Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The power of dejection

The year doesn't feel as if it has gotten off to a rip-roaring start. The Arctic chill that froze much of the northern half of North America sent me huddling indoors. Two rejections to paper proposals have arrived in my inbox in the past three days. Despite my very best intentions to be on top of my game with writing and teaching, I'm already behind with work. And, to top it all off, the bank account coffers are nearly at zero, and there's still a full week before payday.

So how do I feel?

Better for just writing it out.

There's something joyful about the relationship of honest anonymity that a writer enjoys with the page. The relationship -- like all relationships -- has its ups and downs, moments of love and moments of pain. But the page is like a momentary salve. It's almost like a form of communion with a holy spirit.

As I wrote out my woes, the page reminded me of my joys. The biting cold and thick layer of snow help ensure that the soil will get a good soaking this spring when the temperatures warm and the snow melts into water that seeps into the earth. And they do offer a good excuse to enjoy one of the more relaxing aspects of winter: toasting one's toes before a fire. Although I feel that I am behind on my work, I know that my sensation is more of a symptom of a work life that requires supreme multi-tasking and that at least I'm pushing my way through the tasks. Even if I am cash-poor at the moment, I am comfortable knowing that all of the bills have been paid and that there's enough food in the house and enough gas in the car to make it to payday. And with it is a realization that this might be the perfect weekend to use the $15 discount card at the local fish shop that my husband and I received as a holiday gift. I'm already getting excited about the three meals that $15 of fish could prepare: steamed clams with pasta; mussel stew; and a lovely steamed porgy, a baked sea bass, some fried ling cod.

As for the rejections, a new realization emerges. Many writers have pointed out that rejections are a sign of success, even if they don't always connote success at first gasp. The rejections indicate that work is being submitted and that ideas are being put out into the world for testing and feedback, instead of remaining fearfully confined within the covers of a notebook or tucked into a Microsoft Word folder.

I saw the first of the two rejections in my inbox late Monday night. With that rejection came a note suggesting that the piece might be more suitable for a different journal, one that the editor specifically named. I didn't agree with that assessment and went to sleep feeling fairly down. When I woke up, the first words that I put down in my morning pages were about the rejection. Even as I was writing the words, ideas for a new approach started to fly at me fast. I thought of two other journals to which I could submit the paper. I also realized that while I didn't think the journal that the editor suggested would be a good fit for this particular piece, I already had submitted a proposal on a related topic to an academic conference with which the journal was affiliated. So, once again, ideas are in circulation and conversations are emerging.

It strikes me, however, that even if the relationship of honest anonymity is one that I know about, it is one I tend to neglect. Rather than turning to the page as soon as the rejection came in, I spent hours feeling moody and sorrowful, wondering if I were cut out to be a writer, second guessing my ability to meld serious scholarship with pleasant prose. Yet, the moodiness snapped as soon as I wrote it out. Why didn't I just write it out first?

A simple answer is that I didn't think to do so. A more complicated one is that the page, symbolically, is in this relationship, too, and needed perhaps some time to respond. Dejection then becomes less of a "bad mood kind of thing" and more of a way of processing thoughts. It is perhaps a way of unwinding before a night's rest. Writing the words is like the next morning -- a new day, a fresh start.

Friday, December 6, 2013

After NaNo

November has evolved into an energizing -- and perhaps exhausting -- month for writers across the United States. It is the month of NaNoWriMo (NaNo, for short), or National Novel Writing Month.  A formal non-profit organization formed in 1999 to promote literacy, fun, and fellowship and over the past fourteen years has evolved into a wildly dispersed grassroots group of writers, networked via social media. More than 300,000 formally participated in the group's primary activity, which is to write a novel of at least 50,000 words in 30 days, and most likely thousands of others participated on an informal basis. Those who registered at the official NaNo site were able to post updates on word counts, receive motivational pep talks, and take advantage of a range of free or deeply discounted tools, resources, and gifts for writers.

I first joined in the effort in 2010, and did succeed in writing a respectable first draft of a novel based on tarot card readings I did for a variety of people during that November. I have not looked at that draft since November 30, 2010, but I do have a copy on my hard drive and would like to go back to it some day.

My efforts in 2011 and 2012 ended in failure. This year, however, I succeeded, though I did not write a novel, as I will explain below. The thrill of the success lay in what I learned and have since put into practice about the life of a writer who also maintains a day job. I will get into these details shortly. First, however, I want to talk about the failures.

