capable of influencing player decisions? There were times, such as in the negotiations surrounding the King’s Peace of 386, when the Ionians were excluded from the decision making process and therefore forced into a passive acceptance of imperial politics, but these were the exceptions. Far more frequently, the Ionians were actively involved in negotiating their position not only between competing imperial powers in the eastern Aegean, but also with respect to their regional peer polities.

The story begins and ends with liberation from Persia. In both cases, the promises of autonomy proved hollow and the Ionians would suffer the consequences of the changing political landscape, but neither was their history determined by imperial fiat. Instead, I show the fundamental importance of both domestic political agency and regional competition, while adding to the body of scholarship that demonstrates the interconnectedness of the ancient world.

This book fills a clear gap in the scholarly literature, but its focus on the region at the intersection of imperial politics has wider significance for understanding Classical Greece. Classical Ionia is usually positioned on the margins because Athens staked claim to being the cultural center of the Greek world. The result is that the picture of Ionia is always focalized from the point of view of the West. But what happens if we center the history of the Classical Greek world from the vantage of Ionia? The rise and fall of imperial systems still took place, with Athens, Persia, and eventually Macedonia continuing to loom large in terms of cultural and economic impact, but we gain a renewed appreciation for the decentralization of Classical Greece and thus Greek history as the product of the relationships between Greek poleis and Greeks and non-Greeks.

The easy part was identifying an under-served field of research from Greek history; the hard part was determining why anyone should care beyond that nobody had done it. Despite the enormity of this topic, it was even larger—significantly, unmanageably larger—when I started it six years ago. I scrapped the first “chapter” chapter I ever wrote, and while there is a part of me that loves thinking in big terms and harbors ambitions of writing a throwback magnum opus in the manner of Rostovtzeff, my work right now is better when I keep it focused. Narrowing took time, and between the evolving emphasis of a research agenda and always being on the lookout for new ways to pitch a topic in order to communicate its relevance, this process is never complete. Even now rereading some of those paragraphs I would consider tweaking some of how I describe the project. What I like about the way the project is currently framed is that it gives room for flexibility within the umbrella to craft research talks and articles that focus in on one small story that has broader ramifications.

ΔΔΔ

Writing that on Monday morning, it took more time than I had hoped, but less than I feared. I fully support reflective writing practice, though, and time permitting will be checking in a few more times this month, perhaps even with fewer block quotes.

Programming Update, June 2018

Summer 2018 has set in, making this a good time to update what is going on here. The spring semester concluded a few weeks ago and I promptly left on a whirlwind road trip that included Savannah, Washington DC, New York City and Vermont, before returning to a 94-degree day in Central Missouri. It was a good trip, but a busy one that left little time for reading, let alone writing.

I am resolved to spend time recuperating this summer after a busy semester that included some medical issues that were probably related to stress and/or anxiety. At the same time, though, I have been hired to teach a three-week World History course in June and am trying to submit a book proposal by the end of the summer. The proposal itself is essentially set, but I am still editing the accompanying sample chapters. (My current worry is that that the chapters are weaker than the proposal.) These are my two concrete projects, but I also have ambitions to rewrite my application materials, rethink the structure of my Greek history class, and work on some of my other academic projects—before considering any of my non-academic projects, including some work to expand and develop some of the pages on this site.

Suffice to say that I have my work cut out for me this summer. I will be writing here this summer as topics come up, much as I have in this past and hopefully without lengthy lulls. To that end, I have two book write-ups planned and will probably write about writing, historical topics, and other varia. This space remains adjacent to my professional identity, but not limited to it, more John Scalzi’s Whatever than Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s Classics at the Intersections or Joel Christensen’s Sententiae Antiquae. I admire people who run dedicated professional blogs and have found myself writing about professional issues with more regularity in the past few years, but still like to have a space to write about other topics.

A Metaphorical Wall

I like metaphors, sometimes. A metaphor can be a non-sequitur, overly-wrought, or otherwise distracting, but sometimes they are simply good to think with.

A few years ago, I got caught up comparing my academic progress to my basketball jump shot At the time my jump shot wasn’t falling and, at the same time my academic progress felt stuck in neutral Literally and figuratively, I couldn’t put the ball through the hoop. I thought about this connection every time I played basketball, particularly as practice began to pay off with my shot. Little by little, I worked on balance, grip, form, release point, as well as making each of these pieces work together and repeating the whole process the same way each time. My shot never became perfect, and never will, but I developed into one of the better shooters at my regular game. The obvious question was how this related to my academic progress, and I came to realize that, much like my shot, this progress consisted of multiple moving pieces that required a) harmonization and b) consistency. An imperfect metaphor, to be sure, and an academic career is more akin to a basketball game on a team where you are the star, but this comparison helped settle down some of my anxiety and uncertainty and gave me the sense that I knew how I could go about bringing the discrete pieces into a coherent whole.

I have been thinking about a different metaphor recently. Writing is constructive, in a fundamental way. Every piece of writing is building an edifice out of words and ideas in order to convey some piece of information, argument, or entertainment. The blocks consist of evidence and ideas, fused together by word choice and turns of phrase. Well-built, the edifice will be able to withstand weight, but if the walls are assembled in an incoherent manner, they will fall at the slightest touch.

