I love to write. And I love thinking and talking about the writing process almost as much as I love to write. I've long been invested in the idea that as scholars we need to think of ourselves as writers (so many of us don't, or are afraid to). And we also need to embrace the idea that the scholarly writing we do is creative. Because guess what? IT IS!
Since the early 2000s I have designed and led workshops, seminars, and retreats that explore how some of the same strategies used by creative writers can also work for academic writers. I set most of those activities aside for several years to focus on other things. But after a couple of fun and rewarding teaching/mentoring experiences in 2018, I decided to dive back in again. So, starting later this month (January 2019), I will send out a monthly newsletter called Scholarly Writing as Creative Work. This is an opt-in email that you academic writers out there can subscribe to for a little writing inspiration in your in-box each month. (Don't worry, I'm definitely not selling anything or spamming anyone or sharing email addresses. Nope, nope, nope.) This little project is something I've been thinking about doing in one form or another for 15 years, so I'm excited to be finally taking the plunge.
If you're interested, you can sign up here.
A friend recently shared on social media an article called "How to Make Writing in the Humanities Less Lonely." In it, the author shares her experiences leading a grad student/faculty writing group where writers gather twice a week to set goals, write, and celebrate accomplishments. She rightly points out that such groups offer structure, accountability, and also build community among writers who may often feel isolated in their work. Having participated in several different kinds of writing groups over the past twenty-five years (some but not all devoted specifically to scholarly writing), the successes she describes really resonate with me. As my grad student advisees well know, I'm very much of the "make writing a part of your daily life," "even thirty minutes a day will get a dissertation written" camp. And I try to embody that approach in my daily work, where every day ideally includes some writing/research tucked in alongside my teaching, mentoring, and administrative duties. But there's value to other ways of working as well. And this article got me thinking about all the various ways that I have approached the ongoing task of figuring out how best to arrange my writing life.
Writing Groups: Some of these groups were ongoing, while others were more ad hoc. Some, including several on my campus, involved meeting to workshop a draft manuscript or fellowship application. These kinds of groups offer opportunities to connect with fellow writers and researchers and get valuable feedback on work in progress. But some of my favorite writing group experiences have been more like those this article describes: a group of writers gathers together at a designated time in the same physical space to write in the company of one another. This can be as simple as meeting at a friend's house and writing together for a couple of hours to the more complex task of putting nearly 30 writers in campus conference rooms for a daylong "writing marathon," as a colleague and I did a couple of years ago. I've even done a virtual version of this where a small group of writers living in different states convenes on a Google Hangout to connect before going off on our own to write; a few hours later, we reconnect (literally) to talk about what we accomplished during that time. No matter how you do it, there's really nothing like the intellectual buzz of sitting in a room where other writers are doing their thing. Seeing how engaged others are in their work helps me to stay engaged with mine.
Writing Retreats: Group retreats provide all of the benefits I talked about above, but offer the added bonus of being able to build momentum across several days and combine writing with other activities. I have traveled to lovely out-of-town places to meet friends to write for a few days, and once helped to lead a retreat that combined writing with yoga. Some of these experiences had more structure than others, but the key to success for me is that they alternated sustained periods of being able to work on my own stuff with socializing, exercising, and eating good food. I know of several colleagues in my field who regularly get together with friends for weekends at a retreat center, or a cheap cabin in the woods, or at someone's house. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it does need to give you a chance to get away from the regular duties of daily life and pound out some writing that might not as quickly or enjoyably come in other ways.
