Just tell the truth

Close up of type writer with "stories matter" typed on the page.

A few years ago, I applied to an MFA program at the university in the same town where they lived. I set up a meeting to have coffee with a faculty member in the program. He was only a few years older than me. He had a few books out, fiction, but he was pivoting to non-fiction. I had already been writing non-fiction. I had already been writing personal essays.

He bought my coffee to be nice. We both drank our coffee black. We joked about writers and coffee. He asked me about what my writing projects were. I told him. He seemed interested.

And then, we started talking about the difference between fiction and non-fiction. I explained that writing fiction wasn’t quite for me. He countered that he wasn’t quite a fan of personal essays because they were often too much about the personal and not enough of the universal. I countered his counter. He thought we agreed to disagree. I thought he was wrong.

As I was taking a sip of my cold coffee, he leaned over and said, “You know what I love about non-fiction?”

I eyeballed him.

“You just have to tell the truth!” he continued.

For a moment I paused, unsure exactly what to say. I settled on, “Um, okay” and promptly left.


The Honesty of Halloween

Cat on a branch in front of a harvest moon.

For as long as I can remember Halloween, I have loved it. Consistently. Faithfully. Deeply.

Halloween was often my favorite holiday, and it remains so. It was easier than the bigger holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, which required me to be shuttled back in forth between my divorced parents. Half a day with only family, half a day with another, always waiting for the tension to boil over. Always waiting for my biological dad to find a way to let me know that I ruined yet another holiday simply because I missed my mom.

I dreaded both Thanksgiving and Christmas. I never knew how either would turn out but I was always waiting for something to go wrong. Often, something did. I was blamed. In some ways, I still dread both holidays, my mind and body primed and preparing for the worst.

Each year, I pined for Halloween.


Writing for a Public Audience

The 16 Stages of Writing Books

Open book in black and white.

I am currently working on an expansion and revision to one of my previous books. As with any of the other books I’ve written, the writing process has its ups and downs. (Currently, I am in the downs phase, which is frustrating and makes me want to bang my head into my desk. Repeatedly.)

Writing each book is always hard. It is never not hard. But, the hardness shows up in different ways depending on the book. You only figure out how to write the book you are currently writing, which means each new book requires figuring out how to write the darn thing. (Why, why, why?!)

However, I have come to realize that writing a book, at least for me, has a familiar pattern, and it requires a certain number of stages. At least 16.

So, here are the stages* of my writing process, the good, the bad, the in-between: (more…)

Succeeding Outside the Academy Shines a Light on Failure, Too: A Conversation between Kelly J. Baker and Katie Pryal

Close-up of railroad tracks.

Hi readers, this interview appears not only here at my site, but also over at Katie Rose Guest Pryal’s site. I hope y’all enjoy our discussion of careers, shifting out of academia, and the important role of failure.


From 2013 to 2015, Kelly J. Baker wrote a monthly column for Chronicle Vitae (an arm of The Chronicle of Higher Education) called “Grace Period,” detailing her experience leaving the academy for a career that she made for herself. In 2017, Grace Period became a well-regarded book.

Oftentimes, when we see academics who’ve left higher education and made new careers for themselves, we wonder how they’ve done it. Baker has done more than just talked about her new career: in Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, she shared the good, the bad, and the ugly of the transition from the work she knew to the unknown. As readers, we learn about not only the new career, but also the pain and mistakes that it took to get there.

During the same time period as “Grace Period,” Katie Rose Guest Pryal wrote a monthly column for Chronicle Vitae called “The Freelance Academic”—now the basis of a book to be published in June of 2019. Although it is a different kind of book than Grace Period, The Freelance Academic does share one important characteristic: Pryal doesn’t shy away from her pain and mistakes, either.

Last year, Baker published a new book, Succeeding Outside The Academy: Career Paths beyond the Humanities, Social Sciences, and STEM (co-edited with Joseph Fruscione, University of Kansas 2018). Pryal is also a contributor to the book, and Baker was her editor. What follows is a conversation between Pryal and Baker about Succeeding, and failure, and about what it means to leave behind academic life.


Not So Graceful Period: My Alt-Ac Story

Railroad tracks in different directions.

Often, I get asked to talk about how I have the career I have now as editor of Women in Higher Education. Folks often want an easy story of point A (Religious studies PhD) to point B (editor and writer). They expect it to be linear and simple to follow. One thing lead to another and suddenly I have a new career that pays a fairly decent wage. I just shifted from one career to another. Easy peasy, right? Um, no.

I tend to subvert those easy stories that folks like to tell about their transitions outside of the academy. Rather than telling a story that wipes out my failures and focuses on my successes, I talk about how I struggled. Struggle is the one word that I would use to describe my career transition. I struggled for years to figure out what kind of career I wanted to have, how to get to that career, and then find my way to a semi-permanent gig.

My career is a hodge podge of gigs that I have pulled together after years of effort and the luck of the draw. The gigs change each year. Some gigs disappear. Others I let go. Then, I find something to replace them. Sometimes, I don’t.