Little Steps Toward Something New

The last few posts I’ve written felt heavy and rightfully so. In those posts, I wrote about feelings I never thought I’d ever share with anyone, much less the entire internet. I’ve thought and written about loss, grief, healing, and how to move forward by telling stories in a new way. I’m not done thinking about or feeling grief. I know I’ll write about it again because processing feelings always takes time. We heal in cycles and layers.

But I’m also thinking about some lighter stuff these days and working on shaping an engaged, meaningful life for which I feel passionate, mad love.

I’ve been learning new things, which always makes me happy. What I love about having a PhD is being a life-long learner and problem-solver. What I love less is remembering that just because I have a PhD, I’m not magically exempt from the excruciating process of being a total beginner at something. I’ve been practicing being a noob this week, which has been both humbling and necessary.  

Webinar: I started missing teaching something fierce lately. I missed students. I missed helped people learn new things and see things in a different way. I started thinking about how I might do some non-academic teaching. Then I wondered why I wasn’t giving a webinar. I brainstormed some ideas about what I could teach. I came up with two viable ideas.

The first idea is teaching non-academic writing for academics.I wrote pretty well in graduate school, but it was in spite of my graduate program, not because of it. I’d never actually taken any writing classes nor made any serious effort to improve my writing style. We often assume that we’ll get better at writing because we have to do a lot of it. Unfortunately, this isn’t actually true. A few academic-specific style guides exist to guide academics towards better writing, but I don’t know anyone who has time to read them. The webinar, then, will be me making suggestions about how academics can improve their writing skills. I’m going to share my experience of reading style guides and trying to apply them to my own writing. I’ve also done a lot of thinking about the emotional roadblocks that hold academic writers back from trying to learn to write well or even writing at all. Finally, I’m going to talk about community and about how making writing more social can help get writing done and improve it.  

The other idea involves blogging life transitions. Life transitions are massively uncomfortable and lots of us (by which I mean me) resist change with everything we’ve got. We want things the ways that we liked them before, especially in the case of unexpected or unwanted life transitions. However, major life transitions also present marvelous moments of opportunity. Writing about life transitions gives us a chance to frame our stories and shape their meaning. Sure, being in transition feels confusing, chaotic, and scary, but we can also choose to tell those stories in ways that empower us to move forward. Writing can help get us through big life transitions because the act of writing helps us put our feet on the ground and establish a new normal. So why not blog about your life transition while you’re going through it and get support and inspire other people?  

I’ve done both of these things, so I think I could conceivably teach them in an hour-ish long webinar. I have never given a webinar before, but I’m not letting that stop me. I’m shooting for maybe August and October. More soon.

Pitching: I just wrapped up taking a how to pitch class. I’ve got a lot of ideas that I want to put out in the world in non-academic form. I want to be freelance writing about all of the things in the world that fascinate me. Pitching, as it turns out, is not a no-brainer. I confess that I’ve found it harder than I expected in a lot of ways. I’m not a great pitch writer. I’ve always been the kind of writer who doesn’t know what she’s talking about until she writes all the way through the idea (see the idea I’m trying to struggle through below), so the idea of pitching something that I haven’t written yet kind of scares me. Like what if I get to the end of writing the thing and it doesn’t match the pitch? Even deeper is the paralyzing idea that maybe I don’t have anything valuable to say at all.  

However, I also know that learning requires investing consistent practice towards a goal, rather than a single effort. You have to practice something a lot to get good at it. The critic in me doesn’t want to practice or learn. Not being wildly brilliant at something makes me feel vulnerable and incompetent. I don’t want people to watch me struggling through something. I’ve been learning to swallow my pride and be a total newbie. I’m giving myself permission to write bad pitches. This week, my goal is to write three bad pitches just to practice writing them. I’m giving myself permission to not only do something new, but to be baaaaaaaaaaad at it.  

Writing New Things: No, I don’t work in academia anymore. Yes, I am still fascinated by the world around me. I’m struggling through an idea that I want to get out in the world. I started writing a piece about the history of science and modern adoption practice. I want to explore how science shaped not only what we believe drives human behavior, but also how those beliefs shaped child welfare policies in the 19th and 20th centuries. The nature versus nurture debate influences how people have treated adopted, fostered, delinquent and unwanted kids. Today, we’re still trying to figure out what ultimately drives human behavior. Are we biologically or environmentally determined? Scientific research and ideas have influenced the answers to these questions in different ways. At some points in history, social reformers thought that delinquent kids should go be raised by (white) Christian families to absorb proper moral values and become upstanding citizens. At other points, people thought that children inherited things like criminality and promiscuity; their inferior genetics made institutionalization or sterilization seem like the only solution to criminal and immoral behavior.  

