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.

Best* posts of 2016

I am running a half-step behind all of the other “2016 year in review” posts this year because we had family visiting in the days leading up to the New Year and then I was on the road for a few days. This year I am adding several posts to my Year-End Slate, including one to highlight the posts of 2016 that I think are my best of the year. I am not using any metric for this other than the posts that I think are the best written or most worth revisiting.

Will I feed on Wisdom Like a Dog?

Unjust Logos and the Crowd

The Hearth and the Television

Who Needs Nuance?

Donald Trump and Some Assumptions about Isis

There are a few others posts, but this year I mostly blogged about books I read. I hope to write more posts along these lines in 2017.

Current Mood

And for the plurality of readers, I have no doubt, that [the distant past] will offer little pleasure. They will hurry toward these modern times, in which the longstanding superior power of a people is sweeping itself away. In contrast, I myself will seek an advantage in my work, that I turn my gaze from the troubles which our time has seen for so many years, while I put my whole mind to those old days, having no part in the conflicts which, even if they cannot bend the mind of the writer from the truth, may nevertheless cause disturbance.

et legentium plerisque haud dubito quin primae origines proximaque originibus minus praebitura voluptatis sint festinantibus ad haec nova, quibus iam pridem praevalentis populi vires se ipsae conficiunt; ego contra hoc quoque laboris praemium petam, ut me a conspectu malorum, quae nostra tot per annos vidit aetas, tantisper certe dum prisca illa tota mente repeto, avertam, omis expers curae, quae scribentis animum etsi non flectere a vero, sollicitum tamen efficere posset.

Livy, AUC pr. 4-5

I have been particularly busy these past two months, between job applications, writing, teaching, and the election. This week has brought to my head a number of existential crises, while reinforcing my conviction about the central importance of humanistic education. Don’t expect a flurry of posts, but I expect activity to pick up here in the coming weeks, including a backlog of book reviews, collected thoughts about ancient history, teaching, and one post about my experience as an election judge this past Tuesday.

Before I go (this post was composed in a one-hour break between classes), I do want to make one point of clarification about how I interpret the post above. It is, of course, the famous passage from Livy’s introduction to his history of Rome Ab Urbe Condita, “From the Founding of the City,” which suggests that history is a refuge from the contemporary troubles society faces. Note, too, that he suggests that the end is nigh for Rome, when, in fact, the empire survived intact for another several centuries. But is history really a refuge in which one can retreat indefinitely and excuse him- or herself from culpability for the problems of modernity? Of course not, and, rhetoric aside, I don’t believe that Livy is saying that. All history is political and history is a space in which we can understand issues confronting society while also avoiding some of the worst polemics of contemporary discourse.

At some level I feel that I am at a crossroads of sorts and suspect that I am not alone in this. History is my primary medium and one of the things I aim to do going forward is to do a better job of using it “to think with,” but in a considered, careful way rather than leaping to hyperbolic judgements. But first, I am looking to my work for some solace.

Sometimes I hate peer-review

Publishing academic articles sometimes feels to me like a painful roast, where you polish and polish and polish before sending it into the ether and being told some weeks or months later all the ways in which your work sucks. I am being hyperbolic.

Publishing peer-reviewed articles is difficult. According to some more senior academics, it is one of the hardest jobs they have to do. At my current place in this labyrinth, I certainly agree with the assessment. Not only are the standards exacting and the reviewers charged with being tough, and the work is unpaid, yet necessary to even have the hope of achieving the academic-unicorn, a tenure-track professorship. Getting a positive review caused me to be overwhelmed not with joy, but relief; a rejection letter is a visceral gut-punch.

I have gotten two such rejections this summer, the uncovering the most recent this afternoon while clearing out my inbox after coming back from a trip. Both sets of reviewer comments have been harsh, but the process has been straightforward, prompt, and professional. I do not feel that the feedback is misguided other than perhaps one point where I disagree with the comments, but can probably articulate the point. In other words, I have no peer-review horror stories. I have only my own emotions.

Hate is a strong word, but most simply and directly encapsulates the pain, frustration, exhaustion and embarrassment that comes along with this sort of rejection letter. And then the niggling specter of doubt creeps in about my ability to really do this sort of work. Adding to this frustration is that both submissions this summer were parts of my dissertation. I am taking a small victory in that neither piece was rejected out of hand, but there is still the sting of having spent so much time on these submissions.

The addendum to this post is that I also have a deep appreciation for peer review and my interactions with the system this summer have been overwhelmingly helpful for where I can take these projects. The feedback has been harsh and the submissions found lacking for the journals I submitted to, but most readers have offered genuinely helpful, positive feedback, pointing out things in my submissions that would leave me embarrassed (or worse) if they were to appear in print.

I am despondent when I get this news. Certainly it doesn’t help my anxiety or my frustration, but, mostly, it just leaves me exhausted. The letter, as always, has me questioning what motivates me to put myself through the wringer yet again because I know that I will. It isn’t the euphoric high of an acceptance, because that leaves me nearly as tired. It isn’t just an academic career because I could do everything else right and never get the whiff of one of those. At the end of the day I am going to put myself out there again because I have something I want to say.

