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.

(Re)visions and Assignments

Every student paper should be revised. More than once. In an ideal world, that is; in the real world there are problems of scale and deadlines.

Periodically I receive an request from a student to revise a paper in return for extra credit. In the past when teaching in surveys of American history with up to a hundred students at a time, I feel obliged to reject these requests. I would love it for students to revise their papers, but extra credit is not something I can extend to just one student in good conscience and there isn’t enough time in the semester to let every student do this unless it is built into the course. On the one hand, I feel bad about rejecting some of these requests since I am acutely aware of the challenges facing the current generation of college students; on the other hand, though, the requests are framed in terms of getting a higher grade, not in terms of education.

This disparity comes in part from the nature of these assignments. I suspect that nobody has looked at a survey-level essay on the changing conceptions of race in America from 1865 to 1925 as an opportunity to write a brilliant and incisive critique of race in America. Even if the author has a fiery passion for the topic, the prompt and supporting materials don’t lend themselves to it. The disparity also speaks volumes about how courses like this one are treated. They are a grade, not an opportunity to learn about American history or learn practical skills such as writing or rhetoric.

Returning to the nature of the assignments, one-off submission that return marked and assigned a grade lend themselves to thinking about the assignment in terms of the grade instead of in terms of process. I understand the counter argument that history classes are for teaching history and not for teaching writing, particularly in these large survey courses. And yet, history is fundamentally discursive.

This fashioning of history, along with how we remember history, is going to be a point of emphasis this fall when I teach a survey of archaic and classical Greek history. I am going to do this not only because of the recent and not-so-recent appropriations of antiquity for political agendas, but also because I hope that pushing people to think about these issues in a Greek context will make it possible to think about in our contemporary context.

I am also planning some opportunities for my students to revise their work, made possible in large part because of a smaller class size. As of right now the idea is to give an option for students to revise at least one of their assignments for a higher grade, as well as making that type of assignment recur once more later in the semester in order to maximize the benefit for the student. The plan is to have revisions take place in two phases, with the first being that they come meet with me to discuss the assignment, before then making revisions based on both the written comments and conversation. My hope is that in addition to setting assignments that push the students to write a decent amount, adding this (optional) revision stage will meet the students halfway toward thinking about assignments qua grades. That is, maximize the students’ opportunity to earn a higher grade while underscoring that writing (and thinking) is a process that doesn’t happen simply by vomiting words onto a page.

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.

A broken record

I have spent most of the last month feeling downright foggy as I ran the gamut of teaching, revision, and paperwork in the final weeks of my graduate career. But this only partly explains my general silence. I am still working on putting thoughts in order about life, the universe, and everything, and in so doing am developing a newfound appreciation for the genre of “fragment” posts where the author tossing out snippets, thoughts, excerpts, and musings that are explicitly incomplete.

The more ominous issue is one I have had before, namely that I don’t want to sound like a broken record. I think this is why I like writing down reflections (or reviews) of books. It is a genre that allows for a little creativity and reflection, while providing a clear prompt and definite strictures. Increasingly, though, I find myself writing things that I get halfway through only to find them repetitive. Some I find are my own hobbyhorses generally, but also the current political climate has me feeling very much like the topics I think about are ever more limited. Others, though, come from a more debilitating premonition that whatever joke, insight, or observation that I am about to write here or on Twitter has already been said better, but that the extreme fragmentation online means that I have missed it. My fear, then, is that I will be but a pale shadow chasing after someone else’s moment or that I am making a mountain out of a fairly banal, commonly known truism.

At some level I know that I will turn a corner as I work into a new writing routine in the coming weeks, finding new tidbits in my research and teaching. More practically, though, the solution may be that if something is worth saying, it is probably worth saying more than once. Real-time maps of internet traffic are mesmerizing and drive home just how much is said online, so it is a fools errand to be ashamed of repetition. Give credit where it is due, and don’t infringe on people’s economic livelihood, but life is too short to give in to this sort of shame.

My 2016 – Using Words

2016 was in some ways a good year for me. In terms of my academic work it felt as though I leveled up, inching closer to emerging from the cocoon of graduate school. This was, in part, just a matter of time passing, but it also seemed more substantive. I started thinking about my work differently, seeing it differently, and had some successes. I can grow and improve my craft more, without a doubt, but I (finally) felt a substantive difference. On the other hand, I was frequently stymied in every attempt to take the next step, which makes me think that this sense of growth was little more than feeling comfortable within the limits that I had already reached, but I will write more about this in another post.

