Goodbye to All That

I slipped into a funk about my writing, especially about writing a book that no longer had a home, and about my life more generally. I decided that I hated writing, even as I continued to write columns, personal essays, pitches, and blog posts. I wrote and wrote and wrote. So maybe I didn’t hate writing; I just hated this manuscript and way it made me feel like an academic failure. I couldn’t get a tenure-track job, and I couldn’t finish a project I had started almost three years ago. What was wrong with me? I kept the cancelled contract in my desk as a reminder of this particular failure, but the mere thought of it left me teary-eyed. I decided to ignore both the manuscript and the returned advance.

I thought I was over beating myself up about my exit from academia. Apparently I wasn’t.

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Monsters

I’ve been thinking about monsters. Not the zombies I usually research and write about, but the language of monsters that lurks in our everyday speech. The rhetoric of horror is so pervasive and so present. It comes to us when we have something to speak that seems unspeakable. It is deployed to justify violence and harm. It is used to vilify and to distance. It appears in moments of trauma. The language of monsters is disastrously unavoidable.

I’ve been thinking about how we create monsters and ultimately about how we destroy them. Creation and destruction tangled together, dependent on one another. Their ubiquity begs for explanation when I have no words to give.

I’ve been thinking about monsters because I also can’t quit thinking about Darren Wilson killing Michael Brown.

Like so many people, I was heartbroken over the grand jury’s decision last week. I was also enraged and frustrated. I keep looking at my children and imagining the suffering of  Brown’s parents and all the parents that fear the same fate for their children. I don’t know their anguish; I can’t really. But, I’m haunted by autopsy sketches, the pain etched into his mother’s face, and the wounded bodies of protesters. I hug my children a bit tighter and hold them more closely. I also realize that their white skin offers them protection that Brown did not have.

I keep coming back to monsters.

In his testimony for the grand jury, Wilson described Brown, “it looks like a demon.” Dexter Thomas notes the dehumanizing language that Wilson employs with both “it” and “demon,” which resonates with a larger history of denying the humanity of African Americans. Thomas describes how the events in Ferguson feel like a bad movie playing out exactly like we feared it would. Spoilers aren’t an issue, if the pattern is the same.

Continue reading Monsters

Notebooks

I keep a notebook for my ideas of what to write. Actually, I keep notebooks (plural), virtual (Evernote) and physical. Fragments of what I write rest in so many places. I cannot corral my words even when I try too.

None of my notebooks are even close to full. Blank pages dominate my frenetic handwriting. Each notebook represents  different moments in my life as a writer. They are evidence of my contradictions, my successes, and my failures.

There’s a black and white floral one that had plans for chapter five of my dissertation. I’m unsure whether I followed these plans. There’s a magenta notebook that feels like it is made of suede. It is not.

There are many black notebooks. One of which I cannot bring myself to open because I’m afraid of what I will find. That one is an anguished journal, in which I try to make sense of where I am at and where I have been. There are previous selves that I am not quite ready to encounter (again). There are moments I am not proud of.

At least one is repurposed. It is small and spiral-bound. The cover is green and brown. “Wine” is hastily written on the cover. Years ago, I thought I would get into wine because people I knew were into wine. I decided to document my favorites and their tasting notes. I quickly discovered that I don’t like wine that much. I feel outclassed by wine drinkers, and my tasting notes are shit. I ripped out the wine pages with much prejudice. Now, that notebook contains my thoughts on Joan Didion’s essays on self-respect and others from Slouching Toward Bethlehem, possible columns for Sexism Ed, and some colorful drawings by my daughter. Since I wrote in the notebook, she did too. A purple whale and a pink snake rest between my jottings on kindness and my summaries of episodes of The Leftovers. Writing and motherhood intermingle. Her whale makes me smile every time I thumb through that notebook. Continue reading Notebooks

Academic Writing Month: Bring it On!

This week, I have written something everyday: pitches, blog posts, drafts, and lists. I managed to finish an agonized column that I’ve been writing off and on for two months, and I should finish a review essay by early next week. I even sent off a pitch for a personal essay on tattoos, which is a topic that I tend to not be forthcoming. Last week, I finished a column and hit “publish” on two blog posts that had been hibernating in my Evernote files for at least nine months. There are more of those to come.