So where is this piece going? I can’t tell yet. I am still the kind of writer who has to write all the way through an idea to figure out what I’m trying to really say about it. But there’s an idea in there somewhere that I can’t let go. This is the first time that I’m writing about adoption history and I’m a little nervous about that too. I’m working on just getting through the world’s shittiest first draft and then seeing what I’ve got. The writing process has somehow never failed me and at times, seems like nothing less than a supernatural miracle.

Stay tuned.

Blog Birthday!

My blog turned two years old this weekend!

I’m shocked that I’m still blogging. (Have I turned into a blogger?) I’ve started and abandoned oodles of other blogs. I’d write a single post and then quit the entire project. Blogging felt difficult and unnatural. And who would read my writing anyways?

Blogs aren’t quite the rage that they were when they first started. Twitter (which is really just micro-blogging) seems to have supplanted writing actual blog posts. A huge number of bloggers abandon their blogs, as blogging isn’t as easy as it looks. Few things are sadder than an abandoned blog. I still find blogging difficult. I struggle to produce regular posts. I wonder when I’m going to run out of things to say. (As if this has ever actually happened to me.) I fight with the length of a blog post, often too long for a tweet or Facebook post and too short to be a full-fledged article.

People sometimes ask me about starting a blog. Blogging can be complex. People smarter than I have all kinds of advice about getting more blog traffic, reading complicated analytic reports, and monitization strategies.

I’m not very interested in any of that. (I’m a historian. Maths terrify me.)
Keep it simple:

  • Make friends with other blog writers.
  • Be consistent.
  • Write about the things you care most about in the world.
  • Posts don’t have to be perfect.
  • Above all, be YOU.

The blog has become my favorite writing project. It has provided some unexpected lagniappes.

 Without the blog, my writing practice might have shriveled up and died for lack of attention. Aside from my dissertation, the blog is my longest and most consistent writing practice. After finishing the diss, I had no idea how or what to write next. The blog has improved my writing more than any writing group or workshop I’ve ever attended. I’ve thrown out passive voice (mostly), needless adjectives and adverbs, and learned to write with more active verbs. My writing remains a work in progress, but blogging regularly forces me to try to write better.

I’ve also found my public writing VOICE, which feels like a major discovery. The work of regular writing makes me think more closely about how I write and what my writing sounds like. Only after writing many blog posts did I figure out what I really sound like in written form. I still have an academic writing voice, which comes out when I’m trying to write something Very Serious. But my blogging voice most closely resembles what you’d hear if were were talking in person (complete with occasional snark). As William Zinsser reminds us, writing is really just talking to someone on paper.

The blog has also shown me where I’ve been and where I’m headed.

Year One of the blog was about sharing my writing process. I started the blog to promote my freelance editing services and build some public credibility as a writing person. I honestly thought that I’d write posts in which I’d give people sage and valuable writing advice. I found out much later that most people don’t actually want or need writing advice. My huge discovery was this: people want to feel better about themselves as writers and as people. When I wrote soul-baring posts about how mired in shame I felt about my writing, people responded with empathy. I came to understand that most (all?) writers feel like shit about their writing. What most (all?) of us really need is someone to share our writing struggles with us. Seriously, we’re all in this together.

During Year Two of the blog, I got a new non-academic job and an identity crisis. The non-academic nature of my job threw me for a loop. Was I an academic? Did I have to give up my research? Was I even still a historian? Could I teach outside of a university? I’ve spent the last year working out answers to all of these questions and more. (For the curious: yes, no, yes, yes.) Blogging helped me understand who I was without the academic identity that I’d devoted years of my life (and thousands of dollars) to building. Like my writing, its a work in process and progress.

I’m really looking forward to Year Three. I’ve been thinking about what I want to write about now. For the last few months, I’ve found my thoughts wandering towards how to make space for creative work in my life. Making that space seems all the more important now as Creating Important Knowledge isn’t in my current job description. Nevertheless, the soul yearns to make and create things. I’ve been thinking about doing more personal and freelance writing (maybe I will finish one of my novels in progress?). I’ve been also thinking about how to do some more non-academic teaching and help people create their own new knowledge of the world around them. I’m also thinking about community building, as creating and making stuff never happens in a vacuum, but results from interactions with other people and their ideas and creations. Stay tuned.

What possibly shocks me even more than the fact that I’m still writing the blog is that people are still reading it. I get tweets and emails from people every now and then telling me that they liked or learned something from my blog. And I’m so incredibly grateful and thankful for everyone who has taken the time to read, comment, and share. It’s awesome to feel heard. Thank you.