I failed in 2011 and 2012 for two reasons: I am not a fiction writer, and I do not write as a hobby. What is insightful to me was that those reasons for failure ended up being the reasons I succeeded in 2013. Knowing at the outset that I was not going to write fiction and that no matter how enjoyable writing is for me, it is first and foremost work and not play helped me marshall the energy of a supportive community of hundreds of thousands of people -- most of whom I never will meet -- in engaging in a shared experience of putting words down to page.

So the thrill of success.

After my 2012 failure, I began to ask questions: Did I fail because I could not write fiction? Did I fail because my job was overwhelming me? Did I fail because I had too many other projects on my plate? Or, perhaps, was the real reason for failure the lack of commitment to writing as an essential component of my work?

Pondering these questions made me realize that the last of these four questions cut to the heart of the matter. The question of whether one can or cannot write fiction is ridiculous. Anyone who writes can make up a story, and whether a "novel" drafted during National Novel Writing Month actually is a work of fiction or a work of non-fiction or even poetry is largely irrelevant. Nobody is looking at what the words on the page actually say, except for the writer herself. And even the writer is probably not going to look until at least a month or two later when he is ready to start editing the work. The goal is to write words. The genre is up to you.

Questions two and three -- overwhelm at the office and too many other projects on the plate -- could be legitimate reasons for the failure if the writer did not see the work of the office and the other projects as part and parcel of her writing experience. I am fortunate. I happen to have a job that requires a lot of daily writing on topics, thoughts, and projects related to matters of the heart and mind. So overwhelm can easily be managed if the job and the work of writing become intertwined. Other projects have a similar characteristic to office overwork. For many of us, projects are a way of life: We always have them. They have deadlines that need to be met. And, more often than not, they require writing. And, if you're selective about the projects you choose to take on, they, too, can become integral aspects of the writing life.

And, so, the question of commitment. On the last day of December 2012, I made a great resolution and publicly announced it on Facebook as the "grandmother" of all 2013 resolutions. The resolution was that I would be a writer: I would think like a writer, I would act like a writer, and I would behave exactly as a professional writer of my age and level of experience ought to be behaving.

So what did all mean? As I entered 2013, I felt that, for me at least, being a writer meant writing with a more sustained daily commitment than the three pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness minimum that was asked of morning pages. It meant writing at least a certain number of words every day, developing a work plan for a project list and seeing it through, and most importantly it meant putting submissions into the mail. It also meant learning all that I could as part of my busy life schedule about the art and craft of writing and it meant tapping into whatever amassed collective energy I could find among other writers to harness for my own strength.

Like many New Year's resolutions, this one didn't exactly get off to a rousing start. I also entered the New Year as a freshly-minted non-drinker (which created some personal struggles) and I was involved with many projects that I came to realize over time were draining -- not replenishing -- my creative and writerly sources. Unlike most New Year's resolutions, however, this one has resulted in what I would call success. The year ends with me writing every day -- seriously, every day -- a minimum of 750 and often more like 1,000 to 1,500 words, usually on a specific project that I am developing. Each day starts with an examination of my project list and an assessment of what work s needed. And I am now submitting an average of two or three pieces a month, compared with fewer than that for a year.

How did NaNo help me change? For starters, it challenged me to increase my daily word count. Over the past year, I read interviews with or articles by many prolific writers about their personal writing practices, and took advantage of such things as readings or workshops to query many writers, as well. I learned through this investigation that most writers have a daily time set aside for writing -- usually during a realistic time of the day -- when external distractions are minimal, and that they use this time to get most of their writing done. Most have a daily word-count goal of 1,000 to 2,000 words that they strive to reach, and most know how long it will take them to write that number of words, on average. Most also only write for a maximum of three hours a day, though I did read an article where Stephen King claimed to write five or six hours a day -- whatever it took, he claimed, to reach 2,000 words. I started to use a website called in April, and quickly discovered that I could write 750 words in an average of about 26 to 40 minutes. I also discovered that I hated getting an e-mail from the site administrator saying that I had failed in the month's challenge, which was something that had occurred when I tried using the site initially, first in September 2012 and then in November of that year. When I started in April, I resolved that every e-mail I received from "Buster," the site's administrator, would be one applauding me for my success. So far, that's been the case. I figured that if I could write 750 words in 40 minutes, I could write 2,000 words in slightly less than two hours. So I set that figure as a daily goal for the month of November. It ended up being more of an average daily than an each-day daily, with some days coming in at just the 750 minimum of and some days netting over 4,000 words.

