Selfish Writing

After what seems like ages of running into walls I have recently gotten good news about several of my writing projects, including about an article that had been stalled for more than a year after being summarily rejected and then falling victim to the malaise I felt when it looked like my academic career might be over. Now, this bits of positivity has not prompted an outpouring of words on these projects, but they have boosted my confidence, which, in turn, has made sitting down to write a little less taxing.

Time is the biggest impediment for me right now. Simply put, I just have a lot of demands on my time and my first semester teaching in a new institution has eaten up the vast majority of my time on campus. I have done a bit better protecting my writing time this week, but I accomplished this in part by spending an evening in front of my computer and with headphones on—to say nothing of coming at the expense of grading time.

This evening I attended a virtual lecture given by UCSB professor John Lee about his forthcoming book about John Wesley Gilbert, the first African American to attend the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (also the subject of next year’s Fordyce Mitchel Lectures at the University of Missouri). Toward the end of the talk someone asked him what he is working on next. Lee laughed and said that next up he was going work on being a good husband and father.

By that point in the talk the audience had already been treated to a child ready to play with dad, but the answer also reminded me of something that Bill Caraher has written several times while documenting his journey toward completing his academic monograph: writing is a selfish exercise.

Books require time and attention to cultivate from the germ of an idea to the final product. Where other types of writing might require a few days or weeks of attention before they see the light of day, an academic book often take years of sifting through research, thinking about issues, and stitching together ideas before even getting to the revision stage.

I happen to think in book length chunks and like this process well enough that I want to continue doing this regardless of where my career takes me. (Seriously: I lay awake consumed with anxiety last week because I only had three history books and one novel that I want to write after I finish the one I am working on right now.) And, yet, I cannot disagree that book-writing can be a deeply selfish pursuit.

It would be one thing if book-writing, specifically, was my job either because it meant securing tenure or because it constituted a significant amount to may paycheck. Right now, though, neither of those things is true and coming to grips with the possibility of changing career paths over the last several years dispelled the last vestiges of the hope that another publication would tip the scales in landing me a tenure-track position. My department supports me as a scholar, but I am employed as a teacher so writing remains something that I do on top of my contract. The difference is largely semantic in practice, but this semester has also made me keenly aware of those evenings when I tell my partner that I have to—i.e. want to—write. In effect this is me telling her that what I want to do with my evening after spending all day at work is to put on music and play with my thoughts rather than spend time with her. There are of course compromises. I almost never write in the evening if I can write earlier in the day, for instance, and I rarely write on the weekends, but these only go so far. The fact remains that I am writing my book(s) because I want to write the book(s).

#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.

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.


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.

Some thoughts on AcWriMO

I like the idea of AcWriMo and I suspect that it works for many of the same reasons that accurately tracking caloric intake aids dieting–goals, accountability, and a reasonable terminus. At the start of November I was already trying to finish up my first article for submission, so I chose not to participate. Well, I sent that article for consideration yesterday and have been thinking about retroactively joining the writing drive. This year I will remain on the sidelines, though.

My reasons are as follows:

1. As a graduate student who is taking classes, preparing for comprehensive exams, teaching, and tutoring, my priorities need to be elsewhere right now.
2. Most of my current projects do not involve fresh writing, but rather adapting and editing text that I have already written. This is not totally incongruous with the way that the drive is set up, but my targets are still a variety of smaller projects and do not fit well into a word-count based objectives.

All that said, I do have some writing objectives for November:

1. Review the material that I have already written that serves as the basis for the next article and create an outline for that article.
2. Create an abstract for a current ongoing project on Greek Historiography that takes it in a new direction.
3. Create an abstract/research proposal for the next new project on ancient Macedonia.

Each of these projects is preliminary–my focus needs to be on passing my comprehensive exams, but neither does that mean I will stop researching and writing.