Writing in Love


Writing in Love

Because words shape reality, I started to listen to how I talk about my writing. I often think and talk about my writing in the language of warfare and trauma: struggle, shame, fight, fear. I write long blog posts that expose my arduous process. I complain about how inadequate I feel as a writer. Sometimes I cry out of sheer frustration over my writing. More often, I simply refuse to write because the very act of writing seems impossible.

I actually like writing and yet I have days in which I cannot stand to write a single word. Some days, I try to convince myself that even I can write for ten minutes. And then I find I can’t even stomach that tiny effort. When I do find the resolve to write, I fight to find words. Half-formed thoughts spill out on the screen in language so ugly that I cringe. I start to feel inadequate as a writer and a person, so I resort to bad academic writing habits to make myself sound smarter than I feel. I employ the biggest words possible to express small ideas, writing ‘conceputalizations’ when I mean ‘ideas.’ I struggle to turn abstract ideas into real words with meaning. I lose what William Zinsser would call my humanity, putting on a mask of nearly inhuman professional expertise and producing passionless and boring writing.

And then sometimes through chance, my writing consumes me to the point that I don’t even notice time. Writing feels like a supernatural miracle. I solve problems of language and lexicon. I write and rewrite, swapping mediocre words for those with panache and power. I find ideas that don’t connect, so I write bridges between them. I rewrite sentences to achieve greater precision with the fewest possible words. I read my writing out loud, like a novice pianist learning to play by ear. I listen for words that make clunking sounds and for those that sing. I read until my writing sounds like who I am, complete with blemishes and the occasional beauty mark.

I started thinking about how I could create more space for those random moments when writing feels like magic. I thought about what might happen if I changed how I thought about my writing, viewing my writing as something to love rather than something to hate.

The idea of loving my writing felt daunting. I decided that I’d try to love creating the smallest possible unit of my writing. Loving a chapter seemed like too much, so I tried to love a section of my writing. Loving several paragraphs felt impossible, so I aimed to love a paragraph, or a sentence. I still felt too overwhelmed, so I focused on loving just a single words at a time.

Picking single words as the smallest possible unit to fall in love with felt like something even I could accomplish. Treating single words as absolutely precious helped me remember what I loved about them and why I write. I love a lot of words. I love words in English and in other languages. I love putting words together in new orders and creating a new idea where none existed before.

Loving bigger collections of words in sentences and paragraphs and sections gets trickier, because I don’t really want to love anything as ugly and as homely as a shitty first draft. I love my pretty drafts after I’ve had time to revise and fix them, but the first draft almost always seems embarrassingly awful. I’m often angry at my first drafts, because they’re so unlovely and don’t reflect my ideas, thinking, or voice. I feel frustrated at my failures to turn ideas into words.

It’s hard to love ugly writing, but ugly writing is exactly the thing that needs to be loved the most. I think out ugly writing represents the parts of us that we don’t love. It’s easy to love our beautiful writing once we’ve done some revision, but it’s those early drafts, the homely and ungainly ones, that most urgently need our love and care. Applying as much love and care as possible to not only our ugly writing but also the parts of ourselves that we find ugly and unlovely transforms our relationships with ourselves. The tiny parts of ourselves and our writing need our love: a word, a feeling, an age spot, an idea, a memory.

When I can’t convince myself to love the shitty first draft, I think about what I love about the ideas I’m trying to produce. If I can’t think of an idea that I love, sometimes I’ll brainstorm with pen and paper for one. If I can’t find a single idea that I love through brainstorming, sometimes I’ll call a trusted writing buddy and talk through my thoughts.

Just like love in real life, love for one’s writing is an act of faith. Love is also a practice as much as an attitude. The writing process is an act of faith, a conviction that I can transform this hideous tangle of words into something beautiful and meaningful. Love is not just some vague word. It is both a practice, an idea, and an action.

I can’t draw any firm conclusions about trying to create a more loving relationship with my writing, but I know that I feel better when I don’t approach writing as an adversary. Writing in love isn’t always possible. We write in the middle of emotional storms all the time. The writing process works whether we’re writing with love or anger, but if we have to choose, isn’t it just better to choose to write from a position of love?

Either God or the devil is in the details. I think we get to pick which.


When you can’t always get what you [think you] want


When you can’t always get what you [think you] want

I started thinking this week about whether or not certain professions are a calling. A calling, of course, suggests Biblical metaphors of people being called from their ordinary lives to follow Christ in service to others. As a calling, work is more than a profession or a vocation; it becomes a divinely guided journey.

