non-academic writing

An Academic Practices Creative Non-Fiction

I started taking a creative non-fiction class last week. I'd never taken a formal writing class, much less a creative one. I'm practicing writing creative non-fiction this week, writing about how I felt in my very first writing class. As this is a new genre for me, this is a truly shitty first draft. I'm learning.

This week, I attended my first creative non-fiction writing class. I’m practicing. I present to you here the world’s shittiest first draft, in which I write about being an academic writer in a room full of creative writers.

I had wanted to try creative non-fiction writing because I wanted to transform my dissertation into a more readable book. I still hadn’t managed to publish any of my research, save for a few articles I published in a obscure journal in 2010. A colleague once had told me that I’d be a great popular historian, which I took to mean that my writing was more readable than the average academic.

The class met in the attic of an renovated Victorian house downtown. The room was cool, quiet, and softly lit with a long table surrounded by bookshelves stuffed with books about writing. I sat at the far end, in the gunfighter’s seat. I felt safer there because I could watch everyone else. I eyed the other participants, sizing them up and wondering about their writing.

The instructor arrived. After welcoming us to the class, she told us a little bit about herself. We discovered that she was a poet, had published seven books, and was now in a PhD program. She also had a spreadsheet of writing projects to accomplish. She described to us how she’d raised her son as a single mother, getting up at five every morning to write. She’d written daily for five years straight. I tried to remember the last time I’d written five days in a row.

We began with introductions. I was the only academic. “I’m a historian,” I said to the group. I said something else about studying modern Latin America and wanting to rewrite my dissertation as a trade book. The twelve women seated around me smiled politely. Nobody knew what I was talking about. I wondered if I should leave.

In addition to introducing ourselves, we were supposed to mention the book we were currently reading My classmates were reading mostly fiction. Someone mentioned Anne Lamott’s book Bird By Bird. Someone else mentioned Roxane Gay’s new memoir, Hunger. . I think the last book I’d read was something about the history of science, probably something about eugenics, but I didn’t want to say that to a group of creative people.

Our instructor had sent us a few articles about creative non-fiction to read before our first class meeting. Having weekly readings evoked memories of graduate school seminars when professors would send us 500 pages of reading before the semester even began. I felt sure that I’d have something to contribute to the discussion. We began discussing the reading. One piece was about some creative non-fiction writers discussing what creative non-fiction was and wasn’t. The other was an actual piece of creative non-fiction by Joy Harjo.

People talked about what they liked and didn’t like about the readings. Our instructor helped walk us through some of the important points about each of the pieces. We talked about structure, pacing, authority, setting scenes, creating tension, and writing endings that weren’t totally cheesy. We talked about how to pack big ideas into small pieces of writing, like poets do. Some people didn’t like the Harjo piece, feeling like it was too artsy, too literary. I’d actually really enjoyed reading it because it packed powerful ideas into a tiny space, much like poetry. But I didn’t feel like I could say that.

 I’d done the reading and had come prepared to talk about it, but didn’t feel like I knew enough to say anything about it. I flashed back to my first grad school seminar, of sitting around a large table and feeling like the one person in the room who didn’t understand what was going on. Only much later did I realize that my graduate colleagues weren’t any smarter than I was. They’d just read more books and internalized more jargon.

We discussed setting the scene and the importance of concrete details, of describing the world with our senses. My mouth felt dry. I don’t write about the concrete and tangible; I write about ideas. I write about science shaping culture and shaping ideas about what we believe about native cultures. I was definitely in the wrong class.

“Let’s do some writing,” our instructor said. We rustled pens and paper.

We wrote short biographies to learn to take ourselves seriously as writers. I wrote about having a PhD and being a historian. I wrote about my research interests (history of science, neoliberalism, politics of adoption, Latin America). Nowhere in my biography did I say that I was a writer because it felt dishonest.

When we were done with our short writing exercises, we also talked briefly about the how writers shouldn’t write about writing. I had never heard that writers should not write about writing. I write an entire blog about my writing process. Perhaps it was self-indulgent. I’d actually been thinking of publishing a short book based on my blog. It would definitely be a book about writing, which seemed to be some kind of unspoken sin.

Our reading assignment for next week included some stuff by Natalie Goldberg. We briefly discussed how she focuses process and practice, but also about feelings. I learned that but that people don’t take writers seriously who talk about feelings. That usually women writers talk about feelings. That people undervalue women’s writing generally and that women have often had to resort to less respected genres such as memoir and travel writing.

As a historian, I knew this. The women archaeologists I researched often had to write about their scientific findings disguised as travel memoirs. About how they often carried out research more important than that of their husbands, but received far less credit and acclaim. About how media reports usually focused on their housekeeping, rather than their scientific contributions. But I didn’t say any of that.

Our teacher gave us one final writing prompt. “Why do you write?” she asked. I stared at my yellow narrow-ruled legal pad for several minutes.

I finally wrote: I write to be heard and understood.


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.