Solo Writing Retreats: This is my newest writing practice, and I've found that I really enjoy it. Last fall I spent a week learning about 19th century photography practices at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, and then joined colleagues at a conference at Syracuse University. But there was a gap of about five days between the workshop and the conference, and it made no sense to travel all the way back to Illinois just to turn around and head back again. So I decided to find a place to hole up and write. I ended up renting a small vacation house in the country that had everything I needed. It was in a quiet location, offered comfortable spaces for writing, had wifi, and was situated on a few acres of land that were perfect for long walk breaks in the middle of the day. (It even came with a resident cat who came by the patio to visit and lie in the sunshine every afternoon at four o'clock.) I spent three full days writing, reading, and walking. I woke up when I felt like it and went to sleep when I felt like it. I ate and drank what and when I wanted. And although I talked on the phone several times to my spouse, I went three days without speaking in person to another human being. To be honest, I wasn't sure I would like this kind of writing retreat. I feed on interaction with others, and didn't know how I might react to being left to my own devices for several days. But it ended up being a really wonderful thing and I'm so glad I did it. (So glad, in fact, that I've planned another, shorter one that's coming up soon.) Let me be clear: not everyone has the time, money, or circumstance to do this kind of retreat. This year I've had a fellowship to work on a book project. That, coupled with a family context that makes this kind of thing occasionally possible, has made all the difference. But once the fellowship is over and I return to a more regular work context, I still want to keep an eye out for other options for solo writing adventures. Maybe it's that I am solidly ensconced in middle age now, but whatever the reason, it turns out that I really like having time alone to think stuff worth writing about.
(photo above from my solo retreat in New York last fall)
Last month I had the great fortune to participate in a five day workshop at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY. The workshops, run by the museum's Historic Process group, introduce participants to historic and so-called "alt-process" photography practices. ("Alt" essentially equals everything before digital.) The wonderful Mark Osterman and Nick Brandreth, themselves outstanding photographers, taught a group of seven of us -- a fun crew of photographers, art students, and a couple of academics like me. We learned how to print photographs using albumen and salt processes, the predominant ways that photos were printed on paper in the nineteenth century. Both are "printing-out processes," which means that you coat the paper with a light-sensitive silver solution, then expose a negative directly onto the paper -- which we did outside of the Eastman House, during a very sunny September week. Pleasant!
I originally decided to attend the workshop because I wanted to learn more about some of the 19th century processes I'm studying for my current book project. And it was hugely helpful for that. But I left also realizing that these process are rich, living art forms that can and do inform the work of photographers today. (For just one example of current work, including my teacher Mark Osterman's, check out this new exhibit at the Howard Greenberg gallery in New York.) Many of my colleagues in the workshop work with some of these processes already, or came because they wanted to add them to their repertoires. As for me, well, I hadn't set foot in any kind of darkroom since 1994, and while I've practiced photography for fun for more than twenty-five years, my skills are nothing much to speak of. Still, it was great to learn these old but new-to-me processes. I left the workshop inspired and excited to practice what I learned.
Here is a slideshow of a few images from the week, along with brief descriptions of what you're seeing in each:
Since August 1st, I've officially been on research leave to work on my book project, American Presidents and the History of Photography from the Daguerreotype to the Digital Revolution. My work this year is being supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, for which I'm so, so grateful.
Different chapters of the project are in various stages. Some I've given as talks, while others are more substantive drafts and still others are just an odd collection of folders of PDFs, Evernote notes, and image files. It's all over the place right now. But in a good way. (I think.) Mainly, this year my job is to follow my curiosities and see where they take me. And to write my butt off.
What's giving my work structure right now is my daily tomatoes. Tomatoes, you say? For those of you unfamiliar with the Pomodoro Technique, I encourage you to check out this informative piece from ProfHacker. The Pomodoro Technique derives its name from the Italian word for tomato. Remember those old red plastic kitchen timers that looked like tomatoes? No? Well, in the dark ages that's how people kept time. With a red plastic tomato that ticked away the minutes. The Pomodoro Technique posits that we can work productively if we divide our work into 25 minute chunks, separated by 5 minute breaks. Then repeat as many times as you can, given your schedule or inclination.
I've been writing using tomatoes for several years now, and it's the single best practice I've adopted as a scholarly writer. It's hard to admit this because academics are supposed to be motivated purely by intellectual gratification, but I'm someone who is often more motivated by externals. Yes, I could just get up and run early in the morning, and maybe 82% of the time I will. But I'm more likely to show up 100% of the time if I know one of my friends will be showing up at my house to join me. For me, the Pomodoro Technique offers that external framework that keeps me on track. I've found that the 25-minute time frame works for helping me get started when I'm just not feeling it. No matter how unmotivated I'm feeling, or how busy I am with other things that day, I can usually do at least 25 minutes of something. In addition, the end of that 25 minutes serves as a good break point - I don't have to worry if my brain starts wandering over to thinking about Facebook or Twitter or email because I know that soon enough I'll have that short break to do that stuff. It also helps me set parameters and realistic goals based on other things I have going on: "Today I will do X number of tomatoes, but tomorrow I will only do Y number because I have Z going on." Finally, as a faculty member who usually has multiple research, teaching, and service commitments happening at any one time, I've found it's good for keeping track of the amount of time I spend on various parts of my job. It helps me not to let certain kinds of work overbalance others.
