Power of Words

Academic Writing Month: Bring it On!

This week, I have written something everyday: pitches, blog posts, drafts, and lists. I managed to finish an agonized column that I’ve been writing off and on for two months, and I should finish a review essay by early next week. I even sent off a pitch for a personal essay on tattoos, which is a topic that I tend to not be forthcoming. Last week, I finished a column and hit “publish” on two blog posts that had been hibernating in my Evernote files for at least nine months. There are more of those to come.

More importantly, I sat down with my files on my zombie manuscript this morning to strategically plan how to finish the damn thing. I’ve done more work than I thought I had (good), but there is still so much more to be done (not bad, exciting even). I feel like I am finally back in the writing groove after my slump this summer and early fall (also good).

Here’s the thing: I like writing. I actually enjoy it. Yes, it is often hard, but I am much happier with myself when I write. I feel productive. I process what’s happening in my life. I push all my torturous thoughts onto the page to get them out of my head. When they linger, they only do do damage. On my desk I keep a note that I wrote months ago. I keep trying to throw it away, but I can’t bring myself to. My frenetic scrawl reads, If I write them down, maybe I can let them go. It is my reminder to write out the thoughts, emotions, and things that trouble me. I follow, no more agony over what could have been. This is good advice that I often don’t take. Writing saves me from myself. Continue reading

istockgraduationmortarboards

On graduate school orientation

A colleague suggested that I write a series of reflections of what I would say to my younger academic self. Hindsight, of course, allows me to tailor advice knowing what the outcome will be, but these reflections also allow me to think about my journey to academic to something else in a way that I haven’t before. Here’s my first in the series, Notes to a Younger Self, which starts at almost the beginning as it should.

On graduate school orientation

You are going to cry after graduate school orientation. You are going to cry A LOT. This is okay. After all, this is the first time you been gathered together with all the other smart kids. You are used to being one of the only smart kids in the classes at your big state university. Now, you are confronted with all the other students who are also used to being the only smart kids.

This is what I know about you, Kelly. You feel outgunned. You want to panic. I need you to take a deep breath.

Just breathe and listen.

I know what you are doing right now. You are looking around the seminar room at all those students sitting around the gray, awkward table. You listen attentively as they describe their training and their summer adventures. You are waiting for the inevitable moment when you have to explain why you should be here too. You don’t feel like you belong. You begin to question your decision to go to graduate school. You are pretty sure that you will fail melodramatically.

I know what you are thinking. All these students seem smarter, more eloquent, better trained, and more ready than you. Many of them described European vacations, summer research, and other things that seem forever out of your reach. I know one guy will tell the group that he got married and his truck got struck by lighting. I know that you’ll be hesitant to note that you’ve been married a mere eight months. What you don’t know is that this guy is a member of your cohort, and he’ll become a dear friend. His humor offers you brief respite. Continue reading

Heidelberg 112

Haunted

Are we all haunted?

My paternal grandparents lost their middle son, Carl, in a car accident. He was almost 20. His car collided with a parked semi truck. He died. My other uncle,  Stevie, walked away from the accident physically unharmed. I can’t speak to other harms. We never talked about it, and he died seven years ago. This tragedy came to define my father’s family. His death was a gaping wound. Sometimes, woundedness bound them together, but this loss also distanced them from one another in particularly intimate ways. Their mutual pain became distinct and separate. His absence made him even more present.

His death became a reminder of the tenuousness of life and the finality of death. He haunted them, and later, the rest of us.

I never met Carl because he died almost three years before I was born. Yet, he lingered. I was told throughout my childhood that I was like him. This was not necessarily a compliment, more often it was an accusation tossed out in anger. I learned that Carl was funny and warm, but also willful and determined. He didn’t follow the path dictated by my grandparents, and they wanted us all to follow their rules. He challenged them. I challenged them years later. I often wonder if they loved him more because of his refusal to bend while I am pretty sure that they loved me less.

The story of his life was often avoided. My mother, who divorced my father when I was three, was more apt to talk about Carl. She loved him like a brother. He brought her joy. The story of his death came to me in hushed whispers, eavesdropping, and conversation with my mom.

Here’s what I can piece together. Before the accident, Carl and my father had a shouting match about Carl’s (reckless) driving. My father vowed to never ride with Carl again, and he never got the chance. Those last words spoken in anger haunted him. When my father was depressed, he would say that he should have been the one to die. Nobody, he told me, would miss him. Carl was the favorite, he explained, as if that explained anything. The stark pain of his words have stuck with me. His anguish was visceral.

As a child, I became accustomed to the seesawing of his moods. Hyper happiness interspersed with bitter depression. After determining the mood, I altered my approach to him. When he declared he should have died, I told him how much I loved him. I was convinced that if only I loved him more, maybe he would not say such things. When he would let me, I hugged him while he cried. As an adult, I realize no amount of love would have cured what was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder. As a child, I had to try.

In those painful moments, I imagined what things would be like if Carl were still alive. His pencilled portrait graced the wall in my grandmother’s living room. I can barely remember what he looked like in the portrait. He had shoulder-length hair and maybe a moustache. I’m irritated that memory fails me. I spent hours upon hours trying to decipher who he was in each pencil stroke. I stared and stared, waiting for some clue to who he was. No one would directly talk about him, and I was too reluctant to ask.