NaNo also helped me channel my multiple projects into a unified whole. I started the month thinking that I could write each day on my still-needing-to-be-completed book manuscript, on my hip-hop research, and on "other things". I did not write on each of these projects every day. Rather, I wrote on one for two or three days, then switched to a different project for a breather. I mainly alternated between the book manuscript and hip-hop research; however, I discovered that about every seven or eight days, my brain begged for a chance to try something entirely different. And so I gave myself permission to take days off and used those days to create stories for the multiple blogs I began maintaining over the past year and other things.

In November, I also discovered a Facebook group that posts calls for literary submissions. I began using this group as an almost daily resource to submit poems and short stories that I had developed over the past year. As my submission pace picked up, I began to realize that I could deploy the same tactic for the longer, slower academic essays that I also like to write. I have never been comfortable with submitting my work, but the supportive environment of the Facebook group participants have encouraged me considerably.

The final way that NaNo helped me was by letting me triage or refuse to commit to projects that were not supporting my writing practice, simply by showing me that if  wanted to devote two or three hours a day to writing, a few hours a week to making submissions, and a few hours a week to reading in order to seek out fresh ideas and be current on both news and academic developments, I simply could not let the time and energy I put into my office work and projects expand beyond a certain number of hours in the week. I also could not allow myself to get invested in other people's "issues and anxieties" or in institutional debates that had no easy answer. So, I adopted a strategy of writing at home (with my phone plugged in upstairs, out of site and out of hearing distance) for a few hours in the early morning, devoting time in the office to the necessary work-related projects, and making sure to depart at an early enough hour to get in a workout, dinner with my husband, time with my cats, and another hour or so with my computer.

The month of November has spilled into December. Light snowflakes are flying and a pile of projects awaits. I could feel overwhelmed. Instead, I feel calm and organized. I have a plan and I have the discipline. I feel like I can call this all being a writer.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Navigating time

I am returning to my "day job" in a couple of weeks, following what my college calls a "reassignment." The reassignment is like a mini-sabbatical that offers one a chance to release one's self from daily duties of the workplace in order to delve more deeply into a long-term project. I feel in some ways that I never left my day job entirely, as I felt that it was still important to attend some -- though definitely all -- meetings and to be responsive to the students for whom I serve as mentor. This situation -- coupled with deadlines for long writing projects that were not completed earlier -- sort of frittered the reassignment time away. Still, I feel that I got more accomplished than I would have if I hadn't had this release time, and learned some things about when, where, and how I write best. Most significantly, the time off gave me a mental and emotional refresher, and I find that as November nears, I am looking forward to being back on the job full time.

So what did I learn about writing that might be useful to pass on?

For starters, I discovered that a three-stint approach seems to work well for me, and is something that I might be able to continue with my life when I am back to work full-time.

I have described in previous posts my years of doing "morning pages." These three pages of longhand writing form the core of Julia Cameron's Artist's Way philosophy, and are aimed at first clearing out the "mental junk" that's keeping one from doing real, serious creative work and two getting to the creative work itself. I have fifteen years of history now as evidence that the practice works -- for me, at least. I have drafted syllabi, roughed out papers, written poetry and prose, and pushed numerous now-published pieces forward simply through the doing of morning pages.

What I have found, however, is that the morning pages do not necessarily lead all the time to the actual doing of creative work. The pages take 42 minutes for me to write when I am working at my fastest, and sometimes a couple of hours when I'm deep into a train of thought that I don't want to let go of. I can close the notebook at the end of that two hours feeling a sense of accomplishment over having broken through a block or having worked out something that was bothering me. But the bottom line is that longhand writing in our 21st century society is incomplete. If you want to save what you have written, you have to type it up. Typing is time-consuming, especially as it often means editing along the way. Typing also can be tedious, and I'm the type of person who finds ways to put off doing that which will be tedious. Hence, great ideas or good thoughts might sit in my notebook for days or weeks, before finding their way into the essay that I'm working or the other longer piece.

I decided to try a second tactic beginning last April, which was to free-write nightly at a site known as The site's organizers -- Buster and KelliAnne (at least these are the names they use on the site) -- set it up as a free space where users could do morning pages in an electronic format. If you sign on, you receive a daily e-mail urging you to write and a congratulatory note after you've done the work. Silly as it seems, those e-mails have a powerful effect. I have written every night for 197 days straight, and about 90 percent of the short pieces that I've produced have found their way into blogs or other spaces.

