Twelve Week Article Writing: Week 1 Recap

I’m hijacking my own blog for the next eleven weeks, as a way to make myself accountable to my new writing plan.

In the last installment of the blog, I wrote about reading Wendy Belcher’s book Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. I was planning on writing an article in the next few months and getting it published.

Here’s what I accomplished during the first week:

As I wrote about in my last post, I tried to make my writing more social this week. I enlisted the help of a writing buddy who also wants to write and publish an article. We’ve talked about article writing nearly daily.

We first discussed our relationship with writing. We discovered that we both feel overwhelmed by negative feelings when we don’t write: guilt, shame, anxiety, and anger. My negative feelings about writing stem from my belief that my writing and ideas are dumb. On the other hand, we also discovered that when we do write, we feel inspired, creative, and productive. I love reaching the point when I feel like good ideas are flying out of my head and through my fingers.

My writing buddy and I agreed that daily writing is the key to successful article writing. We made a writing schedule, blocking out specific times to write. I decided that I want to work on my article for an hour a day. I’m a fan of Belcher’s belief that short writing sessions are better than long writing marathons. I am always surprised by what I can write in even fifteen minutes.

We also talked about our writing obstacles. I found that I have several:

Apart from the negative feelings associated with not writing, I struggle to write when I feel sad. When I feel sad, I don’t care about writing or even about much of anything. Nevertheless, I realize that I’m going to have to write even when I’m too sad to care. I’m going to need to take care of myself emotionally. I’m planning to make my morning meditation practice a priority and write in my journal; both of these activities help me manage my emotional life.

Years of working under pressure have turned me into a professional insomniac. The tiniest bit of stress results in hours of frustration and sleeplessness. Trying to write coherent sentences after a night of serious insomnia feels much like trying to write with a massive hangover: things get written, but they are often incoherent. I like to blame my lack of writing progress on my disrupted sleep. I realized that writing is much more than a mental process; I’m also going to have to take good physical care of myself. I’m making a commitment to exercise daily to manage my stress and sleep better.

I graduated with my PhD in January, but do not have an academic job. I no longer have institutional library access. My public library does have databases that I can use, but I desperately wish I had institutional access to JSTOR. I worry that I will not have access to sources and research that I might need to write my article. I do have people to download the occasional article for me, but I don’t want to abuse their goodwill. In the end, I’m probably going to have to write my article with just the sources that I have. I’m also already fretting about how hard it might be to publish as an, “independent historian.” In the academic world, an institutional affiliation opens many doors.

Belcher’s book also helped me identify one of my biggest writing obstacles. I’m less convinced every day that academia is in my future. I’m not under the same type of “publish or perish” stress that so many of my academic peers are under. I thought about why I want to publish an article. I came up with two reasons. First, I want to publish an article because I still like my research. I still have academic research interests. I think I have something to say about some stuff that might interest other people. Second, I want to publish to show potential editing clients that I’m a successful academic writer. I’m working on revising my dissertation for publication for much the same reason.

Writing Buddy and I also suffer from the “one more book” block. The article I want to write (more below) is within my subject area, but also touches on some ideas and themes I know less about. I want to read all of the books and articles that I think I should read before I even start. I’m scared to just start writing, because I don’t know everything about everything.

Finally, I set a date by which I want to finish my article. October 2. I’ve got it marked on my calendar.

Picking the piece of work that I want to turn into an article proved trickier.

I want to rework a chapter from my MA thesis. I haven’t thought about my MA thesis in years, but I think I could make a good article out of it. In her book, Belcher warns that transforming an MA thesis into an article can be difficult. Writers sometimes find it easier to start over rather than make the serious cuts required to turn a thesis into a real article. Duly warned, I think I’m going to do it anyways. Even six years after finishing my MA, I still like this stuff.

For my MA thesis, I researched and wrote about an international exhibition (a world’s fair!) held in Guatemala in 1897: the Central American Exposition. The writing and research I did for this project sparked my initial interest in world’s fairs studies, which later became a major part of my dissertation. I remember being thrilled at the prospect of writing about this little-known event.

The Central American Exposition hooked me after I stumbled on a document that turned out to be great source. I found a short first-person narrative written by the renowned German geographer Karl Sapper about his visit to the fair. Sapper, curious by nature, took careful notes about the things he saw within the fairgrounds. His narrative led the reader through the exposition and showed readers how a foreign visitor might interpret it. Sapper’s account of his fair visit fascinated me. World’s fair studies reveal the beliefs and ideas of the creators of these mega-events, but often lack the voice of visitors. And I had found just such a voice.

I analyzed Sapper’s narrative to the best of my abilities at the time. I drew some initial conclusions about the way world’s fairs shaped the discipline of anthropology. I wanted to show how Sapper, despite his training as a geographer, actually practiced an early form of cultural anthropology.

I was, however, wrong about an awful lot of things in my MA thesis. I thought I knew far more than I actually did. I assumed that German social scientists subscribed to the same type of (mis)understandings of Social Darwinism as their U.S. counterparts. I thought they practiced the kind of Spencerian race science so popular among nineteenth-century anthropologists in the United States. I assumed that the racial understandings of nineteenth-century German anthropologists later became the scary and horrible race ideology that developed in Germany in the 1930s.

When I read more about histories of anthropology and how Germans developed their own unique national brand, I realized that I my assumptions were just that (we know what happens when we assume, etc. etc.) Instead of subscribing to Spencerian theories of evolutionary cultural development, Germans often practiced the kind of humanistic inquiry about different cultures and people that U.S. anthropologists adopted in the 1930s. I’m sort of embarrassed to read my MA work now; however, I now think that even all of my wrong assumptions were a necessary first step in thinking through what would later be some of the big ideas in my dissertation.

My article revision, then, is a revision of my MA thesis. I’m dusting off my old work and looking at it through new, and hopefully more experienced, eyes.I’m planning to fix my conclusions about German anthropologists and their understandings of non-Western cultures. In addition to reworking the content, I’ve also learned a lot more about academic writing since 2009. I’m looking forward to revising my old work with a more confident and simpler writing style.

I now have a brand-new, shiny Scrivener project, a schedule, and an itch to write!