Wednesday, September 30, 2015

How We Wrote: The Aftermath of Written Chatter

by Suzanne Conklin Akbari, with a few endnotes by Chris Piuma

How We Write: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blank Page emerged out of an efflorescence of what I described, in the book’s introduction, as “written chatter” – blogposts, Facebook comment threads, tweets, emails – which generated a conversation that was subsequently crystallized in the thirteen essays collected in the volume. It’s clear that this is a conversation that struck a nerve in people: as Jeffrey Cohen pointed out in his blogpost on the occasion of the book’s publication by punctum books, the initial ITM blogpost by me and Alexandra Gillespie had on that date reached 8585 hits, and Eileen Joy wrote to me and Chris Piuma recently to say that the book itself – which is available at no cost as an e-book, though users are encouraged to support Open Access by contributing to punctum books – had been downloaded 915 times since its publication two weeks before. I say this not in any spirit of self-congratulation but as a fact: this is a conversation that was long overdue, and one that has opened up some doors to new opportunities, new encounters.

These new encounters were encouraged by making How We Write an Open Access publication: for a project that is all about community-building through the act of writing,* it was essential to take advantage of the spontaneity and speed of production as well as the freedom of distribution made possible by working with punctum books and the Open Access model. The impact made almost immediately by How We Write was made evident in an email I received a couple of days after publication:
Every weekday we pick one Creative Commons or free licensed ebook to promote. "How We Write" is our selection for today. is a website dedicated to the development of sustainable funding and distribution for Creative Commons and other freely licensed books. We are compiling a comprehensive catalog of these books while offering authors and publishers new ways to make their efforts sustainable. We recently  launched "Thanks for Ungluing" which lets creators ask readers for support for free works on our download link pages and from inside the books. Thanks for using a Creative Commons license!  Eric Hellman, President, Free Ebook Foundation and Founder, 
My initial response, I’m embarrassed to say, was “Is this spam?” But as soon as I looked up, I realized that something very interesting was going on. is a project committed to making books more freely available, and supporting the wider use of Creative Commons licensing. By making How We Write a featured book – not on the basis of any specific interest in the topic, but because of its publisher’s clearly stated commitment to Open Access – brought the project to a wider readership, and affirmed the principles of community-building that are essential to punctum books in general, and to How We Write in particular.

Other interesting conversational aftermaths, both in the form of “written chatter” and in the form of actual in-person chatter, have been abundant. I hope, too, that there will be much more opportunity to carry on this conversation at the upcoming meeting of the BABEL Working Group on 9-11 October, which features a session explicitly dedicated to “Counter-Productivity:Valuing Scholarly Processes,” organized by Marian Bleeke and Asa Mittman for The Material Collective. Their session asks the following questions: “What do you actually do when reading for a research project? …What do you do when you are thinking? When you sit down to write? …Have your practices as a scholar shifted over time and if so how and why?” These questions resonate with the essays collected in How We Write, with a shared focus on research – like writing – as process, and as a process that changes over time.

Among the many examples of written chatter already engendered by How We Write, let me give two short examples: emails from postdocs writing from two distant locations, echoing the geographical diversity that also underlies the essays collected in the book (xxi-xxii). Here’s a response from a postdoctoral fellow writing from a university in Israel:
As a postdoctoral fellow in the throes of converting my dissertation into a book, I look at a lot of writing blogs, books etc., and have become somewhat disillusioned with them. I took a look at "How We Write" because I thought seeing some other perspectives might be helpful (and also as a form of procrastination, I admit). Your essay was so incredibly helpful to me, because I, too, write the way you describe – long periods of procrastination, doing other things, and stalling, before finally settling in to write an entire chapter in a few days or weeks of concentrated work. I spend a lot of my time feeling guilty about this, and it is so great to read about other scholars who have a similar writing method and it works out for them. So thank you, so much, for this collection, and for your essay in it. 
And here’s another one, from a postdoctoral fellow in Norway:
I was made aware of How We Write through Derek Gregory. The anthology looks very interesting! I'm giving a talk at a PhD seminar about writing and would love to have a look at the anthology and tell my students about it, but it doesn't seem to be out yet, and the seminar is this Friday... I'm wondering if there's a chance I could get a reader's copy or something - a pdf - so that I could read it before the seminar and tell my students about it. Hope to hear from you!
These were wonderful messages to receive, on three different levels: first of all, Open Access – it was a delight to be able to respond to the postdoc in Norway with a link to the e-book, which he could use and then pass on to his students. Second of all: the extraordinary diversity of place in these responses, remote not only in physical location but also in terms of the web of connections that led each postdoc to the book. For the postdoc writing from Israel, the point of connection appeared to have been the various writing blogs she alludes to, where she may have found a reference to How We Write; for the postdoc in Norway, the connection came through the field of geography (two of the contributors to How We Write, Stuart Elden and Derek Gregory, had referred to their essays for the volume on their own blogs). Finally, the unpredictable, serendipitous nature of this community is perhaps most remarkable of all: these are people whom, in the normal course of things, I would never have run across – but through the collection, we are all in conversation. The postdoc in Israel writes to say, I recognize my own process in your account of your writing, and so we are together in this shared endeavor; the postdoc in Norway writes to say, I want to share the conversation of your book, which I learned about in a different conversation (either online or in person), within the conversation in my seminar. In other words, we are all part of conversations we don’t even know about. And that’s awesome.**