A couple of years ago when I substantially revised this site, I envisioned that it would include "old blog posts given new life." In that spirit, I now take you back to the halcyon days of November 2009, when I wrote "Mentoring on My Mind," a summary of the main ideas I and others shared in an NCA panel on women and mentoring. (Includes a special shoutout to the then-nascent RSA Career Retreat.)
Mentoring On My Mind
Nov. 18, 2009
Mentoring is much on my mind lately. This past summer I agreed to participate in a college initiative that initially appeared to be focused on teaching, but seems to have drifted into the more amorphous category of "mentoring." I'm struggling to figure out what to make of that. And I'm always thinking about the ways I mentor undergrads, grad students, advisees current and former, and colleagues.
Last week I was on a wonderful NCA panel on women and mentoring, which was useful for helping me clarify some of my ideas about mentoring. Here are a few things that emerged from the collective conversation:
1. Mentors and advisors are not the same thing. The consensus seemed to be that the advisor is more squarely focused on academic and professional development, in a sometimes narrow but useful sense. That is, the advisor's job is to train you professionally, help you finish, and help you get a job. Mentors, on the other hand, may also be advisors but don't have to be. Mentors are those who can guide you at those moments when the personal and the professional (inevitably) overlap. They can help you navigate the institution, make sense of the frequently insensible, answer the questions you might not want to ask of those who hold your professional future in their hands.
2. We all need more than one mentor. No one person can give you this kind of guidance. Were I asked to identify my mentors, I would name senior and peer colleagues in the field, colleagues in my department and on my campus, friends, and family members.
3. Formality and confidentiality. Folks with experience in formal mentoring programs emphasized the importance of laying down ground rules for the relationship. One of those ground rules was confidentiality: knowing that what is said between mentor and mentee stays between them and isn't in danger of being shared with anyone else.
4. Don't forget your secret mentors. One panelist mentioned that she has "secret mentors," people who don't even know they are mentoring her. I love this idea. We all have these folks, whether we're conscious of them or not. These are people that you might study from afar, whose ways of being you admire: What choices do they make in their careers? How do they allocate their time? How do they conduct themselves in public? How do they treat others? Watch, observe, and learn.
5. Associate professors need mentoring, too. While there are very good reasons why institutional mentoring and/or career development programs will want to privilege junior faculty, the reality is that many associate professors feel left out. Several of us on the panel are in that liminal space between untenured and full, with few formal mentoring opportunities available to us. I've blogged about this before, and it's a real concern. Especially for women. When female full professors are in short supply on a campus, and don't exactly have tons of time to mentor associates, what are the options? #4 works, but more formal opportunities should be available as well. Last summer, RSA launched an initiative it calls "Career Bootcamp," which is taking up this question directly. It seems to me some combination of discipline-level and campus-level engagement with this question would be ideal.
Last week I learned that I have been offered a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for 2016-17 for my project, American Presidents and the History of Photography from the Daguerreotype to the Digital Revolution. I'm honored and excited to have the opportunity to spend 12 months focusing on the book project, and grateful for those who helped me craft my application, wrote reference letters, and showed interest in the work. And now the fun begins!
It's been a busy few weeks for Making Photography Matter. In mid-November I learned that the Visual Communication division of the National Communication Association named it "Outstanding Book of the Year." This is an especially meaningful honor because the Visual Comm division was the very first thing I joined when I became a member of NCA twenty years ago. For them to honor my work all these years later makes me feel really good (and, truth be told, really old). Thank you, Vis Comm!
In other MPM news, last week I was interviewed by communication/rhetoric scholar Karma Chavez on Madison radio station WORT's program "A Public Affair." It was a fun, wide-ranging conversation about several topics, including Civil War photography, rhetorical methods, why 19th century Americans were obsessed with Abraham Lincoln, and what my students have taught me about selfies. You can listen to the interview here.
