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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

The Men Who Email Me

As I was driving home today from dropping off children at school and preschool, my mind drifted to the men who email me about my writing. I’m not quite sure why I decided to think about these men, who I’ve never met but who chose to contact me anyway. Perhaps, I thought about these men because of the discussions surrounding the #MoreThanMean video, in which men read the harassing tweets that other men send to women sports writers. The catch is that they read the tweets out loud to the writers. Some of the men can’t say what was tweeted aloud. The campaign hopes to bring attention to the online harassment of women in sports. Of course, online harassment of women writers is not just a problem for women who write about sports, but women who write about anything (and women on the internet more generally). I know this factually as well as intimately because it has happened to me.

In 2007, I started blogging at Religion in American History. When I began writing more about racial violence and white supremacy, commenters were not nice. When I wrote about the murder of George Tiller, a commenter threatened my life. I shrugged off the threat; my partner did not. After my book was published in 2011, I started receiving emails from men who read my work and expected me to respond to their criticisms. A Son of the Confederacy emailed to let me know how wrong I was about Nathan Bedford Forrest being a Klansman. He accused me of harming Forrest’s legacy. A man claiming to be the Second Coming of Jesus wrote me a letter, in which he called me “honey” and told me that I was wrong about the Klan, race, religion, and well, everything. If I only would visit him at his home, he would explain what was really happening in the world. I declined his invite. I laughed off the letter; a member of my department told me to contact the FBI.

On the Facebook page I created for Gospel According to the Klan, men have called me a racist, threatened to beat my ass, and promised to hunt me down and show me how wrong my racism is. None of these men seemed to recognize that I’m a historian that studies the Klan, not a member of the order. I took screenshots of their messages and reported them to Facebook. I tried to find humor in the situation.

These emails and messages were anomalies in my life that I tried to make into funny stories about the weirdness of being a scholar in the internet age. When freelance writing became my career, these were no longer anomalies but realities. I’m a woman who writes on the Internet, which means men email me to tell me what they think of what I’ve written whether I want to know or not. My attempts at humor are long gone.

This morning, I found myself thinking about all these men, who are strangers to me, and the routine similarity of their emails in tone, style, and content. 

The men who email me tell me that I’m wrong. I’ve made the wrong argument. I’ve missed the essential issue or the salient details. I’ve made errors and mistakes. I didn’t use data. I used too much data. They assert that gender is not as big of an issue as I make it out to be or that I don’t realize how hard it is to be a man. They assert that I can never be anything but wrong. (more…)

Reading Essays

Some days, I want to read essays rather than make them. I yearn to linger in the words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages of other essayists. To lean in close and let their words wash over me. To listen carefully for the patterns of their language, their idiosyncrasies, flourishes, and routines, rather than the familiar sound of my own. To step into the worlds their essays create for a little while. To feel what they want me to feel. To learn something I didn’t quite know. To see how they build a narrative or resist one. To hear how they tell a particular story in a particular moment on a particular page. To experience the conjuring of a world rather than being responsible for it.

Reading essays allows me to stop thinking about mine. I ride along the currents of their essays for hundreds or thousands of words. I savor the beginning and the end of the ride. I start and finish another essay and another. I’m seeking knowledge of our shared craft of essay-making. I’m looking for secrets or possibly hidden wisdom. I’m reading their collections and searching for community. For a few minutes, I feel like I belong.

I’m an essayist too, I want to say to the printed pages. I write essays too. I know that it can be a solitary existence that consumes waking and sleeping hours. Being an essayist means always looking for essays and often finding them. The day starts with essays percolating in my head. The day ends that way too. I rifle through topics picking some and discarding others. While walking the dog, I can hear the opening line. I repeat it again and again to remember it, to remember that this can be an essay. I write essays in my head and sometimes, they make it to the page.

Being an essayist colors my existence. Daily events appear to me as essays. I test out their resonance on me before I test them out on other people. Parts of my life offered up as fodder for my craft while other parts remain protected from my writing. I interiorize the world to recreate it on the page. I seek a narrative, a story arc, the meaning or lack thereof to guide the essay. Mostly, I resist the urge for familiar narratives because I want to see how a story unfolds rather than direct it. (more…)

Interviews and Award

Last week, two interviews with me about Gospel According to the Klan went live. (Can you believe people still read and want to talk about this book? So awesome.)

The first was a previous interview from 2013 with A. David Lewis on the Klan and zombies, which is now available as a podcast from the Religious Studies Project. Here’s their description:

Many of us only know about the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan through film and television, and much of what we see blurs fact and fiction. Distinguishing each side of that messy divide is the prolific Kelly J. Baker, exploring how media portrayals of the hate group have influenced audiences and, in turn, fed back on its own members. This previously unaired interview conducted by A. David Lewis from 2013 sketches out the rise of the KKK on the large and small screen, its relevance to discussions of religious terrorism today, and perhaps even a link to Baker’s other work on zombies in popular culture.