I also got back to teaching in the fall of 2016, working for Western Civilization (up to 1715). This meant both leading discussion sections and giving a series of guest lectures. There were ways that I could have improved the lectures, of course, but on the whole the teaching went as well as it ever has, and the evaluations bore that out. The improvement came from a variety of sources, including simple practice, but also that I felt more comfortable in my subject expertise than I had in other semesters and that I am getting a good sense for how to craft a through-line for students when teaching new material. This last was important because I taught classes on everything from the Roman Republic to the Hellenistic World, to the Renaissance.

For the most part I also managed to continue playing basketball, lifting weights, and running on a regular basis. I did not manage to push my running distances to any great lengths, but I was pleased that I was able to do it at all. Similarly, I kept up most of my self-improvement goals, including that I started using Duolingo to brush up on my German and to learn Spanish and Dutch; I currently have a 115 day streak.

However, I had one significant problem with 2016: anxiety. I have long had issues with anxiety and depression, and my anxiety issues, manifesting in elevated heart rate, shaky hands, and an inability to focus. Most of these have to do with my work or, more precisely, my ability to continue working past this school year, but certainly events outside of my immediate circumstances are feeding into these issues. Beyond working on applications and doubling down on my work, one of my goals for 2017 is to spend more time doing things like meditating in the hopes of remaining even-keeled.

In reality there was a lot more to 2016, such as moving in August and using almost every available opportunity to travel, but I am all over the place right now, so now for some 2017 resolutions.

The eternal, nebulous, unquantifiable

  • Continue learning to let go of things that are beyond my control. Most things are.
  • Be more patient and charitable with people I know and tolerant of distraction (while working to limit them)
  • Smile more often.
  • Continue to exercise, maintain or improve health and fitness.
  • Take more time for mindfulness exercises

The concrete and quantifiable

  • Write more often, here, there, and beyond. Some specific (but not a complete) list of quantifiable goals:
    • Defend my dissertation and graduate!
    • Finish a draft of my (now begun!) novel
    • Complete and send off (4) articles to academic journals
    • Apply to review (2) academic books
    • Find one non-blog, non-academic site to publish a piece of writing, either fiction or non-fiction
  • Keep up my non-academic reading, but continue to expand my horizons, meaning:
    • Read at least (52) nonacademic books. I have succeeded in this two consecutive years, but between a tendency to read long books and having a lot of other tasks, setting a higher goal would be irresponsible.
    • I read (8) books by women in 2016; in 2017 it should be more than (10).
    • I read (7) non-fiction books (not for academic purposes) in 2016; in 2017 I want to hit (10).
  • Conquering the kitchen: develop (2) of my own bread recipes using flavors or ingredients that I do not usually use.

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.

My 2016 – By the Numbers

There are any number of numbers that have been used to quantify the experience of 2016, including how much average temperatures rose, stock market tickers, votes cast, emails leaked, amount of money spent by SuperPACs, number of people displaced from Syria, total human population on Earth, instances and casualties of mass- and police-shootings—plus happier statistics that aren’t necessarily kept such as weddings, child-births, mitzvahs, and the like. Here are some numbers about my year.

4 – article submissions
—3 article rejections
—1 requested revise and resubmit
—3 articles queued for edits and submission in early 2017
2 – academic papers presented based on my dissertation research
2 – abstracts accepted for conference papers
—1 abstract under review
136 – pages in my dissertation’s narrative section, which is effectively in its final form
1 – novels started
15 – jobs applied for in 2016
—0 – job interviews received
— 12 – job applications due in January
9 – states visited [drive-throughs not counted]
3 – ultimate frisbee leagues participated in
59 – books read above and beyond an immediate academic purpose [+6]
—12 – original languages
—7 – non-fiction books
—8 – books by female authors [+4 from 2015]
99 – blog posts published
— 60 – book reviews
— 6 – posts about politics
— 2 – posts about Aristophanes
42 – Instagram posts
—11 – baking/cooking pictures
—8 – cat pictures

As usual, these numbers mean nothing, anything, and everything. There are other metrics, but they are proprietary of NUDEAN-inc, a private analytics company. A NUDEAN spokesperson is cagey when asked to share the areas of life quantified while keeping the actual numbers secret, leading one to speculate that the data is only being haphazardly recorded. Whether this situation is a product of gross incompetence or because many aspects of human life cannot or should not be quantified is a judgement left to the reader.

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.