TinyLetter

I started a TinyLetter in June. I’ve written two letters so far. I imagined that I might write a letter weekly, but my imaginings don’t often sit well with the reality of day-to-day life. Part of my slowness to write these letters is to figure out how they are different or similar from my other writing. I’m not sure I have a good sense of whether TinyLetters are a particular genre or not, so I’m treating them as tiny personal essays about two topics that dominate my thinking (and writing), bodies and books.

I’m writing to you, dear readers, because I want to write more and think more about bodies and books. Also, I would love for you to write back. Let’s have a conversation. Some of you have already written to me. Thank you.

For those of who haven’t subscribed, here are excerpts from my first two letters. I hope you’ll let me write to you too.

My first letter is on writing, motherhood, and Rebecca Solnit’s Faraway and Nearby:

When I first started reading The Faraway Nearby, I adored it. I read the book while I was still rocking my youngest to sleep for two naps a day. While he snuggled close, I followed along as Solnit pondered apricots, fairy tales, leprosy, Che, Frankenstein, ice, memories, empathy, and family. My eyes strained in dimly lit nursery. My Kindle glowed illuminating his chubby face and balled fists. I was drawn to Solnit because of her essay that spurred discussions of mansplaining. I hoped to mimic the lovely intermingling of personal essay and researched explanations. The baby nursed; I read. The close proximity of motherhood and writer’s aspirations felt meaningful. I could only read about writing while he slept. I could only write while my oldest was at preschool. I was pulled into two different directions, motherhood and writing. The tension felt distinct and inescapable. 

My second letter is about my anxiety about parenting and my attempts to let my children become who they want to be:

On the drive home, fear punched me in the gut. I just agreed to let my six-year-old go to the beach without me. I imagined everything that could go wrong in intimate detail. Sunburn. Drowning. Car accident. Drowning. Jellyfish stings. Drowning. My breathing became shallow, my stomach bottomed out, and tears rolled down my cheeks. Chris could tell something was wrong,  but, I couldn’t speak without making my sobbing obvious to our kids in the backseat. I took a deep breath and tried to reign in my panic.

What if something bad happened to her?

Here’s the link to subscribe. A new letter is coming soon.

 

To muse

To muse is to consider something thoughtfully.

A muse is a person, usually a woman, who is the source of inspiration.

In May of 2013, I hastily decided that I need a new name for my blog, something that would signal the break I was taking from academia. I wanted a name that evoked transition and open endings. I settled on “In Progress” because it suggested that I was a “work in a progress” without a clear end. It also reminded me of blaring television announcements that we would be joining the program in progress. I hated these as a kid because I would miss the beloved beginnings of favorite television shows for some urgent announcement. The action started in the middle. In progress adeptly summed up how I felt. Transition whether I wanted it or not. A brief hiatus that dumped me in the middle of my life ill-equipped to handle what was next.

My blog was a lifeline in those early days of transitioning out of academia into anything else. My anguish in the posts about my grace period still feels raw and real, though I’ve long recovered from much of the hurt and confusion. I’m in progress, I would say aloud, to calm my anxiety about what would happen next. I didn’t know what kind of work I wanted to become. I just knew that I was transforming from one vision of self to another.

In those early moments, the focus on transition was a balm. I tried (and failed) to embrace uncertainty. As the last two years have gone by, transition as a theme chafed rather than healed. I found myself blogging less and less while wondering about the utility of this space for my writing and my life. I picked up more and more paid writing, so blogging felt like a distraction with no real goal. What did I have to say about my progress? What was I working toward? Who the hell was I going to be?

These are questions that I still don’t have good answers for, but I thought more and more about my blog’s place in my life and work. I’ve been blogging since 2007. I started out writing posts for Religion in American History with the hope for conversations about how and why we did our scholarship. I started my blog here in 2010 as a way to cultivate my own blogging voice separate from the group blog that I helped found. Blogging has always been my way to work things out. Short posts that explain what I’m thinking, but also longer almost-essays that work out particular problems in my research. Blogging gave me a casual way to voice concerns and create my opinions. It was my method to work through my scholarship in a public way.