18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him. (Matthew, 4:18-20)

Peter and Andrew were called to follow Jesus. And they did so without hesitation.

However, like in so much humanities research, the notion of a calling is way more complicated than we originally thought. A calling, obviously, is a social construction, but particularly pervasive one that still guides our ideas about work. Scholars far more serious than I have weighed in on the idea in real peer reviewed (and expensively paywalled) studies. [Disclaimer: I have not read this research and probably won’t. I have absolutely no idea of the historiography of the idea of work as a calling. Flying blind.] Nevertheless, the idea of having a calling, I think, remains deeply embedded in the U.S. collective cultural psyche. [Here I can only speak to the U.S. experience. I’m not sure if the idea of a calling emerged in places where the effect of the Weber’s Protestant work ethic and spirit of capitalism idea did not so profoundly shape people’s understandings about the nature of work.]

Having a calling sounds noble and necessary, which sells many career exploration and self-help books. If there’s a self-proclaimed thought leader or social media influencer who hasn’t weighed in on the subject of “finding your calling,” I’d be surprised. A quick Google search for “Finding Your Calling” returns 24 million results. An even quicker scan of these results suggests that you must find your calling as quickly as possible and that to do so, you (and millions of other lost people) need to pay the thought leaders a lot of money.

Many academics feel called to their work. Living and breathing one’s deepest interests feels like a calling, because that work welds our intellectual passions directly to our hearts. People often use the word love to talk about their academic work: I love teaching. I love research. I love my students. More than one person has told me that they carry on deeper relationships with their research than with actual people. Much as people lose themselves in relationships and forget who they are, academics lose themselves in their[our] work.

I wanted to study history because I’d spent so much time in Guatemala, first as a Peace Corps volunteer and later as a researcher and teacher. I wanted to understand the often horrible and terrifying things that had happened there because I cared about the people I met. I still believe that human rights, Cold War foreign policy, state violence, discrimination, racism, and neoliberalism are all subjects from which we can learn so much. I started to feel uniquely called to tell these stories and change how people thought about them. If not me, then who?

And then the job market collapsed.

The process of selling my research (or soul, depending on your perspective) as a new scholar in a job market that didn’t exist left me feeling demoralized, broken, and exhausted. I didn’t so much leave academia as just finally gave up altogether in bitter resignation. Giving up on what you thought was your calling fucking sucks.

Despite my personal angst, I want to acknowledge our privilege surrounding finding and pursuing meaningful work as a calling. I am horrified and ashamed to hear myself complain that my PhD makes me highly unemployable. I also have the luxury of being forty-one years old and writing blog posts about figuring out what I want to do as a career.  Generations of people haven’t been as privileged as I am to do serious thinking about whether they even had a calling and if so, whether they were following the right path towards it. A lot of people work in jobs that they don’t feel called to do, but must do to survive. Plenty of people work at jobs they hate.  As always, the privilege to pursue the idea of a calling remains bound to structural inequalities: race, class, gender, sexuality, able bodies.

The structural inequalities that give me the privilege to spend a lot of time thinking about the idea of a calling also become part of the logic of exploitation. The idea of having a calling often justifies exploiting people’s love for their work. It sounds like this: if you passionately love your work and feel called to it, you should be willing to do it for sixty to eighty hours a week for less than minimum wage without health insurance. This is one way institutions justify the indefensible treatment of highly educated researchers and talented professors. They seem to believe that adjuncts love their students so much that they’ll do any amount of teaching for free. People’s very real and deep love for their work often makes walking away from academia so hard and keeps people tied to it in ways that are exploitative. We often desperately want so badly to do that work.  [Another disclaimer: if you’re adjuncting, I am not blaming or attacking you in any way for your choices. We’re all doing what we have to do to get by.]

In no small irony, while rethinking the idea of a calling, I found myself returning to my own research. A good chunk of my research focused on the history of science, particularly the junk pseudoarchaeology to explain the presence of ancient native peoples in the Americas. I love (!) studying pseudoscience precisely because it disrupts the idea of science as orderly, rational, predictable, and linear progress towards a fixed point.  Science, as we know from many great historians of science, is messy. Studying pseudo-science, including alien theories, pseudoarchaeology, and eugenics, shows us the messiness, the dead ends, and the bad ideas, which are just as much a part of the history of science as Edison’s successful invention of the light bulb. The history of science has always involved a whole lot of wrong turns and spectacularly bad ideas that ultimately didn’t work.

