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Posts Tagged ‘writing’


I’m confronting a strange sense of déjà vu. This week, I’ve alternated between studying for the GRE, writing a personal statement, wrangling both kids by myself (Chris is on travel for work), and relying on coffee to keep me mostly alert.

I feel that I have done this process of applying for graduate school before because I have. In 2001, I applied for my MA in Religion. Now 14 years later, I’m applying yet again, but this time for an MFA in Creative Writing with a focus on creative nonfiction. The process feels simultaneously familiar and strange. I know what’s expected of my application. I can prepare. I can still get hives from worrying about a test. Yet, I never expected to consider graduate training again in the middle of my 30s. I imagined a different life than the one I have.

My life changed significantly in 14 years. I’m married with two children. Our 14th anniversary is in December. The cat remains mean, but she’s less playful. The first dog is older, grayer, and deaf. There’s a younger dog, but she’s already middle-aged by canine standards. My sister got married, so did my brother. I now have a niece and nephews. My grandmother died. I haven’t spoken to my biological father since 2007. I earned a PhD and never found that career I trained for. I started freelance writing.



The Religion Bulletin is running a series of responses to Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization (2007) by early career scholars. Matt Sheedy, the editor of the blog, asked me to contribute, so I did. I tackled thesis 15 about turning your dissertation into a manuscript. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote.

Before I graduated, I had a book contract and advance. My committee was convinced that I would have no problem getting a tenure track job. Any department, they assured, would be lucky to have me. I chose to believe them. I had four campus visits that year. Following my advisor’s advice about published seemed to work.

However, no amount of advice mattered after the market crash in 2008. The job market for tenure-track positions in the humanities, which already wasn’t good, became worse. The common lament was “there are no jobs,” but this wasn’t true. There were still jobs, but they were not tenure track. Contingent positions, those part-time and full-time jobs re-upped every semester or year, were readily available. I had no problem securing temporary lecturer gigs. My book contract might have helped. Yet, I’m not sure it mattered much when departments just need bodies in front of classrooms to teach students. I finished my book while teaching part-time and applying for tenure track jobs. I got a contract for another book after getting a full-time lecturer job.

I imagined that if I just worked hard enough and published more that I could cajole search committees into hiring me. I didn’t get a tenure track job.

So, while I agree that your manuscript does you no good in your desk drawer, I’m not entirely convinced that it does you any good out of the drawer either.

Read more.

Making An Essay

I just sent an essay on bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress off to my lovely editors at Chronicle Vitae. This essay was one I had to wrangle because there were so many things that I wanted to say alongside all the things I needed to say. Or maybe, this essay wrangled me because it refused to let me go until I had it in the necessary form for publication. Plus, there was the added pressure that I was writing about the work of bell hooks, who I admire and adore, on teaching, of which I have serious and complicated feelings. hooks is a force to be reckoned with; reckoning takes time. Her writing makes me pause and think about how the world works (and how writing works). There was much, much wrangling. I spent much time.

What I’ve learned as an essayist is that I cannot predict how long an essay will take me to conjure, to think about, and then write. Some essays surprise me by how quick they seem, and others are long, drawn-out affairs, which take months (or occasionally years) to complete. Some essays require my complete attention for days and weeks. Others linger in the back of my mind until I’m ready to write them. They bounce around as I work on other topics. They catch me unaware as I rock my toddler to sleep. They appear when I wake up in the morning or as I pour a cup of coffee. Some linger waiting for me to commit. Other ideas dissipate leaving me with a faint impression that I should write about something. Ideas don’t always become essays, yet the ideas that refuse to go away often do.

The labor of making an essay is solitary and not-quite-visible. I started snapping photos of my process in part to make my efforts visible. Inspired by Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work, I thought it might be cool to show folks a glimpse of what I was writing, editing, or researching for my essays. For me, to show, and for you, to see. For this essay in particular, I’ve been trying to capture each stage. I created photographic evidence, if you will, of what I do, but not all work is visible. I can only document that which materializes. Please keep this in mind. (more…)

Cold Takes: A Sort of Manifesto

I am over the hot take. You know what I’m talking about: the type of takes that offer a quick and often dirty view of an event, a moment, or a person. They moralize. They require little reporting. And most distressingly, they like to pretend that one’s opinion can stand in for analysis (That’s a tall glass of nope). It is a take so hot that it scorches our brains with its ineptitude and shallowness. In our saturated 24/7 media culture, hot takes dominate. Outlets seek to have the first piece up, and the quickest opinion somehow emerges as the only one necessary. Writers react rather than pause. Provocative opinions prevail. Pundits stake their claims, no matter how cynical, silly, or stupid. Everyone wants to be the first one to say something, anything really, before the news cycle moves on. The story of the moment appears and disappears as all the takes on it.

In the rush and the heat, I fear we all lose. Yes, experts, journalists, and analysts can respond in fast and smart ways. Quick commentary does not equal bad commentary, but it can be. It often is. Hot takes feel sloppy and contrived. (Hot take appears too closely related to one of my favorite descriptors, the hot mess). They lack the information we gain as an event unfolds. They cling to tired narratives of how the world works. They plug stories into well-worn cliches whether the stories belong there or not. They offer judgment, but are often light on facts. They don’t dig deep enough. They don’t question the rush, but feed it. People clamor to have a say, but no one wants to listen. Days later, italicized corrections appear at the bottom of the page. Facts emerge as rumors. Apologies are issued. But, who’s paying attention by then? (more…)

It’s Personal

Over the next few months, the glorious Liana Silva (@lianamsilva) and I are writing to each other about personal essays. We’ll pivot from her site to mine. It is a conversation in letter form. We hope you’ll read along with us. Here’s my response to her inaugural post.

Dear Liana,

I first read your post as I was making dinner, after I had picked up the Legos strewn across the floor for the third time, after I found an Olivia book tucked in a pile of research in my office, and after I tripped over a cat and then a toddler. Both kids were home from preschool and school, and I’d already warned them both about squabbling over toys and assigned 3.5 time outs. This day, like many others, is one, in which writing feels like it is only occasionally in my grasp. I’m a mother who writes, a writer who mothers.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how in the world I ended up as a writer. This appears a strange twist of fate. As my beloved Chris enjoys pointing out, I am an intensely private introvert and yet I write for audiences of strangers (and friends) about topics so personal to me: grief, motherhood, quitting, and my body.

The question is not how did I come to write essays. I think and dream in essays, but rather how did I ever come to write personal essays? I’m the person who actively avoids conversations on the topics that I write about. I smile and nod and look for an exit. I offer up a shallow example of my own or speak in monosyllables. I try to redirect attention back to the speaker away from me. I don’t talk openly. I don’t share.

How in the hell did I come to write personal essays at all? I lay bare my experiences of the world. I dwell in my heartbreaks. I try to find joy. I write openly. Or do I? (more…)