More importantly, I sat down with my files on my zombie manuscript this morning to strategically plan how to finish the damn thing. I’ve done more work than I thought I had (good), but there is still so much more to be done (not bad, exciting even). I feel like I am finally back in the writing groove after my slump this summer and early fall (also good).

Here’s the thing: I like writing. I actually enjoy it. Yes, it is often hard, but I am much happier with myself when I write. I feel productive. I process what’s happening in my life. I push all my torturous thoughts onto the page to get them out of my head. When they linger, they only do do damage. On my desk I keep a note that I wrote months ago. I keep trying to throw it away, but I can’t bring myself to. My frenetic scrawl reads, If I write them down, maybe I can let them go. It is my reminder to write out the thoughts, emotions, and things that trouble me. I follow, no more agony over what could have been. This is good advice that I often don’t take. Writing saves me from myself. Continue reading Academic Writing Month: Bring it On!

#Day2014

This week, I had the pleasure of giving the second annual Day Lecture at the University of Alabama. The Department of Religious Studies hosts a lecture on religion and popular culture in memory of Zachary Daniel Day, a former student who died unexpectedly at the young age of 26.  His father, Charles Day, and stepmother, Nancy Campbell, established the fund that supports the Day Lecture. I met Charles, Nancy, and Zach’s sister, Ashley.  I learned that Zach was a fan of zombies.  I’m not a fan, but I hope my analysis of zombies would have interested him.

My lecture was on zombies in American pop culture, particularly Night of the Living DeadThe Walking DeadWarm Bodies, and The Reapers are the Angels, as a way to think about ethics, violence, and the construction of humanity. Any chance to talk zombies is a chance I take. Mike Altman (and others ) live tweeted the lecture under #Day2014, and he created a really cool Storify if you want to see what I had to say about these monsters and their discontents. The University of Alabama’s student paper, The Crimson White, covered the event. There’s even an action shot documenting how I always talk with my hands. All in all, I thought the talk went well. Students raised good questions, and I managed to not run into a podium or trip over my own feet (sometimes it is about the small victories).

The lecture, however, was only part of my trip.  I visited classes to discuss topics ranging from blogging and online writing to gender and horror, met with majors over lunch to talk about apocalypticism, conspiracy theory, and campus events, and chatted with faculty formally and informally about my transition from academic to freelance writer, contingent labor, and the academic job market. There was much to say about zombies (there always is), but there was also much to say about my transition and how I understand my writing.

When Russell McCutcheon, the chair of the department,  first approached me about the lecture, I wasn’t entirely sure  that a former academic was the best choice. This was my unvoiced concern and my impoverished definition of academic. Yes, I was working on a book on zombies. Yes, I think and write about religion and popular culture. Yet, I wasn’t sure that I was still an academic, and I felt squeamish about participating in anything reminiscent of my former life.This is rather silly when you stop to think about it.

I’m still a scholar; I’m just not in academia. The context has changed, but I haven’t. Why should I let myself be bogged down by limiting cultural expectations? I shouldn’t, but sometimes I do.

And now, I am so glad that I didn’t.

My lecture was FUN. Preparing for it revived (pun!) my interest in my zombie manuscript and helped me think about what is really at stake in this type of project. Talking about zombies with the faculty clarified what I want to do, what I need to do, and what I haven’t done yet. Moreover, explaining how I view my academic writing versus my online writing gave me much to think and write about.

This Department of Religious Studies is one of the best I’ve ever encountered. The faculty are engaged with students, with their research, and with each other. They are encouraging and gracious, and they are so very smart. I learned something in each conversation, and I hope they can say the same. This department made me wish for something I thought I might never want again, an academic job. If I had ever interviewed at a department like this, I would have taken a job in a heartbeat.  Importantly, I would have had a very different impression of the job market and Religious Studies departments more generally.

If you are ever invited to visit with this department, you have to say yes. Thank you Merinda Simmons, Sarah Rollens, Eleanor Finnegan, Mike Altman, Russell McCutcheon, Steve Ramey, and Ted Trost for the conversations, coffee, meals, and time well spent.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!