What I am suggesting here is that perhaps careers, professions, jobs, and callings aren’t any more linear and orderly than the history of science. We see them as linear because our examples of successful careers highlight the orderly, neat, and linear ones from graduate school to the tenure track. This is also why the “shadow CV” is so fascinating. Our official CVs of notable and laudable successes hide a much longer series of failures. My guess is that if we looked at the careers of successful people who didn’t get the jobs they expected or who had to give up what they thought were their callings, we’d find that same messiness, the same strange dead ends, the same spectacularly bad ideas. The right ideas and paths sometimes emerge from a long series of the wrong ones.  

Here’s what I’ve learned:  just because a vocation feels like a calling doesn’t mean that it’s the only one or even the rightest one.

A calling aligns with your worldview, values, principles, and skills, merging them into a powerful constellation that guides us, which is why something that speaks to all of these aspects feels like your purpose, calling, and mission. We tend to talk about the idea of profession as a calling in the singular, as if we only get one. Just as one partner probably can’t meet all of our emotional needs, a single calling may not be broad enough to accommodate all of our dreams and deep beliefs. I suggest that we might better think of academia as a singular calling among many possible callings. We might try thinking of these as plurals: purposes, callings, and missions.

In thinking about my personal calling(s), I find that they aren’t context specific. I feel called to write and create things in life. I feel called to serve others by helping people understand things in new ways. What took me a long time to understand was this: callings are not careers which are not jobs.

I see my callings as my top level, biggest possible purpose in life, my career being a series of jobs that in some way reflect your calling, and a job as a context-based.

The way this works out for me is this:

  • Calling(s): understanding; making, creating; helping people
  • Careers(s): historian, writer, educator
  • Possible job(s): teacher, writer, editor, photographer, archivist, museum curator, libraries, non-profits, study abroad, diplomatic service, tour guide, workshop designer, translator, public speaker, and a lot of other things that haven't occurred to me yet.

After deciding to give up on academia, I worked a series of weird jobs that had nothing to do with my top level calling. I hated them and floundered. I’m now making conscious and intentional decisions about any career steps I take and making sure that anything I choose to do aligns with my callings.

My relationship to my research, teaching, and work has changed outside of the academy. My academic work no longer defines who I am as a person. I feel guilty about these changes, as if I was never supposed to love another thing in my life again. I had expected to carry a torch for my research forever. I still love (!)a lot of my research. I’m still fascinated how North American travelers, anthropologists, and others created stereotypes about native peoples in Guatemala. I love archaeology, pseudoarchaeology, visual display, museums, weird bits of pop culture, native cultures, scientific expeditions, and punk rock. Nevertheless, I’m getting interested in some other things these days, notably adoption politics (informed by personal experience), child welfare, criminal justice reform, and neoliberalism. I’m also entertaining new writing forms, including autoethnography, creative non-fiction, and musing about the power of the idea of collectivity.

In one of the most affirming moments of my recent life as an alt-ac person, I had new business cards printed. I’d found my old ones from grad school, complete with the official university logo. I chucked them. My new cards have my name, email, and still list HISTORIAN as my profession, sans institution.

Sometimes what feels like a calling doesn’t work out in real life. To paraphrase Toni Morrison, work can be the thing that we do, not the people we are.


Leaving Academia: Rage and FOMO Edition


Leaving Academia: Rage and FOMO Edition

In the last few weeks, I felt like I'd turned a corner. I'd been applauding myself on becoming such a well adjusted non-academic person. I'd crafted some new goals, planned a structure to get there, and used a reawakened sense of creativity to bring goals and actions together in one coherent plan. I congratulated myself on achieving self-actualization.

And then an academic colleague sent me an email to let me know about an archive in Germany that I  should visit because of my work on German anthropology and science in Guatemala. He mentioned a few different German institutions that might even fund me to do the research. My heart leaped for a brief moment.

Friends also emailed me to ask if I was going to one of my favorite conferences in Guatemala. I wanted to tell them that I was, even though I wasn't. Tiny droplet feelings of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) grew into huge storm clouds without warning.

I felt heartsick. My mind flashed back to memories of time spent in archives, which felt like hunting for buried treasure. I remembered how much I cared about my research and how hard I'd worked on it. I thought about all of the friends and colleagues I'd made. All of the places I'd traveled and the adventures I'd had. And the dreams that I'd created around the idea of pursuing my intellectual curiosities.

And then I remembered: I'm not that kind of academic anymore.