The pain scabbed over the wound, and it was best not to pick at it.

Instead, I imagined my dead uncle and how he would fit into our wounded family. Would he like me? Would I like him? Would my father be happy? Would my grandmother be less rigid and demanding? Perhaps, I would fit in. On the bad days, I thought Carl would have rescued me from the moods and my desperate attempts to fix the someone who I couldn’t fix. As a child, I hoped someone would step in and save me.

I will never know how life might have been different if Carl survived that wreck.

I grew up and became older than he ever could be. I walked away from my father’s family to save myself. Some wounds never heal. Some hurts become unbearable. I like to think that Carl would comprehend my decision, but I also know it doesn’t really matter.

 

zombie

#Day2014

This week, I had the pleasure of giving the second annual Day Lecture at the University of Alabama. The Department of Religious Studies hosts a lecture on religion and popular culture in memory of Zachary Daniel Day, a former student who died unexpectedly at the young age of 26.  His father, Charles Day, and stepmother, Nancy Campbell, established the fund that supports the Day Lecture. I met Charles, Nancy, and Zach’s sister, Ashley.  I learned that Zach was a fan of zombies.  I’m not a fan, but I hope my analysis of zombies would have interested him.

My lecture was on zombies in American pop culture, particularly Night of the Living DeadThe Walking DeadWarm Bodies, and The Reapers are the Angels, as a way to think about ethics, violence, and the construction of humanity. Any chance to talk zombies is a chance I take. Mike Altman (and others ) live tweeted the lecture under #Day2014, and he created a really cool Storify if you want to see what I had to say about these monsters and their discontents. The University of Alabama’s student paper, The Crimson White, covered the event. There’s even an action shot documenting how I always talk with my hands. All in all, I thought the talk went well. Students raised good questions, and I managed to not run into a podium or trip over my own feet (sometimes it is about the small victories).

The lecture, however, was only part of my trip.  I visited classes to discuss topics ranging from blogging and online writing to gender and horror, met with majors over lunch to talk about apocalypticism, conspiracy theory, and campus events, and chatted with faculty formally and informally about my transition from academic to freelance writer, contingent labor, and the academic job market. There was much to say about zombies (there always is), but there was also much to say about my transition and how I understand my writing.

When Russell McCutcheon, the chair of the department,  first approached me about the lecture, I wasn’t entirely sure  that a former academic was the best choice. This was my unvoiced concern and my impoverished definition of academic. Yes, I was working on a book on zombies. Yes, I think and write about religion and popular culture. Yet, I wasn’t sure that I was still an academic, and I felt squeamish about participating in anything reminiscent of my former life.This is rather silly when you stop to think about it.

I’m still a scholar; I’m just not in academia. The context has changed, but I haven’t. Why should I let myself be bogged down by limiting cultural expectations? I shouldn’t, but sometimes I do.

And now, I am so glad that I didn’t.

My lecture was FUN. Preparing for it revived (pun!) my interest in my zombie manuscript and helped me think about what is really at stake in this type of project. Talking about zombies with the faculty clarified what I want to do, what I need to do, and what I haven’t done yet. Moreover, explaining how I view my academic writing versus my online writing gave me much to think and write about.

This Department of Religious Studies is one of the best I’ve ever encountered. The faculty are engaged with students, with their research, and with each other. They are encouraging and gracious, and they are so very smart. I learned something in each conversation, and I hope they can say the same. This department made me wish for something I thought I might never want again, an academic job. If I had ever interviewed at a department like this, I would have taken a job in a heartbeat.  Importantly, I would have had a very different impression of the job market and Religious Studies departments more generally.

If you are ever invited to visit with this department, you have to say yes. Thank you Merinda Simmons, Sarah Rollens, Eleanor Finnegan, Mike Altman, Russell McCutcheon, Steve Ramey, and Ted Trost for the conversations, coffee, meals, and time well spent.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Power of Words

On Writing and Selling Out

“Writers are always selling somebody out,” Joan Didion explains in the opening pages of Slouching Toward Bethlehem. These words clawed at me days after reading them in December. Now months later, the words still scratch at me when I begin to write.

Didion’s words give me pause as I start new columns and projects. Do writers, implicitly or purposefully, sell out those we write about? Do we craft the stories of others for our own purposes whether it be fame, money, or bylines?

Didion’s insight could just as easily be applied to academic writing as well. Do academics sell out the people we research, analyze, and write? Sometimes, I fear that we do. When we turn people into our objects of study, we stake a claim about what kind of people are studied and what kind of people do the studying. Those demarcations contain judgment that makes me uneasy because I’m complicit too.

Writing is always our crafting of their stories; the author/scholar decides what becomes significant, what we need to learn, and what is valuable.  I, then, wonder about writing’s relationship with the telling the truth. With journalism, there’s an assumption of “just the facts, Ma’am” as a method to truth (of which I’m skeptical). Non-fiction writing seems to be about making the best of narratives that we are given. Familiar stories surface. They are repeated and sometimes contested. Certain narrative rhythms catch our attentions. They lull us into repetition, and repetition gives a ring of truth. Yet, we all lie too.

Who do we sell out?

Figuring it out one post at a time.