Maybe, I needed to give blogging up. Maybe, it wasn’t working for me anymore. The thought of no longer blogging, however, bothered me. So, what was my problem? Why wasn’t I writing at In Progress with any frequency?

The title and format of the website no longer worked for me. They shut me down rather than inspired me to write. I was unsure of what the goal of my blog should be, but really, I was unsure what the blog did for me.

Then, I realized (with some serious help from Chris) that my blog should be whatever I wanted. This blog is my place marker in the wild world of the Internet, so it should free my creativity rather than stall it.

First, I changed the look of the blog. I chose a minimal design that forefronts writing. My blog should have never really looked like a magazine because that’s not really what I do.

Second, I changed the title to Musings, which has long been my favorite tag for my posts here. As a verb, to muse means to think thoughtfully about a topic. As a noun, it means either a dream-like state or a person that inspires you. After suggesting a particular idea for an essay, Chris likes to say, “you’ve been mused!”

Thinking, inspiring, and dreaming are excellent goals, and musing covers all three. Musings evoke dwelling with ideas, topics, and events, which is the best part of my job as a writer and essayist. Why not make my blog a place where musings are standard fare?

I hope y’all enjoy the redesign and follow along as I muse about whatever speaks to me. Hopefully, my musings will speak to you too.

 

 

 

Writing Motherhood

While finishing an essay on the Tooth Fairy and childhood beliefs earlier this week, I realized that I’ve been writing more about motherhood than I have before. At first, I was unnerved. Why was I suddenly writing more about my life as a mother? What was to be gained, or lost, by presenting my understandings of my children to the larger world? Why was motherhood looming large in my writing? And why was I bothered that my writing had taken a new direction?

I’ve mulled this question all week because Mother’s Day is upon us. Yesterday, my son’s preschool hosted Muffins for Mom (dads get donuts for Father’s Day). E and I ate muffins and played on the playground together. We climbed on tires, in boats, and on cars. We had fun. There’s even a souvenir picture.

Today, my daughter’s Kindergarten class is hosting a Mother’s Day Tea. She was beyond excited about this event. She was up early to get dressed in a fancy red tutu because her teacher instructed all the students to look nice for today. Motherhood is celebrated on one day despite all our struggles and efforts through out the year. We tend to ignore what our mothers do for us in the day to day.

I’m ambivalent about the holiday that celebrates an idealized vision of moms and our supposed sacrificial natures. Mothering is complex, as our relationships to those who mother us. Our parents cannot always be easily celebrated in cards, gifts, or meals. Many have lost their mothers. Others have strained relationships. Celebration of motherhood is not an inherent good.

I also chafe at the suggestion that motherhood is the sole force that defines me. I am a mother, but I’m also more.

Why, then, am I writing so much about my experiences as a parent? Being a mother feels unavoidable in what I’m writing. My relationships with my kids are making me think about different things than before. I want to figure motherhood out. I want to dwell with my children’s questions and observations. It is just where I am right now. I look forward to where it takes me.

The Elusive I

I’ve been thinking about academic writing and the absence of the I, the signifier of the first person. Some disciplines find the I useful as a method to that places you, the author in the text. The scholarship marked explicitly by your person, as if it could be any other way. Religious studies, however, is not entirely sure what to do with the I.

For some, relying on the first person becomes a marker of confessional identity, religious commitment, or activism. For others, like ethnographers of religion, the I is a necessary part of their practice. The scholar must be present because of the interactive relationship between you and subject. You must use the I to place yourself in conversation, events, and analysis. Sometimes, you need to note where you are and what you think. Often, this will require a shift to the first person.

My own training in American religious history seemed nervous about the I. For a long while, I was also nervous about what the use of I in my own scholarship and writing might mean.

My own journal articles (except for my article on evidence), my book (except for the introduction and afterword), book reviews, conference papers were all shorn of the author’s presence. I deleted (almost) every instance of the I.