Remembering my previous life as a scholar triggered rage that I didn't think I had anymore. I felt confused. After all, hadn't I moved on? Wasn't I over it?

Apparently not.

Rage. Betrayal.

A few short years ago, In a spectacular bout of magical thinking, I'd thought that I'd be the exception to the wholesale collapse of higher education as an institution. I do not for an instant pretend that my scholarship was that absolutely brilliant, breath-taking kind that just makes your head explode and you know you'll never see the world in the same way ever again kind. I would never in a million years characterize my scholarship as brilliant, but I thought it was solid and should count for something. Turns out, it didn't count for much.

I don't want an academic job in the way that people currently have academic jobs. I absolutely refuse to adjunct. (If you're adjuncting, I'm not judging you. We all have to make choices.) I don't want to have a PhD and have to get food stamps because my five semester-long teaching contracts barely pay minimum wage. I don't want a postdoc or the more euphemistic "visiting professorship," both of which are really just fancy names for temp jobs in cities where I do not want to live. I don't want to relocate every few years when my contracts run out. I do not have the time or energy to participate in the marathon required to obtain one of the dwindling numbers of tenure track jobs. (I'm thinking of that article in Vitae recently about the biologist who submitted 112 applications for three job offers. And that's for a STEM job. I cannot bear to think about how many job applications would be necessary for a humanities person to achieve even a single job offer.) I do not have the money required for the annual conferences or consultations about my job materials. I also can't spend any more time losing earning potential (on top of all of the lost years of income while I was in graduate school) in order to join the ranks of tenured faculty.

I want to do my research and write about it for the public. I want to write and publish books about neoliberalism and its relationship to authoritarianism and state terror. I want to write about the history of archaeology and pseudo-archaeology. I want to write about the history of science and race and eugenics and child-welfare policies. I want to help change the ways that people think about these things.

Being an "independent scholar" (read: unsuccessful applicant) isn't easy. I find it hard to keep up with my scholarship while working a day job that grants me two weeks of vacation instead of a summer and spring breaks. Two weeks of free time hardly seems sufficient to do enough research for a book length project.  Without an institutional affiliation, I'm ineligible for most research grants. [If you know of any, hook me up?] Lack of institutional library access hinders my ability to keep up with the latest scholarship. I write when I can.

If you've read the blog for any length of time, you know that I'm an advocate for the alt-ac or post-ac phenomenon. I firmly believe that PhDs can make valuable contributions to the world outside of academia. I'm always amazed by the things that I read about people doing their PhDs and I think that the world is a better place for it.

Nevertheless, alt-ac jobs, as neat as they are, won't cure our current malaise. The lack of tenure track jobs itself is only a symptom of institutional rot caused by decades of neoliberal policy and the destruction of social democracy. Neoliberalism has made the wholesale destruction of higher education seem normal and natural, as if the university has buckled under its own weight rather than caved to systematic corporate restructuring that emphasizes profits over students. The crippling student debt that we all carry in exchange for precarious jobs that don't pay us anywhere near our value effectively stifles our criticism of some of the most pressing issues we face today. Academics, particularly the precarious kind, cannot be the cultural critics they once were because we're all worried about employment and how we'll buy groceries next week. We're finding out now that even those people who we thought had stable tenure-track positions aren't as secure as we might like to think.

The growth of the ranks of alt-ac PhDs have highlighted how it is a phenomenon as racial, classed, and gendered as academia itself. It is not an accident that the vast majority of people who identify as "alt-ac" are women. We know so much more about the world now because of the contributions of women, people of color, and other minority groups (such as LBGTQ scholars). I wonder what academia will look like in fifty or 100 years, as these groups find themselves in fewer and fewer university positions and unable to do their scholarship. And then I remember that we already kind of know. If current trends continue, we'll know more about the interests of elite white men then we ever have (as if we have never known about their interests) and so much less about the experiences of marginalized people and cultures. We'll be lesser people because of it. I feel real sadness sometimes thinking about the mountains of scholarship that we'll never know about because so many people could never get any traction in their careers as scholars.

I'm angry at academia, yes. But I'm also angry at the larger structural forces that make having a humanities degree seem ridiculous. And how our freedom as people and as citizens has been whittled down to nothing and repackaged as the great freedom to sell our labor to the highest bidder on the free market. I'm angry that in addition to adjuncting, our career choices are shaped by precarity. We have the "freedom" to be Task Rabbits, Uber Drivers, freelancers, and adjuncts.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. I don't want to get over it.




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