Enter peer review. I’ve had a mixed history with this process, as a lot of people have. “REVIEWER 2” might as well be an academic boogeyman, a harsh, anonymous critic who exists to tear down articles everywhere. Reading criticism of one’s own work is often uncomfortable, and even careful and astute reviewers can come across as cruel judges shining a spotlight on inadequacies. And tone is just the tip of the iceberg, with stories of reviewers who don’t understand what the article is trying to do, whether out of obliviousness, willful ignorance, or lack of clarity on the part of the author, and submissions that go unacknowledged for years.

In the metaphor of the wall, peer-reviewers are fellow architects come to inspect the layout and construction. Some look at the wall as just that, finding the flaws and push it over to let the pieces fall where they may. There is really no way around the fact that those reviewers suck. But there are also inspectors who draw attention to weaknesses and contradictions, not to be mean, but because they want the edifice to withstand pressure. Instead of surveying the wreckage wondering where to even start again or whether to work on something else, the editing process involves pulling out braces and rearranging pieces to create the strongest final product.

I have had the good fortune to have had a fantastic experience with peer-review in all of my recent submissions, but that has only caused me to reflect further about this metaphor. My editing, it seems, involves inserting dowels, applying braces, and rearranging the blocks until they fit just right, not out of a sense of vanity, though I hope the final product looks nice, too, but so that it can withstand as much pressure as needed.

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process – John McPhee

If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you “just love to write,” you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?

What counts is a finished piece, and how you get there is idiosyncratic.

Over the past year I have developed an interest in books on writing, academic and otherwise. This is part pretension, part aspiration, and part curiosity as to how books, objects that I have spent my entire life around, come into being. It was around the time this started in 2017 that John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 came out, to general praise. McPhee is a longtime New Yorker staff writer and creative non-fiction teacher at Princeton, experiences which he distills into under two hundred pages of institutional and professional memoir and commentary on the writing process.

Draft No. 4 was born from eight previously published essays on the writing process, though one of its lessons is that there is a difference between articles that appear abridged in pages of a magazine and chapters that appear in a book. Piece by piece, McPhee works through the stages of writing from developing a topic to relationships with editors and publishers, and from the victories of publication to the weeks and months of painful gestation before the first draft is completed. The eponymous “Draft No. 4,” which McPhee describes as the fun part, is final pass where he plays with the choice of words and phrases. Along the way, he offers reflection on the characters at the New Yorker and Time magazine. Writing might be a solo endeavor, but publishing is not.

Each chapter is well-crafted, with a subtle humor and ample examples pulled from McPhee’s career, but the advice was not particularly novel. Writing is hard, copy-editors are your friend, it is better to use a common, concrete word rather than using a thesaurus to sound smart. This last is the sort of advice one would get from Orwell or Hemingway on writing, for instance, but McPhee makes his points not only as a long-time writer, but as someone who teaches writing. The result is masterful, a clever combination of direct explanation, artful example, and epideictic display piece.

My personal favorite chapter was the final chapter “Omission.” The primary lesson here is that while writing is fundamentally a generative process, it is more appropriately one of omission. Writing involves choice: of words most basically, but also subject, point of view, structure. Writing is not a universal medium designed to capture everything, and any attempt to do so will result in fetid muck.

Draft No. 4 is not for everyone, but anyone interested in writing or in some small insight into how the New Yorker works could do worse with this book.

ΔΔΔ

I read Draft No. 4 as a break from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, which I am about 60% of the way through. I’m hoping to finish it soon because I’m excited about a lot of the other books currently sitting on my shelf.

Best* Posts of 2017

It is that time of year. Once again I want to highlight some of the favorite things I wrote this year (last year’s list). I will probably publish a few more posts before the end of the year, including starting my end of year reflection posts. These are not necessarily the best or the best-trafficked, but rather things I wrote that I look back on fondly and think are worth revisiting.

First, I wrote more about the ancient world than I have in past years. A few highlights:

Person and People: Herodotus

Mass Persuasion (Again)

Class Warfare in fifth century Ionia

Isocrates, on the importance of history and oratory

Herodotus on rejecting the expertise of physicians

More Political Wisdom from Ancient Greece

Isocrates, on Corrupt Politicians

Alternate Colors

The Fate of Oratory

Did Alexander the Great suffer from CTE?

Second, three posts about contemporary events:

Re-evaluating Antisemitism

Write to your Senator

Privilege and Deportation

Finally, two posts about books:

EQ in fantasy literature

A Review of Infinite Jest

Between this blog and my academic projects, 2017 was good year for my writing. I would still like to engage more with current events, but the problem with this goal is that it would require writing on demand which, at least in the past, has not been my strong suit.