“To Curiosity”

A review of: Who Is the Historian?, N.A. Raab

Three things made me pick up Raab’s slim volume on the work of historians: 1) its brevity 2) a longstanding love of inspirational stories from historians 3) desire to be familiar with the genre should I ever be fortunate enough to teach a historiography course. Unlike From Herodotus to H-Net, this book is not really a book of historiography, but an essay on the doing of history in the twenty-first century, covering spaces, sources, disciplinarity, technology, and skill-sets.

Raab’s wants to give personality and humanity to historians qua historians rather than historians as professors. He offers a vision of them as an eclectic globe-trotting bunch who work in a host of different jobs in addition to teaching college courses. The overarching themes of the work are how the field has changed, expanded and become enriched in recent decades, and how historical thinking is fundamentally embedded in all walks of society.

With few exceptions, Raab avoids overwhelming the reader with specific disciplinary periods, themes, and names, which, while useful, sometimes means that the book errs on the side of general observations rather than specific developments or advice. For instance, there is specific discussion of certain open-access sites and how that has changed how historians do their job, but doesn’t suggest specific technological expertise that could be beneficial. Certainly historians do not work in a vacuum and some of the observations, such as the wide variety of viable source material, is well taken. Similarly the book is well-written, and Raab is an advocate of the written style as critical for the field, but offers no suggestions for how to get there or how to frame questions in order to best use the material.

Raab works a middle-path that didn’t work for me. On the one hand, while much of the book is reflective, to give personality to the stuffy old-fashioned vision of the tweed-clad professor, neither are most of the reflections personal. Similarly, while he includes a broad range of people in the historical fields, Raab still tends to default back to the historian as professor. On the other hand, neither does he provide skill, methodological, professional, or practical suggestions to those who might be interested in being a historian. Raab is clearly enthusiastic about history, but his audience for the book is not wholly clear. Students may appreciate the insights and some might be inspired, but the testimonials are not particularly uplifting and the defense of the humanities follows traditional paths. Who Is the Historian? has its virtues and in some ways shows a more nuanced understanding of historians in the world than did From Herodotus to H-Net, but it was still in some ways lacking. It might be the right book for an opening gambit in an undergraduate historiography class for some, I am still looking for that right one for my tastes.

Scrivener Chronicles: Day 1

One of my recent obsessions has been word-processing software. I have long had issues with Microsoft Word, particularly when trying to work with long documents consisting of multiple sections. For this reason, I have almost twenty different word documents that comprise the bulk of my dissertation. I would prefer to have an easily organized file that I could manipulate as a whole, but, for the time being it was easier to treat each chapter or section as a distinct entity. This came to a head recently when I was trying to work with my least favorite feature of Word, namely tables. One of my chapters needs to have five or six tables (give or take, since the total depends on how many sections the three main tables need to be broken into to fit on the page), but Word was making a wretched mess just formatting them on the page, let alone fitting them into the flow of text. So I set that chapter aside and worked on other things for a while, but also started looking around for something that might suit my purposes better than a program that I have larger, philosophical grievances with.

After looking about, I decided that Scrivener might be the best option, and it even has an extended free trial, so I spent most of today editing a chapter to familiarize myself with the program. While there are some aspects that I don’t find intuitive, but, by and large I like the interface for working. My initial reaction was that I didn’t like the references feature because, instead of defaulting to footnotes, it has a separate column for them that is not dropped into a numbered list until the document is compiled. On the one hand, I find this clumsy to visualize which reference belongs with which point on the page, but this is mitigated by having the references serve as a bookmark that is linked to the place on the text it belongs. After one day I don’t like the references feature better than good ol’ footnotes, but neither do I like it worse–each as their place.

My favorite part of Scrivener is its use as a project manager that allows sections and subsections to be visualized individually or together. But that is just the beginning. It also has a “cork-board” mode that offers for each section a notecard. While one tutorial I watched used these for a summary, I think they are ideal for a thesis. Admittedly, having a clear thesis is one of my weaknesses as a writer, but this feature offered a built-in way to clarify each section.

And yet, after one day, I am on the fence about the software, because of how it hands footnotes and fonts in the process of compilation. [Note: Scrivener is a drafting application that says in its manual that it does not handle the typesetting of references. I understand this, and am listing reasons why it may not be ideal for my purposes.] Scrivener is designed such that when it is time to submit or finish or print a project, you compile the sections you want to include and send it off, to print, pdf, Word, or a variety of other formats. However, the references (which are called footnotes in Scrivener) frequently default to endnotes, particularly if directly exporting to a .pdf file. I understand the reasons behind this, but am philosophically averse to endnotes. The second problem with compilation and Scrivener as a drafting application rather than a typesetting one is that it seems to have a default font system that it applies when compiling…which is problematic when my chapters have quotations that require a Greek font. This then brings me back to the tables that caused me to close out Word in disgust. In Scrivener, the tables look nice and are more easily integrated into the flow of the text, but the tables become again mucked up when compiled because it is a drafting tool and though that eliminates some of my difficulties, the larger ones were typeset problems that again rear their ugly heads upon compilation.

At the end of the first day, I like Scrivener, but I like the idea of Scrivener more than I like the program. I may end up purchasing the program yet, whether because I acclimate and find solutions to my difficulties, or because (as I suspect) it legitimately helps with certain aspects of writing, my first inclination is to say that Word is better for my particular purposes at this juncture. Either way I am going to have to wrestle with certain aspects of the system.

If anyone has their own experiences with Scrivener and/or suggestions for my particular issues, please share.