But there are also the conversations – some of them very tense conversations – that we do know about. An interesting and curious example of this appeared over the last few days, when I shared the book with some of the upper-level administrators in my workplace. There was initially much enthusiasm – “This is great!” – and expressions of eagerness to talk about the collection in university meetings of department chairs, where How We Write might provide a useful example of collaborative work on writing (a priority area, here at the University of Toronto as at many other universities). It might also be seen as exemplary in the way the book draws together contributions from such a wide range of academics: graduate students, postdocs, junior faculty, and those who are mid-career or senior faculty, including lower-level administrators. But then, I think, those upper-level administrators just may have noticed something that made them less comfortable: that is, the explicitly political dimension of the work that – while it is not foregrounded as much as it might be – underpins the collection as a whole and was, in part, a motivation for all that followed.

I am referring to the first essay in the collection, by Michael Collins, whose own blogpost (emerging from a roundtable at the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto) was the starting point for the “written chatter” that bubbled up all around. Michael’s essay addresses his experience of the writing process, but he also does not hesitate to identify the all too practical economic substrate of the challenges that face today’s graduate students in the Humanities: namely, how to carry out doctoral studies on a very limited stipend, without taking on the burden of debt. His essay closes this way:
Institutional support needs to be radically reimagined. Writing a dissertation is meant to be a full time job. It needs to be paid like one. There is no mystery here. PhD candidates do not have the time and energy to complete dissertations on time because they are distracted by extreme financial and material challenges. I can’t stress this enough. We are demoralized and exhausted, like any other employees who are overworked, underpaid, and demonstrably unappreciated by the most powerful within the University (if they actually appreciated us as they claim to do, they would pay us what we’re worth). A lost generation of should-be scholars is forming around this problem. Fix it, and dissertations will get written. (How We Write 7) 
While I may be in for some uncomfortable conversations with the said administrators, I think that there is nonetheless a great value in generating them: through this aspect of the first essay, which acts as a cornerstone for the contributions that follow, we are reminded in the strongest terms of the human, physical, embodied reality of the writer, which – as many of the following essays make clear – includes times of suffering.***

In his blogpost, Jeffrey pointed out the “embodied” nature of many of the contributions: “The volume reassures that many ways of getting writing done exist, that they will likely change over time, that none are perfect, that all adapt to embodied experience (crying infants are a running thread in the book; let’s call it the Writing During Colic topos).” This is a strand that was evident to me on one level while editing the collection, but which became evident on a whole different level when I looked at the collection in retrospect. It’s clear that the embodied nature of writing is foregrounded in many of the contributions, from Michael Collins’ comments on the economic pressures that confront the grad student writer; to Maura Nolan’s account of how changing health circumstances affect how much (and when) the writer’s body cooperates with the writer’s desire to write; to Rick Godden’s account of the physical circumstances of writing in situations where a book being out of reach required him to “become skilled in the art of Google-fu” (80); and so on. Several of the contributors talk explicitly, as Jeffrey notes, about the challenge of integrating child-care responsibilities with the work of writing. While allusions to the impact of child-care on writing appear in many of the essays, it is interesting that the most explicit and detailed accounts appear in essays written by men. These include Steve Mentz on writing with a screaming baby on his shoulder (124-25), Dan Kline on juggling child-care with academic duties (137-38), and – most vivid and charming of all – Jeffrey Cohen’s daughter photobombing the photo of his writing space on the opening page of his essay (44).