How I Write

My most recent on-again, off-again book (i.e. things I read out of a desire for professional development, but wouldn’t label as “fun” and don’t always have time for in the course of “work”) is Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: how successful academics write (2017). The overriding theme of the book is that there is that there is no one right way to write. Instead, she creates a formula called B.A.S.E. from behavioral, artisanal, social, and emotional habits that serves as equal parts analytical took for talking about writing and self-assessment rubric. The details of your writing experience, Sword says, are less important than the shape and size of your BASE–with each category rated on a scale from 1 to 10–which forms the foundation for your “House of Writing.”

Inspired by the types of questions Sword asked her interview subjects and the BASE formula, I figured it could be useful to run diagnostics on how I write. This is a long post, so anyone not interested in writing process would be forgiven for skipping the rest.

Continue reading How I Write

Writing and Experience

When I find an author whose work I like, I tend to seek out everything I possibly can from that person. There are exceptions to this rule, particularly in genre fiction where I can be turned off by a particular premise, but working through an author’s catalogue is my general m/o. In part this habit is a way to hedge my bets that I will enjoy each new book I pick up now that I have basically stopped re-reading books, but it has also led to an observation: writers improve.

Trite, I know, but true. Some authors may hone their craft such that each book in a series is more precisely paced and formed as though from an assembly line, but in others the craft of writing is more finely-tuned.

My favorite example of this is in Hemingway’s novels. His earliest novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929) offer the classic examples of the spare prose style that is associated with him, but by To Have and Have Not (1937), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and definitely Old Man and the Sea (1952), Hemingway had mellowed the harsher edges of his prose. From a technical standpoint, he had improved. Hemingway’s unfinished novels show similar improvement, even in their unfinished state.

More recently, I’m noticing a similar improvement in N.K. Jemisin’s novels, from her first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010) to The Fifth Season (2015). The former is excellent, refreshing for many reasons, the latter is a pleasure to read, almost poetic in its presentation.

This observation is not meant as an endorsement or indictment of any particular book. There are plenty of experienced writerly ticks that drive me insane and first books that set an impossibly high bar, but, nevertheless, experience is an excellent teacher. Why mention it, then? Simply because it gives me hope that, given practice, my writing will continue to improve too.

Authorial Voice

Confession time: my biggest challenge as a writer is voice. As in, how does one develop an authorial voice? What distinguishes voice? A second challenge is beginnings, though I suspect that the two are related. In both cases I can recognize both when I read them, but, despite writing for school my entire life, writing here for a decade, and having several publications, I struggle with both.

The issue of voice has been on my mind recently as I turn what little energy is left after the constant bombardment of radiation from the summer sun back to academic writing. On the docket are conference abstracts, articles, a book review, and turning my dissertation into a book manuscript.

If there was one overriding comment during my dissertation defense, it was that the project often lacked for authorial voice. As it was put at one point, there was an impressive quantity and quality of the bricks used in building the structure, but it was lacking voice that forms the mortar.

(A separate issue that contributed to the lack of mortar was the absence of a linear argument in my dissertation, which was partly a quirk in the construction of my project that I am giving a lot of thought to in these revision stages.)

There are features of my writing that I think distinguish it, most notably by an overwriting that I can never quite escape. I try, not often successfully, to write the way that I talk, with the primary difference being to iron out some of the grammatical inconsistencies. I would like to push myself in this direction somewhat further, though, since I am sometimes frustrated with pithy, succinct turns of phrase when in a verbal flow that I can only reproduce on the page in overwrought parody. As an aside, this is why I think that my academic writing is frequently improved when I am able to talk through problems in articulating my argument.

I also have a tendency to imitate the books I read; after all, you are what you read. (To a lesser extent, this could be extended to the words one hears by way of podcasts, etc.) Once, in high school, a friend told me that I “write like a historian” (he did not mean it as a compliment, necessarily), but you can see this tendency particularly when I do a pale mimicry of David Foster Wallace’s style in my blog posts. Usually, those come close on the heels when of my having read a lot of his work, but I also found myself reflecting on this issue while reading Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade, which has an impressively flamboyant voice. Imitation is going to be inevitable at some level, and I sometimes use it to experiment with different styles of non-fiction, but it is still something that I need to be wary of, particularly when it comes to extreme fluctuation.

Thinking about writing in these terms, of course, probably isn’t helping things. When I do, I get particularly self-conscious so I become paralyzed about posting on social media because every word in a piece of writing has to be perfect.

Some blog entries are hammered out in less than an hour and posted straightaway, either because the medium can tend toward the informal and unpolished or because it is for capturing a single, relatively complete thought. Others, including this one, are developed over the course of several days or weeks, being built, edited, compressed, and polished. In actual working time, these posts do not necessarily take much longer than ones written in a single sitting, but the extra time gives the ideas room to breath, at least in theory. Here, my reflection is that perhaps what I ought to be working on is revision, on the level of clause, sentence, paragraph, and chapter because while authorial voice is going to come first from the process of writing, it is honed and polished in these later stages of a writing project. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that I am better at editing for content than for style.

At some level, though, I already know what is going to happen. I am going to fret about voice, but never come to a resolution. Instead, I will simply keep writing until the issue of voice fades into the background. Maybe I will find something clearer and more robust, either in initial drafts or in edits, maybe I won’t, but the more important thing is that I will keep putting words on the page.