However, has its drawbacks, too, at least in the manner in which I've been using it. It's great for creating what I'll call "one-hit wonders" -- short pieces that can spew from heart-to-head-to hands on keyboard with minimal pain. But, from my perspective, it doesn't lend itself easily to longer-term projects. It's all about what can be begun, developed, and concluded in one sitting. Unlike the pen-and-paper notebook, it doesn't seem to work quite well in terms of allowing one to pick up the next day what was started earlier.

Some of this might be because I almost always do the writing at night -- after a day of work, running, cooking and enjoying dinner with my spouse. The writing occurs as I am relaxing, and reflecting on what has occurred that day. It's about closure, about ending so I can start again tomorrow -- not with something that trailed off in the middle but with something new. I like writing and sharing the quick hit pieces on my blogs, and the small but fairly loyal audience that I've been able to attract seems to like these pieces, too. So, I'd like to keep them. Which brings me to the three-stint approach.

If morning pages are a preparation for a day and is a culmination of the day, the middle section of the day is essentially the day itself. One might think of that middle time as the eight-hour work day, where one prepares a to-do list and tries to carry it out as best as possible. Often, of course, the work day means personal aspirations are set aside because "the stuff" that one must do to serve the collectives with which one affiliates comes up. For me, that stuff is grading, responding to e-mails, troubleshooting problems that arise, completing tasks, and, yes, meeting with others. It also means, however, things like bringing in the harvest, paying bills, making sure I get my workouts in, and doing my share of what needs doing at home.

Technically, I was supposed to be free of the work obligations at least over the past two months. Realistically, I wasn't free because needs keep arising. "Stuff" -- both at work and at home -- often is rooted in relationships. To keep the relationships strong, one can step back but not tune out. What I learned as the time ticked on was that I actually was okay with that, as long as I was able to get in a third stint of writing at least two or three days a week. I also learned that these stints follow a law of diminishing returns. Unless you're in the fervor of the almost-finished (as I was last night and stayed up gladly until 2:25 a.m. to push to the end), you're probably going to get more done in two or three hours of writing than in a whole day devoted to nothing but the page. There are exceptions to that rule, of course, such as the enormous amount of writing that I can accomplish when I'm fortunate enough to be locked up in a hotel room or at a retreat center and am able to receive all meals, no Internet, and anything else I need. But the regular norm seems to suggest: do the two or three hours, then get up.

I am fortunate to have a job as a faculty member for an online learning center within an accredited and respected college. The characteristics of my job mean that "stuff" happens all the time, around-the-clock, 24/7, and because of that, I can organize my day around so that I write in a non-negotiable way. The challenge is living up to one's own commitments and not allowing that which was defined as non-negotiable to be negotiated away. And, so, for the next few months, as I return to work in a full-time way, my plan is to enact the three-stint day: morning pages, 750words at night, and two to three non-negotiable hours of writing at least three times a week in the middle of the day. I'll keep you posted on how it progresses.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Organizing Principles

(This post also appears on my blog, Hip-Hop America, accessible at

I'm attending the Rensselaerville Writers Festival as I write this post, and during a morning workshop, a reference to walking came up. Workshop facilitator Peter Trachtenberg was leading us through an exercise of discovering affiliations and passions, and points and places in life where those affiliations and passions converge. He suggested -- in a delightful way in which he hinted that the idea had just come to him -- that this is the point where one should begin to write.

I loved the suggestion because I realized that one affiliation and one passion on my list converged with a point and a place in life that would help me wrap up my writing on my soon-to-be completed book manuscript, and that a second affiliation and passion converged with the same place but a different point in a way that might provide the perfect entry point for my second book project. What's relevant to this essay is that the place of convergence in both instances was Seattle, which brings me to walking.

Writing workshops usually include a certain amount of sharing among participants, either of writing generated in prompts during the workshop or of work prepared beforehand to be brought in for discussion. The only writing we did in this workshop was the lists of affiliations, passions, points, and places so that's what we shared. Time was short so we were only allowed to share one.