What’s interesting to me, looking back on this, is how male writers – and, in particular, more senior male writers – are able to talk with increasing openness and honesty about the bodily challenges to the writer’s work, especially as these include family-care responsibilities. This is, without a doubt, a good thing. It’s striking, though, that women writers are still hesitant to foreground the interplay of child-care with the writer’s work. This may in part have to do with a continuing anxiety on the part of women scholars (especially those in more junior, and therefore less secure, positions) that acknowledging their role as mothers may make them seem less ‘serious’ about their work. Here, the fact of childbirth – a condition of the body often understood (in my experience, wrongly) as debilitating, both mentally and physically, to the ‘serious’ academic – may inflect the writer’s ability to acknowledge the interplay of the role of parent with the role of writer. I would like to see more conversation, especially cross-generational conversation, on this topic. How are different constellations of family structures affecting these conversations? Has institutionalized parental leave, both for faculty and (at least in Canada) for graduate students, improved the situation, or has it created new challenges that are different from those that faced the graduate students and junior faculty who worked in a time before institutionalized parental leave?

In part, these questions pertain to our ongoing conversation about the role of the writer, especially the writer as an embodied self. But they are also the beginning of a different but related conversation, centering on the generational changes that have affected women in academia over the last two decades. There is an increasingly evident split between feminists of older generations and those of younger generations, often centered on topics such as sexual violence (especially sexual violence on campus), sexual harassment, and trigger warnings. The split centers not so much on the recognition of these as real problems on university and college campuses as on the question of how best to address these issues. Having been on both sides of this divide – as a younger faculty member, outraged by senior female colleagues’ toleration of sexual harassment on our campus; as an older faculty member, trying to figure out how to reconcile a commitment to academic freedom with students’ expressed desire for trigger warnings – I am increasingly eager to find ways to create spaces for intergenerational conversation. We have much to learn from one another.

This fact – that we have much to learn from one another – pertains to the last aspect of my retrospective look back at How We Write: that is, the experience of collaborating with Chris Piuma on the physical production of this book. Chris and I have had a long and fruitful relation in the context of his doctoral research, where I am a member of his advisory committee (not his primary supervisor), and we also worked together (as instructor and TA) in developing a large lecture class (about 400 undergrads) on “The Literary Tradition,” a survey of influential works of world literature from Homer to Goethe. In other words, we have worked together within existing institutional frameworks for professor-graduate student interactions. In creating the book of How We Write, however – both the physical, hard-copy book and the magnificently vivid e-book – bringing it from a jumbled series of contributions to an integrated whole that had a shape and an underlying narrative, Chris and I worked together as collaborators. He suggested the subtitle “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blank Page,” which introduced a poetic metanarrative for the essays, alluding to Wallace Stevens’ poem (which then became the epigraph for the introduction I subsequently wrote). The imagistic series of stanzas of Stevens’ poem became for me a kind of mnemonic for the essays that followed, each one understood as a kind of poetic image. It’s unsurprising, then, that the splash pages that open the essays have such a powerful effect on the reader – most strikingly in the colorful illustrations of the e-book.

While the original idea for including images came from Stuart Elden, who offered to provide a picture of his working space to accompany his essay, it was Chris who ran with this idea, encouraging contributors to come up with a wide range of opening images that might illustrate or epitomize the underlying theme of each essay.**** Alexandra Gillespie’s contribution, unsurprisingly, features a honey badger drinking a cocktail; no one who knows Alex will need a fuller explanation. Steve Mentz’s essay opens with a picture of him swimming the waters of the Atlantic, in a photo taken by his daughter – one of the “colicky babies” that were integral to his writer’s life. Every one of the images tells a story, a story that resonates with the content of the individual essay and with the collection as a whole. And some of these images have engendered new written chatter: Maura Nolan’s essay opens with a drawing made for her by her niece many years ago. That niece, now a freshman in college, was surprised and pleased to learn from Maura that her childhood drawing was illustrating Maura’s essay about her writing practice. Maura emailed to describe their encounter, as mediated by the book:
I have had the most wonderful exchange with my niece for the last hour!  I didn't tell her about using her picture in the volume--I wanted it to be a surprise….We have been texting a lot, and today I texted her the punctum link and told her that she had a picture in print.  She was SO excited!  She was absolutely thrilled--and she read my essay, and it really brought us closer together, as adults, for the first time. We have always been close, but of course, she's never read anything personal I've written, and we have generally talked via the medium of my sister, her mom. So the whole thing turned out to be a fantastic bonding experience for Siobhan and me. 
More written chatter! And, just yesterday, I saw that Steve Mentz had posted on Facebook a picture of his daughter reading How We Write – perhaps looking at the very page containing the portrait of him swimming, taken by her.

