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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Missed Turn

I woke up on Sunday convinced that I have no words left. That I had nothing to say, and perhaps, I was done as a writer. That I had already written my best essays. That I had no good sentences left in me. I was out of words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and pages. I was done.

Sundays are rarely writing days for me. Weekends are family time, so I let my partner and kids distract me from the angst chasing me. They are always my favorite distractions.

On Monday morning, my alarm on my watch buzzed me at 4:45. There was a plane to catch to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I had been invited to Elizabethtown College, where my friend Richard teaches, to give a reading at Bowers Writers House. My reading was from an essay on Dozier School and my hometown, one of the most personal essays I’ve ever written. (A story that is still unfolding and that I am chasing as hard as I can.) The day before I was to be a visiting writer, I was convinced that I might no longer be able to write. The irony was not lost on me. My angst was fitting, and truth be told, somewhat expected. My writing life can be narrated as story of doubt, angst, and anxiety. I keep trying to tell another story, but this is the narrative that continues to emerge.

As I pulled out of my drive way, I probed this fresh (and melodramatic) concern about writing. Out of the neighborhood, take a left, pass construction and new development, take a right, drive past big churches and small churches, other neighborhoods, stop at red lights, and take a right onto I10 to get the airport. The interstate snaked in front of me, but the darkness of the early morning meant I could only see what the headlights made visible.

Why, I thought, did I feel like I had nothing left to say? Was I not nourishing my creativity? Were there no more stories for me to tell? Was I actually running out of words? This seemed improbable, impossible even. Of course, there are still things I want to write. At any given moment, there’s a revolving set of essays stored in my head, on to-do lists and post-it notes, and in my journals and planner. Perhaps, what I really meant was that there are topics on which I have nothing left to say. Topics that no longer interest me. This could account for some of my fatalism, but not for all of it.

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Motherhood and Creative Work

12279060_1151170324908256_2735112922242816204_nDearest Liana,

I keep looking at this quote from Miranda July on motherhood and creativity. It has made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter, and I shared it too. I read this quote 10 days after reading your most recent letter, and I cried in my office while the dogs stared at me and the cat chose to ignore me.

July describes how our culture grants men the freedom to pursue their work, their careers, and their creative projects without much discussion of family obligations. “We give fathers all kinds of permission to focus on their work, to be creatively consumed,” she writes. Mothers, unsurprisingly, are not granted the same privilege. When mothers are creatively consumed, we face cultural pressures about what mothers should and should not do. (Often, these are pressures we’ve internalized and assume are the way things are.)

Creative work, like many other forms of work, comes with a host of gendered expectations, which I’m still learning to navigate.

In October, I did a series of public lectures that kept me away from home for six days. At the end of my last trip, I was riding in a cab on the way to Fargo airport and making small talk with the driver. He was telling me about the money he was saving by living in the nearby Moorhead, MN, where I just lectured. He asked if I traveled much for work, and I admitted that I didn’t. I let it slip that I had two children. He took his eyes off of the road to stare at me and asked increduously, “Who is watching your children?” I explained that their other parent had the situation under control, but he looked skeptical. I kept the conversation going until I arrived at the airport, but I was unnerved by his question. All of a sudden, I felt remarkably guilty about my trip. My kids were at home while I was off on my own. I was living my life without them. My mood soured. I was annoyed at my reaction to his question, but also his assumption that mothers were the sole caretakers of children. The mommy guilt appeared and remained with me. My trip was no longer as enjoyable as it had been. I ate Skittles for lunch in protest.

For mothers who want to pursue creative work (and any other work), July notes, “The guilt is unreal.” (more…)

Story

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.

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Professionalization

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…)