When a participant shared walking as a passion, I realized that walking also was a passion for me even though I hadn't put it on my list (opting for running and bicycling and swimming more generally). I also realized that it underscored the passion I did share out loud -- making things myself, creating something out of nothing -- that I shared, and that walking was tied up intrinsically in the affiliation I shared, of writer. Walking also took me to Seattle, which was the place where I realized that many years earlier I had begun walking first as a matter of course, then as a vehicle for discovery, which evolved into curiosity and inquiry, and ultimately into an organizing principle for life. Trachtenberg suggested that when something becomes an organizing principle in life, it can serve also as a guiding force for writing, moving the pen and the narrative through rain, snow, sunshine, clouds, sleet, and wind toward destinations that might be unknown at the moment but become clearer as the principle's organizing logic unfolds.

I think I can trace the start of my walking to an impulse that has kick-started many other endeavors in life: a desire to be less wasteful and to save money. I used to work at The Seattle Times and paid $20 a month (yes, seriously, in 1989, that is how much I paid) to park my car in a lot three blocks from the newsroom. At some point, the parking fee went up, and I decided that since I actually lived less than a mile from the newsroom, I could give up my parking spot and walk to work. I did need my car on days that I had interviews or other out-of-the-office commitments, but for years I was able to manage to find street parking anywhere from one to eight blocks from the newsroom.

At first, my walks were fairly straightforward treks down the hill from my apartment to the newsroom, but over time evolved into longer and wider breadths that took me across unfamiliar streets and into new neighborhoods. The walks sometimes helped me discover new styles of landscaping, new activities or new projects and translated from there into stories for the newspaper.

The practice stretched away from Seattle and into new cities that I would visit, both inside and outside the U.S. My boyfriend and I at the time often organized our weekend jaunts around walking treks and labeled ourselves urban walkers.

In graduate school in Honolulu, walking became a way to ease stress, to understand urban life in the islands, and often to get exercise. I remember one time period in 2000 when a series of life-changing events occurred, throwing me into a crisis of self-doubt. Walking through the crisis introduced me to people who began walking with me and sharing their stories of personal strife, of asking me to talk to them about Marxism and colonialism (after they found out I was a graduate student). Walking through the crisis also helped me save my own life. Walking in 2000 led to running, and to my first marathon.

When I moved back to Seattle in 2006 with my husband, we did so without a car. The 1988 Honda Civic that I had bought new when I had moved from Kansas City to Seattle died with 217,000 miles on its odometer and went to the Honolulu office of the National Kidney Foundation as a donation. A couple of other clunkers we owned briefly also went to the donate-able scrap heap. We figured we could get around Seattle with buses, bicycles, and our feet -- and until I began teaching in the outer suburbs of the city, we did. And even after we got a car -- a 1990 Volvo for $500 -- we continued to walk as much as we could.

The post-2006 walks got me through two more marathons, and numerous part-time and contract jobs. They opened my eyes constantly to changing conditions in the Seattle and to the shocking state of the devolution of daily life in our post-industrial era. They also exposed me to expressions of hope: plum trees growing in the inner-city, wild blackberries, public art of both the legal and illegal kind, impromptu music and dance, and ultimately hip-hop. Hip-hop artists showed me how, in a changing society, one could sustain a good life, reinvent one's self, and continue to create something new. In my head, I often felt like a parenting voice questioning the artists' motives: Shouldn't you be getting a "real job" with all that talent? Where is your passion for dance or for music going to lead? If I voiced the questions out loud, the artists would laugh and mutter something about eventually "teaching or leading workshops or doing something like that" when they had figured it all out. Truth was, they had sort of figured a lot of things out, and they were teaching me that I, the middle-aged professional struggling to pay a mortgage, that I could figure it out, too.

Three weeks ago, I went back to Seattle to reconnect with the city, some of the artists I had interviewed, and the manifestations of hip-hop I had discovered. My goal in going back was to begin pulling together ideas and materials for a book that would somehow weave together hip-hop, b-girls, race politics, Seattle, and my experience of being a part of the city. I knew even before I began planning the trip that I would walk. I would walk everywhere.  I would eschew rides from friends and rental cars. I would even avoid taking the bus as much as possible. I wasn't sure why I would be walking.

Today, I realized I walked then and I walk now because it is an organizing principle in life.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Processes and Projects

I write this blog post one week before an agreed-upon deadline to complete revisions to a major writing project -- a book manuscript on which I've been working a decade. The manuscript began its life as a dissertation project and technically did not evolve into the book it is now until 2012. However, I began my academic career a couple of decades after I had begun my writing career so when I embarked on the writing of the dissertation, I did so with the full intention of turning it eventually into a book. The fact that the idea was radical -- "most dissertations don't deserve to be books" is the verdict of one "from dissertation-to-book" manual I read -- didn't occur to me, then or even now.