I learned a lot in the process of putting together this book – about what colleagues do when they write, about what I myself do, and about writing itself. The most important thing I learned is that there is no one right way to write.***** The other thing I learned was the importance of community. Without idealizing community, without underestimating the importance of existing power relations and inequities that must be acknowledged, we can still say: we share a space, and within that space, we can learn from one another, and support one another.

NOTES (by Chris):
* “community-building through the act of writing”: Yes, but. I designed the book, helped edit some of the pieces, and told Suzanne early on that there was the material for a book here. Some of that happened through “written chatter,” but I didn’t really write any of the book (except for a some incidental text, such as some of the photo captions).+ Editing, designing, publishing: These are all not writing, but they are parts of an ecology that allows writing to thrive. (Dear Reader, add “reading” to that list as well!)
** Being talked about in conversations that I’m not involved with is something I find terrifying and the opposite of awesome. I realize it happens, I realize it has to happen, I realize that good things can come of it, but it’s like other people’s bowel movements: for the most part, I’d rather not think about it. But the nice thing about a book—especially a book where your name only appears in small print on the bottom of the copyright page, tucked out of the way—is that people can talk about it without talking about you. This is an awesome thing.
*** There is so much suffering in this book. There is a lot of joy as well, but the dominant mood is perhaps a joyful regard at past suffering: so many times when writing caused physical, mental, emotional pain.++ But this is a book about academic writing, which is to say that it’s a book about academics, who mostly believe that a certain sort of writing is foundational to who they are and what they do. One of the things I felt on my last reading of How We Write was that no one really questions this. (And I guess, why would you, in an essay about how you write?) How We Write emerged during a period when I was questioning this, when I was coming to the realization that the pain of writing is not worth it for me. This spring I finally noticed that every paragraph I added to my dissertation cost me a few days of depression, and that this had been true for ages. (I went to grad school hoping that it would teach me a way past this: It did not.) And so I started to think, is there another way? I joined punctum and spent the rest of the summer designing and publishing books, and helping to organize the upcoming BABEL conference—all of which were challenging and difficult and (I think) important, but not painful and depressing the way that writing is. At this point, I am accepting that if writing is foundational to being an academic, then I am not going to be a functioning academic—or even one of How We Write’s dysfunctionally functional academics. But even if others don’t suffer from writing to the extent that I do (or just have stronger constitutions?), there is still clearly a vast amount of suffering involved: and I (idealistically) wonder whether there could be a more humane system. Or if not, whether we should look at each book that manages to get written as a monument to suffering.+++ I wonder whether the contributors to How We Write suffered when they wrote their essays. My sense is that they didn’t, or that most of them suffered much less than usual.
**** Designing a book is not writing, but it is a creative, interpretive, rhetorical act. It is perhaps like conducting: That performance of Beethoven is still clearly Beethoven, but it’s also Toscanini’s Beethoven.
***** And so, in response How We Write, my follow-up question: Is one of the right ways of writing: not writing at all? There are many ways to not write (from Bartleby to Socrates to BĂ©nabou to...) , and some of those ways have more of an effect on a writing/publishing/thinking ecology (or, if you like, community) than others. How do we not write? And what do we do with people who are vital parts of the community—but who do not write?

MORE NOTES to Chris’s notes (by Suzanne):
+ Oh, but there was definitely a creative process there, even if we don’t call it “writing.” For example, after Chris had overseen the development of the splash pages, he looked back at the front matter (short bios of contributors, which he titled “Who We Are,” and “About the Images”) and asked, “Do we want an illustration for these as well?” And, of course, we did: a beautiful photo (so beautiful in the online color version!) of fluorescent minerals from Franklin, NJ, representing the vivid individuality of each of the contributors, “gathered” (in Chris’s telling term, in the caption). And, for “About the Images,” a photo of a mirror, showing the photographer in the mirror with an assortment of other photographs alongside the frame – caption: “Image, with images.” For me, those bits of the book are among its most intensively creative moments.
++ And joy! Several contributors talk about the enormous pleasure of writing, once the writing starts. Maybe the misery overshadows the joy too much in the retelling of the experience.
+++ Books as monuments to suffering: undoubtedly the case. As Christine de Pizan puts it, “Just like a woman who has given birth forgets the pain and labor as soon as she hears her child cry, you will forget the hard work when you hear the voices of your books” (L’Avision 3.10).

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