In graduate school, advisors explained that “I think” “I feel” “I believe” weakened your arguments. This made you seem wishy-washy, ambivalent, or unconvincing. Make claims forcefully, they told me. Don’t qualify your analysis with I. Yet, I wanted to seem ambivalent because I was. I wanted to signal that this was my opinion, not a definitive statement about the subjects that I researched. I wanted less certainty, not more.

What I came to realize was that inserting your self into academic work made one’s work somehow lesser. Absent authors made bold arguments. Who needs visible qualification when you can stay hidden behind your evidence and arguments?

Graduate training eroded my presence in my scholarship. Not all of my courses sought to remove the I, but most massaged the personal pronoun away. The I slipped away in edits, revisions, and finished papers.

Our scholarship was not about us (but it always is). Objectivity was dead (except we played at it anyway). Subjectivity was an apparent flaw in the system; it couldn’t be avoided (but we tried to valiantly to eliminate it). Scholarship was about something bigger than us, perhaps nobler. It was a product of intellect, work, sources, and analysis, not bounded by the limits of our bodies and experiences (except it always was).

The I drifted away.

Even though I resented these unembodied approaches to scholarship, I acquiesced anyway. Sometimes, I still fought. I tried hard to include “I think/I feel/I argue” in early drafts of my dissertation. This was my perspective; I was fallible. Why couldn’t my prose reflect my own ambivalence, my tentative assertions, and my attempts to figure out things that might not have easy answers?

Yet, I removed the first person in draft after draft; the partialness of my scholarship smoothed away with a quick tap of the delete key. My claims and analysis appeared more assured than I ever really felt. The I was the bearer of my uncertainty, so I excised it. False sense of certainty took up residence in my work. My arguments appeared more and more convincing while I felt less convinced.

I faked certainty. I wished for doubt.

When I decided to take time away from academia, my writing transformed. The I exploded upon the page. I couldn’t contain my use of the first person. I, marked by the use of the I, appeared in every piece that I wrote speaking to doubt, heartbreak, pain, and ambivalence. Finally, I found a place in the text. I shuttered myself for too long, so now I reclaim my voice, my person, in each essay. What would my scholarship look like now? I’m not entirely sure.

What I now wonder (and fear) is that the removal of the first person in academic writing is an attempted removal of our selves from our scholarship. Editing out the I becomes a way to separate our selves from what we research, write, and analyze. Yet, what might we lose in this removal? How does the shift from first person to third person affect the way we write about our subjects and how we construct our scholarship? What happens if bold arguments can only occur with a shift away from the first person? Why don’t we want to mark our uncertainty and our ambivalence? Perhaps, we should start.

 

Gendering Brilliance

Writing specifically about merit and gender in academia, Linda A. Krefting, a professor of business at Texas Tech University, notes that stereotypes of women often “put competence and likeability in opposition.” What happens, then, is that competence appears as a problem for women, but not for men. Being too competent is coded as aggressive and assertive while appearing too feminine becomes a marker of incompetence.

Joan C. Williams, author of What Works for Women at Work and a law professor at the University of California at Hastings, describes that same phenomenon as “the tightrope” that working women have to navigate. It is a pattern of bias, in which women who appear and act too feminine are judged incompetent but women who appear and act too masculine are judged as lacking necessary social skills for the workplace. In particular, academia prizes brilliance and originality. For men, assertiveness can signal brilliance and confidence in one’s work. When women act assertive, we’re not brilliant, we are just bossy or lack social skills.

When I talked to Joan last year about her book, she specifically mentioned the gendered nature of “brilliance” in academia. She asked me, “How can you [a woman] be brilliant, deferential, and nice?” I admitted that I never mastered all three simultaneously.

How can academic women meet traditional gender norms in the workplace while also taking pride in our work, promoting our accomplishments, and showcasing our original scholarship? To be more blunt: Can academic women ever appear “brilliant” if that term — used to showcase high-level intelligence — is understood as a masculine trait?

Read more.