That I have a manuscript and a probable publisher makes me feel blessed.

Furthermore, the process of working on revisions to an already complete manuscript that are in response to reviewers' comments is much more enjoyable than the agony I endured last summer when I was trying to rewrite what had been a reasonably strong dissertation with a notable narrative voice into a manuscript that I thought would appeal to the academic press that had expressed interest in it without quite knowing what the publisher's acquisitions editor and its editorial collective would want. I found myself wondering more than once what had ever made me want to be a writer, as I floundered and blundered and cried and swore my way through four months of melodrama over writing processes, research practices, and questions of personal and professional ethics as I wondered how much I was obligated to share my work with those who had allowed me to interview them nearly a decade earlier. When I finally hit the send button for the electronic version, and put the final copy of the paper version into postal mail in early November, many thought I should celebrate. I mainly felt a deep sense of relief that the book and its subject matter would be two things that I would not have to think about for at least another two months. Academic publishers (as well as non-academic ones) have a standard practice of submitting manuscripts to external reviewers for critique on the text's scholarship and potential marketability, and I had been informed that the reviewers usually require about two months to complete their reading and commentary.

The two months passed, and I received the external reviews. I felt they were overwhelmingly positive, and supportive. The reviewers praised the manuscript's overall writing quality as well as the argument and manner in which I had framed my main points. They suggested several additions that I felt would strengthen the overall text and broaden both the quality of its scholarship as well as its readership appeal. Their suggestions helped me hone in on a question that had dogged me both through the writing of my dissertation and the production of the book manuscript: What was I actually trying to say?

That question still dogs me, as I write my way to the final steps of this stage. I try not to pay too much attention to it because I know uncertainty can paralyze me. At the same time, I wonder if the very uncertainty of what that closing note is going to be is the issue that prevents major projects from coming to completion.

In journalism, one learns that one needs a captivating opening paragraph (a "lede"), a statement of what your story is about (a "nut graf") and a provocative closing sentence or word ("kicker") that leaves the reader waiting to buy the paper the next day to search for your byline, eager to read more. Academic writing is somewhat similar in organization. One needs an introduction, a thesis statement, and a conclusion.

The difference between the two formats is that journalism relies primarily on the factual material about the story to hold it together while scholarship relies on the argument that the writer is putting forth. The quality of the writing is judged not only on the basis of its readability but more significantly on the level of new knowledge that the body of work produces. One can understand the stakes involved in academic writing in both positive and negative ways. Negatively, the assertion of a need for new knowledge can be seen as inferring that if you don't have anything fresh to contribute, you shouldn't be writing the work. More positively, one can see all writing -- and the process of writing -- as creating new knowledge because one person (or a pair or group of persons) is writing about the topic of interest from their unique perspective. As one of my dissertation advisors put it so well, you can't raise your second child exactly as you raised your first one because the very experience of having already raised one child will condition  the choices you make in raising the second.

Similarly, one of things I have learned about writing a dissertation and then writing a book is that the processes are significantly different. For a dissertation, the goal often is simply to finish -- "a good dissertation is a done dissertation" -- and to establish yourself as a credible scholar worthy of being awarded a doctorate. For a book manuscript, the goal is to communicate your thoughts and ideas to as broad an audience as possible and to advance new knowledge in the area in which you are writing while doing so.  The key distinction seems to rest on the same question: "What are you trying to say?"

The ability to form an argument is essential: "What is your perspective on this topic and why?" is  often a question I ask students in offering feedback on the first drafts of their work. The idea of an argument used to daunt me until I began to understand it as stemming from a personal relationship with the material you're writing about. When there's a personal stake, argumentation is easy. But closure then presents another issue. How do you disentangle yourself from the process of digging deep into your personal psyche to explore your relationship with your material so you can pack up your project and send it off to the publisher?

Many writers advocate writing your ending first. I cannot do that, because for me writing is about figuring out how you want things to end. What happens, however, when you get to the end and you still haven't figured it out? Is that the time to throw in the towel? My sense is that's the moment when you go back to where you began.