A couple of weeks ago, the good folks at the Chicago Humanities Festival announced their lineup for the 2015 event, which will take place from Oct. 24 through Nov. 8. And I'm thrilled to be on it! The theme of this year's festival is "Citizens."
My talk, "A Presidency in Pictures," will be based in part on my book project in progress, which studies moments of technological transformation in the history of photography through the lens of the American presidency. I was invited to speak as part of the CHF's collaboration with the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois.
Here's how the Chicago Humanities Festival describes its mission: "The Chicago Humanities Festival is devoted to making the humanities a vital and vibrant ingredient of daily life. We believe that access to cultural, artistic and educational opportunities is a necessary element for a healthy and robust civic environment." Amen to that!
Not only is it a great honor to be able to speak and to represent my campus at this event, but I've heard from several folks that the CHF audiences are simply the best around. I can't wait.
You can find out more about the Nov. 1 event here.
I tweeted this list a few weeks ago, at a moment when I was struggling with producing prose and needed to remind myself that yes, I am a professional and I actually do know what I am doing most of the time. This list seemed to resonate with folks, so I thought it might be nice to repeat it here with a little bit more elaboration.
1. First drafts always take longer than I think they will.
This always surprises me, and no matter how much I warn students about this, it usually sneaks up and bites them on the butt, too. If I had a dime for every time I've set an arbitrary, and in retrospect wildly impossible, deadline for a first draft, I'd have that lake home in northern Minnesota by now. Don't get me wrong: it's good to set deadlines. But they need to be reasonable, and set in relation to the actual realities of one's life and calendar. For awhile I did a thing where I would set a deadline that I totally thought I could meet, and then simply add six weeks to it. Honestly, for first drafts? That wasn't far off. Sure beats feeling terrible about broken promises to myself.
2. If you give yourself 10 minutes to just get going, you'll get on a roll.
My one-time marathon running coach* and former editor of Runner's World, Joe Henderson, says that even if you don't feel like running that day, you can always get out and tell yourself just to run a mile. By the time you're only a few minutes into that mile, you've likely forgotten your resistance and will be running happily. Same thing happens for me with writing: I just tell myself I'll go in and tinker a bit with what I wrote yesterday, or do a little free-writing (see #5), and before I know it, I'm off and running. "Write a mile" works every time. (*Yes! I am a terribly slow, amateur runner, but Joe Henderson actually WAS my marathon coach at the 2003 Dick Beardsley Marathon Camp in Minnesota - as evidence, here's an article I wrote about it.)
3. Regularity matters more than quantity (or even quality).
I can't emphasize this enough. Really, this one could be the only thing on this list. There is never all the time in the world to write. But there is almost always some time. Writing regularly means that I don't lose track of my train of thought, that the project grows organically from each earlier effort, and before I know it (plus six weeks), I've got that first draft I've been desperate to achieve. I started fencing a few years ago, and fencing's way of keeping score is apt here: when you score in fencing it's called a "touch." I've started thinking of my writing not in terms of the number of pages I've written or the number of hours worked, but in the number of "touches" - as in, "I touched my project four times this week." Combine this idea with the Pomodoro Technique, and you're good to go. "Tomatoes" = touches.
4. When I'm stuck, asking myself, "What do I really want to say?" can usually get things rolling again.
I think I stole this one from Natalie Goldberg. It works. It gets you past worrying about what Goldberg calls "Monkey Mind," that imaginary advisor, editor, or worst critic who lives inside all of us and tells us we suck. We don't suck; we just haven't figured out what we want to say yet.
5. When in doubt, free-write.
I stole this one from Natalie Goldberg, too. I first read her Writing Down the Bones in the summer of 1989 and it changed the way I write, both creatively and professionally. Vomit it all on the page, and then clean it up. Pretty picture, isn't it? But that's not all you do. Goldberg advises you to free-write, then set it aside for a few hours or a day. When you go back to it, underline/highlight sentences and ideas that resonate, that reflect what you really wanted to say, that hit the mark. Then work from those. I go back to this strategy again and again, and it always works.
Research news, commentary on visual politics, and a few old blog posts given new life.