Having Courage and Writing in New Directions

True confession: I’m a compulsive blog-starter, but I abandon them after two or three posts. I don’t abandon them because I have nothing to say; rather, I’m afraid to write the things I most want to say. I started this blog over a year ago. Somehow, I’m still posting, a huge personal milestone for me. I’ve learned a lot from this blog. Most importantly, I’ve used it as a space to share about my own emotional struggles with the writing process. Much to my surprise, many people share those same struggles. We’re all trying to write while grappling with perfectionism, shame, and fear. I love getting comments, tweets, or emails about my posts that say, “Me too!” Knowing that I’m not alone in my struggles helps me move forward. I hope reading my blog has helped other people feel like we’re all in this together.

When I started this blog, I never thought I’d write about anything beyond grammar advice and occasional rants about the evils of using the passive voice. I envisioned it as a tool for teaching, rather than emotional growth. I was shocked to discover that when I wrote blog posts from an emotionally vulnerable place in my heart, people responded. For example, one of my most popular posts deals with shame. I came to realize that people’s writing problems were often emotional, rather than technical. The head and heart are never as separate as we might imagine.

In addition to opening good conversations about feelings about writing, I’m a better writer because of this blog. Regular blog writing has improved my writing more than any book or writing class. When I started blogging, I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to sound like on a blog. I am, of course, supposed to sound like me. I think I do. I’ve found my writing voice and style. I’ve learned that I prefer short sentences and words. I’ve discovered that academic wordiness exhausts me. Writing this blog has helped me take risks with my writing that I never thought possible.

I’m ready to take some new risks. I made a big decision about my writing a few weeks ago: I want to take my writing in a personal direction. I’m ready to try writing about something different than writing.

I want to write about my life.

In particular, I want to write about my life as an adopted person. I’ve got things to say about it.

 I want to integrate my writing, historical, and personal interests into a single website that reflects me as a person. I thought at one point that I’d start a separate website for my adoption writing. It didn’t appropriate for my professional “writing and editing” site. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that people are complex. The personal and professional do not exist in isolation from each other. Besides, I didn't want to write about adoption on a separate site as if It were something I should feel ashamed about.

Maintaining scholarly objectivity as an academic often frustrated me as a graduate student. Sometimes in seminars, my classmates and I derided certain monographs as “activist writing.” Privately, I often wondered how we should address subjects we felt strongly about. As scholars, I was never sure how we were supposed to advocate for people and causes important to us. I’m still not sure. However, this is my website, my blog, and my life. I can be an activist and advocate if I want.

 I think I could write a respectable academic monograph about adoption. However, I think it would always be tainted by the idea that because I’m adopted, I’m an “activist.” (As if that’s a bad thing.) I also want people to read my writing. As the statistics on my website show, my current has more hits than any of the academic work I’ve published. An academic monograph is the wrong vehicle for intensely personal writing. A blog, however, is exactly the right thing.

 Adoption has been the one thing that I’ve most wanted to write about, yet also the subject that I am the most afraid to write aboutIn the last few years, I’ve realized that I have very strong feelings about being an adopted person. Living life adopted has shaped the lens through which I view the world and directed my choices. As I’ve thought more about adoption, both as a personal experience and as an institution, I’ve developed definite opinions about it. As a life experience, being adopted is neither easy nor simple. It is a complex and deeply personal journey. I’m most afraid of what other people will think about my opinions, which often don’t reflect society’s generally positive views on adoption. What if people find out that I have strong feelings? What if I alienate friends and family? What if what I write makes people angry? What if people label me as angry? And the worst: what if my parents find out that I write about being adopted on the internet?

Any time I talk about adoption with anyone, the subject strikes people’s nerves. Adoption is both intensely personal and political. It is not just an alternative means of building families. It involves local and global issues of class, race, gender, and sexuality. Adoption requires thinking about what we believe about children and parents. It invokes histories of eugenic thinking, the ideals of post-World War II nuclear families, and public debates over who deserves to be a parent. It involves concepts of family and individual honor and shame. It sometimes involves the global flow of children from poor nations towards privileged adoptive parents in developed countries.

There are lots of people already writing excellent pieces about adoption, particularly adoptees. As the people with the least amount of power in the adoption process, we so often have no voice. I want to use my website to as a public platform from which to add to ongoing conversations.

I’m not abandoning this blog, but I’ve outgrown my website. So here’s what I think I’m going to do. I’m going to rearrange the website and make space for my personal life and writing. I’m still going to write about the emotional side of writing. (And I’m still editing, in case anyone needs an editor!) I’m not sure what the site will look like yet or how I’ll organize it. All I know is that I want to tell the story of who I am with my whole heart.