This morning, I met with my friend Michele. I was telling her that I felt that three stories in my book that dealt with differing religions captured the sentiment that I wanted to end with, that each were offering a way to understand citizenship, belonging, and democratic activism in an alternative, more intimate way.

       "Is that like having respect for difference?" she asked.

       "Yes, but it goes beyond respect. It's actually participating, engaging, mixing it up," I said. "That's what triggers a backlash, when people transgress."

       As I spoke, I realized that that was the question that first inspired me to explore the topic that lurks at the core of my book, long before I knew I was going to write a book -- or even an essay, let alone a dissertation -- about it. "People would tell me," I said to her, "that if Hindus and Muslims could just be left alone to do their own thing their own way, separately from each other, everything would work out. There wouldn't be any violence; everything would be just fine. My response was always, 'No. That's not right. That's not getting to know each other. That's separation, not integration."

       "Say that," she responded. "That's what it is."

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Writer's Block

A guest speaker in one of my Feminist Methods graduate seminars once described writer's block as a productive and fruitful time for the mind. Blocks, she explained, occurred when the brain was trying to wrestle out an important thought or issue. She always appreciated them because she knew when she was past the block, she would have written something great.

One question I have is this: When do you know that you're suffering writer's block? Might it just be that the piece you're trying to write just is not ready to write itself?

I began working on an essay Doing Hip-Hop in the Classroom in late August. By early January, a good three or four months after the desired due date, I had a first draft. I received comments on the first draft in February with a request to submit revisions in March. By late April, I knew I was struggling. I had a brief talk with the editors who were preparing the book for which the essay was aimed, and felt that I could work out the essay over the next couple of days.

A couple of days stretched into a couple of weeks, and then a couple of months. I tried again in early June, then mid-June, and late June, and for a couple of days in July. I thought I had nailed down at least a passable second draft, until two days ago when I looked at it again. Ugh. This afternoon, I wrestled with it for four and a half hours, and finally e-mailed the editors, suggesting that once again we talk.

In all fairness, I have to say that the essay is competing for my attention with a couple of other major projects, one of which is huge. Because it doesn't rank at the top of my priority list, I have considered apologizing to the editors and withdrawing from the project. I haven't done so because there's a piece of me that really wants to write this essay, to figure out what I am trying to make sense of in terms of what it means to learn through hip-hop and how to teach about hip-hop to others. I have started and stalled on this essay at least two dozen times. Something in there tells me that I have something I want to say. I just don't quite know how to say it yet.

I experienced a similar block last summer when I had set aside six weeks to revise my dissertation into a book manuscript. I felt as if I had everything going for me: support from my dean to write; an encouraging response from an acquisitions editor of a reputable press; and a schedule that I had cleared of all teaching, mentoring, service, and other writing commitments in order to write.

It was the most nightmarish six weeks of my life. The manuscript had seven chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion. I already had revised the introduction and first two chapters, so I figured that with six weeks, I could revise one chapter a week, and use the remaining week to proofread and give the full text a close review. After three weeks, I had revised one chapter. The process tore my heart out, and felt like a continual struggle. I cursed the wish I had made as a teenager to become a writer when I grew up, and walked around with a stressed-out panic look in my eyes the whole time. The second chapter took equally as long, and elicited just as much internal drama and external tears. By the end of the six weeks, I was pleading for more time. Clumsily, I managed to finish the manuscript and submit it to the publisher for consideration by the end of October.

This summer, the cycle repeats. The publisher sent the manuscript out for an external review, and the comments came back as positive. A contract and request for revisions arrived in the mail. The revisions have been painful and slow, but better than in the past. I can see as I re-read the manuscript and recall areas where I struggled that I was undergoing writer's block. I had some intricate, important points to make, and too much emotional baggage blocking me to see how best to articulate those points. The baggage is gone, and the edits -- so far -- are flowing.

Perhaps the same thing will happen with Doing Hip-Hop in the Classroom. I will look at it in a year, and see the light. Only I think I need that light to come in a day.

(Note on the image: It came from a fairly interesting writing site. The article itself that accompanied the image was about overcoming writer's block. Here is the link:

Friday, June 21, 2013

The writing regimen

"You need to take charge of your writing career, because no one else will."