The second is a part of Richard Newton’s lovely Broadcast Seeding podcast. Richard and his Spring 2016 Ethnicity, Gender, and Religion Seminar students asked some great questions about my Klan book (and even some questions about my tattoos that didn’t make into the interview). Here’s the blurb:

Historian and freelance writer Kelly J. Baker joins us to discuss her compelling research on the Ku Klux Klan. Baker shows us how this group’s success in the 20th century speaks volumes about the racist underpinnings of American Protestantism.

And finally, the BTS Center’s Bearings‘ series of essays on racial justice, Standing for Justice, won a DeRose-Hinkhouse Award of Excellence from the Religion Communicators Council. My essay, September 11th, was a part of the series. I’m so glad Bearings editors, Elizabeth Drescher and Alyssa Lodewick, continue to let me write for them.

Wrenches at Your Insides

Last week, I binge-watched Scream Queens, a show that is a send up to the slasher films I mainlined in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I was a horror buff: Michael Meyers, Freddie Krueger, any random serial killer, killer children, monsters that lurk in the shadows, humans becoming monstrous, and my beloved Scream (which I watched on repeat). Not only did I watch any film I could, I mastered in Stephen King’s novels. His ability to make me care about his characters and then viciously destroy them was as fascinating as it was disturbing. Horror showed me how bodies could be unmade. How bodies were maimed, cut, shot, tortured, and killed. How a body’s hurts could be physical and visible. How blood splattered on the floors and walls was a sign that things had come undone. Horror showed me the consequences of violence, physical and psychic. It stood as a warning of how terribly wrong things can go.

I was a horror buff, until I wasn’t. Maybe, I outgrew horror. Maybe, horror outgrew me. It is hard to say. I drifted away from these movies after I made the mistake of watching The Ring on the big screen and wasn’t able to sleep for days. I was convinced that the scary little girl might climb out of television to hunt me down. This film was not realistic horror, but supernatural. Yet, it disquieted me. A child comes back from revenge because of how she was treated. Supernatural vengeance was not a comfort. I locked myself in my bedroom of my barely two-room condo with Hannah the dog and Belle the cat to create a sense of distance between me and our TV.

Scream Queens evoked something familiar with a new twist, the sorority girls of Kappa Kappa Tau fight back against the Red Devil who hunts and kills them. I started watching Scream Queens in the fall, but couldn’t keep up with the show each week. I wanted to see how it ended. Who was the killer? What were the plot twists?

Life got in the way.

Last week, I started watching Scream Queens again to escape. Hannah, my now elderly dog, is dying. I can do nothing about it, but bear witness. Chris was out of town. The kids dutifully attended school and preschool. I felt helpless and alone as I checked on my old dog throughout the day and night. I turned to a television show that was as far away from life as I could muster. I was never in a sorority. I was not a rich kid. I avidly refused to pledge because I feared the money it would cost to join. I was never a mean girl like Chanel (Emma Roberts) with her disdain, cruelty, and casual racism. I watched Scream Queens to chase mortality from my waking thoughts. This show understands the importance of theatrics in horror. It dwells in the spectacle of death and the ability of bodies to be unmade. It evokes terror and makes fun of it simultaneously. (more…)

Writing Advice

I detest giving advice. No, that’s not a strong enough sentiment. I hate giving advice, so I generally avoid giving it unless someone forces my hand. Advice pretends to be universal, though it really isn’t. Our situations are particular, complex, and fraught, and advice rares brushes the surface of this complexity. Advice pretends to be applicable to everyone while knowing it never is. I’m leery of people who willingly offer up advice, especially unsolicited advice. I didn’t ask I want to say, but never do. I often wonder what those who spout advice envision human experiences to be, and I figure what they envision looks remarkably similar to their lives. Something worked for them, so it must work for us? Their certainty makes me twitchy. I usually look for an exit.

It is hard for us to imagine the lives of others, their circumstances, their situations, and their constraints because often we aren’t aware of our own. How do we get outside of our own heads long enough to grapple with someone else’s reality? (Can we?) This is why I hate giving advice because of the needed particularity. I understand fully that life is hard, but what if I can’t imagine the particularity of that hard for you? I know there are others who can’t quite imagine why a task takes Herculean effort for me and barely any from them. What advice can I offer you without knowing more about your situation? Some of the most common advice that I’ve received proved to not work for me, and I beat myself up about it for awhile. I tend not to now. Advice is cheap; lots of people clamor to offer it up. This is why I hesitate and pause and usually fumble the question when someone asks me for advice. This is also why I tend to be searingly honest about my own situation. I provide the context for what I end up saying, even then, I still hate giving advice.

Three weeks ago, I did a reading in front of audience of mostly undergraduates. This was my first reading, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I made it through the last paragraph of my essay and choked up. This essay is one of the personal and vulnerable that I’ve every written. I read and reread it aloud because some of the paragraphs were hard for me to get through without tears. I made it through, but the last few lines hit hard. I took a gulp of bottled water and another, cleared my throat, and waited for questions. The undergrads were hesitant, but they started asking questions, good ones about craft, research, process, and audience. The last question of evening came from my friend, Richard, who asked what kind of advice I would have liked to heard as an undergraduate about being a writer. The question, one I should have seen coming, threw me.

I paused to gather my thoughts and then offered up the first thing that came to mind: “I never imagined I could be a writer.” (more…)