I don't remember the exact words that longtime freelance writer and writing instructor Wendy Call used, so my quotes are perhaps misplaced. But the gist of the advice is on target. It came back to me today, as I listened to two friends talk about how their jobs were wearing them down, robbing them of their creativity, running them ragged, and making them feel too frazzled and too distracted to write. I felt a little guilty as I heard them talk because I am coming off of an unprecedented four-week block of time where I have used several of my accumulated vacation days as well as a work trip to avoid the persistent pile of tasks at the office in order to indulge in three passions: writing, planting, and working out.

I did an amazing amount of indulging in all three over the past month.

And I feel great.

Let me describe the regimen I followed. It's fairly basic: Morning, rise and have coffee. Write for two to three hours and/or read work directly related to a writing project. Follow this with a two-hour workout, and then two to four hours in the garden. Drink a lot of water and eat a lot of fresh fruit while working outdoors, and don't forget the sunscreen. Afterwards, eat dinner, and write for one to two additional hours before going to bed.

During the work trip, which was an 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. work day (with an hour off for lunch, 12:15-1:15 p.m., on the dot), I woke up at 5 a.m. to write and read for writing each day, and did two workouts -- usually a run during the lunch break and a swim or bike ride between 5:30 and 7 p.m. After dinner, I worked in a night stint of writing, usually after calling my husband to check in on things at home.

It was not a difficult regimen. At home and away from home, I slept eight hours most nights and managed to have three healthy meals. Four weeks later, my skin is healthily tanned, and my body feels fit and trim. My attitude about my work is running high, and that's because the writing regimen was do-able, consistent, and somewhat forgiving.

In short, it worked.

I share the regimen because I know all too well the feeling of office overwork. One of the consequences of our post-industrial, twenty-first society's 24/7 pace is the fact that workers -- particularly those in the office, educational, and other high-tech sectors -- are essentially on the job all the time. (Yes, I, too, am guilty of waking up from a sound sleep to check the e-mail coming in on my smart phone at 3 a.m., and actually responding to a query despite the fact that the response could have waited till morning.) In the olden days -- before cell phones and e-mail, back in the 1980s -- I used to maintain a rigid separation between work and home. I did my best not to take work home with me. I did my best not to go into the office on my days off. Technology and a corresponding expectation of 24/7 availability has eroded my ability to maintain that separation. I'm not complaining, however, because the trade-off has been more flexibility in my schedule and more freedom to create what's often defined as work-life balance.

"I want to have a balanced life."

I remember saying that to Evelyne Raposo, a superbly supportive life coach type therapist who guided me through six years of doctoral work, emotional loneliness, flighty romances, and ultimately the lasting and highly loving relationship I have with the man who became my husband.

Evelyne's eyes lit up as I listed that statement as one of my goals for her work with me. For years, she worked with me to define what balance meant and how I could try and effect it on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month and year-to-year basis in a world where flux is the norm. What I learned from her was that imbalance creates stress. Stress produces a hormone called cortisol that can be hazardous to one's health, producing obesity, draining energy, and resulting in such ailments as hypertension.

Even though I was aware of the effects of imbalance, I felt incapable of creating a balance because it always seemed as if there was not enough. Not enough time. Not enough money. Not enough focus. Not enough clarity to get what I needed to get.

I finished my work with Evelyne as a success. I completed my doctorate, and I found the man of my dreams. We got married.

But imbalance took its tool. I will be on blood pressure and cholesterol medications probably for the rest of my life because stress eroded the strength of my heart, leaving me with hypertension. I was obese, and, at one point, at risk of developing diabetes.

These warning bells gave the words that Wendy Call uttered a new dimension: "You need to take care of your writing life because no one else will."

Today, at age fifty, I am no longer overweight. I write two times a day, and I exercise usually five or six days a week. I remain on blood pressure and cholesterol medications, but I am healthy, both physically and emotionally. My husband is on the same path to health as I am. We work together to build a life around gardening, exercise, and our creative pursuits -- writing for me, photography for him. At some point I realized that the pile-up of work at the office never really shrinks. One thing gets done; two other things move into its place. Needs and deadlines constantly haunt me, via e-mail, text messaging, and sometimes snail mail and phone calls.

Yet, I have found a way to walk away from the pile, knowing (or at least hoping) that "one more day" won't translate into the end of the world. I try to be as efficient as I can. But ultimately I walk away.

What allows me to walk away is the writing regimen I have adopted. It is balanced with a healthful blend of rest and activity, coupled with balance between home life and work life that is vital to one's existence.

So, I concur with Wendy. If you want to write, you must take control of your writing life. If you don't take care of your writing life, no one else will.